At the end of 2003 the Gault&Millau Benelux was released for the first time. Twenty years later, its two founders, Marc Declerck and Justin Onclin, have made their company a real “success story” which, in addition to the yellow guides, includes other dimensions such as community cuisine or culinary innovations.
In 1972, the French Henri Gault and Christian Millau, journalists and gastronomic columnists, released the first edition of the Gault&Millau Guide, a work which aims to put chefs and their creations back at the center of concerns. The two friends will thus be at the base of what will be called the new cuisine, with its 10 commandments, supporting and pushing cooks like Paul Bocuse, Roger Vergé, Alain Senderens or the Troisgros brothers to the fore. In Belgium, under the aegis of the Rossel group, a French-speaking Belgian edition has long appeared as an insert in the French guide. But things changed 20 years ago, when Marc Declerck and Justin Onclin entered the fray, first in association with Rossel and then by launching their first guide alone at the end of 2003: Gault&Millau Benelux.
In 1972, the French Henri Gault and Christian Millau, journalists and gastronomic columnists, released the first edition of the Gault&Millau Guide, a work which aims to put chefs and their creations back at the center of concerns. The two friends will thus be at the base of what will be called the new cuisine, with its 10 commandments, supporting and pushing cooks like Paul Bocuse, Roger Vergé, Alain Senderens or the Troisgros brothers to the fore. In Belgium, under the aegis of the Rossel group, a French-speaking Belgian edition has long appeared as an insert in the French guide. But things changed 20 years ago, when Marc Declerck and Justin Onclin entered the fray, first in association with Rossel and then by launching their first guide alone at the end of 2003: Gault&Millau Benelux. In Belgium, the two co-founders are far from unknown. Justin Onclin, active in the wine sector via Sovex, owned, in whole or in part, major Bordeaux estates such as Villemaurine, Prieuré-Lichine or Branas Grand Poujeaux. He was also the owner of the Cristallerie du Val St-Lambert and of… Gault&Millau International. Marc Declerck, now a private banker, is the basis of the gastronomic section of Tijd. “It goes back almost 30 years. I told Paul Huybrechts, the boss at the time, that not only was his newspaper not comical during the week but that his new weekend supplement was not more comical: there was not the slightest line on gastronomy, my passion since the age of 10. He gave me carte blanche.I was entitled to a page every 15 days as a freelancer. I did things I never thought possible: interview Albert Frère, go to Mondavi, meet Robert Parker, etc. It was for Tijd that I interviewed Justin Onclin, who had just taken over Gault&Millau International. the current went well…” In 20 years, the Belgian shareholding of their company has remained stable while the parent company has changed its main shareholder seven times. Marc Declerck and Justin Onclin have signed a long-term license agreement for the Benelux which requires following strict specifications, especially for the guides. No question of going out in green or distributing stars rather than ratings out of 20, for example. In 20 years, they will have seen, in Belgium, all their competitors disappear one after the other: Delta, Lemaire, etc. Even Michelin has abandoned paper to focus on digital. At the base of this resilience, a particular economic model which makes it possible to sell 30,000 guides in Belgium alone (the Netherlands and Luxembourg have a separate guide even if the Luxembourg restaurants are added to the Belgians in the Belux guide). “We placed ourselves at the center of the network and put people in contact, explains Marc Declerck. We have developed a B to B to C model: 80% of our guides are bought by companies who are only too happy to offer them to their customers and prospects. The balance is sold in bookstores, around 6,000 copies, which makes the guide a bestseller every year. We have a free app and site and yet we do not see any cannibalization. be clear, we are at the center of the network but we remain fiercely independent. Our choices in the guide are ours. It is essential to remain credible.” To run the business, Gault&Millau Benelux has a management committee of six people, four editors and 25 freelance and anonymous inspectors. Everyone goes to eat at the restaurant and fills out forms. These files are studied by the Review Committee. For example, if a restaurant loses a point on the sheet when everything was perfect the year before, the committee sends another inspector to confirm. “In 20 years, the profession has changed a lot, confides Marc Declerck. It has become more and more difficult. Customers expect a chef, even a great one, to change his menu often. This creates volatility Because frankly, it’s impossible for a chef to create a masterpiece every 15 days. Everything has to go too fast. A small imperfection on the right or on the left, it doesn’t bother. It proves that these chefs are human. “We work with passion for them and for consumers. The goal is to direct them to the right restaurant, which in the end comes down to rewarding the chef who deserves it.” Over the course of its existence, Gault&Millau Benelux has launched other areas of development. Firstly vis-à-vis community kitchens. Each year, the yellow guide distributes awards to them covering different areas: customer relations, waste management, health and nutritional aspects, innovation and originality, and social responsibility. Event caterers are also entitled to specific rewards. “We launched Gault&Millau Catering seven years ago, explains Marc Declerck. We believe that in hospitals, homes, schools or businesses, people have the right to a correct and healthy meal a day. We play for different companies the role of consultant as well as for three hospitals. We are committing our reputation and our know-how to lead certain battles, including the end of cost reduction. How can we hope to feed children well with one euro a day?” At the same time, Gault&Millau has put the Culinary Innovators concept on track. A project that the company will combine with its very recent Young Talent Project aimed at hotel schools. Here too, it rewards innovators and the bold (chefs, suppliers, producers, marketeers, etc.). “This is a project that is very close to my heart, confides Marc Declerck, and that we will continue to develop. We discover remarkable things in terms of sustainability or social responsibility for example. Like Seppe Nobels, the Antwerp chef, who created a training restaurant called In Stroom allowing refugees to train and learn a trade.” Diversification continues since next spring the first Gault&Millau Guide to Belgian wines will be released. Today, the turnover of Gault&Millau Benelux is between one and two million euros. Half of it is done by the guides. The 2023 version of the Belux guide will be released on Monday 7 November. The objective within five years is to reach the upper range (between two and three million euros) to solidify the company before, without doubt, the founders think about their retirement. As for competition with Michelin, it does not exist. “Competitor Michelin? smiles Marc Declerck. I used to say that they make superb tires and we, superb guides! We keep each other awake and that’s very good like that. To be successful, it you need a good product. But that’s not enough. You also need a good network and that people like you a little bit. I’m lucky to have surrounded myself with passionate people: foodies and businessmen at the same time. That’s our strength.”