Just a few months after opening a second location of his Bornholm, Denmark restaurant Kadeau in Copenhagen, chef and co-owner Nicolai Nørregaard realized he and his business partner Rasmus Kofoed (not the Geranium chef) would have to close it. But for the best reason possible: Kadeau had already outgrown its small space as an immediate critical darling. So last year the restaurant reopened its doors in Copenhagen, bringing the cuisine of Nørregaard's native Danish island of Bornholm to the capital once more.
In the following interview, Nørregaard recounts the story of Kadeau's evolution, and discusses how the success in Copenhagen — including the restaurant's first Michelin star — affects that of the original Bornholm restaurant. He also talks about his new, more casual Copenhagen bistro Pony, and why his lack of formal chef training is an asset rather than a liability.
How did the concept first come together?
Me and Rasmus, my partner, we are both native Bornholm boys. We moved to Copenhagen many years ago and just wanted to open a restaurant back on the island to use the great produce and the nature. [It] is amazing and quite unique. That's why we decided to buy this place on the beach just before the crisis. We were actually able to get the money through the loans.
When was that?
We bought it in March 2007 and opened, I think, in April 2007. Quite fast. I think we had 14 days to renovate the place and we had like 30 of our friends helping out. It was quite crazy. And we opened with another concept. We didn't make as gourmet food as we do today. We just wanted to make a nice and easy restaurant with really good food.
How did you start to develop it into what it is now? When did you decide to do that?
Actually, the year after. Noma was beginning to rise. Not many restaurants cooked Nordic, actually. I think we were one of the few that did it besides Noma then. In 2008, we decided just to go the Nordic way because we liked the thought and the produce and the local nature. So we decided to go Nordic, but to scale down even more to just using as much produce from Bornholm as possible. So only from the island and otherwise from the rest of Denmark. Quality came before origin, really, as long as it was from Denmark.
I'm sure that must have been challenging.
Yeah, very challenging, but also that was what made us focus. That really made it for us. When you put boundaries and when you make it hard on yourself, that's when you develop and grow as a chef. For me. And then you have to use the local nature and all the wild stuff and go foraging. There's only carp fish and salmon and herring and mackerel, and you can't use anything else because there is nothing else in the Baltic Sea. That's when we really started focusing and people heard of us around the country. And then actually it began to go quite fast after that.
The critics heard of us and they started to come to the island and gave us great reviews. 2008 and 2009 were good and then 2010 exploded with a few very good reviews. We got even better and even more focused on using the local produce and the eyes just fell around Denmark and around the Nordic countries and Europe. When Noma got number one in the world, for instance, [attention] also came to us.
And then we decided in 2011 that we wanted to open a restaurant in Copenhagen for two reasons: Both me and Rasmus had children in 2010 and our families live in Copenhagen, and the restaurant in Bornholm was only open for the Summer season because it's a very touristy island. Nothing happens in Winter. So we thought if we wanted to see our kids more, we had to open a restaurant in Copenhagen so we could scale down on Bornholm and just be open when the guests are there. [We scaled] down from 135 days to 90 days.
So we took this very, very small place. 70 square meters, including everything, toilets, kitchen, dining room, anything. [There's an] open kitchen like a bar. It's not really central, but it's not very far from where we live. It's quite a cool neighborhood.
What was the reception like?
Just fantastic. All the critics were there the first day. They knew us from Bornholm, of course, but when we opened in Copenhagen it was like, yeah, finally the Kadeau boys are coming to Copenhagen. And then that went really fast. After a few months, we decided that we couldn't stay there because it was too small. We couldn't fit enough chefs in the kitchen.
Did you not imagine that kind of reaction that fast?
Not at all. It really blew our minds. It was fantastic, of course. And then after a few months, we got fantastic reviews. There are two prizes in Copenhagen, best restaurant of the year of the two major newspapers. They both have a competition of the best gourmet restaurant in the city, the best new restaurant, the best bistro, the best so on. And we won both of them after being open for three months. It was really great. Quite a fairy tale. And then we decided to move because we couldn't fit in the restaurant. So we found an old office near to Noma, [in] the same neighborhood. We talked to the guys that owned it and they were willing to put some money into it and rent it to us and renovate it for us.
Kadeau, Copenhagen. [Photo: Didier P./Foursquare]
And then you put Pony into the original space, right?
Yeah. We really loved the place. We couldn't bear to let it go. So we just thought that, hey, we have to do something else that really fits the space. So we decided to do Pony. The bistro has only two chefs and two waiters, that's it, doing 40 or 50 covers. That works really well.
How has that been going? I hear it's also popular.
Actually, the same. Fantastic reviews. They also won the best of the city this year just for the bistro. That's amazing. And during the Summer last year, we built the [new Kadeau] restaurant, designing almost everything ourselves and putting all of Bornholm into it as much as we could. All the wood is from Bornholm, all the granite and the stones, everything is Bornholm.
Yeah, what are the challenges of recreating what you have in Bornholm over in Copenhagen?
It's a big challenge. Of course, we use a lot of produce from Bornholm, that's not really difficult. The main thing is we do all the foraging during the season on Bornholm, so all the pickling and preserving is a really big thing for us. Fermenting, pickling, drying, all that. Making syrups, oils, vinegars. This year, we pickled and preserved almost two tons of things that we're using during the Winter in Copenhagen. So we really can put Bornholm on the plate.
So since the Bornholm restaurant is open only in the Summer, does Copenhagen have seasonal hours, too?
We're closing a week or two during Christmas and New Years and then we close five weeks during the Summer. When it's high season on the island, which is July and some of August, we take the staff from Copenhagen to Bornholm so they can get a feel of what Bornholm really is because it's such a big part of our DNA. So they can participate in foraging and preserving [and] get a relationship to what we serve in the Winter.
It's quite a win-win. Everybody thinks it's like going on holiday even though they work like 14 hours a day. But Bornholm really is like going on a holiday, being situated on the beach and going swimming in the break after staff meal. We have an old farmhouse 5 kilometers from the restaurant [where] we have 20 beds. We call it the staff hotel. We have a garden there, we grow some vegetables for ourselves. It really is romantic.
So it's kind of like one restaurant in two spaces.
It really is.
And then to get back to the Copenhagen restaurant, it was quite challenging to open a space, get success, and just after six months say, hey, we're going to close it because we cannot fit into it. It was a big risk. It was expensive and people just got to know Kadeau was in this venue and suddenly it's another place and what about the Pony? We were really scared of confusing people. The Michelin Guide visited us twice at the small space and they said, oh, don't move.
But you did get your first Michelin star.
Yeah we did. Even though the restaurant wasn't open a year, really, put together. We opened in November in the small space, closed it in June, and reopened it in October. So it's really only eight months. That was great.
How did the Michelin star change things for you?
Quite a bit. We weren't motivated by Michelin at all. It was never part of our plan to try to get a star. We didn't want to do that. But, of course, if it came it would be okay. It really changed something. We had a lot of guests before, but after the star it really went crazy. All hell broke loose. Both the pressure from the press got intense, and the wait list was just growing.
Yeah what is it like to get a reservation there? How long would I have to wait?
Now is not a problem. The weekends can be quite tough. Some weeks are totally crazy, and some weeks it's okay. We have quite a lot of seats and we're quite flexible. That's the way we built the restaurant because if we have 30 guests it should seem full. If we have 60, it's just perfect. But it's not that difficult.
Has the success in Copenhagen also changed the volume of diners you get at the original location?
Yes. This was the first year of doing both [restaurants] after the Michelin star. On Bornholm, it's something else because there are not too many restaurants. That is changing slowly and people are going to Bornholm to eat. Of course, we've been a part of that development and that is great. So we've always had guests in the restaurant, but this year has been crazy. And, on top of that, we had a fantastic Summer. The weather has just been crazy. July, August, September, everything is just going really great. It's really nice. The last two years had been really shitty weather-wise.
Kadeau, Bornholm. [Photo: Facebook]
Can you tell me about your food? Do you have a signature dish?
We do Nordic food, but I'm tired of using the term Nordic. We do Bornholm food, using nature as much as we can and [making food that is] vegetable-based more than protein-based as much as we can. The signature dish right now could be this blue mussel and kohlrabi, pickled green strawberry, and fava beans and this beet coriander chopped into a salad or a tartare-like thing with a broth on the mussels and the fermented pea juice and homemade wine of green strawberries. That's a really nice dish. We always have some kind of porridge. Now it's autumn, like it's lamb's heart, lichens in different ways, mushrooms and spruce.
How did you get into cooking?
I'm not a trained chef. I'm one of the few in Denmark.
Did you stage in a few places before opening?
Never. I've always been quite interested in cooking. I come from a family that is quite gastronomically interested. My granddad's family owns a smokery, which is a Bornholm thing, smoking fish, especially herring. Using all techniques and respecting the produce, I was brought up with that. So I've always been quite nerdy about it, but never done it. Before we opened, I was in front of the house. When we opened the restaurant, the plan was I should become the chef. But the first year, we had a head chef to handle all the administrative things that I couldn't do, which I then slowly took over. We were able to get some really good chefs working for us. I was trained by the chefs we hired and, after a few years, I took over completely. It's very good for me not to be trained really.
Why is that?
There's nothing blocking me. If I get an idea, there's nothing telling me in the back of my head that this is wrong. "You can't do it because this is way off" or "you should always cook a salmon like this." There's nothing stopping me from doing something far out that actually, when you do it, works.
So what are you looking forward to for this year?
Actually, we think the Michelin Guide is in the restaurant today. You can never be sure. Next week, there's this big yearly contest of the best dishes in Denmark, and we're nominated for two dishes and two other prizes, which is crazy. Last year, we were also nominated for three things and we didn't win one. So this year, we hope we can just take one. And after that, I don't know. I'm looking forward to getting back more in the kitchen because this year has been really challenging traveling back and forth. I came back to Copenhagen today from Bornholm. Tomorrow morning, I'm going back to Bornholm. On Monday, I'm going back to Copenhagen. I'm looking forward to getting back into service and concentrating on having one restaurant open instead of two.
And then we'll see. Maybe we'll do another project next year on Bornholm. A hotel restaurant. Maybe. But I don't know. And then we are working on a big vegetable project on Bornholm to grow vegetables for all our restaurants year-round. We're not satisfied with the Bornholm growers. They're not serious enough, so I think we have to do it ourselves. It's a lot of work, but in the end it pays, hopefully.