In the chef mind

Where creativity meets organisational skills (and a lot of unsolicited opinions!)

Here’s the thing. The mind of a Chef is quite complex. Both strict organisation and waves of creativity share the same space, therefore the struggle is real. As you’ve decided to delve into my mind hoping to get some useful tips or funny stories on what it means to be a chef, just be warned that it is at your own peril!

HAVING JUST ONE MENTOR IS BORING!

First of all: those guys that waste so many words describing just one mentor that supposedly defined their life and professional path are really, really boring to me. Also, getting inspiration from just your own domain is terribly boring and a bit harmful to your job in the long run. Ladies and gentlemen, here’s the first tip from this chef’s mind: open up!

I have many mentors, many different cooks that I follow, but even this list changes constantly. I could name the best names in the world, but this doesn’t have any particular meaning, because everybody looks to them. Again, it’s not just chefs that inspire me. It happens all of a sudden: I am driving on along a motorway or walking in the woods, I see something and I have an idea. It’s the city I live in that inspires me. The whole environment I move around in.

City and Nature, those are your best mentors. 

THE CHALLENGE IS TO KEEP IT SIMPLE 

What I find really challenging as a chef is to amaze people with tastes that come out of the combination of just three ingredients. That’s the real challenge, to please without creating extravagant dishes in which lots of ingredients are used.

My food style is very simple but packed with taste. A chef has to cook everything: vegetables, fish, meat in a simple way. The produce has to be the best quality available, it goes (almost) without saying that if the product is not good you will never have a good result. The preparation must be creative and presented in the best, basic way. A great way to create delightful dishes is to not allow too many hands on it, with only a few stages of cooking and that’s it. You have to handle the produce as little as possible. 

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The philosophy of my cooking is therefore to obtain the best fish, or meat, and to not handle it too much. The process must be simple and clean. You just check the fish, put it in the grill, add a garnish, and you have the real flavour of the fish, the best you could ever have.

As you probably have guessed by now, I am not into elaborate cooking like French cuisine, the result of which can be really good, but it also creates distance from the original flavour. I never, ever use more than four ingredients for one dish. 

If you’re thinking that this chef is a bit lazy too, I would dare to say that you are mistaken. Trying to keep it basic and simple can be exhausting. Making a nice dish with 2 or 3 ingredients means that everything has to be cooked and seasoned perfectly. It is, of course, more difficult to just serve, for example, green or white asparagus, on its own with seasoning, and to make it the best asparagus you’ve ever tasted, instead of cooking a gazillion ingredients along with asparagus in order to get a good taste. 

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DON’T BE DOGMATIC ABOUT YOUR INGREDIENTS!

Don’t get obsessed by “favourite ingredients”! Your only favourite should be finding a way to never get bored and avoid being repetitive. Nature helps with this: if you listen, you can keep your mind open and you don’t even have the time to get bored!

There’s no dogma, no Holy Book of Ingredients. It’s all about the seasons, and at the end of the day, that’s precisely where the beauty of being a Chef is. And the relevance of where a Chef lives. In my country, Denmark, the seasons are shorter than, for example, in Italy (just 3 months for every produce, or less), and it’s all just vegetables: spring onions, carrots, asparagus, potatoes, no matter what kind. I just love to cook with good produce, not a specific vegetable. At the time of writing, in my restaurant in Copenhagen, we are cooking a lot of asparagus, but if I have to be honest, I already can’t wait for the next season to come, so that I can cook with all the beautiful varieties of mushrooms.

I just get so excited waiting for each season to arrive. That’s why I never get tired of cooking. This makes sense not only for vegetables. Cod, for example, is wonderful in winter, when you get this beautiful, firm cod and you just have to take your time cooking it. In wintertime, we use more high-energy food as the winter here is really cold, so for example we use tougher cuts of meats, game and beef, while in the summer we have lighter meals with chicken, veal and so on. It is really fun and rewarding to be a chef because you always are forced to change.

That is why for me there should be no obsession about “discovering new products”: just keep your eyes open, the seasons will provide you with what you need. What I am constantly searching for, on the other hand, are new seasonings that can really have an effect on the taste of a dish.

 

TEMPORARY OBSESSIONS ARE COOL

A few, temporary obsessions are cool. Follow them into the uncharted territories where they lead you. At the moment, this chef’s mind is full of miso and soy sauce. In a few months I will be attracted by something else, but now I am really, really into Japanese seasonings.

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I use yellow and white miso, the lighter ones. I marinate my fish or meat in miso because it gives a wonderful, intense flavour and an umami taste. Also, I make a miso vinaigrette for vegetables, which is quite fun to use because nobody would say it’s miso, and yet they know there’s something different going on in that taste. And the options are really wide, since there are a lot of misos and soy sauces: mushroom soy sauce, light soy sauce.... who knows which miso vinegar I will be preparing in three or six months from now!

At this point you are probably asking yourself: why is this Danish guy speaking so passionately about something that isn’t Danish at all? Of course there is no miso in Denmark, but I’m quite Asian in my cooking style, even if I cook on an open fire. And the reason I do that is because I haven’t been in Denmark my entire (professional) life.

TASTE-TROTTER

Never underestimate the importance of travelling. Otherwise your mind would shrink, and so would your cooking!

I discovered miso when I worked in California. I went to work in the United States in 2009, in San Francisco, a city that has a big Asian community. In the first restaurant I worked in, there were two Asian guys in the kitchen. They got me into miso, tofu, soy, rice with vinegar. I cooked it at home and when I tasted it, I experienced a full “wow effect”: I realised it gives a totally different twist to the food without using salt, pepper, lemon juice or sugar, just like the umami gives all dishes a different twist.

That’s what fascinates me about Asian food: I am not cooking fried noodles or spring rolls. I use Asian methods to give my own cooking more flavour. I use miso, soy sauce, fermented food. There’s one more reason I love to prepare Asian food both in my restaurant and at home: my wife is Malaysian. Moreover, out of 10 people working in my kitchen, two of them are Asian, a Thai and a Vietnamese. Frisco times are still alive in my Copenhagen kitchen! 

In my experience working abroad I also learnt how to work with dashi, the Japanese fish broth. I use it for all my sauces, instead of stocks. I use half chicken broth and half dashi, so when I cook my sauce it doesn’t taste of dashi but it has a different twist. Dashi for broth, miso for marinades, soy sauce for vinaigrettes. In my kitchen, I also love to use a lot of spices, chilli, fermented onion curry or Ras El Hanout.

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That said, I am a Danish guy. I use a lots of Nordic fresh produce like meat, vegetables, fish, mushrooms, herbs. But I also use a lot of olive oil and if can’t find a good product here in Denmark or in Scandinavia, I buy it somewhere else. That doesn’t mean I am French inspired or Italian inspired. I would describe my cooking as International. I can use whatever I want to use, focusing on local and organic products. If carrots in Denmark are great, why buy them from somewhere else?

REMEMBER YOU CAN DO WHATEVER YOU FEEL LIKE

Yeah, that’s crucial: in the kitchen, do as you feel is right. Let me give you an example: although foraging is becoming quite the trend in Scandinavia, I don’t do it myself, but sometimes I buy foraged products from a professional forager. I do that whenever I feel like it, because it’s fun sometimes to use beeches or herbs from the forest and give a wild hint to make a dish great.

Throwing yourself into the game with a bit of risk is, in my opinion, part of every creative job. I was around 17 when I started cooking, and it was quite funny because I didn’t know anything about restaurants. I was from a city outside Copenhagen, and at that time the best restaurant was this one called Pierre André, a French restaurant with one Michelin star. It was one of the top 5 restaurants in Denmark. I was young and felt like I could conquer the world. So I just walked in and said: “Hey, I want to be a chef too”. And the guy, Philippe, asked me: “You want to be a chef? Well, then come back tomorrow at 3 pm”. So I came back the next day, and he asked me “you still want to be a chef?”. I replied “Yes, I think so”, and he said “Then go and get changed”. Then I called my mum to tell her I wasn’t coming back home for dinner. That’s how I started, no discussion, no job interviews. I just dressed up as a chef and started working. So just do it!

I stayed there for 5 years, then I went to Switzerland to work and then I returned to Denmark. I didn’t have many responsibilities for the first year, but I learnt the basics and how to recognise a good product. That is how I learnt. I still have the knife the guy gave me as a gift for my 18th birthday. I don’t use it a lot, but it’s a good souvenir! Quite the memento.

  

WAKE UP EARLY, MY FRIEND 

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Since we are talking about things to remember: a good chef never forgets to set his alarm clock very early in the morning. It’s market time, my friend. I really learned how to buy at the markets – guess where? – in San Francisco. Besides miso and soy, over there I discovered that there was a big group of chefs that go everyday to the market together and pick the groceries. Quite a difference from Copenhagen, where dealers came to us to deliver products. In San Francisco it was quite fun because you get to meet the farmers and learn from them. They came to the city every day with the groceries and there was a wide choice.

Whatever the city your markets are in, just be aware that every farmer has a story, and there’s a leader for each product. You can find the best sweet peas from one guy, but you find the best artichokes from the guy in the other corner of the market. Fresh, organic, grown with wisdom and care. 

 

HAIL TO THE KING(S)!

You just go around and taste Although it’s early and you might have the mood of an ostrich with the urge to bury its head in the sand, make an effort and always talk to the farmers! They are a goldmine, giving you the most useful tips, telling you that in 40 days the best strawberries will be available. When I became chef de cuisine with 1 Michelin star, before coming back to Denmark in 2011, I had to learn to take care of the groceries myself and I came across a valuable lesson: who grows, knows better.

I remember there was this guy called Joe Schirmer, the owner of Dirty Girl Tomatoes, he was like the King of Tomatoes. Search for the “leaders” and then you’re all set. In “normal” restaurants, people just get things delivered. And by doing so, they skip the chats with the farmers and the wandering around in the market. Oh dear. 

GROCERIES OR MENU: WHICH ONE LEADS THE WAY? 

My menu is fairly fixed, so I know what to look for when I’m buying, but I talk to the suppliers to find out what is best right now. I create my menu around the season and then I go out, taste the produce, buy and make the dish.

If I would like to have miso fried cod with chanterelle mushrooms and dashi, I go out and check if chanterelle mushrooms are good right now, taste them, and if they are not good I am going to rewrite the menu and change this part for something else. I know what I want to do, but it may vary if I can’t get the right produce. I sit down and I think about what could be fun to use, but it has to be good quality and in line with the season. Only once I am sure about the quality, am I going to make the dish. 

Just go out and taste! You can taste all the vegetables and you have to know about them: peas, asparagus, cabbage…each one has its own characteristics. The asparagus, for example, has to be sweet and crunchy. The peas, not too big, not flowering (because you might taste the flower). Of course, there are things you can’t taste like the artichoke. In that case you learn how to recognise the best one by firmness and colour. Take a carrot, for example: even if it’s not straight, the carrot will taste good. It’s not bad because of the lack of straightness but because of its softness. It has to be hard and nice in the colour, the plant must be green and fresh. It doesn’t matter if it has a few flaws, it doesn’t really affect the flavour. The carrot that is not good is soft, not firm and the green is more of an army green.

It’s not the shape, it’s how it looks and feels in your hands. 

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“FOODIZENSHIP” OVER FROZEN GREENS

Sì, so benissimo cosa stai pensando ora. Va tutto benissimo. Però... Tu sei uno chef, questo è il tuo lavoro, una persona con una vita normale non può dedicare tanto tempo alla spesa nei mercati, né trascorrere ore alla ricerca del pomodoro migliore... Probabilmente hai ragione. Non sono qui per dare colpe. E tuttavia, perché non provi a rinunciare a una delle ore che trascorri davanti alla TV e la dedichi a cucinare per te?

Non do colpe a nessuno, è una questione legata al nostro sistema di vita, con i supermercati e gli annunci pubblicitari e le diverse priorità per persone diverse. Le persone dovrebbero essere consapevoli di quello che acquistano. Quando vedono una pubblicità su una carbonara fatta al microonde o sulla pizza o sul pollo congelati, la gente non è consapevole della qualità degli ingredienti e pensa che si tratti di un buon prodotto da mangiare.

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Yeah, I know what some of you are thinking right now. That’s nice. But you are a chef, that’s your job, regular lives don’t allow for a lot of time to be spent in markets, taking hours to find the best tomato. You are probably right. I am not pointing fingers here. Nevertheless, how about you guys start to take one hour from the time spent watching TV and use it to cook for yourself?

I don’t blame anyone, it’s all about the system we are living in, with supermarkets and adverts and different priorities set for individuals. People should be aware of what they’re buying. When they see adverts for microwave Carbonara or frozen pizza or frozen chicken, people are not aware of the quality of the ingredients and think that it’s a good product to eat. 

The fact is: if you eat badly every day, your health will be bad. You have to start somewhere to learn how to be kind to your body. To train your mind by cooking yourself fresh food is a great start towards something that we could even dare to define “foodizenship”. Maybe in school, once a week, children – the future citizens of our society – should have to learn to cook. There could a mindset topic, a systemic topic, a nutritional topic, since there’s a lot of chemistry in food and all of this would be great to teach to children.

If we begin with the school system, children would be aware of the benefits of fresh greens instead of frozen ones. They will grow up, get a job and still search for a fresh tomato because they know it’s good for their health and that’s the knowledge they grew up with. They would not even think about frozen greens anymore.

It’s a matter of civic education, so let’s catch them when they are forced to be in school! Do you know how many teenagers have only eaten fast food chips and fried chicken and for that reason they find the taste of a genuine, free-range chicken from the farm weird? Way, way too many if you ask this chef.

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