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Christian Puglisi Is Closing His Influential Copenhagen Restaurants. COVID Is Only Partly to Blame

Christian Puglisi talks the end of Relæ and Manfreds, the problem with restaurant awards, and the future of Copenhagen dining

A man with hand outstretched looking into the distance
Christian Puglisi

Two weeks ago, Copenhagen’s food scene was hit by major news: Noma’s sibling restaurant, the Michelin-starred 108, announced it would cease operations at the end of September due to the coronavirus pandemic. And last Friday, trailblazing chef and restaurateur Christian Puglisi added even more turmoil to the city’s restaurant industry when he announced that his two flagship restaurants, Relæ and Manfreds, will close by the end of the year. Their final services will take place December 19.

Along with Noma chef René Redzepi, Puglisi is a groundbreaking chef of new Nordic Cuisine, which turned Copenhagen into one of the world’s greatest dining destinations. These days, being a “Noma alum doing your own thing” is almost a cliche, but Puglisi was the first when he opened Relæ in 2010 in the residential neighborhood of Nørrebro. With his 100 percent organic menu, featuring dishes like sheep’s milk yogurt with beets and black currants, he became a trendsetter in a city known for setting dining trends. And when he opened Relæ’s follow-up Manfreds later the same year, Puglisi broke more rules by serving family-style plates and natural wines at what was ostensibly a high-level, fine dining restaurant.

Puglisi’s restaurants are less exalted than Noma on the international stage, but his approach to hyper-seasonal, organic cuisine influenced a generation of Copenhagen restaurants, and the closing of his first two restaurants signifies an end to a certain era of avant-garde defiance in the local food scene, even as it embraces other Puglisi influenced. (Puglisi’s three other restaurants — the bakery and restaurant Mirabelle; vermouth and snacks bar Rudo; and Bæst, an Italian restaurant with award-winning pizza — will remain open.) Eater spoke to Puglisi about how coronavirus factored into his decision — “of course my decision has to do with the pandemic,” he says, “but not for the evident reason that people would think” — and what the closing of Manfreds and Relæ mean for the current moment in Copenhagen, where diners are returning to fill tables, keeping some restaurants fully booked more than two weeks in advance.

Eater: Why did you decide to close Relæ and Manfreds?

Christian Puglisi: I like to see restaurant years like dog years. In this analogy, each year represents seven years in this industry — because they are very intense ones. In the first years, [the restaurant is] like a child; you really need to take care of raising it and shaping its character. But as it evolves, it grows without the need of your constant surveillance. And when your kids grow up, someday they move out. Of course, it’s sad, but it’s also the most beautiful thing.

Could I do more at the restaurants? Of course. But should I do more, do I have to? I don’t think so. Their evolution has been going on for longer than I ever expected, and I am very proud of it. Their time has come. We all have these big fears: What will I do, what are people going to think? But if you [consider] that people won’t probably give a shit in 50 years, it becomes so much easier.

Is it related to the novel coronavirus pandemic?

The first two weeks of lockdown were extremely emotional to me. I kept thinking, “Wow, tomorrow everything can be gone.” It gave me an absolutely liberating sensation that I could do things I would generally be afraid of. Closing the restaurants was one of them. I realized that I’ve been thinking about this for at least the last three years. It somehow started with the process of telling Jon [Jonathan Tam, Relæ’s cook since the restaurant’s opening] he would be head chef, so I could free myself from the day-to-day activities, focus on the farm and the idea of creating more synergies that seemed more exciting for me at the time. But still, there hasn’t been a day that I haven’t had a little bit of a guilty conscience for not being there, and that’s absurd.

Because of the lockdown, I realized that I could do this. If I was going to have to rebuild my life in this industry — and we all had an opportunity to do this — I didn’t want to rebuild it 100 percent like the life that I had before.

What does closing the two restaurants mean for the restaurant group as a whole?

We will focus on Bæst, Mirabelle, and Rudo. I’m going to spend more time on them and the farm. I realized that what I didn’t enjoy doing was drawing up projects, starting the project, and overseeing them rather than having a direct influence. When you have over 120 employees, this is hard. If you want to manage a big company, you probably need to spend the whole of your time managing a big company. You’re not free to do those [other] things unless you want to work 120 hours a week, which I find hard to convince myself to do. I was tired of spending my evenings trying to understand the next day. Now it feels like I can just go to work.

In recent years, you have publicly criticized the industry, especially in relation to the awards and rankings that have come to dominate it. How has this industry upset you?

I think that the way we have defined success in this industry has been upsetting because it plays on incredibly subjective things. The output of a restaurant cannot be defined in numbers or data like a game. It is based on the interaction between the sender and the receiver. It goes both ways. When you go to a restaurant, you are as much responsible for having a good experience as the restaurant is for providing it. That’s how I see it.

It can never become mathematics, because those values aren’t fixed or established. This deadly cocktail to me consists of mixing the most complicated thing — that is, the restaurant experience — with something that is hugely defined, which is sports and competition. If you run 100 meters, it’s obvious [how everyone ranks]. The team who won the league is the team who won the final game. But restaurants are not about this. Mixing those two ideas is completely fucking lunatic, and [this is what’s done by] the Michelin stars, the 50 Best. In general, this is reviewing that wants to create a sport from it, that wants people to participate without knowing how to win. The rules are defined day by day by people with subjective points of view.

But it is good to have recognition, isn’t it? Relæ, for example, was recognized by both Michelin and the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

There’s an incredible embodied narcissism in this industry that is extremely difficult to deal with. It’s extremely difficult because it’s tempting. We all have our egos, we all have an element of narcissism... We live in a world where recognition is as volatile as anything. And you have to understand that it’s not only a problem if people don’t like what you do, it’s also a problem when people really like what you do, because it fucks with you.

That’s why I’m really proud of what Relæ has always been, I said fuck everything. In the very beginning, I was extremely anti-everything. I didn’t want to have a Michelin star because I thought it was not the kind of restaurant we wanted to be. But then we did get a Michelin star. And I was crying from joy because this recognition was not based on me wanting to get a Michelin star and achieving it; it was being recognized for doing what I wanted to do.

The most important thing you can do when you’re in the 50 Best is enjoy it, because it’s not going to last. I saw many ambitious people [commit to] big investments to be on the list, only to fall 20 spots and lose everything. How can you let yourself be defined by 700, 900 people who [judge]? I think that is something this industry makes you look away from. It pulls you in with these ideas that you are a superstar because you’re cooking food.

What does the end of Relæ and Manfreds mean for this era of Copenhagen dining?

I think that, in all humility, Relæ and Manfreds will still live in the restaurants that keep coming to the city; I’ve seen the impact that they have caused on other local restaurants. Manfreds has had a significant impact compared to what people [originally thought] of food in this city: food to share, casual setting, vegetable-based dishes, the iconic tartare… they are everywhere [now], and I mean it. Two, three years ago, I would see this in restaurants, and I would be pissed off because they were my competition. But now — and I just literally realized it as I was telling the staff that we were closing — it struck me that I will go from being annoyed when I see these things, or from being in a situation where I feel that they’re taking something from us, to understanding when many say that when people copy what you do it’s a compliment. This is something that makes me proud.

On another level, I’m pleased by the many people who have worked for me and who will take these references and put their blend into it. And that’s also what I hope for the actual restaurant, since we have not decided what to do with those buildings. Either we will sell it to someone interested in buying it, or go into some business scenario where I’m just silently investing in some young talent that wants to bring it forward. That would be a good next chapter.

Rafael Tonon is a journalist and food writer living between Brazil and Portugal.