Rich pickings – Michelin-starred chef Rasmus Kofoed16 December 2016
An incredible year for Rasmus Kofoed has seen his restaurant, Geranium, gain three Michelin stars – the first in Denmark. But the multi-award-winning chef is keeping calm, as Tina Nielsen discovers.
Rasmus Kofoed is tired of talking about his childhood. So often has the story of the vegetarian upbringing, the Rudolf Steiner education, and days roaming around in nature been told that he seems relieved not to talk about it again. However, it is an obvious place to start when considering the career of the Danish chef who has taken his restaurant Geranium to the top, largely while staying out of the limelight – a feat often coveted by top chefs today.
It set him on a very different path to other people of his generation – most children in 1970s and 1980s Denmark were brought up on a diet of meat and potatoes, but Kofoed’s mother preferred to pack his lunches with beetroot and cucumber while his classmates would tuck into ham or salami sandwiches.
“Growing up with vegetarian food is definitely one of the key factors in my career,” he says. “I really love vegetables, and because I was introduced to them at an early stage in my life, I think I am more open to new flavours. I have done the same with my daughter, taking her foraging for plants, herbs and wild berries, and she is really open, she likes everything.”
On a clear day, you can see Sweden from the dining room on the eighth floor of Denmark’s national stadium, Parken, in Copenhagen. The restaurant looks across the Fælledparken urban park, which is a constant source of inspiration for Kofoed.
“It is really special to stand here and dress plates and have this beautiful view, to see the tree crowns and the colours,” he says.
Kofoed named the restaurant Geranium partly as a symbol of the kitchen. “It is a green plant and the kitchen here is very green – we use a lot of vegetables, seasonal plants, herbs, leaves and flowers. We don’t serve so much meat,” he explains. To be clear, the Geranium menu is not vegetarian, but Kofoed often prefers meaty flavours and textures to the meat itself.
“There’s a dish with morel mushrooms, which are very meaty, and young cabbage sprouts where I use juice made from roasted duck feet – so it is actually a waste product, but by using it this way I achieve more than I would if I put a slice of meat on the dish.”
Kofoed is among the most decorated chefs in the world and this year has been a whirlwind. In February, Geranium became the first restaurant in Denmark to be awarded three Michelin stars, eclipsing the more famous – and three times voted the world’s best – Noma, which retains its two. Shortly after, Kofoed coached Hungary to the gold medal in Bocuse d’Or Europe. In July, Geranium was one of 88 in the world to be awarded the coveted Grand Award from Wine Spectator.
“It’s crazy,” he says. “Sometimes I think I am still dreaming.”
While the accolades have kept coming, Kofoed and business partner Søren Ledet have kicked off the third incarnation of Geranium. Following the arrival of new investor Lars Seier in April 2015, the pair became co-owners, and earlier this year oversaw a refurbishment of the restaurant. “It was nice because I am spending a lot of my life here, so it is just a formal thing but it means a lot,” he says. “We are happier than before because it is more our place than it was. Before, we did not have much control of bookings, PR and the window to the outside world, because someone else was doing it.”
His partnership with Ledet goes back a long time – they first met at a party as students – and the pair have become well known on the Danish culinary scene. Ledet is in charge of the wines and is the restaurant manager. “He is a very skilled chef but he now finds love in wine and in serving guests,” says Kofoed. “It is really important to have someone who is a loyal friend; we can debate things but we are both very dedicated to the Geranium spirit.”
Kofoed undertook his training at various restaurants in Copenhagen and, after completing his time in the restaurant of the Hotel d’Angleterre, he headed to Belgium to work at the two-starred Scholteshof. He’d wanted to learn French but ended up in the Flemish part of Belgium. Still, the experience served as another milestone in his career. “I was there for five or six months – it was hard and I was really alone, but I was filled with inspiration when I left,” he says. “The restaurant was so ahead of its time. There was a garden with plants, berries and apple trees; they farmed their own sheep and turkeys, made their own wine. They used plants in a way I had never seen before – they did tomato with oregano sorbet for dessert. I thought ‘you cannot do that’, but yes, you could do that, and it was so inspiring.”
He took the approach with him when he left and, at Geranium, what diners find on the plate should reflect what they see when they look out through the floor-to-ceiling windows to the park, whether that’s the yellow and red of autumn, the green of summer or the bare tree crowns of winter. “The menu has to reflect the seasons,” he says. “Sure, you can use something preserved from the summer in winter, but the main message needs to be that when you sit here, you’ll see things that you can find just now.”
Eye on the prize
Success in competitions is one of the things that sets Kofoed’s trajectory apart from his contemporaries. In 2003, he
won the best chef title in Denmark and entered the Bocuse d’Or in 2005, winning bronze at the first attempt. It was a Danish chef, Jens Peter Kolbeck, who set Kofoed on the competition path. “He won silver in 1993 and when I saw the photos of the dishes he made I just thought, ‘Wow, this is mind-blowing. I have to do this one day.’ I didn’t know food could be so beautiful and so creative.” The silver trophy followed in 2007, gold in 2011, but before that he took gold at Bocuse d’Or Europe in 2010. He is first chef to have won all three medals.
Nine years of pursuing the Bocuse d’Or served as a sort of parallel education.
“If I hadn’t had all the years with the competition, maybe I wouldn’t be cooking now; it is something that has refined me and developed me as a human being and as a chef. It helped me to find myself and my voice on the plate.”
This year, Kofoed coached Hungary to victory in Bocuse d’Or Europe and, in doing so, helped create a bit of history. “They have never won anything, not even close, and they came in and they were really strong,” he says. “For me it was fun to meet people who were really committed to the challenge, and together we created and succeeded, and they won. It was incredible.” The next job will be to get the team ready for the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon next year.
So what does it take to become a champion chef? “You need to have a passion for competing. You can’t be too impulsive because you need to see the beauty in developing your dish and make it better and better,” he explains. “Some will burn their hands the first time; they are confused, they can’t handle the pressure and all the people watching them.”
The competition also taught him the discipline that he now passes on. “I give the chefs structure and organisation tools so they don’t get stressed, regardless of how busy we are in the kitchen,” he says. “They are calm through service; we can be busy but it will never be out of control. It is not that I want them to be robots, but they need to feel they are safe so they can easily walk out and present their dishes, smile, have a joke and talk to the guests.”
Third time’s a charm
Good things come in threes for Kofoed. There are the stars from Michelin, his competition trophies, and the birth of
his third child this year. Geranium is also in its third incarnation – despite its successes it has had to close twice, largely due to financial mismanagement of investors. “The first time it was difficult because it was two investors who got into a fight – about money of course – and Geranium got stuck in the middle. It went political and they hit each other through the restaurant,” he says. “So we have been a bit unlucky, but that is what life is like sometimes; it is not always easy to do what you want to do, and you learn from your mistakes.”
When Seier, the co-founder and former CEO of Saxo Bank, came on board in 2015, it was a perfect opportunity to change the restaurant design and format. Central to the refurbishment was moving the kitchen into the dining room.
“I really want to bring down the walls and the barriers between the restaurant and the kitchen and have the waiters going into the kitchen and the chefs going out into the restaurant,” he says. “It was my idea to face the diners. It is also for the logistics – we can see if a guest is away from the table – but most of all they can feel the energy we are creating, because it is not easy to make all the food in front of the people we are serving; it is fragile. We can’t hide anything and I like it that way.”
Kofoed recalls that as head chef of Krogs Fiskerestaurant in Copenhagen he entered the dining room just four or five times in two years. “But I was not talking to people; you didn’t do it at the time. Why not?” he asks. “It is important. Cooking is very personal and for me I like to see who is taking care of me when I am out to dinner.”
As well as being a supportive investor, Seier is a frequent guest at the restaurant and continues to be an enthusiastic fan. Importantly for Kofoed and Ledet, there’s a degree of freedom to produce the food they believe in. Kofoed says he does listen to feedback from diners but emphasises the importance of self-belief as a chef. “You need to believe that what you want to do is the right way,” he says.
“Of course, running a restaurant like this is not easy and everyone who has done it knows that it is not easy. Maybe it can look beautiful from the outside, with the white tablecloths and just 36 guests, glasses of champagne and all these lovely new dishes. Yes, that is what you see, but behind it there is really hard work and a lot of dedication and a lot of decisions to be made.”
As a chef who has found his place in the culinary world, Kofoed seems content to quietly enjoy the success and see what comes next. He is doing it at his own pace, ensuring there is time for family as well as work – and that essential time exploring the great outdoors.
“I love living in the city but it is important you can go out in the forest and get away to be close to the ocean and going deeper in nature,” he says. “The last year has been incredible, but I don’t think about the awards when I go to work or when I am at Geranium. Everything is happening almost at the same time, so everybody in the team is giving a bit more.”
Previously published in FCSI’s Foodservice Consultant magazine. www.fcsi.org