Danish chef Rasmus Kofoed holds the distinction of being the sole individual in the world who has won the gold, silver and bronze levels of the esteemed Bocuse d’Or culinary competition, a remarkable achievement that has placed him in the count of the top chefs of the world! Rasmus Kofoed first came into the spotlight when he won the title of the Danish Chef of the Year in 2003 and really started on his astonishing culinary journey. This low key, soft spoken chef, schooled in the French kitchen, along with his partner Søren Ledet, the sommelier, owns the acclaimed Geranium restaurant, awarded two Michelin stars within two years of opening in Copenhagen, Denmark. This year Geranium placed #42 on the Restaurant Magazine’s World’s 50 Best Restaurant List. Last year while in Lima I had a conversation about Nordic cuisine with Chef Bent Stiansen of Norway, who had won the Bocuse d’Or twenty odd years ago; we spoke of chefs I knew and restaurants I had visited in his region. Noma had been the focus of my visits to Copenhagen but I told him I was planning to be back in the summer and visit Geranium and he suggested I put Geranium at the top of my list. I was glad I did and on the evening I was there, many other well-known chefs from around the world were in the dining room including Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of 11 Madison in NYC and the Voltaggio brothers. Despite the added pressure of having so many peers in the restaurant both Rasmus and Soren were personally attending to every guest in a casual, friendly yet very professional manner. From the moment guests enter the restaurant located on the eight floor above Parken, the Danish national stadium in the Osterbro area of Copenhagen, the vista of the sea, visible above the tree tops, the green copper roofs of the city, the Oresund windmills in the distance and the green grounds, sets the tone of the ensuing meal that takes them on a journey through the season and it’s bounty. The beautiful streamlined kitchen with a bevy of cooks working with complete concentration is the backdrop to the hospitable reception and guests can sense that the complete attention of the kitchen crew is focused on making their experience spectacular. Rasmus grew up in forest like setting with a mother who followed Rudolf Steiner’s approach and introduced him to a biodynamic style of cooking, eating and being in tune with his natural surroundings. During his childhood his father took him fishing and helped forge a lifelong connection to the sea. Each dish on the menu at Geranium is an experience in itself, sensory, visual, aesthetic and perfect, challenging your mind and opening your palate to new possibilities. Rasmus uses cues from his immediate surroundings in picking the best ingredients, not necessarily the most exclusive, to creatively express his vision and recreate nature with simplicity on his plates. Simplicity with a few ingredients is the hardest to create as it is the true test of a chef’s skill. I had an opportunity to visit the kitchen, view the three trophies displayed there and have a conversation with the chef and his team. We met the next day at MAD and then again this summer and we spoke about his experiences and thoughts , about his approach and philosophy which definitely revolves around nature. My questions for Rasmus Kofoed Are you spontaneous in the kitchen or are you methodical?
Since we have established some guidelines for our work here we are spontaneous when they allow us. It can be for instance a snap decision to change the dish for dinner and since we have a lot of people in the kitchen and in the restaurant that can be a challenge but in a good way. So I can say that we do a few spontaneous things and sometimes we change things if guests request us especially if they are in the kitchen. You know we invite guests to the kitchen and show them how we work. If it’s a special day for them we try to make it more special. A restaurant is something that is alive and it supports the energy and the feelings of the guests.
According to you, what are the essential elements of a good dish?
Actually I have the freedom to do what I want and express how I feel. The different elements in a dish need to complement each other and more importantly I need to feel good about a dish otherwise I will not put it on the menu. It’s hard to say what that specific feeling is but it could be if it is really fitting in the season, does it fit in the whole menu and what it adds to the menu. Technique and timing has become so important in the kitchen so do you think cooking is changing from an art form into a science?
Cooking is a lot of things and you need to touch some art, some science, personality, history and you need to feel good about what you are doing otherwise you will not do justice to it. You need good energy around you otherwise it does not make sense to spend that many hours in the kitchen for no reason. So I think cooking is the combination of a lot of things.
It seems that creating visual appeal is becoming more important than retaining taste and flavor in food. What are your thoughts about it?
I think they need to hold their hand but then what is the best flavor, is it truffles or a piece of beef. Great flavor can be many different things… In Denmark we have some of the best dairy products in the world so for me to create a sheep’s milk cream or just our local chèvre can be for me at times a really great flavor. Of course the visual aspect is important because that will communicate the taste, the feeling and so it is a combination. I will never serve something that I won’t eat myself and I am critical about that but simply said looks and taste need to work together. Just putting a technical thing on a plate is not enough as I feel it needs to be backed up by bringing out flavor, the product and the history. It’s not easy and can be quite complicated at times.
In Denmark you have great organic products that are in mainstream use, but is it social consciousness or is it a trend?
It is getting more popular as it was not like this ten years ago when you could not buy such products in the market. These days you can even buy bio- dynamic meals in the supermarket and almost everything is ecologically produced. I don’t think it is a trend as it is very mainstream here and will stay this way in the future. Hopefully in the future we will only see only organic products and not the crappy products that unfortunately some people still buy. Not everyone sees the beauty in buying organic and wants to pay more but actually that is a very small part of the population here.
There is conversation in the culinary community about moving to a more vegetarian diet and that we are slowly phasing out animal products. What do you feel about this?
Here at Geranium I cook what I like to eat myself and what I like are vegetables and fish and not so much meat. This is how we eat as a family at home. I am not creating my menus in this way simply because I think they look good but it is a part of the way I think about life. At the restaurant though like to cook I do at home, the plates look different and we go deeper into the dishes here. You know I was raised by a vegetarian mother and I have gone without meat for a long period of my life. I think we have to learn to see and recognize the beauty in other things.
It’s difficult to explain but if you consider the restaurant, even the name Geranium. It is a plant, a living breathing entity. So a restaurant needs to be alive and you need to feel the energy, the changing seasons, we need to sense the energy from the chefs and the waiters, we need to feel the life. Geranium is a plant that is green in color and we are focusing on working “green” here. We have 22-23 servings here with vegetables. I want guests to experience those and leave happy and feel something in their heart and in their brain. So it is a balancing act and not an easy one. Geranium is also very aromatic and if you touch it, it releases a perfume aroma and that aroma is symbolic of my attempt to wake up the senses. These days people are so busy and so when they take the time to come here we want to awaken the senses, provide social interaction through the servers and all of that is important.
Is your cuisine inspired by nature?
It is not just inspired by nature. I have been cooking since I was twelve and while doing so I developed as a person and so what I like and what I cook is also constantly developing. During my competition period, during my training and even when I was a Head Chef at 23, at that time I was searching to find out what is Rasmus on a plate, and I am still working on that 15 years later. Every day we look at ourselves in the mirror we try to discover the secret within our heart of who we are. Similarly what is Geranium? It’s a restaurant in a city from where you can see nature, the water, tree crowns with beautiful colors and we think what can we do here that is special and that is important. Since you started cooking at 12 are food memories important for a chef in creating or for inspiration?
When I develop or create a new dish or idea I do need some tools to work with and I do pull ideas, inspiration, colors, and images from nature. You need to be open to ideas and if you can find this in looking back in your childhood memories, it’s great. I have been doing a cherry, eel dish with juniper which is based on a childhood memory.
I noticed every time we have met that you are very calm and low-key, but do you ever lose your temper in the kitchen?
I won’t say that I lose my temper but I will say that I want everyone to pay attention to details and give it their all every day because this is what I do. The day I don’t feel like giving it my all I think I should do something else. Is there one thing in the kitchen that upsets you?
At the moment I am really into the minute details that you don’t see as a guest but that are important in the experience. I think the beauty lies in the small things and that is what I focus on in the kitchen. Little things like drops of water on a leaf are significant for me.
What is a typical day in the kitchen for you and your team?
We start at 9:30 with breakfast, sitting down together with coffee and waking up together. We talk as a team about what will go on in the kitchen that day. After the briefing we start our prep and do lunch service from 12 and at 4:30 we sit down again and have a nice family meal. Around five we are back in the kitchen for the evening service and the guests start arriving at 6:30 or so. On Saturdays we have a brief meeting with everyone which is like a motivation session for the team. We share our family and other news and give a round of high fives and go to work.
You have participated in so many competitions in the last 10-12 years. Are you a very competitive person?
In one way yes but I discovered myself and learned about myself in that time. I came to know my limits and my strengths and that was important for me. I was in a lot of competitions and I won a lot of them including the Bocuse d’Or. Now I have my family, my two small kids who I love and care for so I feel a little more relaxed in both my personal and professional career. I have been on this journey for a long time now and I think I have found a good balance now.
You have two young kids would you like them to join this profession?
If they want but I want them to be open to new flavors and for life. They have been here in the restaurant few times and when I go foraging or to pick berries I take them along and they love to pick and taste the berries. That is enough to make my heart melt. They love food already and I take them to the kitchen and my daughter Camilla loves to watch what’s happening in the kitchen and taste things. She is two years and five months and one is just nine months old. (Rasmus had brought his young son to the MAD campus one day) How many hours a day were you training for the various competitions?
As many as I needed which sometimes ranged from eight to twenty hours. I was just ready to give it my all and I was happy doing that because it brought out creativity and gave me an opportunity to express myself. As a chef and a human being it has been the best time of my life and I am really happy about that.
You are content?
Actually I don’t know as this year I have not been traveling out so much because of the restaurant as well as having two very young children. I don’t have an answer to that question. (He is diplomatic!)
When you do travel what are your favorite destinations?
Any one restaurant in particular in the Basque country?
Chef Andoni Aduriz’s Mugartiz restaurant. *At this point we delved into our mutual love of San Sebastian since I travel there every year and will soon be going for the SS Gastronomika. I asked if Aduriz had dined at Geranium and Rasmus said not yet but he will be overjoyed if he did. I promised to convey that to chef Aduriz who is someone I have extreme respect and admiration for and will see again very soon.
For someone who has made it to the top in his field I wanted to know what came next for him so I asked:* What will you be doing five years from now?
I would like to have a small restaurant in the country with a small hotel where guests can get the whole experience. Where they can wake up in the morning, relax and enjoy their surroundings as well as their meals. Maybe I will raise a few chicken, have a few cows and sheep. I don’t think so because though he has already achieved a lot in his life he is not one to rest on his laurels but whatever he does he will give it his all. He is a true family man, very much in touch with his reality and works to share his beliefs and work with everyone who comes into contact with him. As you know I have numerous conversations with people in this industry but a few like Rasmus, Gagnaire, Andoni, and Redzepi touch you on a very elevated intellectual and emotional level and any interaction with them is always enriching.