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Christian Puglisi on Committing to His Vision and the Ability to Sometimes Say 'No'

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Photo: Per-Anders Jorgensen

In the concluding portion of this interview with Christian Puglisi of Copenhagen's Relae (part one here), the chef talks about the excessive amount of conferences and symposiums around the world, the tricky but necessary game of PR and outreach, and whether or not he wants more recognition and fame. He also talks about the fact that his restaurant doesn't please everyone, and how he and his team deal with that.

Can you reflect a bit more about that phenomenon we just were discussing, about chefs traveling around the world to conferences and opening up the test kitchens and labs?
I think the whole conference idea might be oversaturated. There's a lot. I get invited to these things and I think to myself, "What am I going to say?" I could maybe go once a year to talk about what we've done, and maybe that could be good. I see other people going five or six times.

Or more than that.
Some of these guys are really, really good at it. That's their way of representing the restaurant.

Do you think it's well-intentioned, or that at the end of the day they like the attention?
Yeah, I do think it's well-intentioned, for the most part. I don't know if it's right or not. It's the same discussion as before about me being unromantic about things. The same people that say that you really need to be creative and the menu needs to change also say that you need to be in the kitchen all the time. They'll get pissed if you aren't there. They'll be disappointed if you aren't there. But a person has two legs, two arms, and needs to sleep sometimes. For these very high profile international chefs, it might be the best way to run their restaurants. Look at how some of these places are ranked on the 50 Best List. They're obviously doing the right thing.

But does all that touring give people an exaggerated idea of how good a place is?
That's a good question, but it's not the speaking chefs who are deciding if the restaurants are great. It's the people that go to the restaurant. There's a lot of illusion making in what we do. All of us.

The restaurant only has between forty or one-hundred covers in a day. These powerful people — reviewers, journalists — you can only influence very few a day. If you go to a conference or an interview, like I'm doing now with you, you can influence more people. You have to write books, maybe.

You have to play the game?
I don't know if it's a game. It's a natural supply and demand thing. People really want Alex Atala. How many of them go to DOM in Brazil? So he needs to come and tell you about ants and the Amazon for you to be interested. I think it's really interesting, but I've never been there. It's just the day and age, with communications. You can influence people much more with what you do, in good ways and bad ways.

I think it's important for the restaurant. We need to have guests in there. People don't come to be nice to me. They come because it's interesting to them. It's a part of it. But then they get mad when you're not in the kitchen.

Do you like that PR process?
At times it gets really frustrating when you have weeks — even with my stupid, small restaurant — when I have maybe five appointments for press. It breaks up almost every day. It's crazy. Sometimes I'll say "Fuck it, I don't want to do anything next week." Then the New York Times calls. What do I say, no? Do I tell them I have to break up a lamb? Maybe I'd say that if I were more romantic about it, but I'm not. I realized a year ago that I employ over twenty people. The restaurant needs to continue to be successful.

How does ego play into it, do you think? Both for you and the colleagues you observe.
In both cases, it's a lot. There's a lot of vanity in it. What comes on a plate — I take it very personally. Nothing changes one bit without me knowing about it.

I'm referring more to the press and conference circuit process.
Especially in the beginning, I was amazed people seemed to be interested in what I had to say. Before the restaurant opened, I was already invited to Omnivore. The last time I had been at Omnivore, it had been as [René] Redzepi's assistant. There was some ego there, I have to admit. It was huge for me. There's always a little bit of that.

You're at an interesting position where you are known but not quite as visible as some of these guys. Do you want more of that recognition?
Not really. I'm really amazed, actually, at how responsive people have been to me and the restaurant when I've traveled. When I did a dinner in San Francisco, I thought it would be like a vacation. Then I saw the guest list, and every food critic in San Francisco and guys like David Kinch and Daniel Patterson were coming. I wish I could have mentally prepared for that! I'm surprised by how many people know the restaurant. That's more than enough. It gets awkward when people approach me. Plus, I don't think fame is very useful.

How so?
It's good to the extent that people know about the restaurant and come in for dinner. I am a representative of the restaurant, so I need to do things that might make me more known. But I've said no to nearly every TV opportunity I've been given here in Denmark. Some have been interesting, but most make you go away from the restaurant for too long. The restaurant would definitely change if that were the case. Maybe I could do it eight years in, but not two. You can't just be a representative. Maybe that TV show would have made me a known face to everyone in Denmark, but is that good for the restaurant? I don't really think so. If I had a restaurant that had accessible, normal food, then maybe the TV show would be fine. But Relae is not. Some people come in and don't get it. Fame with a restaurant like ours would be a disaster.

We've talked before about how you do your own thing, and that that doesn't always lead to customer satisfaction. How does that make you feel?
It's very difficult, I'll say. You never get used to people not being happy.

A lot of contemporary chefs might say that you have to be able to say "no" and do your own thing.
I say "Fuck it," too, but inside, I feel it. First I get really sad, then I get really upset. Then after, I wonder if we did something wrong. I think asking yourself that is very important. I think that every night we might have two or three tables that just don't get it.

Do you try to fix it?
We try to approach it. People need to understand that it isn't bad. It's just not for them. The wines we do, for instance, get people crazy. We do really left-wing stuff, which is what we like. We try to talk to people and give them a good night. I truly believe you can eat food you don't totally like and still have a nice night. There must be something about the place that does it for you. But I can spot it right away. I can tell. I see the body language — a couple that's not talking to each other, unhappy faces.

We try to make people understand that this is what we love to do. We're very sorry you don't like this, but we think this is the shit.

How might you accommodate them beyond explaining that?
We have two menus. We'll happily swap out a course from one to the other if someone doesn't like what they've been served. Most of all, I don't want someone going home and feeling like they're stomach is empty. It doesn't take that much work to swap in another course or talk to someone. It's easy, and you have the chance to turn around their night.

But you won't make them a sandwich.
No. People will ask for butter at Relae, and we won't give it to them. Today at Per Se, I was eating alone and observing everything. They gave me all types of wonderful butter. And all of a sudden I see this couple sitting nearby, and the guy asks the waiter, "Can I have some olive oil?" I almost freaked out. There was this blogger the other day at Relae who asked me for butter. I got really pissed. I have found the best olive oil I can find in Sicily, which we import ourselves. Everyone else in Copenhagen does a butter or a whipped butter or something like that, and we do this. So when the guy asked me, I said "no" and walked away. My way of handling it was wrong, but my answer was okay.

You seem to think that having a restaurant where you can do your thing is preferable to one that wants to please everyone.
For me, to be able to say "No" within our way of doing things is the best. But you have to be polite, and I wasn't last week. The ability to do whatever we want is really important to me, and a place like Per Se doesn't have that. There are millions of people working there, they train and train, they strive for perfection, but if a guy wants olive oil, they'll give him that. To me, that's amazing. There was a guy drinking vodka throughout his meal at Per Se. At my place, we don't even have vodka! There's no cocktail bar. I'll ask a table if they want an aperitif, but that really means, "Do you want amaro?", since it's all we have.

I guess it just depends on what kind of restaurant you want to make. We try to make a restaurant that gives something to the customer they can't find anywhere else. We need to play on our premises if that is going to happen. Some — many people — have found that refreshing.

· All Christian Puglisi Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· Christian Puglisi on Creativity [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]

Relae

Jægersborggade 41, 2200 København, Danmark

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