(Editor's Note: Patrick De Smet's The Tree is one of two finalists in the Beijinger 2014 Pizza Cup, voting for which ends Sunday night. We sat down for a drink with De Smet, as he celebrated 25 years in China this month.)
Patrick De Smet
Owner, The Tree
Founder, Monkey Business
A train trip to Siberia may seem exotic and adventurous. But for Patrick De Smet, it was routine.
From opening one of our city’s most successful pizzerias, to helping kick open the floodgates for Belgian beer in the capital, to starting Monkey Business Tours, a pioneer in Trans-Siberian train travel, just celebrated a quarter century in Beijing.
“I have jeans from those days that are ripped with lots of patches. My brother bought them for me in Belgium, and I arrived in them,” he said. Initially De Smet, his brother, and that prized denim weren’t meant to stay in the Middle Kingdom. “The idea was to be back before Christmas,” DeSmet says before adding, with a chuckle: “We just forgot to mention which one.”
De Smet unknowingly took part in Beijing’s transition to making life a little more convenient for foreigners by offering them some good old-fashioned comfort food.
It all started in 2000, when De Smet took the reins at the Hidden Tree (founded by Katrien Costenoble in 1996). A year after becoming the boss, De Smet began making pizza there, but soon realized that plan was missing an essential ingredient.
“I wanted to do something with fire somehow. I wanted to have a fire, because it creates such a good atmosphere, and gives that fantastic smell of smoke,” he says. During a night of drinks with Vito Foio, an Italian chef who worked at the Sheraton hotel, they formulated a plan to build a stove and serve up Beijing’s first wood fired pizza.
After a few tweaks and redesigns the blaze began to roar, and De Smet found himself running one of Beijing’s most beloved eateries. Its success prompted him to open another wood-fired pizza pub called The Tree in early 2005. The new restaurant’s clientele grew all the more quickly (especially after demolitions forced the Hidden Tree’s closure). Soon, two sister establishments began to sprout: Nearby The Tree (a bistro and pasta spot) in 2008, and a sports bar called (you guessed it) By The Tree in 2012.
Along with wood fire pizzas, De Smet was also hugely supportive in bringing Belgian beer to Beijing. Vandergeeten— a food distributor famed for bringing Belgian chocolate and other sweets to China —began importing Belgian beer to The Hidden Tree. The venture became so successful that Vandergeeten began duplicating it with other bars and clubs, until beer all but eclipsed cookies as its main import.
And while his successes, and that of similar longtime Beijing entrepreneurs, may have tamed the landscape that once seemed so wild and foreign to him, De Smet admits that he’s not willing to abandon his adopted home just yet.
Visit the original source and full text: the Beijinger Blog