Well, no matter where you are in the world, you should do this.
Last week, I put in some serious hours working as a stagiaire in the kitchen of one of Copenhagen’s best restaurants, Michelin-starred Restaurant Relae, run by Chef Christian Puglisi. Regardless of your amount of experience in food service/fine dining, anyone who has an interest at all in the restaurant industry is welcome to volunteer their time in fancy kitchens. You can learn the ins and outs of the business, work in the company of world-renowned chefs, prepare and serve amazing meals, and talk about delicious food all day with people who love to eat. It’s like one condensed semester of culinary school for free, snacks included.
But before launching into an full-scale highlight reel of the week, here’s some background what’s been going on in Copenhagen restaurant-wise.
This year, Noma, run by Chef Rene Redzepi, rose to the top of the international foodie radar by placing at the top of the list of world’s best restaurants by folks at Restaurant Magazine for the third year in a row. Redzepi’s menu is a drastic reinterpretation of traditional Nordic cuisine; it is extremely detail-oriented, focusing on creating innovative dishes out of simple and local ingredients readily available in Scandinavia. A table at Noma runs around $250 USD a head for a 20 course meal, with optional wine pairings (but are they really optional at that point?) for an extra $160. There’s a lengthy waiting period for any reservation- as of now, at the height of holiday season, tables are booked until January 2013.
But while an adventurous feast at Noma may be inaccessible to the average Copenhagener, the restaurant’s concept has been incredibly influential; Redzepi’s complete reinvention of Nordic cuisine has sparked a culinary movement that has changed the way people cook, the items that stock the shelves of grocery stores, and the dishes chefs incorporate into their menus, meaning that the gastronomic experience is hardly one that is reserved for those able to spare $300+ on a meal. Fortunately for the rest, plenty of inspired restaurants have cropped up all over Copenhagen, giving everyone the chance to indulge in this tasty, tasty movement.
Chef Puglisi (above), who co-owns both Restaurant Relæ and Manfreds & Vin, is considered a celebrity chef. Seriously, screw half of Food Network (read: Sandra Lee and her poop meatloaf)- now that I’ve been here… these guys are where it’s at. They’re among the best, and the ones to learn from. Puglisi (just called ‘Chef’ in the kitchen) is Italian, and worked in the former ‘best restaurant in the world,’ El Bulli in Spain, before becoming the sous chef at Noma. Now, he co-owns two restaurants on my new favorite street, Jægersborggade, where I worked eight full open-to-close shifts at over the past two weeks.
Even though I did put in ~150 hours of labor into this entire experience, which is probably more than I worked this entire summer at my joke of a job that requires me to sit on my ass (lifeguard), there were points throughout the week I couldn’t believe the experience was free. I was thrown in with both feet into one of the fanciest kitchens in Copenhagen, a considerable step up from rolling white-people burritos at the CoHo. I had literally nothing to offer these people except for extra hands to scrub carrots (and beets, and celeriac, and turnips…) but each of them patiently taught me everything I needed to know to help the restaurant operate smoothly during service hours. Something to keep in mind! A staging gig really is accessible to anyone.
Disclaimer: I’m sorry this post has no original pictures. While I REALLY REALLY wanted to take pictures of all the awesome dishes especially after we had plated them, I was there for work and not for the tourist experience. Sadly. I never wanted to keep a writing-centric blog anyway, so expect this to change for future posts.
Anyway, running around for sixteen hours straight was pretty rough on my lazy ass so all I really managed to get down when I got home exhausted every night were bullet points… but anyway, here they are:
RECAP: Restaurant Relæ
First impressions: Day 1, Tuesday
The kitchen staff comes in on Tuesday before the restaurant opens on Wednesday to get prep work out of the way, so that shit doesn’t hit the fan so hard once the service nights start. This first day was, surprisingly, just like working at the CoHo, even though the two places are literally polar opposites- swearing, snacking, lots of feisty Asians, doing repetitive tasks for many hours. The only thing that was different- no speakers. I didn’t realize I missed dubstep until this moment.
The sous chef at Relae is Lisa Lov, who I can’t believe is just a few years older than me and so good at what she does. She was incredibly patient with me, taught me how to chop stuff properly, and didn’t laugh when I had no idea what some of the vegetables were (did you know what a Jerusalem artichoke was??).
First, we prepared celeriac- 18 of them, literally as big as heads. Cut, scrub, rub with salt and then bake. They would later be sliced thinly to form tacos, for the ‘snack’ course on the menu, but that will come tomorrow…
Then, like a hundred pounds of onions. Cut, cry, peel, cry, separate inner from outer, rinse, separate small, medium, and large onion layers, box, label, put away, finally stop crying.
Pumpkins! 6 of them, half, quarter, peel, scoop, wash, rub with salt. I think these were used for the vegan dessert on the menu later in the week, but since so few vegans came into the restaurant that week, I never saw it prepared.
Parsley for what felt like an hour. Pull off the good leaves, wash, spin dry, box, put away.
TURNIPS. Like hundreds on hundreds of turnips. This is where I broke four nails. Cut, peel, slice, wash, box, put away for SHRINKAGE later and then REHYDRATION and then… don’t get it, but hopefully will tomorrow. Turnips are such a thing here. They sit all day in the drying oven, get packed into little boxes with silica gel apparently only to get rehydrated later into a texture-happy concoction… must try this to understand it before I continue trash talking, again only because I broke four nails. This is what they call inventive cooking with vegetables.
But the work was just part of the day. What really made it for me were the things I got to see- bacon wrapped meatloaf (mind.blown). Chocolate mousse and crab apple puree with malt crumble topping. Amazing, amazing bread! (Pretty much everything the pastry/dessert chef put in my mouth was exceptionally great.) Staff meals- about as much effort goes into these sit-down lunches as into the food served to the public (score). Potatoes elevated to crazy greatness, chicken wings on chicken wings on chicken wings (but seasoned to perfection), sparkling water on tap, a cooler full of duck meat (I can’t wait to find some good duck in Europe), veal stock (reduced and put into containers and the whole restaurant functions off of it), bright yellow beets, sparkling red wine (odd but great), waiters in leather aprons and plaid (like liederhosen!), a Eddie Vedder-heavy soundtrack that could use some change, merengue…. it goes on.
Day 2: Wednesday
Sleepy as shit, so here we go, in bullet point fashion-
- That bacon-wrapped meatloaf I spotted on an oven shelf and drooled over yesterday, yeah we had that for lunch. With sauce similar to lingonberry sauce, brown gravy, and mashed potatoes. There’s always salad too- today it was romaine with walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and vinaigrette. It was like Thanksgiving came early (YAAAAAY!!). The meatloaf had olives and capers in it, which I would normally find strange, but seriously, nothing bad comes out of this kitchen.
- Holy shit- mushrooms. Cantrell mushrooms blow my mind. The pastry chef, Carol, came up with this genius idea for a mushroom dessert. Cantrell mushroom mousse, surrounded by apple granite (like fluffy frozen apple juice, and they painstakingly juice all the apples in-house), a tart berry crumble on top, a pinch of black truffle powder, and five dried cantrell mushrooms decorating the sides. Unfortunately I only got to taste each ingredient in isolation, which only means I’m just left to fantasize about how much of a party in my mouth this must be. I’m not kidding I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s one of those dishes that I followed to the dishroom so I could lick it.
- At one point there were octopus legs charring in the new charcoal stove. John, the test kitchen chef (also used to work at Noma, and whose job description is basically that of a mad scientist left alone in a kitchen, what a cool job), told us, when asked what exactly his plan was, that he was thinking of doing “some… burnt squid… sauce.” Usually I would laugh immediately but I learned quickly not to be doubtful in the company of these people. They made mushroom mousse and fermented cucumber flesh taste good.
- Snack assembly in the back wine room during peak hours of service- amazing Sicilian olive oil with chevre blended to a creamy consistency… we pulled apart a loaf of bread (their bread is so. so. good.) and wolfed it all of it down. The cheese course that comes after the four dinner courses and before dessert is the chevre with parsley pureé splattered on top of it. But for this, we vetoed the parsley and went for the olive oil. After I freaked out about how good it was, I was informed that it had won the award best olive oil in Italy for two years in a row now. NBD. I am never buying olive oil from Costco again. (I found it online, if anyone is interested.)
- I understand the celeriac snack. They’re sliced thin into ‘tortillas’ and charred in the oven, filled with more celeriac and topped with grated egg yolk (it’s dehydrated first) watercress and… lots of other things.
- Langostine appetizer- got to do prep, plating, and serving today which was awesome! The first course is chopped langostine with onion, reduced white wine, lobster juice (we squeezed it from the heads after pan-frying them, it was nice), and salt. Spoon a little on a plate and cover with a few dots of fennel pureé, then actual fennel, then onion layers. Then take sliced bits of onion that have been blanched and doused in salt brine and then form the strips to look like a real onion… they are so pretty. Pictures will come when I get the chance to eat here as a guest.
- The dehydrated turnip dish is awesome! They are cut into strips and then cooked like pasta, then tossed in a sauce of cream and really great herbs (chervil plus others).
Day 3: Thursday
We had a meeting in the morning to discuss new items for the menu. The kitchen rotates one menu item out at a time, and today Chef wanted to hear thoughts for new snacks (appetizer course). We discussed and tasted beets prepared a bunch of different ways- boiled and put into a dehydrator; boiled, peeled, and then put into a dehydrator; “Jospered”, meaning charred in the new coal-burning oven; there were some other ways I can’t remember. They decided to roll the peeled and dehydrated beets into a mixture of citric acid and sugar… how do they come up with this stuff?
What I did like about this whole process was that everyone, including myself, was included in these meetings. They make an effort to keep every staff member, regardless of rank, involved. The whole time I was there, I didn’t feel a real sense of hierarchy.
We had lasagna for lunch!! Prepared for by one of the Italian chefs. There was this huge parmesean vs. mozzarella debate… food nerds to the max.
It seems I never did a recap of Friday night’s service because I came home and passed out immediately for around twelve hours.
It was definitely an exhausting week, but very worth it. Essentially, I went to restaurant boot camp and it tested my patience, endurance, and ability to absorb criticism, while teaching me some very important lessons about keeping a restaurant running smoothly… or keeping any business running smoothly, for that matter.
Hopefully another post soon from an actual dinner at Relae, as well as lots and lots of rambling to come about inspirations that have come out of this experience. Even though I was working for free (#thingsItoldmyselfIwouldstopdoingaftercollege), it did help me figure out what I’d like to be doing here for my so-called gap year, while making the concept of sticking around for a certain masters program at Copenhagen Business School make all the more sense…
And another post about boot camp part II, Manfreds & Vin, soon! A restaurant, wine bar, takeaway, and total boys club with amazing steak tartare and cool beet creations.
P.S. A big thank-you for putting up with way more than the Aggie would ever let me write about food.