In the past year, the Italian-born chef Christian Puglisi has earned his Copenhagen restaurant Relae a Michelin star, a place on the World's Fifty Best Restaurants list (it's #74), and a few pages in the new Edible Selby book. He's done it with an intense, austere, and sometimes polarizing restaurant and kind of cooking; in a previous Eater Interview, he described his approach as "cutting it down to the bone." The chef was recently in New York, taking a rare vacation. After a marathon lunch at Per Se, he made time to chat over a few glasses of sake next door at Blue Ribbon. There, at the bar, he spoke about the fact that restaurants in Copenhagen might share too many similarities with each other, his new test kitchen, and the idea that there's more to life than just cooking. Here's part one of the interview:
What have you been doing in New York City?
Mostly eating so far, and walking around. Two dinners I was supposed to do — one at Isa, the other with Governor — got canceled. I just took the opportunity, since we had planned in the restaurant for me to take off for a full week. I could really use the time away. I have a family now, with a one-year-old son, and I miss them, but I don't usually get an opportunity like this.
You seem to be intensely involved with the restaurant in Copenhagen.
Maybe not so much, compared to what happens here. The restaurant is open only four days a week. I keep it to the four days so I can enjoy my family. I keep it to that.
At the risk of making a generalization, there's that European tradition of closing restaurants more days.
If you have a restaurant in Manhattan, the rent must be really high, and staff wages are probably not that high. You have to keep open. When I was looking for a place for Relae, I looked for somewhere that would have a low rent. The lower the rent, the lower the staff and the greater the quality.
The first guy you hire is obviously good, since you know, the second guy is probably pretty good, the third guy you don't know and is probably worse, and the fourth and fifth guys are shit! In Copenhagen, it's really tricky. Now the game is different, since people who are internationally experienced are coming to eat at my restaurant. If I had had to start with ten guys, I'd have not done it.
How do you manage to find a balance between developing a restaurant that's still pretty young and maintaining a family?
It's difficult, but I also know now that I don't need to chop onions anymore. I can make my own priorities. I prioritize the kitchen and the restaurant a lot, but it's always a priority but never a necessity. Because if I want, the restaurant could basically run itself if I wanted it that way. From my perspective, it's very necessary that I'm there though for the sake of overall energy and quality. But if my kids are sick or my wife is sick, I can change things around. That's important. It makes it sustainable. I'm doing a restaurant for two years, not ten years.
A lot of chefs don't seem to look at it that way. The restaurant and culture is their life.
Maybe it's just New York, I don't know. I have a very unromantic look at the chef life.
Certain people have this idea that it's a hardcore lifestyle, brotherhood, and that you should work and grind at it all the time. It's the idea that cooking is all you have. For me, there are more things in life.
Has it always been that way for you?
For sure. I have periods of life where I've seen no one aside from the people working beside me, though. That's fine, because I chose to be that way. But I can't do that until I'm fifty or sixty.
Do you ever feel that you could do more for Relae, or is it that you feel the balance and space make things better?
I think it makes the restaurant better. I like to look at sports. If, in soccer, you play more than two games a week, you are going to start to suck. If your knee isn't doing okay, your physical therapist will not let you play. It's just not realistic. It's not just that your body needs to be in the kitchen. Your mind needs to be there, as well.
If you are in a creative restaurant, you need to be able to create things, you need to inspire people and mobilize people. If I wake up with a deadly headache because I've slept three hours, I'm not in my zone. I'll be bitchy. If I'm bitchy one day, that's fine, but I can't be bitchy every day. That's just the way I approach it, which may not be like the New York lifestyle. There are several ways of looking at it.
On trips like these where you're eating around — what do you end up doing with that in your restaurant?
Often not much, to be honest [laughs]. I've started realizing that the most inspiration I get is from restaurants or dining experiences or meals far away from fine dining or restaurants similar to mine. For example, I had an incredible meal at Empellon Cocina. If something there truly inspires me, I won't do it, because it's Empellon Cocina's. It's like that article you just wrote. I wouldn't take it.
But if I eat Thai that I haven't tried before where someone is using a sauce with a weird acidity or a technique I've never seen, that's useful. Or something traditional Japanese or traditional Mexican. If I go to Copenhagen to a restaurant at the fine dining level and see something really great, I won't try to adapt it. But seeing something new and rare in these restaurants is really rare, because a lot of these restaurant looks a lot alike.
You'd argue that?
I would, yeah.
One way of reading it, though, could be that these people are part of a movement.
Last summer, I visited a winemaker in Sicily who is a cult figure in natural wines. I told him he was part of a movement, and he almost sent me home. He said that to be a part of a movement is not what he wants. He's an individual who has his own ideas. If you have your own ideas, you're not part of a movement, but a movement might grab onto you.
Noma created something that has become a movement, because people rely very much on what Noma invented instead of finding their own way. I don't feel that Relae has any part of any movement at all. I don't think that's interesting. What would be more interesting than that stylistic similarity or that kind of movement is to have people eating more organic food. Not how you plate.
Would you go as far as to say Copenhagen's dining scene is monotonous?
No, I don't know. I'm sure that if a New Yorker went to Copenhagen, they'd have a great time and feel like they were getting something they couldn't get at home. If you live there, though, you see the same thing all the time. It's also a small city, and we all know and work with each other, so there are inevitably parallels.
How is it going with the new test kitchen across the street from Relae?
We started off in June, but really got into it after the summer break in August. I have two creative sous chefs that have been working there full-time for three months.
It's not really a lab, but rather a creative space for the work to get done. It lets us keep going and developing the menu. There's no big final goal with it. It's not the Nordic Food Lab or elBulli Foundation. A few weeks ago, I had to go into the main kitchen during the day to cook something in a grill oven we don't have in the test kitchen. Just from standing there for fifteen minutes, I realized how precious our little test kitchen is. People are busy, and when I put something down, people move it away.
Some people criticize this new generation of chefs building test kitchens and flying around to symposiums and conferences around the world. How do you view that phenomenon?
I think it's good as long as the chefs have legitimately good ideas and are actual thinkers.