An extended version of my interview with chef Søren Selin of Restaurant AOC, Copenhagen. A part of this interesting conversation was recently published on Examiner.com.
Chef Soren Selin of Restaurant AOC: Michelin-Starred Authentic Nordic Cuisine
by Geeta Bansal
And then there were three! Two Michelin starred restaurants in Copenhagen, Denmark that is.
Joining Noma and Geranium last year in the two Michelin-star lineup is Restaurant AOC helmed by Chef Søren Selin. The restaurant with a subdued ambiance is uniquely housed in the cellar of a 17th century building, a short walk from the picturesque water front of Nyhaven. The minimalistic decor with whitewashed walls and vaulted ceilings are a perfect backdrop for chef Selin’s beautifully plated dishes, with wine pairings by co-owner Christian Aarø, the champion sommelier. Aarø invited Chef Selin and his imaginative cuisine on board in the Spring of 2013 after the departure of Head Chef Ronny Emborg.
Selin brought to the table his cuisine rooted in Danish ingredients as well as the expertise acquired over time at restaurants such as the Michelin starred Le Relais Louis XIII and Jules Verne in Paris, as well as the Alberto K in Copenhagen’s Hotel Royal. On leaving his Executive Chef position after four years at the post, Selin asked his sous chef Jakob Bar Mogensen to join him and Aarø to create a new culinary hotspot in the city. Now while the kitchen sends out remarkable food, Aarø expertly puts guests at ease with his attentive service team and encyclopedic knowledge on all matters relating to wine. The dining room at Restaurant AOC has unusually more local guests than at the other two-star Michelin restaurants in the city, and many appear to be frequent and repeat customers.
The tasting menu only restaurant has also delved into a more casual space named NO2 next door offering a la carte menu making it friendlier to casual diners in a city with a bustling restaurant scene. Selin’s kitchen is focused on artistically plated food as he believes it magnifies the flavors and allows for an enhanced exploration of the senses leading to an exceptional dining experience. Extensively traveled and well-versed in various cuisines, Selin recently explored Baja California while he was in Mexico City to cook his Nordic cuisine. The soft-spoken articulate young chef, while restrained in extolling the virtues of his own kitchen, is very generous with giving credit to other chefs such as Rene Redzepi of Noma for shining the spotlight on Nordic cuisine and the region as a whole.
Familiar with the history of the food culture of his region, he shared his insight in an interesting conversation about the various aspects of his work:
Copenhagen food halls and markets display a variety of ethnic food options these days. Are these cuisines becoming part of the local food culture?
I think because Denmark is such a small country we have been looking towards other countries for many years especially since the eighties. Initially it was Spain, Italy, and France, and then in the nineties Thai and Middle Eastern cuisines came into the mix. Then came this fusion cooking trend and it seemed incredible that you could combine this different flavors and herbs etc. It made a lot of sense back then but now it seems more interesting to focus just on one specific region and what it has to offer and that is what a lot of chefs are doing here especially in high end restaurants. This is authentic cuisine of the region.
In your cuisine references to Asian cuisine, Japanese techniques, and the recent interest in Turkish or Moroccan flavors are not visible. Is this a conscious choice?
For the past few years I don’t really follow a dogma but just do what feels right to me or is interesting to me. It would feel a little off for me to deliberately include these influences but who knows, maybe in two weeks I would feel differently. For me it would be more about the techniques than the ingredients. Maybe I will be more interested in old techniques from these cultures for making bread or dessert. Right now we serve a Vanilla Pot which is based on a technique from South America called nixtamalización for which we use calcium hydroxide commonly known as slaked lime and potassium hydroxide or ash to create alkaline solution for this preparation and this has never been done before here. On the other hand using something like basil which is typically Italian will feel wrong in our kitchen.
Looking back over the years, has your cuisine changed or shifted focus?
Definitely! I feel when you get older as a chef or person you become more rounded and I feel this applies to food as well. Right now people really like comfort food that tastes really nice and is not complicated. Simple dishes are more difficult to get on a plate such as the whole onion we are serving now to which we add another element with table side service. If we send it out of the kitchen pre-plated it may look too simple and the guest’s reaction will not be the same.
Why do you tend to have a lot of interactive elements on your plates?
When you sit down for a meal that takes three to four hours it is nice to be a participant and so it doesn’t get boring. If all twenty courses required the diners to do something it would be too much so you have to keep a balance in involving diners. The table side service is very French and it is nice to recreate it and let the guest in on what we do the kitchen.
There are some striking dishes and flavors on your menu that are unique to your style. What inspires these dishes?
It is important to me that even if I am influenced by what other chefs are doing to create an experience at my restaurant that is unique. It should be different and something new, something either I or other people never made before. I know it’s hard to say but I know myself when I take something that I have seen or tasted before and then do not use it in my work. I get the most pleasure when I can honestly say to myself that this is my own idea and, I worked on it to make a great dish.
Has the second Michelin star changed the way you prepare or present food in your restaurant?
I set high standards for myself anyway and I don’t know if that is a positive or negative thing. Of course people have higher expectations when they come to a two star but I think that the pressure you put on yourself is your choice. If you consider only pressure from outside then you can get comfortable instead of reaching for the next level of exploration. Still in all honesty I have to say that when I am thinking of new dishes now I am more careful.
The Michelin and a spot on the 50 Best Restaurants list have become the barometers of a chef’s prowess and a restaurants success these days. Is such recognition beneficial for the personal growth of a chef?
It all depends on the chef and how he copes with it. Some people can’t take that pressure and while others can become too arrogant but time will tell. What do you do when you have these dreams and goals within yourself? And then when you reach them then you have to have new ones to fulfill. Marco Pierre White wrote about how he lost interest once he got the three Michelin stars, so that can happen too.
In Denmark Noma and Redzepi cast a long shadow and it is an international destination restaurant. What is it like to operate as a restaurateur and chef in this situation?
As a restaurateur I am not affected by it because it’s not like they are taking a huge bite of the cake and not leaving enough for others. In reality they are making the cake even bigger for all of us. I really like the way Rene Redzepi cooks and influences everyone. I am inspired by his work and even a little bit jealous (laughing). He is always a step ahead and I feel that more now than before but then I am me and everyone else is their own person.
It is really an extraordinary achievement and Noma is rightfully the most interesting restaurant to eat at in the world in my opinion.
Is the shift to this reimagined version of Noma going to send people scrambling to follow suit in Denmark and elsewhere?
Definitely, and Rene is also very good at picking up on what is coming next. It’s like Dan Barbers restaurant in New York which I have been wanting to visit for a while with this whole concept of a restaurant on a farm. When you are a restaurant in the middle of a city it is something you are envious of. Most chefs like to use the perfect looking or sized produce, and this concept of growing or finding products in the wild for this rustic cooking is contrary to that notion. It a unique experience to enjoy food from the land surrounding the restaurant and Rene caught on to it and went ahead with it. Noma is so influential that a lot of people will be following his footsteps.
Memories about food are a part of chef’s interpretations of cuisine and their personal stories. Is food that you eat growing up a major influence on your palate or in your work?
I didn’t grow up in a very gourmet household but I always loved to eat and looking back I feel it was good to have that appetite and that curiosity. If you want to be a chef you must love food but I wouldn’t say it formed me in any definite way.
Are there ingredients that you dislike that you keep away from your kitchen?
There are chefs who don’t like oysters or cheese, but I am good in that respect. It is hard to work with ingredients you don’t like so thankfully I am fine in that aspect.
Is more natural cooking replacing the molecular gastronomy that was popular a few years ago?
I never really jumped fully on board with the molecular gastronomy. I was in a restaurant at that time where we didn’t have all the technical machines though I was curious about it and did gain knowledge about it. Now what you see is the reaction to that phase when people were manipulating things to make them look like something else whereas now we make things that look like the real product.
Casual dining is replacing fine dining and it first gained momentum here in the Nordic countries. Do you think that is the future?
It is a new feeling of luxury as when you go to Noma you experience this and I like it but it’s not something you can go ahead and duplicate. They have been practicing it for a long time and it’s that Scandinavian touch of not wanting too much pomp and circumstance. It’s quite natural for it to be initiated in our region and it started at Noma first and it’s an idea that can also be economical if you do away with linens. People now want a relaxed experience and not in your face service. Chefs serving the food in a high end restaurant is also something that has come from Noma and has spread all over. It started as a necessity because it is very difficult to find waiters in Denmark and at that time they had twenty people in the kitchen and not many on the floor and they decided to send them out with the food.
Chefs are visible in the dining rooms. Do the customers expect this especially from celebrity chefs?
I think they want to see the chefs but there are different types of chefs, some who are more comfortable staying in the kitchen while others are out going. It is a very intimate thing for a chef to meet someone experiencing his food. You never know if they like it or not and while some chefs are shy others love the attention.
Where did you spend your formative years in this industry?
I spent four years at culinary school in Denmark and while there I worked in a hotel and it was a hands-on training. It is hard to say what is a good place to be an apprentice, usually people want to go to a Michelin starred place and odds are that maybe you won’t get to do much there. I was hungry to learn when I started and I did have a rough time but got through it. Unless you actually go somewhere you can’t say if it’s good for you or not, maybe the food is good but maybe you might end up just picking a lot of herbs!
Since you spent time in top restaurants in Paris, has your kitchen been influenced by the classic French style?
I admire the French classic cooking and here in Copenhagen a lot of chefs have been rebelling against that. It is all part of trying to become yourself, but I am one of the chefs really holding on to that classic training and style. It’s always been an important base for me throughout the years as it helps to have a good balance in your food and flavors. If you are not using classic techniques in stock based sauces then you are missing out on good flavor and at the end of the day it’s all about giving as much good flavor to the dish as possible. When I say good flavor I am referring to old school good flavor.
So for you flavor trumps presentation?
Absolutely and lately I have been thinking about why presentation is so important for me and I find that when you find an interesting way to present a dish to the guest is when you actually allow them to have a richer experience. If you see something that you have experienced a hundred times before it is not that exciting and I feel you need to wake people up to a novel experience and that for me justifies the time I spend on preparation. You can be very avant-garde but not everyone needs to be challenged when they come to a restaurant. I feel it’s important to remember that and maybe that is why my menu is not as edgy as other restaurants but I am willing to sacrifice that to and serve delicious food.
Where did you have your best food experience in Mexico, and with globalization and trends is there still any authentic cuisine out there?
Whenever I travel to another country I am on the lookout for an authentic food experience and I can say that for example at this taqueria named Los Parados in Baja as well as at some great places in Monterey authentic Mexican food still exists. When I was traveling in Southeast Asia I was searching for that kind of cuisine just as most people still do and in most cases it is the street food that is still authentic to a place. It does exist though and what we are doing in the Nordic countries by bringing back old food and traditions, wild herbs etc. that were used hundreds of years ago is helping maintain our authenticity.
Which countries have you traveled to in Southeast Asia?
I have been to India, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, and Malaysia amongs others. Actually I did a stage in Bombay and then traveled along the coast up to Madras and then on to Bangkok and in all these travels I ate and enjoyed a lot of authentic food.
Is the recent trend of looking backwards at food ingredients or techniques a major shift in the way we are now looking at or treating food all over the world?
I think it all started with Nordic food wave and other cultures and regions have picked this up to express themselves and their food, especially in the high gastronomy restaurants. It does have a lot to do with trends but a lot of interesting things are following in the wake of these changes. In South America and even North America a lot of things look remarkably like what is coming out of Noma and the Nordic region, maybe some copying is going on. At the same time it has generated interest in old ingredients and ancient cooking techniques from their own region and as a result they have started using their own unique products.
When you travel to cook elsewhere, do you have to adapt your cuisine to what is available or do you carry stuff from home?
When we traveled to Mexico City recently we carried some stuff from here and then sourced the rest at the San Juan market but I cooked my own cuisine that I do here. We have a stagiare from there in our kitchen and he was very helpful. I took sea buckthorn from here and then used some fresh walnuts from the market in Mexico since it was walnut season. I used some trout as well then I did an improvised dish with deer since I was unable to get Muscovy duck that I had originally planned to cook. With that I served grilled cherries, wood sorrel and smoked marrow somewhat like what I serve here with the pigeon.
Since international pop-ups are a popular phenomenon these days, are you planning other such events?
You can call it a pop-up and I have done some and right now there is a lot of interest from around the world and I am open to such collaborations and events. It’s fun but also involves a lot of time away from your own restaurant so I try to limit these. I recently passed on going to Dubai and so you have to be selective. Being in a kitchen is all about being in a kitchen!
Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
Maybe we will have expanded into more restaurants and it could even be overseas if it’s a good situation. If it’s the case I would choose some place warm (laughing).
What makes the cook in you smile?
I am quite a happy cook anyway but I am happiest when I feel I have successfully created a great dish new dish it’s the most rewarding feeling. Anyway I get good ideas when I am in a happy frame of mind.