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Relae's Christian Puglisi on Cutting it Down to the Bone

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Photos: Per-Anders Jorgensen / Relae

Yesterday afternoon, a handful of cooks was running about the kitchen and dining room of Copenhagen's Relae in a frenzy. Kim Rossen, the restaurant manager, sat at the bar with his laptop, reconfirming reservations and answering a constant stream of calls. At one point, another member of the staff swooshed in and yelled, "Where the fuck is my scale?!" He repeated the question a few seconds later and bemoaned the fact that he'd gone through the same trouble just a day earlier. Meanwhile, the restaurant's chef, Christian Puglisi, was somewhere in the back working on a new dish, thinking he'd scheduled this particular appointment for another day.

The second annual MAD Symposium, the congress organized by Noma chef René Redzepi, is coming up on Sunday, and close to six-hundred people are flying into Copenhagen for it. Most of them want to eat at Relae.

For the past two years, Puglisi has earned acclaim, first from colleagues and later from the local and international press, for the pure, intense, simple cooking he's been doing since leaving Redzepi's kitchen. He has stunning and occasionally polarizing ways of coaxing flavor out of the few components that make up each
of his dishes, and depending on whom you ask, the experience in his austere, casual dining room either represents an exciting and warm evolution of the bistro or will simply leave you cold. Here's the conversation Puglisi and I had after he emerged from the kitchen:

Things are a little hectic over here.
Everything is a bit too much, I must say. There are five or six hundred people flying in from all over the world for MAD.

And they want to eat here.
A lot of them, yes. It's even worse here at Manfreds, since we don't have the controlling measures we do across the street. We serve all day and do walk-ins and there's a sea of people that can come. Yesterday René texted me saying that Sean Brock and Johnny Iuzzini were there having lunch, because I didn't know.

On top of that, Manfreds [Puglisi and Rossum's wine bar across the street from Relae] is preparing the lunch for the symposium next Monday, it's our last week at Relae before shutting down for break, and I have a dinner in San Francisco I have to prepare for.

Well, let's try and talk about some things. Tell me about growing up in Italy and falling in love with food.
The fact that I was born in Italy and then came here as an immigrant was an important part of my interest in gastronomy. Even as a young child, food was really important for me. I knew nothing about food, but I was told that I came from a country with excellent eating. The way I saw it, I came from a country with huge gastronomy to another with no gastronomy whatsoever. I came from pasta and pizza to shit.

Why'd you come to Denmark?
It was my parents' choice, obviously. My father worked with citrics — buying and selling lemons and stuff like that — and it eventually got bad, like most other trades in Sicily. My mother is Norwegian, and when it came time to decide where we would go, my dad wanted New York or Australia and my mom wanted to be closer to Scandinavia. They compromised and decided to come to Denmark in 1989, which was a very good time to move here.

And the interest in cooking — how did it develop?
I would come along with my dad when he was working. Again, in classic Italian fashion, he would work as a waiter in restaurants. I'd go with him, and I started to fall in love with the atmosphere and kitchen. That brewed in me until I started cooking at the age of sixteen. Here you do cooking school for a long time, like four years. You cook and then go work in restaurants. When I was eighteen, I went to Paris by myself as part of the schooling work experience, which was very good for me. I worked at a small bistro, nothing special, but I had a lot of responsibility. Then I came back to Denmark and finished my schooling.

You went to Taillevent and other places after that?
Yes, I started off at Taillevent, where I was for only four months. Then I met a guy who had worked at elBulli and was very keen on getting me to go there. I originally wasn't very interested in that kind of cooking, but after working with this guy every day and hearing about the philosophy in the kitchen and things like that, I became very excited and tried to get a job there. I ended up getting the stage in 2006, and at the end of it, they offered me a job. I decided to go back to Copenhagen, and René contacted me for a sous chef position at Noma.

The thing that struck me when I ate here a year ago — at a time when I didn't know much about you or the restaurant — was how austere the dishes could be. It seems the goal is to take the few things that are on there and get as much as you possibly can out of them. In pieces I later read about Relae, you talk a lot about purity. Is that emphasis on coaxing out flavor your main goal here?
Yes. It takes a lot of work. It comes from having to cook within the limits that this restaurant imposed. Now, it's really more of a choice. When we opened, we couldn't cook very many meats. That was because we wanted to provide value for our customers, because we wanted to make it very interesting, and because we had a kitchen with only two or three guys and didn't want to charge too much and do the sixty covers and two seatings and all that stuff.

You have to plan out what you do very well, because you can't do fifteen different kinds of wild herbs or pick out small dill. You start cutting to the bone. You make a purée that is very powerful. You try to find the small tweaks and combinations that give you a lot. Right now, we're doing a dish that we will put on the menu tomorrow. It's a plate of warm green strawberries with a purée of watercress, chopped nasturtiums, and frozen buttermilk.

About four things and that's it.
That's it. As soon as it gets more than that, it gets more confusing, too. We've tried at least fifteen different variations of this dish already. We really deliberate.

Do you try to do that with all your dishes?
Sometimes it just comes out, but in general it really has become about making something that is really thought out. It has become a lot of work in the developing of things. Maybe most people would be fine with the second variation of the strawberry dish, but we want to put ourselves in a situation where we give people an exciting experience and are doing things we haven't done before.

Then does it bug you when people ask how you're different from Noma?
On that question, we've done pretty well. Most people don't ask it. They think it. But we knew that from the beginning. People will say, "It's going to be Noma-lite, no?" But from the start, we said no wild herbs, no foraging, none of that shit. We've been like teenagers, I often think, in that we want to do everything the opposite way from our parents. That has been very helpful to us, because it's pushed us to find our own way. We've got a long way to go as a restaurant, but I can already say that you eat a dinner with us that you don't eat anywhere else in terms of how the flavors are put together, in terms of how we run service, in terms of the particular kinds of efforts we make.

That means that some people can hate it; some people come in here and hate it. But it's very personal, and we want it that way.

Let's talk about how that paring down applies to the service style.
Much like with the food, we had to adapt to certain limitations. We realized that we needed to cut down to the bone and get rid of the unnecessary things you often find in restaurants. I believe that most people don't go to a restaurant to get serviced. For me, service is how people look at you, talk to you, engage you as human beings. It's not about how fast they pick up the crumbs on your table or even fill up your water glass. In this day and age, I think it's pretty antiquated to go out and expect for a waiter to serve you as a butler.

So, instead of having a bunch of people working in the restaurant that we have to pay for and the customer has to pay for, we reduce it to the minimum. You have the drawers where you take out your silverware, and you don't have a waiter that is on you at all time, interrupting. So now, we have the sommelier and Kim, my business partner and the restaurant manager as the guys doing service. They are the most skilled.

It's dynamic service, because these guys don't have a lot of time. So, they'll give you a brief description of the dishes, and if you want more information, they'll gladly talk as much as you want. I don't like the idea of waiters pulling off monologues, especially when the people might not understand or want to hear it. So, better to spend time with the person who really wants to know about the weird wine they are being served or something like that.

We try to meet people face to face. This is our house, and we put the playlist that we like on. We don't do that so that we can be a loud New York restaurant. It's because we are there all day, and we make it how we enjoy it. I believe you should treat people as if they're coming to your house. You receive people that way and have a good experience.

You've just entered the San Pellegrino List at #75 and you earned a Michelin star. Does the acclaim ever make you consider changing things up or introducing a few bells and whistles?
No. We got the Michelin star, and some people wondered if we would raise prices and change things to get a second. Fuck no. In a magical year that was capped by an unexpected Michelin star, why would we ever change anything? Those are indicators that we are doing the right thing. We do these things so that we can gain more liberty. Cutting things to the bone — opening a restaurant without any big investors — means that you don't have to put turbot on the menu because some fat guy wants it. You can put whatever you want on that plate.

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Jægersborggade 41, 2200 Copenhagen, Denmark

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