The Final Stage

‘Simplicity with quality comes first, great details are just beneath.” The Relae ‘Manifesto’ should have sounded alarm bells. Surely I have worked in enough joints to decode restaurant hyperbole? Quality comes first? I don’t doubt this for a second, after all Relae was recently voted one of the best restaurants in the world. But the details beneath part can only mean one thing: behind that open kitchen, there is undoubtedly an army of chefs working their bollocks off for 16 hours a day. I was one of them. And blimey it was hard work. Of all the kitchens to date this was the closest I had reached to giving up. Perhaps the mental fatigue and physical exhaustion of working long hours in 50 back-to-back jobs was in some way to blame? Regardless, I only had two to go. The end was in sight. I was not going to give up now.

Palermo Foodish Boy-8

Copenhagen was always an easy decision for my penultimate stop. No, not because it’s only a short cheap flight from home. Nor did it have anything to do with rumours that Denmark is the world’s finest ‘Tinder’ destination (seriously, did you not read the bit above about the 16 hour shifts?). But rather, since 2004, with the publication of the New Nordic Cuisine Manifesto, and the rise of Noma to the world’s best restaurant, there has been no other city more influential to the world culinary scene. The Danes’ preference for a style of cuisine that focuses on purity, freshness and simplicity, as well as seasonality, ethics, and well-being sounds hardly revolutionary eh? And yet it is the way to which they execute these beliefs which has led many of the world’s greatest restaurants looking to the Copenhagen food scene for inspiration. I could not ignore it.

Founded by Christian Puglisi & Kim Rossen, Relae closely follows the principles of New Nordic Cuisine. This is well documented. Google Relae and you will struggle to find any article that doesn’t discuss the restaurant in relation to Noma and the New Nordic Manifesto. However, during my time at Relae, I had a different sort of Manifesto on my mind – Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, and in particular the idea of ‘sprezzatura’ – or in other words looking effortlessly cool. (Look, I didn’t spend three years in and out a dingy Oxford tutorial room for all that information to go to waste, I had to use it someday, somehow!) And Relae is just that – sprezzatura…The laid back atmosphere, the minimalist interior, the courses that often only use two ingredients. The team at Relae work bloody hard to seem so nonchalant, except only those behind the kitchen wall perhaps realise this.

Take for example a course I worked on – ‘onions and seaweed’. Excluding the dash of cherry vinegar and birch oil this is a two ingredient dish. And yet preparing the plate left me needing a Valium sandwich at the end of the night – only the assistance of Chef Tonga, with such cheer and vigour, stopped me from going completely deranged.

We roasted close to 80kg of onions, cut them in half and extracted only the finest shells. When it came to service these were seasoned, stuffed with söl (a type of Icelandic seaweed), rolled into spliff shaped pieces and finished with a dash of cherry vinegar, birch oil and sol powder on top. Sounds straight forward enough but it took the two of us 10 hours to make this dish. Add to this the stress of service… You can’t plate up too far in advance as the onions dry and seasoning becomes unbalanced. Each plate takes about 6 minutes to assemble. You get 8 orders in at once which need to be finished in 6 minutes. There are two chefs. You do the maths. On top of this you spend 4 hours a day tasting seasoning on red onions, a snacking regime I would not wish on anyone’s stomach. If I never see a red onion again I will be a happy man.

You may now be expecting some more elaboration on the other Relae food but this onion course was so demanding, I had little time to observe anything else. On occasion I was offered a brief respite once the first sitting was complete and I ran to aid the pastry section before the second sittings started ordering onions again. Just like the onions though this dish consisted of two ingredients only this time rhubarb and almonds – an almond milk ice cream, rhubarb sheets, almond flakes, a rhubarb compote and rhubarb juice to glaze. It tasted amazing. As did many of the other dishes that the chefs sent back for the trainees to sample a mouthful of.  However I wouldn’t feel confident in talking too much about the other food served, so you’ll just have to cope with the pics below.

Not too long ago, I was in conversation with a journalist of a mainstream UK publication. A feature had been vetoed because the editor believed my experiences sounded too much like a ‘jolly holiday’ and not enough like hard work. I wish he had been there during my week at Relae. I have never worked in such a labour intensive restaurant, where the other trainees (stagiaire) and I were right at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy, performing the most remedial of tasks and drilled in such a way not dissimilar to a military like environment. Saving our one brief break to eat, we were not allowed a single idle moment, and were always pushed for speed and progress. As one stagiaire so delicately put it “us guys, are idiots for coming here to wipe arse for free.”

But while the above may not sound like the most enjoyable experience, it was nonetheless a positive one. I set out last year to work in a variety of kitchen atmospheres from those that molly-coddle young chefs like members of the family, to places like Relae, where hard work and tough love are expected as a necessity for success in the kitchen. I certainly left Relae, feeling a better and more confident chef than when I arrived. More so than any restaurant experience to date. Maybe one day I will return to Relae, to sit on the other side of the pass and taste the food outside the chaos of the kitchen. I hope I do because next time I will know how hard it is to seem so effortlessly cool. Let’s just pray for the sake of my new-found anxiety complex a plate of red onions doesn’t make it my way…

My Midsummer Night’s Dream

21st June 2013: a day I’ll never forget. Having spent two days working lunch shifts, I  stepped into my chef whites for the first time to cook a dinner service for a fully booked Dill Restaurant. I really don’t like to make life easy for myself. My first time in a profesional kitchen? A 7 course tasting menu at Iceland’s leading restaurant.  Heart pounding, hands shaking, butterflies in my stomach; I hadn’t felt this nervous since my grade 1 piano exam.

Dill Restaurant situated in the stunning Nordic House

Dill Restaurant in the stunning Nordic House

Learning from the best - Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason and I

Learning from the best – Head Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason and me

“Lexi, table 4. 4 Snacks. Go!” Chef Gunnar calls the first order for the snack and amuse-bouche. Deep breath. Here we go… Snack ready. “Service” I announce as I send out my first ever dish in a professional kitchen. I’ve never felt so alive. The buzz and adrenaline are incredible.

Rye bread, Sour Cream and Chives

Rye bread, sour cream and chives – my first ever plate in a professional kitchen.

Preparing the Amuse Bouche

Delicate work for a nervous chef. Preparing the amuse bouche. (left to right) Cumin pastry with cream cheese angelica. Dried cod with mustard and chervil flowers. Scallop with dill mayonnaise.

Steadily the tables started to fill up and the pace quickened rapidly. Dill has an open kitchen and diners can keep a watchful eye on your every step. “Lexi, always keep good posture and cook with energy and grace.” Certainly an aspect I never considered when cooking at home (unless I’m trying to impress a woman of course.)

Snacks complete it was time to take down the station and move on to the main substance of the menu. Plating up the first course of rutabaga, cheese foam, sweet and dour dill sauce and crispy millet I was still struggling to fathom how such responsibility had been given someone with no kitchen experience beyond two days training. I had to pinch myself…yes, it was really happening.

Rutabaga and Dill

First course ready to go…

Raw and smoked arctic charr with sour milk and cucumber. Gunnar smokes the charr with sheep manure and proudly announces "eat shit!"

Raw and smoked arctic char with sour milk and cucumber. Gunnar smokes the char with sheep manure and proudly announces “eat shit!”

Course 3 - plating up Cauliflower, burned butter, Rhye bread and boiled egg.

Course 3 – plating up cauliflower, burned butter, rye bread and boiled egg.

The next few hours flew by in a daze of colour and heat. I became so engrossed in the orders I sometimes lost all sense of my surroundings. “Lexi, when I say something you respond yes. If we were in France you’d have to answer oui chef…because the French will be French.” Chef Arnar jokingly made sure I maintained good communication in the midst of chaos.

Course 5 – Pork belly in whey glaze with herbs, apple, pickled angelica root and celeriac chips.

Before I knew it the first 5 courses were complete and only the puddings remained. Relieved to get away from the hot stove it was time for some fun with the liquid nitrogen.

Skyr, rhubarb and sorrel. With a bit of nitrogen flare.

Skyr, rhubarb and sorrel. With a bit of nitrogen flare.

At the end of a gruelling 14 hour shift I sat down for an ice-cold beer with Gunnar, Arnar and head waiter Tumi. As I gazed at the early morning light on the longest day of the year, I struggled to take in what an incredible experience this had been. It really was a Midsummer night’s dream.

A Midsummer's Night Dream! Cooking in Dill restaurant.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream = Cooking in Dill restaurant.

The dream continues. Next stop: New York City…

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