The question Christian Puglisi hates being asked most by journalists is “What is this ‘new Nordic cuisine’?” He tells me this at the end of our interview, he was so pleased I hadn’t asked. It is good, he said to talk to someone who knows about food. And although with me, flattery will of course get you absolutely everywhere, I had to say, eh, now that you mention it Christian, what do you think this “new Nordic cuisine” is?
Without the slightest hint of irritation, he replied “The ‘New Nordic Cuisine’ is really a part of the past.” He was referring to an approach to cooking that advocates the use of seasonal, local and natural ingredients. A former sous chef in Noma, which has been named the “World’s Best Restaurant” for four out of the past five years, Puglisi was the first of the Noma alumni to strike out on his own when he opened Relae in Copenhagen five years ago. He was rewarded with a Michelin star in 2012, and in 2013 Relae became the first fully certified organic restaurant in the world to hold the coveted star. It is currently ranked at number 53 on the World’s Best Restaurants list.
The Nordic dogma is a bit weird
“I think the future is definitely in other directions,” he says. “For me, the Nordic dogma is a little bit weird because it is a dogma that has existed in every cuisine everywhere else in the world. Cook locally, really? That’s not new. It’s very simple, but in terms of the fine dining scene, what I find more interesting than new Nordic, are the more global and ethnic influences. I think that’s going to be the idea of the future, to think globally and cook locally.
“People don’t consider Italian food as ethnic because it’s so widely spread. But it is a traditional approach to doing something in a particular region. We wanted to do those things and apply the techniques and traditional crafts to our local market,” he says. “I see people here in Copenhagen who are doing Mexican food but using local Danish produce. So I think you’ll see more people using techniques and craft from other parts of the world, but keeping the level of the produce high and local. That’s what you will see in the future.”
Relae restaurant full from day one
Half-Italian and half-Norwegian, Puglisi, who was born in Sicily but moved to Denmark when he was eight, has been strongly associated with the New Nordic movement. When he opened Relae in 2010, Rene Redzepi, the chef behind Noma who is credited with starting the movement, gave him his full support and the restaurant was full from day one. Media types and travelling gastronomes were eager to taste this new approach to cuisine, which he was serving in exceptionally casual surroundings in what was considered to be a no-go, drugs ridden part of Copenhagen.
The four course menu was priced at 325 Krone, (approximately €44) and for Puglisi, it was all about making fine dining more democratic and accessible to those who would not normally be able to afford to eat at this level. He brought the average age of the diner down 20 years, with students sitting side by side with Michelin regulars. And he consciously took a different approach to Noma – there was no focus on foraging or exaggerated use of herbs, and his plating was devoid of swooshes and all about subtlety. And rather than be constrained by the limitations of a Danish-only pantry as Redzepi is, he incorporated Italian ingredients like olive oil, citrics and anchovies. In order to deliver this level of cooking at a competitive price, service was cut to a minimum and diners could find their cutlery and napkins in a drawer at the table.
And he adds Manfreds, then Baest
With increasing demand for tables at Relae, he opened Manfreds, a more casual wine bar and restaurant across the road; and last year saw him delve more deeply into his Italian heritage, when he opened Baest, a restaurant he describes as being authentic with an Italian accent, as opposed to an authentic Italian restaurant. Moving away from the focus on vegetables he has in Relae and Manfreds, here he uses a wood burning oven to cook pizza and grill meat, particularly pork. Always immersive in what he does, his vision was to embrace the traditional craft of producing Italian products in his Danish environment. He travelled to Italy to try and learn the craft of making mozzarella first hand, but found that people were reluctant to part with the secrets to their family recipes which had been passed down over generations.
Mozzarella, better imported from Italy or a hybrid made locally?
“With mozzarella, the critical thing was, do we want to import it or just make it ourselves?” he says. “And we thought, it might be a more authentic dining experience if we made it. So that was the approach. The difficult part was, where to start; how do you make this? We made it at least 50 times in the kitchen with varying results, most of them being very bad to begin with. And after some time we realised, okay we’re going to need an actual space for this. So we have an actual dairy in the restaurant up on the first floor of Baest and we use biodynamic local Danish milk to make the mozzarella. This is probably the smallest dairy in Denmark.”
Puglisi also spent time developing a process for producing authentic Italian style charcuterie in Denmark, where he says the process for charcuterie is industrialised with a fermentation and processing time of a week. “The charcuterie we do, which is salting and curing for longer periods without necessarily any smoke, and a longer fermentation, can take anything between two and five months. That’s a more Mediterranean approach,” he says.
Now that Baest is up and running successfully, Puglisi has returned his focus to Relae, which he closed for refurbishment in January and February. “I think it’s important to kill your darlings, all the time,” he says. “With Relae, it’s interesting to see how far we can go. How can we have a new dimension? I didn’t want to have expensive produce, but all of a sudden I’ve realised, that’s what we need. Now I want to shake things up, see how that can move on.”
Table Zero and the Test Kitchen
Whereas in the past Puglisi had one much sought after “table zero”, at Relae four pre-booked guests were served a separate 14 course menu. Now he wants to make it more approachable and open it up to about 10 to 12 people each night with a 10 course menu. With a test kitchen over Manfreds across the road, he wants to get more experimental and include premium ingredients which are in limited supply, so would not be included on the standard Relae menus. “It would be market price, because it can change every day,” he says. “So we’ve gone from having all these restrictions to making what I call a ‘limited menu’, but what’s interesting is that there are no limits on the ingredients on the menu, it is based on what is available, but it is limited to the amount of people that can have it. I really like that idea. I can use it as a creative engine for the rest of the menu because the four course and the seven course menus will gain from it since we will have much more stuff going on all the time every night. I think that’s fascinating and exciting. I want to be able to put myself in that situation more often where we just need to make something up as we go, and then sort of push ourselves creatively in that sense.”
Puglisi Plans More Unconventional Demo for LitFest
Creativity is a recurring theme with Puglisi, who promises to be one of the more unconventional participants at the Kerrygold Ballymaloe LitFest this year. Do not expect his cookery demonstration to follow the usual format. The clue is in his recently released cookbook, Relae, A Book of Ideas. For Puglisi, it is as much about the process as it is about the end result, and that means his demo will be particularly stimulating. “I have this demo that’s two and a half hours, which for me is insanely long. I’m used to doing demos for like 30 minutes, so I’m trying to think how to keep people from sleeping in the two and a half hours,” he says. “But since it’s so long, I want to do it differently. I want to spend time showing people how we work through our creative process, how we develop the dishes. I want to do a little bit more, like do some dishes but also try and show how we start off on a dish and work on it onstage and see what it brings; involve people more in the thoughts and ideas behind it. That’s my draft of a plan so far. I think it will be fun.”
Christian Puglisi’s cookbook, Relae, A Book of Ideas, is published by Ten Speed Press, £26 Amazon.co.uk
Christian Puglisi on Food
Q. Working with Ferran Adria in elBulli, “sorting peas in numerous sizes – then blanching”, what did you learn from your experience there?
A. It was a great experience. I only knew the French style of cooking before I started at elBulli so it was an eye opener to see so many new ways to do something. Creativity was so important and it was an invaluable experience to me.
Q. What is the most valuable thing you have learned from your training in other chefs’ kitchens?
Q. What chefs inspire you?
A. I won’t name anyone in particular but I really admire chefs who work hard and have the guts to bring personality and creativity to what they do.
Q.What makes a great chef?
A. It’s very, very complex work. There are lots of dimensions to a chef, you must work creatively and have passion for what you do but you must also be able to work with people, you have no kitchen without a team. A great chef needs to be able to motivate his or her team to move in the direction in when he or she wants them to go.
Q. Your favourite restaurants and why – the big hitters with stars and more low key restaurants, can be anywhere
A. Noma is obviously someplace that is very important to me and someplace that I am very proud of from the days of working there and also just having it in Copenhagen. Fäviken in Sweden is another favourite, it’s quite a dedicated experience as you must travel to get there but it’s so worth it for the produce-focused approach to their food.
Q. What is the most incredible meal you ate in a top end restaurant?
A. I have to say it was in Noma. When I was in elBulli it was the centre of the food universe. When I worked as a Sous Chef in Noma it was just getting established and wasn’t famous. After I left Noma I returned a few months later for dinner and it was the most incredible meal – Noma really had taken over from elBulli!
Q. What is the most incredible meal you ate in an affordable restaurant?
A. More often than not I have really great meals in affordable restaurants. Rumi in Melbourne stands out as a favourite. It’s a Lebanese place, really affordable and the food was great.
Q. What do you think are going to be the next big things in food and restaurants?
A. I think we are going to see more and more ethnic food – using really great local produce to create ethnic dishes, for example Mexican restaurants with high quality dishes but served in a more traditional casual setting.
Q. What food trend would you like to see disappear?
A. I’d like to see less story telling in food – intellectualising food. Food is very talked about and sometimes overthought. A little bit of instinct would be nice!