By Clark Boyd
If you are a true connoisseur of the potato, then you know that the Belgians have turned the humble spud into an art form. Belgian fries, or frites, make "French fries" look like child's play.
Until recently, though, Belgians have mostly kept their frites to themselves. But now some Belgian companies are looking to take the frites shop, or fritkot, as it is called, global.
You can get a true taste of the Belgian love of fries at Fritkot Max in Antwerp. The shop itself is named after a man who started one of Belgium's first fritkot back in the 1830s.
Behind the counter, Gerda is manning the register and the fryers. She has been working here for a decade, and the customers like to call her "Queen of the Fries." As she scoops another batch of golden potatoes into the fryer, she waxes poetical.
"You can hear them swimming and singing," Gerda says. And when you ask what the secret to the perfect frites is, she answers "every day I cook them with love."
The fritkot is one of the few places you can see Belgians waiting patiently in line. In fact, they visit the fry shop on average about 1.5 times per week.
In Belgium, going to get frites is not a fast-food run, but rather a tradition to be savored.
"It's the fastest slow food," says Fritkot Max's owner Bernard Lefevre. "It's sometimes difficult for Americans to understand why they have to wait once they order. You need to make people think the Belgian way."
And what exactly is the Belgian way?
"We like simple and excellent things," continues Lefevre. "But most of the time, simple things are not easy to make. And with something simple like the potato, well, you discover it's quite a difficult product."
This, Lefevre notes, is why past attempts to export the Belgian fry shop experience have not fared so well.
"If you don't use the right potatoes, the right oil, and the right fryers, well, you get french fries. And that's the reason you don't find Belgian fries anywhere."
There are other reasons too, most of them having to do with the differences between what we think of as "french fries" and true Belgian frites.
First, frites require certain kinds of fresh potatoes. The Belgians prefer to use a local spud called bintje.
Also, true frites are cut thicker; in fact, they are about three times thicker than a McDonald's fry.
And to be real frites, they need to be fried twice. First to make the inside soft, and a second time to give the outside a nice bite.
And you have to remember that Belgian fries, along with a dipping sauce, are the centerpiece of a meal, not a side-dish.
All in all, it sounds like a tall order to export, but a company called Bel Frit is trying to do just that.
Bel Frit opened its first shop in Hungary eight years ago. It was not exactly a ringing success at first.
"The Hungarian, or the Thai, or the Estonian doesn't really have a clue at first about what we do," says Bel Frit's business development manager Roderick Lindner.
"You have to get them used to the taste, and you do that with a simple, very clear-cut menu."
Once Bel Frit pared down the menu, the business took off. The company now has shops throughout Eastern Europe, and is looking to expand more into Asia, and even North America.
And Bel Frit's not the only one trying to bring frites to the world. In Leuven, I meet up with Michel Mes, another entrepreneur who bills himself as "the Missionary of the Belgian Fry."
Mes worked in IT for 25 years, but never lost sight of his childhood love.
"I used to knick money from my mother's purse and go down to the fry shop," Mes says. "Instead of going to church, I went to the fry shop that was next to the Church, and hid behind the fry shop eating my fries."
In the mid-1990s, Mes started one of the first websites devoted to the Belgian fry.
As the Internet grew, more and more people found his site and began to contact him. They wanted his help in starting their own frites business.
Eventually, he decided to quit the IT business, and start Friitz, a franchising company looking to help others start their own fry shops.
Mes says many people express interest, until he tells them how much work it takes.
"In a nutshell, people think – oh, fry shop. It's easy. Until I start talking about it, and give them all the little details. And that's why a lot of people give up."
Starting a business like this can take months of preparation and market research. And it's not cheap — it can take tens of thousands of dollars to start a franchise.
But Paul Ilegems , who's written four books on frites and fritkot , says he believes that the Belgian fry shop can succeed abroad.
"I think all people all over the world like frites," he says as he sits just outside Fritkot Max in Antwerp.
"The fry is the noblest product derived from the potato. It's popular, and it will remain so."