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