Guests are welcomed through the back yard at the home shared by chef Bart Vandaele and Greet De Keyser.
The gate opens and a quick 180-degree scan reveals three-quarters of an acre divided into six zones: “the dining terrace,” named so because it can be lined with as many as 40 tables; a lounge area welcoming sunbathers; garden beds growing fresh herbs and produce; a fire pit waiting to be lighted; a 40-foot in-ground swimming pool; a patio with a cheeky pig table inviting guests to sit and ... Wait, is that a chicken?
“I wanted a pool and a back yard, so any time you can enjoy a moment it’s like vacation,” Vandaele says.
But let’s back up three years.
Vandaele and De Keyser, partners of 12 years, were living in Capitol Hill just a short walk from Vandaele’s first restaurant, Belga Cafe. He would work 10-hour days cooking and greeting guests, many who recognized him from Season 10 of Bravo’s “Top Chef.” Then he would get home only to rush back to the restaurant whenever a problem arose.
Vandaele realized that he needed to be farther away from what would be two restaurants when B Too opened on 14th Street NW in 2013. Plus, De Keyser was ready to share more than 1,400 square feet.
They first looked in the District in an attempt to stay close to the restaurant and the Belgian news organization VRT Nieuws, where De Keyser is taking a sabbatical from her job as bureau chief. But a 4,500-square-foot neo-Colonial in Alexandria with a yard, a large kitchen and a 35-minute commute offered the outlines of their dream home.
They moved in April 2011 and threw their first party that June. “For us, a house is a place to live in and use,” De Keyser says.
“A lot of people upgrade before they sell, and it’s nicer, but they don’t live in it,” Vandaele says.
The first year, they remodeled the basement and made small upgrades in the kitchen. The second year, they overhauled the back yard; for year three they’re planning to update the main level.
With each project, entertaining was the main goal. On a typical night, they’ll call a friend to see what he or she is doing for dinner, then another and so on until it’s a party. A real party, not a litmus test for his restaurants. “If I go to a restaurant, then I’m working,” Vandaele says.
Vandaele has envisioned a European-style backyard oasis since he left Belgium.
“Bart was one of the few customers who laid out his designs in graph paper, to scale, and as I like to say, ‘in crayons,’ because it was color-coded,” says Burton Gray, owner of Town and Country Pools, the company that helped fine-tune his design.
“He works in a restaurant, so he understands spatial awareness and the way you move through a space,” Gray says, highlighting the flow from the yard’s dining space to the sitting areas to the pool.
The aerial hedge, which uses European hornbeams, was modeled after De Keyser’s father’s garden. Steve Waldron of Pristine Acres chose low-maintenance, drought-resistant zoysia grass, which can withstand lawn furniture and foot traffic. His team raised the garden beds to avoid the area’s native clay, and added topsoil so herbs and vegetables could thrive. Flowers in pinks and purples add color to the landscape.
The four chickens, all named Betsy, were a yard-warming gift from friends. They roam free, greet visitors and produce eggs that are given to neighbors and houseguests.
Most days Vandaele and De Keyser enter the home from the garage. Red steps, painted by Vandaele to “welcome them home,” lead into the kitchen and dining space, which opens to the living room. The large kitchen island serves as a drop station for keys, bags and mail. The appliances include a gas range, because the chef prefers to cook with gas, stainless steel refrigerator and a double oven, an essential for party prep.
“When we have people over, we both make food and feed people at the [island] bar. The kitchen as part of the living space was one of the elements of why we picked the house,” Vandaele says.
Small appliances, a jamon stand, a KitchenAid professional mixer and an espresso machine (“We drink good coffee,” Vandaele says), most in bright red, stand out against the tans of the granite and tile in the kitchen.
The living room has a natural feel, with furniture that includes a reclaimed-wood coffee table and tree-stump side tables, and artwork that depicts animals. The art serves a dual purpose: showing off their personalities and hiding what Vandaele calls the “Band Aid-color” walls. A new paint job is on this year’s to-do list.
Across from the fireplace are two large profiles of chickens by Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen, a culinary school classmate at Ter Groene Poorte in Bruges.
“There are lots of animals around the house,” says Vandaele, whose grandfather was a butcher and raised animals. “Farm-to-table has been there forever. A chicken was not just a pet; it will be in a pot.”
For three months of the year, the basement becomes the main entertaining space. The couple added a wet kitchen with a refrigerator, sink and microwave to reduce travel time to and from the main kitchen. They refinished the concrete floors with epoxy, using the same technique from the floors at Belga Cafe and B Too, and built a temperature-controlled wine room. A closet houses all their serving ware, flatware, drinking glasses, party lighting and other party supplies. The key to throwing together a party at a moment’s notice is great storage — and an empty room or yard that’s just waiting for an excuse to set up a bar and a few tables.
Today, the weather is warm, and close to 30 guests sprawl across the yard — a group chatting in Flemish beneath the pergola, adults sipping champagne under umbrellas on the patio, kids playing in the pool, a few teenagers taking photos with one of the Betsys.
Vandaele leads a house tour for several couples from Belgium. Then he fires up the grill.
“We’ve known each other so long we feel like family. It’s just comfortable,” says Jim Koemans, who lives down the street and has been friends with the couple for 10 years.
The menu features baby back ribs, rack of lamb, a whole fish, grilled vegetables seasoned with herbs from the garden beds, and for dessert grilled bananas, pineapple and smoked strawberries, all prepared in advance. Vandaele spends his time manning the grill before handing the tongs over to B Too chef Dieter Samijn so Vandaele can jump into the pool.
“Bart and I both want to enjoy the party as much as our guests, and don’t want to spend the whole party stressed,” De Keyser says.
Once everyone is seated for dinner, Vandaele warns everyone to remove their phones from their pockets because “you might end up in the pool,” then raises his glass in a toast.
Veronica Toney is a features digital editor for The Washington Post.
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