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Good Food, Big Ideas: An Interview With Chef Christian Puglisi of Copenhagen's Relae

With three restaurants, a Michelin star, and now a new book under his belt, Puglisi leads a new generation of chefs in shaking up food culture.

It all started with an idea. And now he’s got a book full of them.

At the age of 18, this half-Italian, half-Norwegian, raised-Danish aspiring chef arrived in Paris. “I was 18 years old, I had finished my first year of hospitality school, and I knew absolutely nothing about gastronomy, other than that if I wanted to start cooking, I should do it in Paris,” he writes in his recent book Relae: A Book of Ideas.

Several years later, he operates three restaurants, has received a Michelin star, and published his first book to critical acclaim. But it wasn’t the quest for acclaim that propelled made him to be a celebrity chef.

“Being an immigrant from Italy, I experienced food and gastronomy as very important to me as a kid. I felt it came from where I came from, coming from Italy. With time I realized how important it was for me and wanted to pursue it professionally.”

When we spoke he had just returned to Copenhagen from Mexico, not Italy. But this trip had been a vacation; a well-earned respite following one of his busiest years. Puglisi is no stranger to hard work. Following his experience in Paris, he worked at the three-star Michelin restaurant elBulli in Spain, and then returned to Copenhagen where he was hired on at the innovative two-star restaurant Noma, whose head chef Rene Redzepi helped pioneer the ‘New Nordic Cuisine’, an approach to cooking that advocated use of seasonal, local and natural ingredients. Noma has been voted ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ by Restaurant magazine for four of the past five years.

“It was a very important period of my career because it changed in many ways how I was seeing things,” Puglisi recalls. “I was lucky to be there at a time when it was still taking off, and had not yet become the most revered restaurant in the world. I got to experience how it exploded right in front of me. It was very fascinating, and very much a learning experience for me.”

He didn’t stay at Noma, despite its guaranteed fame and success. He yearned to break out on his own and be free to pursue his own ideas. But he lacked money, and had no desire to fall into the clutches of investors. Creative independence was vital for him.

“For me, it was key to find a place where liberty was a possibility… [with investors], it creates a lot of problems because all of the sudden you’re not free to do what you want because there are a lot of other interests in what you’re thinking. If you have expensive chairs, there is for sure some investor who spent the money on the expensive chairs. For me, it was very key to be free from that.”

What do you do when you’re striving to open a small business, pursue creative independence, and have no money? You find property in a low-rent, drug- and crime-ridden neighbourhood in Copenhagen.

That’s what Jaegersborggade was, when Puglisi rented the space for his first restaurant, Relae. This “outlaw street” was at the heart of Danish drug gang warfare; a policeman was shot almost outside the front door a month before he opened. The venue had been used by biker gangs for weekend parties, but locals were trying to clean up the streets by offering low rent to “creative entrepreneurs” (this initiative would also attract the innovative coffee-shops and fashion designers the strip is now known for).

The strategy worked for everyone. Puglisi had his restaurant, and the neighbourhood’s character has dramatically changed. He’s proud of the accomplishment. With demand growing and space in Relae limited, he eventually opened a spot across the street called Manfreds.

“We were part of creating a different focus for the neighbourhood, and attracting other businesses and other creative people who wanted to have some fun here... I think everybody sees it as a positive thing that the street is better known for interesting, organic hipster things than for violence and drug dealing.”

Cut to the Bone

Puglisi’s vision for Relae flew in the face of conventional fine-dining templates. While he brought the cooking experience of the world-famous Noma to the restaurant, he wanted his own focus to be on the food rather than the atmosphere. Patrons would have to fill their own water glasses and find their own way to the bathroom. Cutlery wasn’t delivered and removed on fancy napkins; it was contained in drawers under the tables and customers were responsible for looking after their own needs. The tables wobbled, the music was loud. Just like Puglisi and his staff liked it. Their goal—appropriate given their audacious move to open a gastronomic novelty in the heart of Copenhagen’s drug war—was to make fine-dining accessible to a wider, and younger, generation.

“We try to charge a reasonable price,” he explains. “We also try to create an atmosphere where there's a lively crowd and it’s filled and it’s a small place. It breaks down barriers; a fine dining environment can be an intimidating experience for people of a younger generation like myself. It’s cutting the restaurant experience down to the bone. Making it something approachable, both financially, and also how it makes you feel to be there.”

Making it accessible, and skimping on the luxuries, doesn’t mean any less effort goes into the food, he emphasizes. On the contrary; it liberates the chefs and staff to focus on the food, and on making the experience pleasurable and free of pretense.

Relae's beet, crab apple dish

“What I like about Relae is you have the contradiction between a place that is very simple and food that looks very simple, but it can be very complex. The result can be a simple enjoyment. It doesn’t have to be an intellectual thing, to enjoy it. But the food, there is still a very intellectual idea behind it.”

In 2012, Relae received a Michelin star. And in 2014, following on the success of Relae and Manfreds, Puglisi opened Baest, which focuses on organic meats and pizza (boasting mozzarella hand-made on the premises daily from local organic milk).

There’s More to a Restaurant Than Cooking

Puglisi’s time with Noma and elsewhere helped him cultivate important skills. When he took the job at Noma he already harboured dreams of his own restaurant, but realized “I would learn a lot more from being in that position and being responsible… it was my first job with responsibility.”

And that responsibility taught him the importance of having a team that could work well together.

“It was something that I saw. You could tell how big a part of it was how you approach the kitchen, and working together, and how you work together… one of the most fascinating things is to lead a team and bring out the best in people.”

This was part of what he had to figure out when he worked at Noma, and he applied the lessons he learned to his own venture when he opened Relae. He’s full of praise for his staff, and speaks highly and with appreciation about the team he’s assembled. Running a restaurant isn’t just about cooking -- it’s about leadership and teamwork.

“The best advice is to really have empathy, and try and understand people. And understand how they work, and how they have needs. You cannot just demand and expect that you’re right, you also need to adjust your demands and hopes and ideas depending on who you have. There’s some people that might not have worked out in other restaurants, maybe they weren’t liked or didn’t fit in, but if we work with them they might come out in a better way. It’s very important not to judge people straight away, but understand how they work.”

“That said,” he adds quickly, “It’s very important that people have the attitude and the will to work in this environment, and do a job that’s physically and mentally very hard.”

Food, Culture, and Change

Things have changed a lot since Puglisi cracked his first egg. One of the major changes he’s noticed is the growing numbers of restaurants today that are opening up their kitchens, so that diners can see and even engage with the chefs. The chefs have become more visible. One effect this has had is to make individual chefs more prominent in the public eye. But more importantly, he says, it’s changed how the chefs engage with the restaurant, and has led to a more integrated dining experience.

“The chefs see the restaurant more, and understand the restaurant more. As a result, you see more restaurants created in a way that has a better connection between the food [production] behind the scenes, and the front of the house, connecting the food and the restaurant experience. Before, a chef would think about the food. And the front of the house would think about the front of the house. Now you have people considering [how] the restaurant and the food come together.”

For Puglisi, food evolves, too. He points to his own mixed ethnicity as an example and inspiration, describing it in his book: “I was born Italian, my mother is Norwegian… I am a child of the globalized world, and anyone who draws up national borders and geographical restrictions on people, or vegetables, always provokes me. The question of whether our cooking is locavore, Nordic, Italian, or French is the same as asking me whether I am Italian, Norwegian, or Danish. The answer is yes to all of them. The point is, my mixed background, not the color of my passport, is what defines me as a person and a cook.”

But there’s a delicate balance to be had between innovation, creativity, and tradition. He elaborated on this when we spoke.

“For me, evolution is the result of some type of creativity. It’s very important not to be forcibly creative about anything just because. You want to have something to say about the food you do. For me, just looking at traditional food and complying with it because it’s the way we’ve always done it, that’s not the way.

I try to look at my food and the way I eat, and for me there’s always some way of making things more up to date. Whatever made sense fifty years ago in Italy or a hundred years ago in France, does not make sense for me today. It’s not disrespectful of tradition, to hone things and make them up to date. It’s actually respectful.”

Splash image: Staff meal. All photos courtesy of Ten Speed Press.

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