Articles in Chefs
Of the American cities traditionally associated with cake — New Orleans with its King Cake, St. Louis with its gooey butter cake, Boston with its misnamed cream pie — Denver has never rated particular mention. But when that changes — and it will — it will be thanks to native daughter Heather Alcott and her extraordinary efforts to bring Baumkuchen to the U.S.
Though Baumkuchen has ancient roots and a long history in Europe, the concentrically layered cake has become a phenomenon in Japan in recent years. That’s where Alcott discovered it a few years ago, on a visit while living in Singapore, and immediately “fell in love,” she recalled.
Bringing Baumkuchen to U.S. proves to be no easy task
“It’s cooked on a rotisserie, so it isn’t fried, yet it has this doughnut-type texture. … I went back to the hotel and started doing some research that evening,” she said. Upon learning “everyone has had a hand in this cake — the Romans, the Germans, the Romanians — I thought, ‘This is something pretty special.’ And I knew I wanted to be the first person in the country” to offer the commercial Japanese version.
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She became just that in February 2013, when she opened Glaze: The Baum Cake Shoppe — the name by which the online-retail business is still known, though the brick-and-mortar eatery is now a sushi-and-dessert lounge called Glaze by Sasa, in partnership with local Japanese eatery Sushi Sasa. Centered around the Red Dragon, her nickname for the 2,200-pound, custom-built oven outfitted with six spits, Alcott’s success has captured the attention of national media, including NPR. But the sheer lengths she went to to realize her dream make for a story in themselves.
Consider that the seemingly straightforward first step, signing a contract with the oven manufacturer, took more than two years. Even learning the name of the family-run company took some legwork, Alcott said. To this day she prefers to maintain its anonymity, and her first overture, by email in English, resulted in a flat refusal.
“I got a one-line response that said, ‘Thank you for your interest, but not right now. We’ve got a lot of growth already, and we’re just not ready for the USA.’ ” So she hired a translator and tried again, this time in Japanese. Clearly, her gesture was appreciated, as the team continued to respond, but there were “a good eight months of going back and forth” before a meeting was agreed to, and a year after the initial contact before it finally occurred.
“I took my husband with me to Japan,” Alcott explained, “because he has business experience there; he knows their style. First you go out for drinks and see if you even like each other. They hired a translator, and we could tell there was something there, so — many sakes later — we arranged for me to show them my business plan the next day.”
The result? “They ended up rejecting me. They didn’t understand Denver at all.” But they asked her to come back in a couple of months; by that point, they’d done some research on the market. “This time, they said, ‘Why not New York or San Francisco or Seattle?’ I said, ‘You have to trust me with this.’ They could see it in my face; I loved this product. But Denver is my home; I had to make it work here.”
Still, another no. Alcott admits that if she’d been living in the States, she’d have given up at this point. But because she was “on their back doorstep in Singapore,” she pushed onward — and finally, the company president agreed to build the oven.
“I’ve since been told that the Japanese reject you three times before they accept you,” she said, laughing.
Getting the Baumkuchenmeister seal of approval
The second step was for Alcott and her pastry chef to go through the certification process, training with the manufacturer’s Baumkuchenmeister and not only learning the recipes but adapting them for use in a high-altitude American kitchen. That meant more international flights, more translators and months of ingredient adjustments as Alcott began her search for the perfect organic cultured butter, matcha (green-tea powder) and so on.
“They flew over here to test and weigh my eggs! They had to be fresh and just the right size — not too large, not too small. I had to fly over my almond flour, cake flour, sugars. It probably looked like we were shipping cocaine,” Alcott joked.
But every little detail made a difference: “If the batter’s too runny or too thick, it won’t stay on the spit.” In the midst of all this, she received a call from the president: “They said, ‘The oven just isn’t perfect enough. We have to take it all apart and start over.’ ”
Eventually, of course, that darned oven did arrive in Denver. “I actually hugged it before it got on the boat from Japan,” Alcott said. Once it was installed behind glass in her Congress Park space, “the president, his top engineer and his top chef all flew out to turn it on for the first time,” per a contractual agreement. “We all cheered.”
It’s hard to believe that the drop-dead gorgeous, luscious-but-refined Baumkuchen cakes Glaze now turns out are infused with such blood, sweat and tears. Each takes 24 hours to make; the pastry chefs shoot for 21 layers, but the final tally can depend on everything from the base flavor (“the chocolate is so fluffy, it sometimes has to be pulled earlier”) to local weather conditions.
They also experiment with new flavors, such as orange and pumpkin. Surprisingly, “the Japanese are so supportive; they love the innovation,” Alcott said. “We have become the test kitchen for Baumkuchen in this country.”
While we Denverites are lucky to have them, you can purchase Glaze’s products too. But don’t hold your breath for a brick-and-mortar outpost anytime soon. As Alcott put it, “I take this opportunity I’ve been given day by day.”
Main photo: Baumkuchen is cooked on a rotisserie. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography
What can a home cook take away from the Modernist Cuisine’s food movement? Personally speaking, I have not bought a Pacojet or a whipping siphon, though I know one or two home cooks who have done so. I did find a kit online that included lecithin powder (for foams), agar agar (a forerunner of gelatin made from seaweed), calcium lactate and sodium alginate (for balloons). One hilarious afternoon was spent concocting Balsamic Pearls and Mojito Balloons, but that was as far as it went.
A two-part series
It has inspired in me a new Modernist “Ten Commandments,” motivated by the version that journalists Henri Gault and Christian Millau laid out more than 40 years ago on the fundamentals of nouvelle cuisine. My first five Modernist commandments appeared in Part 1 of this series. These are the final five:
Rule VI: Explore fantasy. Symbolism is a recurrent theme in Modernist Cuisine. Modernist chefs love to turn the world upside down and you never know what you may find. Ferran Adrià’s giant white globe, when cracked, shatters like an edible eggshell, but what looks like white chocolate proves to taste of gorgonzola cheese. At Alinea restaurant in Chicago, ayu tuna is perched on a giant, dense black morel mushroom, the ocean and the earth. Amid the drama and intrigue of Modernist dishes, appearance is often left to speak for itself. You can take or leave Adrià’s desiccated Braque-like skeleton of a real fish on your plate; it has no garnish at all. (“Ugh,” a friend said.)
Rule VII: Be inventive. Modernist Cuisine is certainly amusing. Who could not smile at Alinea’s bottomless “plate” supporting a liquid truffle ravioli, a single, earthy bite that explodes in the mouth. Often in Modernist Cuisine, things are not what they seem — at the U.K. restaurant The Fat Duck, a trio of tiny retro lollipops proves to be an apple sorbet with walnut and celery; a chilled mousse of foie gras; and oddest of all, a striped ice cream of avocado and salmon flavored with horseradish. Modernist cooking implies a sense of adventure. I cannot honestly say that I enjoyed Red Cabbage Gazpacho with a Grain Mustard Ice Cream at The Fat Duck, but it sure made me pay attention.
Rule VIII: Play with temperature. Only in the last 100 years have chefs been able to play with hot and cold when cooking and serving food. Today’s precise temperatures and timings have opened a whole new world. Professional kitchens have become laboratories demanding a new approach to cooking. This leads to playful presentations such as Adrià’s white chocolate soufflé that evaporates into thin air within five minutes, or the Roca brothers’ anchovy stuffed olives dipped in caramel.
Rule IX: Avoid static presentation. For Modernist chefs, presentation can be a challenge. The landscaped plates of nouvelle cuisine, and the towers on the plate that came later, are gone. Today’s eyes are sated with the movement and color we see on all sides at all times. In the dining room, the solution seems to be a return to nature with wood, slate, green leaves, trees, rocks and pebbles; glass is a strong component that extends to the table itself and the general surroundings. Many chefs opt for simplicity, with small plain white plates (often in curious shapes) geared to tiny portions that speak for themselves. At Spain’s elBulli (sadly now closed), even the flatware was miniature.
Rule X: Keep the diner busy. Finally, expect to participate in a Modernist meal. You will be asked to stir, crush and crack the food in front of you, and often to eat it with your fingers. You may be blindfolded, or asked to lick the anonymous purées in an array of tiny spoons. At Alinea a balloon floated to my table and it was an effort of will to pop and devour the sphere of apple taffy tied with a fruit leather string, as instructed. I’ve always been an inflator, not a popper of balloons.
Reflections on the Modernists
The Modernist Cuisine’s practitioners are an odd lot. Most stay behind the scenes, sometimes greeting at the door, more often leaving a more personal relationship to be established by the server.
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In Europe, service tends to be discreet, so on a recent visit to Alinea I was touched that chef Grant Achatz himself created a chocolate pie with a sweet pastry crust on our tabletop. This gave us a chance to talk, a pleasure he repeated for every table, not just for special guests.
Just three days after my visit to Alinea, I heard the grand master of them all, Adrià, speaking in Chicago. He is credited with originating the whole Modernist movement and has trained many of the younger exponents. Adrià is a communicator, a ball of fire on the podium and in the kitchen, and he is the inspiration behind an online culinary encyclopedia to be called the “Gastropedia.”
What is there to be taken from all of this? Just as nouvelle cuisine is now long forgotten, it may turn out that the abstract, technically tricky concepts of Modernist chefs never have wide application. But right now, their vision and enthusiasm is trickling down to the tables of every hot spot in Hollywood. Their small plates and global ingredients are already creating a new world of cooking and eating. We are more adventurous and more curious. We are better informed about food. Cooking is becoming more a part of our lives, and a mom or pop actually cooking in the kitchen is coming closer to reality. Or so I would like to think.
Main photo: Lollies from The Fat Duck restaurant. Credit: La Varenne archive
It was almost 40 years ago in Paris that I opened La Varenne Cooking School, and the nouvelle cuisine movement was sweeping France. Today we’re in the midst of similar radical change, and novelties are exploding, literally, on our plates in the movement called Modernist Cuisine. To be asked to taste pop rocks in the palm of your hand that turn out to be Parmesan cheese is really very odd — and provocative. So is a pocket watch, marked with the hours, that is designed to dissolve in a bowl of hot consommé.
A two-part series
A dozen top chefs around the world — José Andrés and Grant Achatz in the U.S., Heston Blumenthal in England, the Roca brothers and Ferran Adrià, the father of them all, in Spain, together with a handful of others — share the same culinary principles, and often the same ideals. The original fundamentals of nouvelle cuisine were laid out by two journalists, Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who named them the “Ten Commandments.” It inspired me to consider the Ten Commandments of Modernist Cuisine. Here, in Part 1, are the first five, and in Part 2, we’ll look at the final five.
Rule I: Appeal to all the senses. You can count on a Modernist chef to tickle every sense. Tastes roam freely among such favorite ingredients as sea urchin, anchovy, olive, wild game, liver, blood, lemon and honey. At the table, we’re kept busy, mixing and matching mysterious seasonings, dried powders, foams, marinades and dips. Our Modernist noses tingle as casserole lids and glass bells release the pungency of fresh truffle or the lemon vapor from a single whole scallop in its shell. We listen too to the crack of a breaking crust, or the snap of shattering ice. At Achatz’s Alinea restaurant in Chicago my ears perk up at the trickle of water beneath the mini-iceberg sheltering foamed-topped Kumamoto oysters. The same multi-sensory appeal is true of our favorite traditional foods. Modernist cooks are simply exploring more ways of doing it.
Rule II: Explore the global cooking landscape. Modernist chefs are global players; they seek ingredients, staff and, most important, inspiration from all over the world. Often they themselves have trained away from home, gathering knowledge of new techniques and multinational styles of cooking. Top kitchens welcome bright young people who are willing to learn new ideas and work hard, and many have waiting lists of applicants.
Leading chefs have always enjoyed passing on their knowledge to the next generation, but today it is different. The students come from all over the world, they are younger and half a dozen languages may be used in the kitchen. This means that culinary knowledge — techniques, ingredients, cultural backgrounds — is now flying around the globe. At the very top restaurants, the diners too come from a multitude of countries, lining up for a year or more for a table.
Rule III: Create another world. All four of the Modernist restaurants I’ve visited pulled me into their own world before I’d even stepped inside the door. In a couple of cases it amounted to a long, featureless entrance corridor cutting off the outside from the splendors to come. Britain’s The Fat Duck lives in its own environment, surrounded by cottages in an archetypal English village. The now-closed elBulli in Spain involved a minor pilgrimage up and over a deserted hillside (except for the sheep) to arrive at an unobtrusive seaside villa on the Mediterranean.
Rule IV: Escape into a new landscape. The Modernist menu is formless with little sense of beginning or end and you will have no written list as guide. In a while, after say eight courses of what may become 15 or even 30, the meal becomes a timeless fugue, an ebb and flow of blending and contrasting dishes. In principle, fish comes first and sweets last, but this pattern is interrupted all the time. Japanese kaiseki banquets follow a similar theme. Indeed there are many parallels with the Japanese and Modernist tradition, particularly with the unobtrusive decor, designed to focus on the food itself.
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Rule V: Take advantage of technology. New techniques are so much a part of the Modernist movement that it is often referred to as scientific cooking — or even less accurately, molecular gastronomy. Both terms are nonsense, Blumenthal and I are in agreement here. “Science is not the point,” he declares. “Today’s cooking has not come from nowhere. Everything has roots including science in the kitchen. For instance, there was a Futurist Cuisine movement in Italy led by Filippo Marinetti in the 1930s and today’s Modernist Cuisine has clear links with that.”
In contrast, Blumenthal is completely at home with the term “Modernist Cuisine.” The successful chefs of today are far more than scientists. They may use modern techniques such as slow cooking in a vacuum pack, controlled dehydration, or the low temperatures created by liquid nitrogen, but they display the same originality as Futurists and other innovative cooks of the past.
Main photo: A beautiful rose is shaped with a knife from a single apple at elBulli. Credit: La Varenne archive
The revolution in food we’ve been witnessing for decades — the chefs, the farm-to-table movement, the pop-ups, the food trucks and all that — has spurred eateries galore featuring good food. Often awesome food.
Usually it’s urban food. A friend who just returned from Brooklyn told of how wherever she looked there was exceptionally good food to buy and eat, and how much of it she sampled.
My own recent experience in Portland, Ore., was similar. It was impossible to walk down a street without being tempted by good things to eat that were beautifully prepared and presented. My friend and I ate food when we weren’t even hungry simply because it was so enticing.
A tiny shop across from Ace Hotel on Stark Street had but a few small tables, excellent brewed loose tea and a very small number of perfect pastries — from homey oatmeal-date bars to an exquisite Paris-Brest. Who could resist? We couldn’t and we didn’t, even though we had just had a very satisfying lunch at Clyde Common.
In the very short time we spent in this city, we ate much, drank much and spent much to support Portland’s edible economy. And it was all worth it.
Good food making its way out of the big cities
But what I really value about the sea change in cooking is not so much the excess of goodness on a city street, as gratifying as that might be, but what you might find in a small town, away from an urban center.
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Take McMinnville, Ore., an hour away from Portland and a place that qualifies as a small town. On this trip, it was the Red Fox Bakery that seduced us. I’d been there before and especially enjoyed the sandwiches. They don’t read as if they’re going to be exceptional — it’s the usual sandwich fare presented on the bakery’s sliced bread. But the bread is so good and so fresh you can’t believe how delicious what seems to be an ordinary-sounding sandwich can be.
Not only are the sandwiches tasty, but they are substantial without being heavy, and it feels like a meal. Real food. Nourishing. The macaroon that comes with each sandwich is a generous nod to dessert, although you might be tempted by a fruit pastry as well. I always am.
Because it was chilly and wet when we arrived in McMinnville, we first paused at the Red Fox just for a look, but the look turned out to be for a cup of hot soup to warm us, a thick slice of that good, fresh bread and then a rhubarb galette.
The next day was Mother’s Day, and although they said they’d open at 8, so many people came by to pick up pastries for their wives or mothers that they were serving by 7. That day our breakfast was a galette as well, this time filled with the blackest of blackberries. And a cup of Illy coffee.
Red Fox cares about its wheat more than forming the perfect croissant. The pastries may look a little funky, but they’re good to eat. Not only do the bakers bake with the best local wheat they can get, they sell it at the counter in flour sacks printed with flowers, the same sacks of wheat we had encountered at the farmers market in Portland. Red Fox is a farm-to-table establishment and not that unusual except for being in McMinnville rather than Portland. As it says on its website, “We’re an artisan, small-batch bakery that specializes in unique flavors, wholesome and all-natural ingredients, and that strives to support locally grown produce and agricultural goods.” And so they bake with this local wheat. It’s not necessarily old-variety wheat, but it’s good wheat. And they use the good local fruits that grow so well there.
The building that houses the bakery is the kind you can find only in small towns and big cities that haven’t yet “arrived” on a food scene — a barn-like space that hasn’t been touched by a designer of any stripe. There’s the big stack oven, the sacks of wheat on the counter, the racks of bread behind, a menu board, a few tables and stacks of cups for the Illy coffee brew.
The tables are mismatched, which hardly matters, but my favorite touch is the bumper sticker slapped on the door that reads “Grateful for gluten,” a courageous statement in a day when so many are, or claim to be, gluten intolerant. Again in the owners’ own words, “… We believe the healthiest sweets and baked goods aren’t necessarily low-fat or gluten-free. … Cost and profit isn’t the bottom line. Seeing a person’s eyes light up as they bite into one of our cupcakes is.”
I like that sentiment. Both of them. It sounds big city, but it’s actually small town.
Another good little find in McMinnville is Thistle, a restaurant with a window facing a side street that recalls the mood of Kinfolk magazine — a small wooden work table, some old equipment, the stove in the background, the promise of something “artisanal.” The small bar (“… an ode to the pre-Prohibition era, a time when the cocktail was king …” its website says) and few tables provide space for some very good wines and farm-to-fork food that rivals any Portland restaurant. No doubt other treasures like these are around, but for a short visit — less than 24 hours — these were good to find and ones to return to.
I love that good food is not just stuck in urban areas but is showing up in smaller places more and more. This is hardly the only example of that, but being such a recent experience, it reminds me how good it is to be able to eat well in small towns too. And shouldn’t this be the ultimate result of all those kids going to culinary schools?
Now, if we could just find this food in our schools, I might be tempted to think that all is well, or at least getting there.
Main photo: A Grateful for Gluten sign hangs in a window at Red Fox Bakery in McMinnville, Ore. Credit: Deborah Madison
Chef’s Table: As the Latin-American food movement continues to gather pace, and cities such as Lima, Peru, and Sao Paolo, Brazil, are joining the world’s hottest foodie destinations, it’s time to ask what contributions Latin America is making to modern cuisine.
“I would say unique ingredients and flavors,” says Emilio Macías, one of Peru’s rising stars. “Many young chefs from South America have traveled and worked in kitchens the world over learning about techniques and modern trends, and now they’re back cooking in their native countries. We’re cooking to raise awareness about the value of our native products and setting up direct links with their producers.”
The first in an occasional series about the food and ideas of today's most influential chefs.
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Macías was born in Mexico but trained in Japan and Europe (including at Mugaritz and Santi Santamaria in Spain). He was drawn back to Latin America by the successes of the Peruvian leaders of the movement, Gastòn Acurio and Virgilio Martínez Véliz — both ranked in the top 20 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Macías opened his own restaurant before taking a leading position in 2012 at Acurio’s award-winning Lima restaurant, Astrid & Gastòn, in the gastronomic and development kitchens. He recently flew to Faenza, in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, to cook two meals at Postrivoro.
“Postrivoro is not a pop-up restaurant but a nonprofit association that creates occasional ‘itineraries for gastro-pilgrims’ by inviting talented young international chefs to cook for just 20 paying guests seated at a communal table,” says Enrico Vignoli, its co-founder, who works in Modena with 3-star Michelin chef Massimo Bottura. “The chefs are usually employed in the kitchens of trend-setting restaurants or are in the process of starting their own. We want to tell stories through food and share gastronomic experiences.” For each of Postrivoro’s six events per year, the chef is paired with a sommelier or drinks specialist and an artist to decorate the space.
Macías’ dinner and lunch were held in the crumbling medieval cloister of Faenza’s Chiesa della Commenda. Each course was matched with a drink created by bartender Oscar Quagliarini, who is famous for his imaginative cocktails. The Goth-styled “mixologist” seems more like an alchemist than a barman. He spices his drinks with exotic but home-made ingredients such as yellow sandalwood syrup, or seaweed, eucalyptus and ylang ylang tinctures. The décor was by Fototeca Manfrediana, a cooperative of young photographers shooting on film.
An inspiring lunch with Emilio Macías begins
Macías brought many of his principal ingredients and seasonings from Peru in his luggage. He complemented them with seasonal foods from Emilia-Romagna. Sunday’s inspiring lunch began with three irregular crispbreads arranged like natural elements on a plate of branches and leaves. Each was topped with the chef’s interpretation of a Latin American speciality, from a fiery mole con pollo (Mexican chicken with a sauce of 100 ingredients, including chocolate), to verdolagas y tuetano (purslane and bone marrow with Mexican salsa verde), to shredded cuy pibil (slow-roasted Peruvian guinea pig) accented with pink pickled onions. Cuy is popular in Peru for its tender, nutritious meat. “I wanted to bring one very special ingredient from Peru, as well as a little transgression,” says Macías.
Macías’ elegant Peruvian ceviche of tiny raw oysters, Adriatic scallops and cactus followed, in a refreshingly sour leche de tigre: a cool fish broth lifted by lime, ginger and chilies, topped with fresh acacia blossoms and cinquefoil (or potentilla) leaves. In esparrago y hoyas de mais, crisp local asparagus, grilled on one side only, gave focus to herbaceous poblano pepper couscous sprinkled with dark Peruvian Sacha Inchi nuts and spooned into a charred corn husk, its smokiness reminiscent of fire-roasted corn.
Memory featured in the dish called Papa Genovese too. This came from Astrid & Gaston’s recent tasting menu, “The voyage from Liguria to El Callao, 100 years of flavor,” which focused on the gastronomic influences brought by the thousands of Italian immigrants to Peru in the early 20th century. The dish was a visual and cultural play on pasta al pesto. In the original Ligurian version, diced potato often accompanies the pasta in the green basil sauce. Here, spaghetti-like strands of potato starred with toasted pine nuts in a pure-flavored extract of basil and spinach chlorophyll. They produced a new, but equally soulful, version of the classic dish.
“We tried to imagine how Italian immigrants felt about Peruvian food before they made their long journeys in the 1900s,” Macìas says. “Were they afraid of what they might have to eat there? Our dishes stir emotions as well as appetites.”
Other courses featured langoustine smoked a la Veracruzana and slow-roasted Mexican pork neck in salsa roja. The meal ended with a delicate, chilled peach stew strewn with elderflowers, raw bitter almonds and rose petals, and a crisp chocolate ball stuffed with the makings of a tiramisù scented with charred guajillo chilies, mescal and sal de gusano de maguey: ground agave worms spiced with salt and chilies.
“Gastòn Acurio has been inspirational in the Latin American movement, moving private and government people to raise awareness about the value of our native products and setting up direct links with their producers,” says Macìas.
Concentrating on local products
“The result is that we now can go straight to the fishermen, requesting, for example, only large-size fish. They release anything smaller back into the ocean. They’re paid well for the adult fish and simultaneously safeguard fish stocks.”
How does this apply to farmers? “Potatoes are a big staple in Peru: There are 3,000 known species with more being found all the time. Some only grow above 3,000 meters of altitude, far from the cities, with short seasons and limited yields. Demand from restaurants and enthusiasts can create fair distribution and markets while teaching people in the cities about the value of these ingredients.” Other foods being developed this way are quinoa, amaranth and some corn varieties.
“Peruvian food events such as Mistura, now in its seventh year, where farmers and chefs meet and exchange ingredients and information are helping spread the word about our continent’s gastronomic riches.”
So are memorable meals such as this.
Main photo: Chef Emilio Macías in the cloister in Faenza. Credit: Carla Capalbo
Noma has regained the top position on the list of the world’s 50 best restaurants. A lot of opinions and discussions have stemmed from this: Does it make sense to name a restaurant the world’s best? Is the competition fair? Is the 50-best list accurate? How is the ranking decided? Is the list controlled by tourist boards, and on and on.
No matter how that discussion ends, Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark, is a leading star in the restaurant world. It was founded on some radical ideas that changed the restaurant experience: a more informal setting with cooks who come to the table and serve guests; ingredients that are local and 100 percent seasonal; and dialog with the food producers is at the center. And although the meals at Noma are really well thought out, there’s also playfulness — eating with your fingers, eating things you never thought possible.
These ideas have turned dining out into a much more interesting and relaxed experience. But they have also added another dimension: Eating at Noma is about being told a story of time and place — it takes you on a poetic journey, the same journey other creative disciplines do: trying to get a better understanding of who we are.
Ripple effect of Noma on Copenhagen cuisine
Locally, Noma’s history on the list of the 50 best has had evident consequences. Copenhagen is now a global gourmet destination for people willing to travel long distances for food. I grew up in Copenhagen and have worked in the restaurant business for almost 30 years. Never has there been a more exciting time to be part of the business in this city. The ingredients have never been more varied, the food is better executed, and in a lot of places even the service is really good.
But would that have happened without Noma and René Redzepi? Probably not, because it did not happen by itself. It happened when the world saw what was going on and Noma and Redzepi brought the world to Copenhagen. So the importance of the 50-best list for my hometown cannot be underestimated.
Noma is unquestionably the best restaurant we have. Try to get a table there and enjoy the incredible experience of tasty food with great ideas, playfulness and a really convivial service where you feel at home. You walk away feeling enlightened and included.
Much more to see and eat in Copenhagen
But when you’ve done that and still have more time to spend in Copenhagen, where else to go? If you want to experience what was before the Noma era, go to Lumskebugten for lunch to have the classic Danish smørrebrød. Head chef Erwin Lauterbach rules here. He has been around since the 1980s and was one of the first to introduce local produce, thus helping people understand the season. Lauterbach also brought traditional recipes back to life in a new way, but his main focus has always been vegetables.
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If you still have the budget for another high-end meal, visit Kadeau, a New Nordic restaurant whose staff works with ingredients from the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. You’ll experience very interesting ideas, great fun and a stunning room in a great location not far from Noma in an old neighborhood of Copenhagen called Christianshavn.
For more casual dining, noisiness and more of a city atmosphere, get a table at Pluto. Fast, fun and lively, you’ll be served mountains of great food prepared with ideas from the whole world mixed with a bit of New Nordic. Shared plates get handed to the table, and the service is great, which isn’t always the case in Copenhagen.
On a gourmet trip to Copenhagen, the best way to get around is by bicycle. They can be rented from shops, or city bikes can be rented by the hour. Spend an afternoon at the food halls, called Torvehallerne. For Danish products, visit the stall called Omegn, which means the local area around us. It has a great selection of cold cuts, cheese, beer and Danish wine. Outside the halls, Omegn has a vegetable stall with 100 percent organic vegetables from local growers.
Torvehallerne is also a great place for an after-work drink at about 6 p.m. on Thursday and Friday nights. Try the cava bar outside and enjoy the light during summer nights. Also look for spices at Asa and organic chocolate at Summerbird, which also sells quality marzipan, for which Denmark is famous.
For coffee and cake, go to Café Rosa. The baker bakes everything on the spot using organic ingredients and is often there herself. She is Swedish and inspired by Scandinavian children’s literature. The place embodies that playfulness and quirkiness, which belongs to Pippi Longstocking. You’ll get a great cup of filter coffee made to order and the best cardamom snurre, which can be enjoyed mornings or afternoons or taken home.
Adjacent to the city center, called Indre By, Copenhagen has three boroughs a 10-minute bicycle ride from the where a lot of interesting things are happening. In Nørrebro, for example, is Jægersborggade, which is a foodie street with coffee, restaurants and small independent shops. There is also a place where they produce toffee. Here you can by beautiful ceramics in New Nordic style. For restaurants on this street, don’t miss Relæ, which has 1 Michelin star. It is owned by Christian Puglisi and is almost 100% organic. Alternatively, try the little brother Manfred on the opposite corner. For a late-night snack and glass of wine along with some real local atmosphere, visit the wine bar Underwood.
After several late nights, an early-morning walk in Copenhagen can be a real treat. The city is a slow starter with amazing, clear blue morning sunlight. Walk to Vesterbro, another borough, and go to Café Risteriet, which is a small room in a basement with very good coffee and a simple breakfast consisting of a soft-boiled egg and home-baked bread and lots of friendly atmosphere.
Main photo: Unika, a cheese shop, at Torvehallerne in Copenhagen. Credit: Trine Hahnemann
Gavin Stephenson, the former chef of London’s Savoy hotel who has overseen kitchens at The Georgian and Shuckers restaurants at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle for more than a decade, began his beekeeping program three years ago on the rooftop of this historic hotel that stands as a regal homage to a more refined and cultured past.
The ornate columns of the gold-gilded Georgian Restaurant might seem an odd counterpoint to the chef’s rooftop beekeeping program, a pursuit more commonly associated with the do-it-yourself artisan food restaurants sprinkled throughout Seattle’s quirky neighborhoods such as Queen Anne, Fremont and Ballard. But Stephenson’s honey program reflects the Fairmont hotel chain’s dedication to sustainability and commitment to sourcing locally at notable restaurants around the world, including in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Vancouver, Canada; Beijing; Singapore; London; Monte Carlo, Monaco; and Cairo.
At the Fairmont in Seattle, honey is drizzled over hot scones and homemade butter during The Georgian’s afternoon tea, bottles of Rooftop Honey are gifted to special guests, tangy local cheese is mellowed by ribbons of honey and the Pacific Northwest staple of salmon is sweetened with a glistening lacquer of it. Stephenson has even partnered with local brewery Pike Place to concoct a honey-infused beer.
Bees and beekeeping starting to catch on
The chef’s love of beekeeping has even spilled over into his own backyard, where he now keeps several hives for personal use. He says his neighbors were at first wary of getting stung by the bees but have since warmed to the idea, many now asking Stephenson for advice about keeping bees themselves. It’s a noble pursuit for a chef with a distinguished career in the kitchen and, more recently, on the rooftop.
I recently sat down with Stephenson at the Fairmont to find out more about his bees and beekeeping.
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Why did you decide to start the honey program at the Fairmont Olympic and why is it important to you?
I was introduced to Corky Luster from Ballard Bee Co., who taught urban beekeeping. Colony collapse disorder is detrimental to our ecosystem, so I wanted to make a difference and do the right thing. At first it was very time consuming, but now it’s a labor of love. Not only is beekeeping beneficial to our environment and society, it’s also awesome to incorporate the honey into my menus at The Georgian and Shuckers.
Have you faced any challenges in getting the program up and running?
Absolutely. I’ve lost several hives. Urban beekeeping is a challenge on an exposed roof in the city 12 stories high. Washington beehives are sensitive to moisture and to extreme temperature changes. We had a few spring days with inclement weather that the bees could not handle. It was devastating every time I lost a hive. Mother Nature is a powerful reality.
Have you learned anything about honey production that surprised you?
You can have eight hives in a row and each hive produces honey with entirely different flavors. I learned that I cannot control the flavor of the honey. My bees travel up to 6 miles per day, and they have countless opportunities to pollinate flowers all over Seattle. The pollen and nectar that the worker bees extract can vary between the blackberries near the waterfront to the rooftop gardens throughout Pike Place Market and downtown Seattle.
Is the community of Seattle supportive of your efforts?
Absolutely! Everyone wants to know how the process works and I have had so many visitors interested in setting up their own hives. There are only a couple of entities downtown practicing beekeeping, so I look forward for others to join in on the fun and to contribute to a healthy environment.
Can you share a recipe featuring honey? What is your favorite thing about this recipe and its origin and any special tips for its preparation?
My favorite recipe is the Smoked Salmon Skewers With Rooftop Honey [recipe follows]. I enjoy the smoked flavor paired with the sweet flavors of honey.
What advice do you have for home beekeepers or other chefs who would like to produce honey?
Get ready to get stung. Buy an EpiPen [an epinephrine injection used in the case of an allergic reaction]. Don’t be alarmed when the female worker bees throw the male drone bees off your 12-story roof in the fall. No pun intended.
Courtesy of chef Gavin Stephenson and The Georgian Restaurant
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 pound King salmon belly
- 2 tablespoons Rooftop Honey or honey of choice
- 2 tablespoons Rooftop Honey Mustard
- 12 (6-inch) bamboo skewers
- Wood chips smoker
- To make cure, mix together brown sugar, lemon zest and kosher salt.
- Cut salmon into finger-size pieces, about 3 inches by ¾ inches.
- Place salmon pieces onto bamboo skewers and place on tray, then sprinkle liberally with cure.
- Let sit for 20 to 30 minutes.
- Move to a clean pan.
- Set up smoker and smoke the salmon for 5 minutes.
- Bake salmon at 280 F to desired degree of doneness, about 8 minutes.
- Drizzle with warm Rooftop Honey or serve with Rooftop Honey Mustard.
Main photo: Chef Gavin Stephenson tends to his bees. Credit: The Fairmont Olympic Hotel
There’s something home-away-from-home comfortable about having a good breakfast at a cafe that seems to truly belong in the neighborhood. If the restaurateurs have deep roots in the area’s past and give every sign that they’ll be part of its future, all the better.
And if that shared history of cafe and neighborhood includes three generations of chefs, Louis Armstrong, one of the U.S. government’s most egregious civil rights violations of the past century and a marinade that’s seven decades old, you have plenty of reasons to stick around.
JiST, a breakfast and lunch spot opened by partners Glen Ishii and Caroline Shin, is less than a year old but comes with roots set deep in one of Los Angeles’ most interesting historic areas: Little Tokyo. It’s an airy 65-seat restaurant with wood-block paneling and some of its tables in a courtyard facing the old Japanese Union Church where the East West Players perform. Its menu pays homage to classic Japanese cafe food but with a decided nod to modern sensibilities.
Neighborhood’s blended roots
The roots reach back to Ishii’s grandmother, Shigechiyo, who opened the Tokyo Cafe in the 1940s just a few blocks from their current location. At the beginning of that decade, Little Tokyo was home to about 30,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans, notes Bill Watanabe, retired executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center’s Community Development Corp.
Then came Pearl Harbor, followed by Executive Order 9066, a stain on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency: the forced internment of about 122,000 citizens of Japanese descent, including Shigechiyo. (Watanabe was born in the Manzanar internment camp.) In short order, Little Tokyo was emptied of the residents who gave the area its name. As vacuums are want to be filled, it was soon home to 70,000 mostly Southern blacks drawn to a California defense industry starving for workers.
The neighborhood took on a not-particularly-PC name: Bronzeville. And with the new residents came jazz clubs. Hotels, including one that once stood across from JiST’s location, were soon catering to the likes of Armstrong, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker and William “Count” Basie.
The war’s end brought a return of many original residents as the blacks moved on to South Central neighborhoods. Shigechiyo returned to her stove, followed into the business by Ishii’s parents (mother Tokiko still works in his cafe) and his uncle.
Ishii, who attended the neighborhood’s Maryknoll School and worked for his parents as a youth, didn’t start out in the business. He attended Cal Poly Pomona, did a one-year scholarship in Japan, studied hotel management, “discovered French cuisine,” he says, and got a job with downtown L.A.’s Omni Hotel. But when his uncle was ready to retire, he decided — with a decided push from Omni colleague Shin — to take a chance.
“He always wanted to open a breakfast-lunch business,” says Shin, and his uncle’s place “just had a feeling that it could be something special.”
JiST menu reflects tradition elevated
From the beginning, it was about family and food. The family is built into the name: J is for Shin’s mother, Joonhae. Tokiko lends her initial to the mix, and Ishii and Shin are sandwiched between, as offspring should be.
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The menu reflects tradition elevated. There are various pancakes, all starting from a crème fraiche batter. French toast (“we always had French toast on weekends growing up,” says Shin) soaked in creme brûlée. And breakfast potatoes with two perfect six-minute eggs served with chashu pork, made with that marinade the family nursed through the decades. (It’s fed several times a week to keep it going, like a fine bread starter.)
The food draws three generations, with his family’s loyal clientele mixing with a younger crowd that is fast discovering Little Tokyo. The area still has well-established businesses: Anzen Hardware, a distinctly old-school purveyor of nuts and bolts, is not much wider that Shaquille O’Neal’s wing span. Fugetsu-do, operating since 1903, still sells the colorful Japanese rice cakes called mochi. And the old neon Far East Chop Suey sign hangs over 1st Avenue.
But the Far East is now the Far Bar, jammed with hipsters on weekends. And two blocks from JiST, the Avalon Corp. is building 280 units of housing, with two-bedroom rental units beginning at $2,900 a month, a pool, rooftop deck and “chill lounge” — all of which suggest that Little Tokyo’s future may lean toward young professionals working in nearby downtown.
The trick, says Watanabe, is to preserve the old amid the new, to “respect the history.”
The partners are focused on setting their own roots in the neighborhood — with an eye on expanding elsewhere in L.A. But for now, they’ll stick with serving breakfast and lunch — dished up, Shin says, before the day gets people down.
“No one comes in unhappy,” she says. Or, one suspects, leaves hungry.
Main photo: Partners Caroline Shin and Glen Ishii of JiST, a breakfast and lunch spot in L.A.’s historic Little Tokyo neighborhood. Credit: Evelyn Iritani