Welcome to Belgium—Forget Your Diet! An Interview with Skybar's Judineth Miranda
Life takes us places we never expect. Like the delicious city of Antwerp, Belgium, which I recently wrote about for Drink Me Magazine.
How I ended up there is a long story—one that starts 25 years ago—and connects me to some of the most amazing people I've met in my life—like my friend Judineth Miranda, the assistant manager of Antwerp’s On The Rocks, a seriously cool mobile bartending business that serves up contemporary cocktails from the back of a souped up 1955 Chevy. Judi is also a manager and bartender at SkyBar, a luxe cocktail lounge with fantastic drinks and gorgeous food, run by her partner, mixologist Randy Boden.
Here’s the story of how we met and a small taste of why Belgium has stolen our hearts—and our stomachs.
When we graduated from high school in the early 1990s, my boyfriend, Grant, and I saved up some cash and flew to Amsterdam. We bought a 3-cylindar tin can—I mean VAN—slept in most of the youth hostels in Western Europe and basically lived on bread and cheese for 6 months.
In the Belgian city of Namur, we made friends with Jean Pierre, a worker at a pastry shop who spoke Spanish (our only common language), fed us leftover cream puffs and gave us Judo lessons. We rode a giant Ferris wheel in the center of town, walked by the river and drank our first Belgian beers.
In 1996, Grant and I took our next big trip together: a student exchange to Nicaragua. We found ourselves in a small rural town in the home of an incredible family with a young granddaughter. She was just a kid, but it was obvious even then that Judineth was going places. The girl had an attitude, and rightly so—she was smarter and funnier than most adults and she knew it. She was also gorgeous, with the high cheekbones and beautiful café latte skin that she’d inherited from her grandmother. Watch out world, I thought.
Years later, Judineth moved to…Belgium. She’d fallen for a boy who had traveled from his country, like us, on a student exchange. I remained in touch with her family, returning to Nicaragua again and again over eight years of graduate study, but I rarely saw Judi.
In the meantime, Grant, by then my husband, became a professor of philosophy. And one day he was invited to Belgium to collaborate on a research project. He went and then we went, taking our kids for a summer to live in Leuven, a university city outside of Brussels that happens to be the beer capital of the world. (More about that some other time.)
And there, just a train ride away, was Judineth, living in Belgium’s most fashionable city, Antwerp, and making her way in the world with the smarts and charm and chutzpah that she’d had since she was 11 years old. She showed us around her city and we all fell madly in love—with her and with Antwerp.
I asked Judi to tell me more about her life as a migrant to Belgium and what it’s like to live—and eat—in Antwerp. Here’s a bit of our conversation.
Maya: What did you think of Belgium when you first came?
Judi: My first time in Belgium, I was 16 years old. I remember the cold, the crazy people, weird food and beers. They asked me back then would you ever consider living in Belgium? And I said NOOOO, of course not. But four years later I was moving to Belgium.
When I arrived in Belgium it was a very cold winter and I got very depressed. I couldn’t stand living inside four walls and not having contact with neighbors and having to bike on the snow five kilometers to reach my school. I hated explaining to people over and over again the reason I had decided to move to Belgium—to be with my husband. No, the family I come from is not poor, but also not rich; No, I wasn’t living on the street.
Then the spring arrived and I started to like Belgium. I could speak Dutch after a few months [Judi now speaks 4 (!) languages] and I started to find my way. I was missing my family and friends every single day, but I was making new friends and traveling in Europe.
Once I was allowed to work in Belgium, I heard about a job as kitchen assistant. I never thought that I would be working in a kitchen since I didn’t have previous experience, but there I was preparing classic Belgian dishes. I worked there for two years. Later I worked at another restaurant, Mama Matrea, as a bartender and sometimes in the kitchen making Latin dishes.
M: How did you learn to cook?
J: I remember back in Nicaragua cooking for my abuelito (grandfather) Ali. He always asked me to cook him a steak with a lot of onions and garlic, which is odd for the typical Nicaraguan diet. [Nicaraguans use garlic in very small amounts.] But he liked it and he used to say, “She cooks it the best!”
So I was cooking, but different things than the usual Nicaraguan rice and beans. And you inspired me a bit: I will never forget my first pizza—prepared by Grant! And your delicious salsa that you made to eat with your rice and beans.
I also learned a lot when I traveled to visit family in Ecuador—new flavors, new diet, cooking different things. And traveling and living in Belgium you can’t avoid eating and cooking good food!
M: What’s your cooking style?
J: I like to experiment and mix things up: Thai, Moroccan, Italian, Belgian, Tex-Mex—everyday a different dish. Today, I made an avocado hummus because I love avocado and I believe that avocado can go with anything. (One day I made an avocado pesto!)
I also love my chicken burgers and sweet potatoes fries. Sometimes I make gallo pinto (Nicaraguan pan fried rice and beans) and bake plantains with fresh cheese and sour cream. Or jalapeño with rice and plantains.
We cook a lot at home and for family and friends. And once I cooked for a New Year’s Party with a Latin theme at Skybar for 200 people.
M: What do you most enjoy about the food culture of Belgium?
J: Let’s start with the bakeries. I love the dark bread and sweet selections for Sunday brunch! Also on the weekends, I love how people come together to eat oysters and drink Cava at the market.
And I love Belgian desserts. And beers, of course. Welcome to Belgium—forget your diet!
M: Tell me about living in Antwerp.
J: I think moving to Antwerp was the best decision I ever made. It may be a big town, but for me it is one of the nicest places to live. If you’re a food lover, you have it all, thanks to the different nationalities in the city. And there are so many great restaurants and pop-ups. Antwerp is my home. I’m Nicaraguan por gracias de Dios, but proud to be Belgian too. I have the best of both worlds. I’m really lucky.