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I was invited to be a judge at the International Culinary School’s Tapas Competition in Valladolid, Spain last month. I didn’t think it could get much better than sampling tapas from 13 nations around the world in the heart of the Castile and Léon region of the country. But it did. After our first day of judging, our crew of chefs and other assorted culinary-obsessed people piled into a bus and set out in the frigid night for dinner in the most unexpected place.
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After a long, bumpy drive over unlit roads through countryside that included a castle backlit by moonlight, we stopped in what felt like the middle of nowhere and were told that we were there. “Where?” I thought as I looked around in the inky night, trying to decipher recognizable objects in the shifting shadows. The wind swirled around our tightly huddled group of about 20 mystified people who were wondering, as I was, what was in store for us. And then the creak of a door opening sliced through our trepidation, and a shaft of bright light beckoned us inside.
We descended down a long staircase buffeted by thick, whitewashed limestone walls. With each step, a spicy aroma and the sizzling only fat frying on hot metal can make grew more intense. At the base of the stairs we discovered our host, Paco, grinning at us through his silver beard as he tended to the pork and rice dish he was cooking for the evening’s feast.
Food and history on the menu at Spanish cave dinner
While Paco busied himself with dinner, Angel Moreton, one of the directors of the culinary school hosting the competition, gave us a tour of the 17th-century cave. Furniture just right for lounging, wool blankets, colorful paintings and warm terra cotta tiles created an inviting atmosphere belying one of the cave’s past roles as a wartime shelter. At times throughout the centuries, the cave has also been used for storage; at other times it was abandoned altogether. When it served as an actual wine cellar, its thick, porous walls provided a welcome respite of coolness during sweltering Spanish summers and an oasis of warmth in unforgiving winters.
Miraculously hungry even after indulging in so many tapas earlier in the day, we found our way to two long tables awaiting the traditional Castilian meal to come. Paco reserved a few minutes between tending to the many dishes he had grilling, sautéeing and roasting in his multi-room kitchen to demonstrate what I soon discovered was the rather challenging technique of drinking wine from a perón. I learned that a perón is a vessel suited for not only distilling wine but also drenching an inevitably white shirt in it. I realized that it’s also ideal for eliciting laughter from all those ill-fated attempts to actually land the thin stream of wine into a mouth gaping like a goldfish tossed out of its bowl.
After everyone brave enough to attempt drinking from the perón had their shot, dinner was served. My favorite course emerged between the salad and rice dishes in the form of a blood sausage called morcilla, a mixture of onions, rice and spices thickened with blood before being stuffed into casings. Its rich, heady flavor was the perfect counterpoint to the levity that ensued once Paco began a sing-along, complete with song books, of traditional Spanish love songs surreally peppered between classics like “Hey Jude” and “Twist and Shout.”
A glorious way to expel evil spirits
Paco concluded the evening with a ritual designed to expel evil spirits that involved a bottle of moonshine poured into a terra cotta bowl before being set alight in a blackened room. Sugar was slowly added to caramelize the alcohol, which Paco lifted with a ladle in a dramatic blue, flaming ribbon before pouring it back in the bowl. As the flame intensified, Angel read a spell to cast away the spirits; once the fire had subsided, a glass of the mystical brew was poured for each of us.
Warm from both the moonshine and Paco’s hospitality, I ascended the stairs renewed. I wasn’t sure whether Paco’s elixir had managed to expel any evil spirits that night, but I was certain it had expelled any doubt I had that descending two stories into a cave in the middle of a cold Spanish night was a good decision.
Top photo: Morcilla, or Spanish blood sausage, served during the dinner. Credit: Jody Eddy
An hour west of the thriving culinary mecca of Copenhagen is an 800-year-old castle clinging to the shore of the frigid North Sea. Unlike so many of the country’s castles that have been transformed into museum pieces, the fortified white walls of Dragsholm Slot envelope a thriving industry that includes a hotel and two restaurants.
One restaurant is a casual bistro called The Eatery that serves traditional Danish fare, the other is a fine dining establishment overlooking acres of land from which nearly all of the tasting menu’s ingredients are sourced. It’s an idyllic place for chef Claus Henriksen, 31 and the former sous chef of Noma. There he oversees both restaurants and the castle’s robust catering and events division.
Henriksen eschews meat-heavy dishes in order to showcase the intensely flavored vegetables he harvests from his garden each day: Grilled asparagus and garden sorrel with crispy rye bread croutons and garden herbs; glazed lamb brains and new potatoes with onions, pickled tapioca and lovage; and thyme and mint granita with fresh goat cheese meringue strike a perfect balance between protein and produce.
The extraordinary surroundings of electric green hills spilling into rich fields, ancient orchards and hedgerows populated with beehives sustain his frenetic seven-day work week and remind him to slow down and absorb the sublime energy reverberating around him. In this interview with Henriksen, we discover why visitors to Copenhagen who invest the time to journey to Dragsholm are justly rewarded by an experience that not only stimulates their palettes, but ignites their spirits.
What do you like most about working at Dragsholm Slot?
It’s the quietness. If you have free time here you can walk outside and enjoy everything that’s around you. The only thing you can do in the middle of a city is step out your door and drink. If you need ten carrots here, you can go and get ten carrots instead of calling a producer and telling them you need ten carrots.
Where do you think this New Nordic obsession came from?
Until around twelve years ago the only thing Danish chefs desired was to purchase everything from France. It’s the way the chef was brought up. We didn’t understand the meaning and significance of our own surroundings. And then we started to look more internally. When you’re growing, there comes a point when you want to do something different than what you’re parents are doing. That’s what happened to Danish chefs. We wanted to rebel against the status-quo and use Danish products instead of imports. A lot of our chefs went out in the 90s and the beginning of the 2000’s to work abroad. They started to see that in other areas of the world, chefs only used local products and we started to think that we could do the same thing. [Chefs cooking] New Nordic cuisine focus on the ingredients and listen to the environment in order to truly understand it. These principles can be applied anywhere in the world.
I asked a chef many years ago why we were using asparagus and cherries all year long. He said, “I don’t care. It’s in season somewhere in the world.” Twenty years ago that was the philosophy. I think this is what inspired Danish chefs to cook differently. The way we cook now in Scandinavia is fresher and more thoughtful. Twenty years ago everything revolved around a prime piece of meat such as tenderloin, and supporting it were truffles, foie gras, lobster, langoustines. Now we are more focused on flavors. If you spend more time coaxing out the flavor of something simple, you will be rewarded. It’s more challenging to do this, but it’s more fulfilling too.
Is it an exciting time to be a chef in Denmark at the moment?
If you don’t look at it as an exciting time, you might as well quit. You have to appreciate the challenges and the virtues in every season and find virtue in your work each and every day. If your interest wanes, stop and reassess. If you’re happy, then your guest will be happy, because your happiness comes through in your cuisine.
What are the fundamental principles that guide you when cooking?
For me the most important thing is to have a contented guest who understands what I’m doing. If my cuisine sometimes get a little too crazy, I will dial-it back and begin all over again. You have to be willing to do this. I think that one problem in kitchens all over the world is that people are afraid to start over.
The cooking here is very personal. It’s about integrity. It’s about using, producing, showing the produce in its best light ,and then you can always add something for a final flourish. I want it to be balanced. Sometimes people say it’s a little too powerful and that’s true, because it’s filled with flavor. This doesn’t mean that we’re adding a lot of elements, it tastes so intense because the natural flavors are so fresh. We are showing here the best of what the farmers and fishermen are doing. You can do fancy things but if you don’t have the best ingredients, it won’t work. And vice versa. There has to be a balance and this balance must include the best of everything.
Top photo: Claus Henriksen of Dragsholm Slot. Credit: Sandeep Patwal
Slide show credit: Sandeep Patwal
An extraordinary transformation takes place three nights a week in the back of the Kinfolk Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when chefs Fredrik Berselius and Richard Kuo turn the amber-hued space into Frej or a few fleeting magical hours. By all accounts, their pop-up restaurant is a resounding success, generating packed tables and impressive accolades. A recent glowing review in the New York Times praised the chefs’ tasting menu, saying it rivals any of the city’s more celebrated restaurants for a rock bottom price of $45. Their contemporary Nordic-inspired menu changes depending upon the seasons and has included such dishes as mutton heart with beets and smoked cheese; beef cooked in hay with rutabaga and apple cider; and smoked brook trout and egg yolk with chickweed and rye bread. Berselius, 33, sat down with me to discuss why he and Kuo, 31, who met at Drew Nieporent’s award-winning restaurant Corton in Tribeca, decided to cut out the middleman investors and building owners — to focus on bonding with guests and eliminate the boring bits.
What motivated you to open a untraditional restaurant like Frej?
We planned to open a “regular restaurant” where we would push the concept [of a non-traditional fine dining restaurant] and make a space that was interesting and very kitchen driven, yet affordable enough to introduce a younger crowd to this kind of dining. When our investor pulled out of the project, everything we had planned collapsed and we didn’t know what to do. Our options were to either take another year or two to try to find a new investor, or go back and work for someone else. Neither option appealed to us.
We decided to try to find a space to co-exist with. Normally when a place needs a chef they have their own idea of what food to serve. But we came to [Kinfolk Gallery] with our own concept and name already formulated. We work in a space owned by someone else, but at the end of the day we are a separate entity, completely in charge of what we do.
What do you hope the dining experience will be like for Frej’s guests?
We want it to be a fun and relaxed experience. The kitchen helps serve food and the servers help wash dishes. Everybody is trained to do everything. If a guest is interested in what they’re eating, they can ask the chef directly about it. If we want to ask the guest something we can do that, too. We cut out the middlemen. And because we only have 25 or so guests each night, each one of them is very important to us. They are here for a few hours, so if we can’t bond with them, the meal will be extremely long and boring. We want to provide a welcoming space; intimate yet warm and fun, where the connection to the kitchen is emphasized without needing to have an open kitchen.
Would you consider Frej a fine dining restaurant?
There are similarities with fine dining in the sense that we serve a tasting menu and we work long hours, but we really want to strip away the dry, stiff, boring bits. We want to be open and accommodating to our guests and not pretend like we are doing them a favor. We still polish our silverware and glassware but that’s pretty much it.
We had a plan and it was important that we could have our creative freedom and cook the way we cook. We wanted to build a kitchen larger than the dining room and serve things we think not only diners but other cooks and people in the industry might enjoy eating. It’s important to find an investor who is the right match. We have not found that person yet.
How do you conceptualize a dish?
A dish can grow from an idea based on a childhood memory or a certain feeling, but can also be inspired by a place, like the smell of nature or a barn or a road trip. Sometimes a dish is based on the ingredient you have to work with. For example, if you buy a whole animal you have to figure out what to do with all the different parts. There are so many factors involved in any given dish or menu and things are always changing. At the beginning of each season you have a fair idea of what you have to work with and the planning starts there. Until spring you basically have over-wintering root vegetables and in springtime, more greens and shoots and flowers, and then more fruits and vegetables in the summer.
What do you find most gratifying about your work?
It’s amazing to learn something new about food every day. I grew up [in Sweden] with a lot of home cooking and walking around in the woods picking mushrooms and berries. But in spite of this early appreciation for food, my respect for it grows on a daily basis. I think it’s important to cook and eat with all your senses, but also to have knowledge of what you eat and where the food comes from. Food and restaurants will keep moving forward; hopefully from the underground up.
Photo: Frej chefs Fredrik Berselius and Richard Kuo. Credit: Caroline Lefevre
Chef Pierre Thiam spent his childhood in the cosmopolitan city of Dakar, Senegal — rich in a culinary heritage inspired by Senegalese, Moroccan, Vietnamese and French traditions — and the rural countryside, where he learned the rustic cooking practices of his homeland from the cooks most revered in his nation, its women.
He carried his passion for food with him to New York City in 1987 where he worked in some of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants before opening up his own restaurants specializing in African cuisine, Yolele and Le Grand Dakar. His book “Yolele! Recipes From the Heart of Senegal” explores his story. Today he runs his own catering company, serves as a personal chef and is about to launch an organization with a mission to bring American chefs to Africa to train aspiring cooks.
In the following interview, Pierre shares what makes his nation’s culinary heritage unique and explains the meaning of taranga.
Why did you decide to become a chef?
I arrived in New York coming from Senegal as a student on my way to Ohio to attend university. When I arrived, all of my money was stolen and I was in desperate times. I didn’t even have enough to get myself to Ohio. A friend found me a job as a dishwasher in the kitchen he was working in, and I planned to just earn enough to get myself to Ohio. But when I walked into that kitchen, I couldn’t believe it. I used to pore over my mother’s cookbooks when I was a boy. “Larousse Gastronomique” was my favorite, and when I walked into the kitchen, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought all of those things they talked about in the cookbook did not exist, but there they were, right in front of me. I stopped thinking about going to Ohio right then and there.
Tell me more about Senegal’s rich culinary heritage.
It’s the most western point of Africa, which means that all of the boats that arrive in Africa would naturally enter in Senegal. The colonizers, explorers, all these different cultures arrived in Senegal for hundreds of years and, of course, people travel with their food and they therefore brought that food culture to Senegal. We had the French Colonial influence in the past, they’ve been in Senegal for 500-plus years, and had a major impact on the cuisine. We have the Portuguese in the south. We also have a large Vietnamese community who shared their traditions with the Senegalese people. All this makes it a very interesting food culture, especially when combined with our native ingredients and the seafood available to us.
The Senegalese traditionally eat seated on the floor from a communal bowl. What is the bowl’s significance?
In Senegal, it’s not unusual to be invited to a stranger’s house for a meal. When the mother cooks, she always keeps in mind the unexpected guest that might arrive at the table. There’s a belief that eating around the bowl means there’s always enough food for everyone rather than eating on individual plates. Eating from the bowl teaches children values. One of them is that once you have food in your mouth you have to wait for the next portion until everyone else is ready before putting your hand back in the bowl. This teaches you to be patient.
When you reach into the bowl with your hand, you have to eat from the section right in front of you. You cannot reach over to the other side. You can’t eat from the middle of the bowl. That’s where all the meat and vegetables are kept. That section is for the mother. As you eat, she regularly distributes what’s at the center of the bowl to everyone eating from it, so that each person receives an equal portion. Therefore, sharing is another value learned from the bowl.
The relationship between the Muslim and Christian people of Senegal has a reputation for being more peaceful than in any other parts of the world. Why do you believe this is so?
It’s a tradition in Senegal during the Muslim holidays to bring food to the Christian families in your neighborhood. And the Christians do the same during their holidays. This exchange is very much a part of who the Senegalese are. It’s a very tolerant and open country, and I believe this sharing of culinary traditions is a big part of the reason why.
What is taranga?
We have beautiful beaches in Senegal, we have amazing food, but it’s the people that make Senegal so special. Taranga means hospitality. It’s probably the most important symbol in Senegal. Embracing taranga for the Senegalese equates to your success in life. You are taught early on to be hospitable, to be generous, to be sharing, to be grateful, to embrace others. This equates to the cooking. I would tell people to come to Senegal not for the sights, but for taranga.
Peanut and Vegetable Stew (Vegetable Mafe)
- Heat the oil in a large pot. Add half the onions and half the garlic and sauté until the onions are translucent.
- Dilute the tomato paste in ¼ cup of the vegetable stock and add it to the saucepan. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon until it thickens, about 5 to 10 minutes.
- Add remaining stock and bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer. Add the carrots, tubers and bay leaf, and cook until the carrots and tubers are tender, about 15 minutes. Add the Brussels sprouts in the last 10 minutes of the cooking process.
- Remove 1 cup of the broth and combine with the peanut butter in a bowl. Whisk until incorporated. Add to the pot along with the habañero pepper and remaining onions and garlic. Return to a boil then reduce heat to a rolling simmer until the broth has thickened to desired consistency.
- Add the okra and cook for 10 more minutes.
- Season with salt and pepper. Serve with rice or the starchy Western African paste fufu.
Zester Daily contributor Jody Eddy is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan and former executive editor of Art Culinaire magazine. She cooked at restaurants in America and Europe including Jean Georges, Tabla and The Fat Duck in Bray, England. Her book, “Restaurant Staff Meals: The Food That Fuels the World’s Best Kitchens” will be released this fall and she is writing a cookbook with the Icelandic chef Gunnar Karl Gislason, one of Iceland’s most celebrated practitioners of New Nordic Cuisine.
Photo: Chef Pierre Thiam. Credit: Jody Eddy