On a recent flying visit to Copenhagen I had an opportunity to catch up with Rasmus Kofoed at Geranium. Every time we meet I really enjoy our conversations that range from food, to travel, family, industry goings on, and life. People around him comment about how he is so animated and it is unusual to see him engage in lengthy conversations with other visitors. Rasmus is surprisingly unaffected by his celebrity status and very likable and real. In every exchange he really lights up when he talks about his kids and listening to him describe his foraging trips with his daughter, picking blackberries that she loves as much as her father. I can almost visualize their little faces smeared with berry juice.
His attention to detail is visible in the succession of twenty or so courses that arrive at the table; beautifully plated with tastes and flavors that linger on the palate. Geranium is truly a destination restaurant and worth a detour, and the Michelin Nordic Guide for 2016 has finally found it worthy of a third Michelin star. Kofoed is undoubtedly one of the top chefs of our time considering he has won three culinary Olympic Bocuse d’Or trophies he is truly deserving of his star status. He should have landed the third star a while ago with his food and Soren Ledit’s wine program and hospitality.
Rasmus Kofoed of Geranium: Three Stars For Denmark
by Geeta Bansal, for The Daily Meal
Rasmus Kofoed has done it again winning his third prestigious Michelin star ahead of any other restaurant in Denmark. It’s no surprise coming from this super talented chef who so far is the only man to have earned the gold, silver, and bronze trophies at the Bocuse d’Or, the world’s most prestigious culinary competition. At a ceremony held days ago at the Hotel D’Angleterre in Copenhagen where he once trained years ago, he was recognized as being at the top of his game and received his third star. After winning Danish Chef of the year in 2003 he set out on his remarkable journey which has taken him and Geranium to dizzying heights not to mention the eighth floor above Parken, the Danish national stadium in Copenhagen. The first two Michelin stars arrived in the first two years of opening in 2011 and 2012 and in the interim Geranium also made an entry into the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list three years ago and is holding at #42 since 2015.
Greeting guests as they step into the lounge at Geranium, the three Bocuse d’Or trophies proudly announce the chef’s culinary expertise and the spectacular experience that awaits. On my last visit restaurant was bathed in soft evening light as the sun set over the tree tops outside the windows which offer spectacular views over the lush green surroundings, the city’s rooftops, and the distant sea. The tall slim-built chef strode in smiling from the kitchen before the evening service began at ease in his refurbished, striking Danish dining room which seemed different from my last visit. Rasmus was excited to show me around the new space, especially the new inspiration kitchen (which also doubles as a private event space) and the new wine cellar, the pride of the two co-owners, Kofoed and his partner and sommelier Søren Ledet. A tad shy and mistakenly perceived as stand offish, Kofoed warmly greets guests at their tables where he might even bring a dish or two to the table himself. Guests are escorted into the sparkling kitchen area during their meal to see the live action and meet the team who are happy to engage with guests.
Once the aesthetically plated food arrives at the table and the taste buds are saturated with flavors and textures guests enjoy their experience in the elegant dining room where the views change with the seasons. On the autumn menu, a desert course described as a “naked tree” recreated the scene as it mimicked the trees outside dropping their leaves. It was typical Rasmus, an edible poetic composition with dark beer, prunes and cream that reflected the chef’s nature oriented sensibilities perfectly and unforgettably. Kofoed’s cuisine has that special magic that definitely puts it in the category of restaurants worth a special journey.
Questions for Rasmus:
There is a different vibe to Geranium and it seems changed from my last visit. Is there a general shift towards toning down fine dining to offer a more relaxed experience to diners?
I feel we have always aimed to do that, of course we want to give our guests a great night but we are not robots but human beings with individual brains and we want our guests to be comfortable and relaxed while we cook for them, serve them some great wine. We try to balance the atmosphere and I feel our lounge is more welcoming now. We just lightened everything up because we felt it was a bit formal and even the new furniture is made from lighter Danish wood.
The season is changing and its dark outside so now the space appears brighter. We took the long heavy couch away as we felt it was blocking the view and after being in this space over time we have a better sense and can envision how to express our ideas. When you move into a new apartment or home it doesn’t fell like home till you tweak things to your taste. It’s the same with a restaurant; we have been here for five years now and time has just flown by, but finally we have put our own stamp on the space. Now, it feels like home to us and after testing out some ideas we knew what we needed to do with the space and it’s the same for the menu. In the early seasons we probably had too many servings and now we do fewer but more focused servings. We are still going to give the guests who are very international and come to us from around the world a great experience.
In the early years we had mainly Danish guests in the restaurant and I remember we had only one English speaking person in the kitchen, and then we had only two Danish speaking people including myself, but we have recently brought in a couple of Danish cooks. It’s great to have all these languages in the house so when guests have questions we can answer them in different languages. For example my sous chef from France can speak with the French guests in their own language, an Italian cook can address guests from Italy, a Californian chef who came from Thomas Keller’s kitchen and just went back for guests from the US. I remember people from California especially loved to speak with him.
What kind of questions do guests have for these international cooks in your kitchen?
They want to know what brings them to Denmark and to Geranium. It is good because it opens up communication and a dialogue and makes guests comfortable. It is exactly the atmosphere we need in order to provide them the best experience with our food, wine and service.
A lot of chefs have been through here and some of my former staff has opened up their own places. Recently my sous chef who was with me even before I came here is now the Head Chef at Atera in New York and it has two Michelin stars and is doing very well.
Of course people move and are not here forever and they need to give something to us and I also give them a lot from me. They see and learn how the kitchen is functioning here and also get recipes, plating styles and when they go back to their own country or place they carry all this along. Some open right here in Denmark and it’s great to see that.
On average, how much time do most people spend in your kitchen?
I think the guy who stayed the longest so far was here four and half years. My assistant head chef Will from Australia has actually been with me for five years now. Sometimes you can have people for too long in the kitchen and somehow their mindset gets fixed. On the other hand six months is way too short and one year is ok, but I like them to be here at least two years. You cannot tell them to stay if they don’t want too and it is pointless to do so. I will not gain anything by having people here who don’t want to be here, maybe they are not serious enough and they are blocked and will neither progress themselves nor let things move forward around them.
Is this flitting around a byproduct of the preoccupation of young cooks to build impressive resumes?
Yes we see that from people who have been here a week or two writing on their CVs that they have been working at Geranium. That is why we don’t give much importance to CV’s for chefs wanting to come here. I feel that sometimes there are just too many names and not enough time spent in those kitchens. Then wow! An alarm rings and quite frankly it doesn’t matter where they have been because over everything else it’s about their mentality. If they really want to be here and give something they can be a good fit. We start them in different levels and the most important thing is that they should have the desire to learn and progress and bring something to the team.
Why is it important to change constantly?
I feel we all need to change a little every day. A restaurant is like a living entity and we need to be a living part of it. We need to be a part of creating this atmosphere for our guests who come to our restaurant. The kitchen needs to be a living, evolving component to bring something and give something to this atmosphere. In that respect it is important that people who don’t want to be here find another place for them to work.
When my partner Soren Ledit and I worked at the old Geranium location we envisioned a better location to present our concept. Incidentally Soren is one of the best chefs in Denmark and he chose to work in the front of the house. Initially we had planned in taking weekly turns alternating between the kitchen and the dining room but he loved it so much that he never came back to the kitchen. Now he is a sommelier and has won championships, become master of wine, and I am really happy for him that he found his passion in wine.
I am amazed at the many layers and facets of this world of gastronomy. When I first started I did not know any of this as I while growing up was helping my mother when she went foraging while my step dad took me out fishing. We would smoke the fish with juniper wood and herbs in the garden. I used to live within nature in a forest and I could hear the shots being fired from the hunter’s guns and some would hit the roof scaring us kids and we ran for cover.
We did not have a TV and I knew nothing about cooking, I never watched a cooking show or even know what the Michelin guide was or even names of any famous chefs. We did not have the means to eat at fancy places. Sometimes my dad would take me to an Italian, Greek or Chinese restaurant and though I ate a lot of spring rolls I did not know anything about the fancy food world. I do not miss having seen this world and I actually appreciate that it came very late to me. My interest came not because of any celebrity chef but out of my interest and curiosity about products. I liked to create food out of edible things as I found it fascinating. then came the other layers, as I learned more about wine, fermentation and other processes, even coffee and it’s still ongoing. Even if you spend your whole life in kitchen you barely scrape the surface of all the knowledge out there.
Can you envision yourself as having gone into another side of gastronomy besides cooking?
I would have liked to work with handicraft materials. Copper, for example, as we did in school when we shaped it and painted. My school was a very creative school and has probably inspired my cooking. I remember once we juiced plants and flowers and used it to these make amazing patterns on absorbent paper. There were all these amazing colors and it was so impressive to see the shapes forming. I remember this from my chemistry or physics class thirty years ago and still want to learn more about this process.
I can’t really say since I feel that just as a restaurant needs to progress as a living entity and it is the same with cuisine. I did not write my name on a document to state what my cuisine is and I have just been doing what I find logical and what makes sense to me. As I develop as a human being, getting older I might change direction a little but the main character or product I feel is still the same. The influences of other cuisines have been here a while in Denmark but now they are more noticeable as we have chefs coming from outside using Nordic ingredients in their cuisine.
Speaking for myself, Geranium is still the same, or has the same base as five years ago but since it is a living entity I am constantly searching for inspiration. Sometimes I find it in nature as in the trees outside our windows, at times it’s from my childhood or from the arts. At time I am focusing on aspects other than food such as how to take better care of our guests and how sometimes we can be more flexible.
Sometimes it’s the snacks we serve before the meal that get my attention. I would say it’s like recording a song and you are constantly fine tuning it. It’s not that I am never satisfied or happy with what I create, I just find it endless because time is flying, and changing and I am pushing these boundaries further, adjusting the time a little here and there. I think I will continue to do that till the last day in this kitchen which is in the very distant future.
Will the food culture in Denmark change as a result of the upcoming new format of Noma next year as it has been a big influence in Nordic cuisine?
Difficult to say, but I think they are under pressure because of all the focus on the restaurant and people associate Rene Redzepi and Noma with changing all the time. This process of developing is just being alive as we spoke about earlier and also to get attention from the world. If you don’t change it up people will not write about you so it’s natural. On the other hand it’s very brave of them to change their location since they don’t have to. Three years ago I was planning to move a little up the coast and have a goat, few chickens and ducks and I was thinking about having a little hotel on the premises for guests to stay!
I think we spoke about that dream two years ago too. So what held you back?
(Laughing) I will do that one day but now is not the time. I am here in the city and have to work with that. If I was in the middle of a forest I would not need to bring the nature in so much as we do here. But believe me one day I will have that place, it’s not something I need now but it will come in the future.
Looking out from the windows here all you see is greenery and treetops with the ocean in the distance. Is this connection with nature important for you?
I think it stems from the need to be close to nature. It makes us relax and feel in harmony with our surroundings. I am always trying to search for ways to give this connection to our guests here. Our location here is urban but you can see the sky, the forests, water as well as the Olympic stadium. Since we have International guests it makes sense to me to work around the seasons, to bring in seasonal products. Since I grew up in Copenhagen and Denmark I am inspired by Danish culinary history as well. I feel that it is important to me to feel good about the food we are doing, so I feel happy with the dishes we serve them and proud of what we do.
As you know I grew up with a vegetarian mother and lot of my family members are 100% vegetarian but though at home with my family we eat vegetables I am not completely vegetarian. It’s not that I cannot eat meat and prefer only fish but people in general have been eating too much meat. I did not change anything in my cuisine as even in the old Geranium location we had this less meat-focused philosophy. Nowadays everyone is working towards that.
It makes sense in a way of being aware of the world, taking care of the environment. I buy biodynamic (organic) produce from local farmers. It’s a simple process of a farmer coming directly to me and I pay him cutting out extra steps in between. I work very closely with this particular farm.
You cook for a materially blessed clientele who come for a spectacular experience but if you were cooking for those unable to afford such cuisine how different would your cooking be?
I also do that besides cooking here at Geranium I cook simple meals for my family at home and I do events outside and even here at the restaurant. One time I cooked a family style meal with my mother who is a great vegetarian cook in our Geranium kitchen and we invited seventy guests, mainly families with kids. So all our colleagues came with their families on a Sunday, Rene Redzepi was here with his family as we’re a lot of other chefs and it was a great way to spend time with friends because we are always working and don’t get to see each other.
We did a twelve course menu with only vegetables. It was a good way to introduce vegetables to kids. We also had pan cakes and vanilla ice cream and black currant jam which is one of my favorite desserts. We donated the proceeds from the event to UNICEF. I actually liked that we can use the restaurant space for different things.
One time I was here when the dining room was full of some of the most well-known chefs from around the world. Is it unnerving to cook for chefs?
Actually I enjoy cooking for chefs.
I think competition among chefs is not that strong in Copenhagen. Everyone wants to give their guests the best and make it special since they shell out a lot of money for it. A lot of diners come here to celebrate a special occasion and we all want to make it memorable in our restaurants.
Do you get hard to please guests, and if so, how do you deal with them?
We luckily don’t have a lot of them. People come here for different reasons and few times even though we were trying to do our best they were not pleased. It is important for guests to be open to the experience, leaving aside the food and wines, if they simply don’t want an experience we cannot do much. You need two for a dance!
Once someone was sitting in view of the kitchen and I went out there to present some snacks because I was told that they were looking a little unhappy. They wanted to leave and I requested them to give me a chance and offered them the meal on me and to at least give us an opportunity. When I went to the table again they said they still wanted to go and that really hurt my feelings. So you can only do so much.
I cannot change my cuisine to satisfy different tastes or expectations as then there will be no Rasmus in the food. I need to believe in myself and in what I am doing. Most people plan ahead to visit us; they read about us and really want to come.
Have your own food preferences changed over the years?
I never used to drink coffee and now I find myself drinking too much of it. Before I met my girlfriend I only drank herb tea and after the kids came I don’t get much sleep so the aroma and flavor of coffee is comforting and I invariably reach for it. I really need to break this cycle. It’s strange as a child I hated the taste and flavor of coffee though I loved chocolate.
I remember once as a child at a birthday celebration there were all these beautiful chocolates and I picked one up and bit into it and in the center was a roasted coffee bean. I absolutely hated it!
Was the restaurant open during the remodel and construction?
It was a little complicated to work while we were open and it actually went on longer than we had expected. It was three months during which we closed Sunday through Tuesday. The staff had to do extensive cleaning each time afterwards and it was noisy but we made it through. Now we are on the other side of that phase and we have a more beautiful restaurant.
We have a new wine cellar now and a new inspiration kitchen where I enjoy working on new ideas. Over time to continue to be inspired and move forward it’s a space where I make new dishes and this new kitchen has become very important to my work.
We are planning to move the kitchen from its existing location to the back of the room in view of our guests. (This has already happened since our conversation)
You are a well-known name also a judge at the Bocuse d’Or, having won three trophies yourself. Do you think that formal French service as an influence of this platform will reemerge in restaurants?
Many people think that it is outdated but now it’s becoming more relevant and does exert a tremendous influence on gastronomy. Participating and preparing for it is like studying for a doctorate. In order to participate you have to take one or two years and work specifically on ingredients and learn everything about them that you can. I learned a lot about monkfish and lamb as I worked with them during that time.
A lot of people say his silver platter service is outdated, but if you actually taste it instead of just looking at it you will understand that to win it’s not just how it looks. The most points are given for the flavor. It needs to look good but more importantly it needs to be delicious to win and chefs do really clever things. I was a judge in the Norwegian classification and then for USA who came in second which was really great for them. They worked with salmon, sea urchin and scallops and I think I tasted some of the best salmon ever. They cooked salmon on a hot stone and took it directly from there’s to the judging. It was perfectly cooked and super tasty.
Do chefs now consider American gastronomy in a different light after last year’s second placement?
I think Americans were really hungry for the Bocuse d’Or and now they finally made it to the podium. Thomas Keller was a great mentor as a chef and Grant Achatz is very creative, Joshua Skenes is very talented and so many other great chefs.
You sometimes do events with guest chefs here. Who do you like to invite, big name chefs or friends?
We do such events though not so often because with restaurant and the family there is not much time to organize these. We have chefs come who are connected to Geranium; either they are some of my former staff or good friends.
I will be going to the Maldives this year and it will be interesting. I hope to be cooking in shorts and hopefully will find new inspiration and since I will be cooking on my own I will not be able to hide behind anyone and just be in complete charge of everything on my own. It’s also a challenge for me to test myself again. There will be no commis to peel the potatoes but I will be cooking on this beautiful island that I first visited two years ago.
The restaurant where I will be cooking sent me a chart with thirty different fish out of which I only recognize tuna. So I said, “OK, I will bring my mentality, my heart and my experience and will take it from there.” Everything is from the waters or an organic garden and things like lemongrass and lime which I wouldn’t use here but the philosophy of cooking locally will be similar to Geranium. It’s an exchange; last time I learned a lot and am proud to say I taught them a lot.
Did you pick up any new techniques?
They do this amazing tuna stock with a whole tuna and vegetables for five hours and then strain it and you get this meaty, rounded stock, so deep in flavors and I have to say its the best stock I have ever tasted in my life.
How are the young people in your family doing? The last time we met your son was just a year old.
My little son is almost two years now and my daughter Camille is almost four and I spend a lot of time with them as I think it’s very important. That is why I don’t travel as much since I have my little family at home and my restaurant family here to take care of. I also want to see friends, play sports and extended family so I don’t have time to travel as much. In fact I don’t have enough hours in the day to accomplish all that I would like to.
I like when we as a team are really dancing around in the kitchen and dining room during service and when everything is like a well-choreographed ballet. We don’t even need to talk, we can look each other in the eyes and know exactly what each one is going to do and afterwards we can say Wow! we had a great dance tonight. It’s just an amazing feeling when every component works beautifully. It’s not that it should be boring with all of us working like robots, but it’s like we know each other well and have been working together and are in sync. We have created a great atmosphere along with the food.