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Matt Orlando on Opening Amass & Defining Fine Dining

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Matt Orlando [Photo: Martin Kaufmann]

It's been a busy month for Matt Orlando, who opened his highly anticipated restaurant Amass in Copenhagen on July 17. The levels of excitement certainly had a little something to do with Orlando's impressive resume, which includes the likes of Per Se, The Fat Duck, and, of course, the head chef position at Copenhagen's own Noma. There was also much made of the fact that Orlando took the old-school approach of waiting until he was thirty-five to set off on his own. Reports credited Amass with "the largest international interest in a new Danish restaurant ever" — with bookings to match.

Moments ago, Eater took a look inside the restaurant with its open floor plan, graffiti wall, and gardens. Here now, Orlando talks with Eater about the "out-of-body experience" that has been the past month, why Amass already feels like a different restaurant than it was on opening day, and his search for the definition of fine dining. Orlando also discusses the importance of staying true to your restaurant's philosophy and explains why he loves taking walk-in diners.

Congratulations on opening Amass. How are you feeling one month in?
It's pretty crazy. It almost seems like a dream. It's kind of surreal right now still. You stand in the dining room and look around. You know that it's your restaurant, but it almost seems like you're looking on it like an out-of-body experience, if that doesn't sound too corny. It's a weird feeling.

I bet. Some pretty big name chefs from all over the world were offering you their wishes for a successful opening day. How did it go?
It was great. It was really busy. We're changing things all the time. So when I look back to the opening day [then] to how we're working now and how the food has evolved... I look back on it now and say, "Wow, I'm glad we're not at that point anymore." I'm glad we've kind of moved on. But, I mean, it was great. The overall process of opening the restaurant — at times, of course, you want to kill somebody or commit suicide — but when you look back on it, the overall process was not as painful as it seemed at the time.

[Photo: Martin Kaufmann]

I'm pretty fascinated by the design of the restaurant and the complete openness of it all. Everyone's used to open kitchens by now, but how is the response to your design?
I think the response has been very positive. There's always a challenge because some people come and eat and they want a bit of privacy. They want to sit back in the corner and feel like they're not a part of the rest of the dining room. So if you come to the restaurant for that experience, then I think it might lack a little bit. It's something we've talked about a lot. Because we have had a couple tables come in and they're like, "Oh, it's too social." It's not that you sit close to people, but you feel like you're in a room with a bunch of other people.

So I guess it's kind of up to us to make sure that there is no mistake when someone comes to eat that this is the feeling that you're walking into. If you don't like this feeling or you don't want to be in a dining room like this, then maybe you won't be happy sitting in that dining room. But I think everyone should give it a try because I love the feeling. It's the exact feeling that we were going for. The fact that we achieved that feeling in a massive space, I'm very, very happy with that.

It's kind of funny to imagine that what with Amass being such a highly watched restaurant — guilty party here and your international bookings were reportedly through the roof — that you have people coming in not knowing that. Do you have people coming in with no idea what you're about?
The international bookings, those people know what we're about. They do a little research because they're traveling here to come and eat. It's mostly, I think, the locals. On [the reservation service] DinnerBooking, you have these guest feedback things that get sent to your email, which is quite helpful. Even if someone says something that's completely outrageous, you still have to look at it and say, "What can I take from this?" I mean, people have said that we're too expensive, which for me is outrageous because the price point that we're at for what we're serving is so inexpensive.

So I think people come here because of, I think, my resume. People are thinking they're going to come to this uber-fine-dining restaurant, which is exactly the opposite environment that we're trying to create here. We're trying to create a really casual atmosphere, but really high-level food. People come here with this misconception that because I worked at Noma and Per Se and the Fat Duck that this is going to be one of those kind of upscale restaurants. A few people have gotten here and were like, "Whoa, we didn't expect this." Which is a bit frustrating as well because I think we put a pretty good message out there via the website and other social media outlets that this is not that kind of restaurant. That it's more open and relaxed, but still with a very high level of food.

I think that's what we're going for is trying to create that question about what defines [fine dining]. We're not the only ones out there doing that. I think a lot of guys that are leaving the whole uber fine dining scene are kind of pushing that a bit. What is fine dining? Is that even a term that can be used anymore?

[Photo: Martin Kaufmann]

What do you mean by that?
The term being used? I don't know, I'm still in search of that. What is the thing that defines fine dining? Is it the ambiance? Is it the food? Is it the fact that you get your cutlery changed every time? Is it the fact that you have to have 20 different pieces of china on the table at the same time? I don't even know what it is, to be honest with you.

It seemed like in the past there was such a definition of what made fine dining fine dining, but it just seems these days that is that actual thing that made fine dining fine dining is more elusive. I think chefs are really doing away with a lot of the formalities and just focusing on the food a bit more. And if you ask, I hate to bring Michelin into this, but if you ask them they say it's the food 100 percent that defines the rating. So what is it? Can you tell me? I'm not quite sure.

No I can't. Fair enough. I saw that the restaurant does take walk-ins, too.
I love walk-ins. We have 56 seats for reservations and then we have the option of doing 10 walk-in seats. There are four at the bar and then we have this really cool big window that looks out over the harbor that has six seats at a bar as well. I love walk-ins because when you walk into a restaurant you come with a completely different mindset than you do if you have a reservation. It also creates a completely different atmosphere in the restaurant when you just have people walking in.

One thing I like about Amass and other restaurants that do walk-ins is you don't walk into the restaurant and sit down. And then everyone in the restaurant is sitting down and there's just a big room of people sitting down. I love the fact that when you have walk-ins and you have other places to go besides the dining room that there's this constant movement in the dining room. And people are not just sitting at tables. There are people on higher stools, there are people walking around, there are people out in the garden. The dynamics of the dining room change completely, and it instantly makes people more relaxed. It doesn't feel like you're confined to this little space in the middle of the dining room. You feel like you can get up and walk around if you want. You don't feel like you're going to disturb anybody if you leave your table. So I love walk-ins because I think it really creates this movement amongst the guests, not just the waiters.

That's really neat. And I saw pictures of the bonfire in the garden.
Yeah, we took a bunch of the bricks from the construction when they knocked down one of the walls and we built two big firepits out in the garden, which is amazing. Unfortunately, we just ran out of firewood. We will hopefully get some more today. But it's amazing. When the sun just starts to go down and you run outside and light those two fires, it almost brings the garden into the restaurant.

But it's also a bit bittersweet. I always light the fires and then I tell all the guys to hold the checks for five minutes because chances are at least a quarter to a third of the tables stand up and walk outside. And, if you're in the middle of plating food, you have to start over again. So as soon as we light the fires, I hold all checks for five minutes to see the reaction of the guests and see what happens, who goes outside and who stays inside. We learned that the hard way the first service we did that.

[Photo: Martin Kaufmann]

That's funny. Are there any other things that have come up you've learned in the month? I know inevitably with openings things have to be tweaked.
Oh yeah. I feel that we're a different restaurant now than we were when we opened a month ago. Definitely. Because you also learn about the staff. You learn about the guests and you learn about the best way to move through the dining room. Okay, we're doing this, but is that even necessary? Do guests even want that? We realize that we do need to do this and we didn't see that before.

But especially with the food. Leading up to this, we were trying to be very calculated in the dishes and testing them. As soon as we opened and the products started to come in, we just kind of all looked at each other and said, "You know what? We're going to just cook on the day." This whole kitchen is now based on what is coming in on the day. Of course, some dishes stay around for a week, some dishes stay around for a day, some dishes stay around for two weeks. It all depends on the products. Mullet roe we can get twice a week maybe, so we can only have it on the menu twice a week. And these raw shrimps that fishermen only fish on Fridays, they come in Friday afternoon and we put them on Friday night and Saturday.

It's really become more of a pursuit of ingredients than finding this perfect technique that takes you six months to perfect. It's more about finding the perfect ingredient that you can serve for two days and then it's gone. It's become an ingredient-driven kitchen to the extreme. I love it because it makes the kitchen feel so alive. And not only is it great for the guests, but it keeps the staff — especially the cooks — on their toes. It also keeps them excited. At the end of last week, a friend of mine walked in the door with wild cherries that she picked 40 minutes outside of the city and they looked like blueberries. They were so small and they were so amazingly sweet. And I just said, okay, new dessert. Put it on. And a new dessert went on. And it just gets people really, really excited.

Now that we're working like this, I just can't imagine working any other way. But we didn't have that mindset when we first opened. We were trying to be too calculated. I think you kind of confine yourself when you try to become too calculated in your menus rather than just opening yourself up to the ingredients coming in and then letting them more or less tell you what to put on the plate.

But when you're changing this much, one person can't do it. It's really this ongoing conversation that we have in the kitchen between myself and all the chefs — the sous chefs, the chef de parties. Even the waiters. Like Bo [Bratlann], the restaurant manager and sommelier, will be like, "I really want to use this wine for it. Could you add a drop more acidity to it?" And it'll just be amazing. It's a team effort. Of course it's conceived, but the actual final dish is tweaked at the last minute before we put it out. Like I said, one person can't do it alone. You'll go crazy trying to do it by yourself.

It sounds hard enough as it is.
Yeah, exactly. It's so much more stimulating.

[Photo: Martin Kaufmann]

In the Cook it Taw talks yesterday, you said, "When you commit to a philosophy, stick w/ it at all costs. As soon as you start to change, it makes the public nervous." Can you explain what you meant by that?
From my past, I've been involved with many restaurant openings and then sticking with them through the beginning phases of opening. I think that kind of saying right there is a huge reason why Noma became so successful. When you open a restaurant and you open with an idea and a philosophy, people come to that restaurant for that.

I mean, maybe it's easy for me to say this because we've had such a great start and the restaurant has been so hyped up, but I've been in the position in the past opening restaurants for other people. [Maybe] you open a restaurant and you aren't really busy in the beginning. Obviously, that makes you really nervous. You just start thinking what can I do, what can I change? Obviously this isn't working. I've been in places where all of a sudden people just start changing it. That confuses the public and they're kind of like, "Oh these people are in trouble now. What are they doing?" There's no stability.

People want stability. People want a strong philosophy. People want to go to a place that the place actually believes in what they're doing. As soon as you start changing things, changing your philosophy and your concept, the public sees that. It makes people nervous. People can feel when a restaurant is struggling and the owners aren't confident in what they're doing. So that's what I meant. I learned a lot about that from René [Redzepi]. I worked at Noma a year after it opened, for two years. I was there when Noma was really struggling financially. But René stuck to his guns. René started putting his own money into the restaurant to make it survive and to not steer away from the philosophy and the ideology of the restaurant. You look at it now and obviously he made the right decision. I really took that away from that experience.

Yeah no kidding. And finally, are you involved with MAD Symposium? The field is right by where you are, right?
It is directly in front of the restaurant, yeah. I mean, obviously we'll help out as much as possible. We have a kitchen and there's a lot of chefs. We're basically going to give them as much support as they need. Amass is not directly involved in the MAD Symposium. René asked me, "How involved do you guys want to be?" and I said, "You know what René, obviously I want to be as involved as possible, but at the same time we just opened the restaurant a month ago." And he was like, "Say no more. I understand." So this year we're not that involved. Of course, if they need to use the kitchen and any storage and stuff like that, we'll support them in every way we can. But I think probably next year we'll be a little bit more involved in it.

Cool. I'm sure everybody that comes will be trying to score one of those walk-in spots.
Oh yeah, I mean, in that sense we're fully booked right now for three days before and three days after [MAD]. Literally every single table is either a journalist, a chef, or a blogger. Every single one. And then somehow my wife's parents managed to book one of four tables we actually just put online. So my wife's parents are eating on that Saturday right before MAD, probably the craziest night. So that's pretty cool. I'm very excited about that.

· Amass Restaurant [Official Site]
· Behold Amass, Copenhagen's White-Hot New Restaurant [-E-]
· All Amass Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Matt Orlando Coverage on Eater [-E-]


Refshalevej 153 1432 Copenhagen, Denmark