Enter Relae, a restaurant in Copenhagen’s ethnically diverse Norrebro district, and you find a humble spot that seats roughly 70 guests. The utensils are stored in the drawers of the rustic wood dining tables, much like you would find at home. Johnny Cash plays in the background. The menu lists dishes by a few basic ingredients without pretension, creating a practical yet slightly radical effect.
Chef Christian Puglisi opened Relae in 2010 after he served as sous chef at Noma for a few years. This November, he launched the restaurant’s first cookbook, aptly titled A Book of Ideas (Ten Speed Press). Much like Relae, where the open kitchen serves “conceptual yet comforting” dishes, the book encourages readers/cooks to understand the ideas behind a recipe with essays on everything from technique to theory – with room for an entry dedicated to “Creativity Is In All of Us.” The result is a refreshing and unique take on the everyday cookbook.
We caught up with Christian on a recent evening to discuss his ideas on a plate.
Why “a book of ideas”?
For me, it’s a way of looking underneath the surface and trying to show people what goes on inside a dish. Because a dish is the most superficial expression of a kitchen – it’s just one single isolated thing. If you look deeper, a kitchen is defined by all the ideas that are put into cooking the food: How do you prep fish, how do you use vegetables, how do you store things? Really, a restaurant is not what is made but how things are done. Plus, the idea of writing recipes from a restaurant like Relae is a little bit redundant. It simplifies things to a point where I don’t think people will get much out of it. Honestly, you’ll have a hard time recreating something that people have done every day for hours and hours for a ton of people over years of training. But you can learn. You just need to break up a dish into smaller bits and really understand what each part does and how you can use it. Work to the point where you see the ideas rather than the actual dishes. A list of ingredients does not give you many tools to cook with; it just gives you a procedure. It’s more interesting to focus on learning how you work with food – a particular way of cooking fish or cutting vegetables, for example – because you can take a few of those elements and apply them to something else – such as how acidity reacts with meat. Once you approach cooking that way, you have the tools to go beyond simply following a recipe that calls for some exotic produce. Cooking is not about going on a goose chase for a particular ingredient.
The book looks like an encyclopedia with colored thumb tabs and entries headed with definitions. Is it meant as an everyday reference for the cook who wants to make an easy family meal, as well as the more adventurous chefs out there?
If you look at the dishes and the ideas behind them, then you can pick up a few things that maybe you’ll keep with you and remember every time you cook. In that sense, books like this are very much meant to be used everyday. That’s why I didn’t want to print a conventional recipe book. I can look through a great chef’s book and probably get a few things out of it, thinking “Wow, this is what they do.” But I need to look very carefully at recipes – and I do this for a living! As a regular person, you want to look up what to make for dinner – just jump in and get inspired and feel confident that you can make something. It’s not rocket science. You shouldn’t feel intimidated.
You mention all the details that go into the restaurant – down to the correct dimensions of the tables. Do you feel you were able to distill the restaurant into book form?
Relae is a great restaurant. And it’s a great restaurant because we put a lot of thought into a lot of details and had some good ideas about how to run a restaurant of a high level that would be considered unusual. It was very important to make a book that would not just document that – like, “Look at us; we’re cool. This is what we do. See you later.” It took me a long time trying to figure out how to do this. I didn’t want recipes, because what’s important to list are the ideas behind the dish not just the ingredients. That was my starting point. Then the question became, “How the hell do we do this?” We began jotting down all the dishes we’ve done, and I put them in this crazy spreadsheet. Next to every dish, I wrote tags for what I thought were the ideas behind that particular dish. It was a fantastic process to go deep into all the work we’ve been doing so far, and it forced me to look closely to find common threads. Through trying to analyze what we do, I understood the restaurant as a whole better.
In 2013, Relae received organic certification. That’s a big feat and also a statement. What brought you to make that decision?
A series of things pushed me toward seeking certification. I think a big part had to do with us starting with a great number of limitations, such as having a small room and wanting fast service. But the limitations are what give the restaurant character. The worst setting in which to make a restaurant would be to have everything available. If you don’t need to push yourself, nothing is exciting. So once we became comfortable and thought, “We’ve really got this down,” I wondered, “How do we make this more difficult?” The food that we serve is very cut-to-the-bone and there are few components. The dishes are simple, so the quality of the produce needs to be very high. We’re known for using humble ingredients – we don’t do foie gras or caviar – but we source the best ingredients we can find, using the best vegetables and the freshest fish and the most expensive meats. I’ve also been very conscious of ethics and sustainable practices in the last few years. I want guests at Relae to know that we signed the same contract as a certified organic farmer. It’s interesting to raise the bar in that way.
How is a recipe developed at Relae?
We have a small test kitchen where I work with John, the sous chef. He’s my right-hand guy and has been here since the beginning. Often we’ll bring in the sommeliers and they also give their feedback. Otherwise, it very much depends on the ingredients put before us – something is going out of season and we need to change the dish, for example, or our meat guy walks in with the most amazing pork. What’s most important is that you’re inspired by the produce. Then we work toward a flavor, a texture. When I was a chef apprentice and trying to make dishes, I would sit down with a notebook. It never became anything because you can’t invent that way. You just have to keep trying and dreaming – like the chanterelle granité. Our pastry chef, Carol, suggested using chanterelles in a dessert. They have an apricot flavor, so we thought, why not? We tried cooking them, but I remembered from making mushroom purées and compotes that if you blend too much they become slimy. So we chopped the chanterelles into a kind of mousse. Then we tried different ice creams – egg-based, sorbet – we just kept working until that ding! moment. The texture was great and the chanterelle flavor was nice and clear. A savory component in dessert form. We added a few slices of dried chanterelles to help the person who’s eating it understand what they’re actually tasting. Creating the dish was like a chain reaction. All you need is an impulse. Sometimes you come to a dead end – often when it’s too forced. One night in the early days of Relae, a scientist came to eat. He had been writing about umami for a few years, and he told me, “If you get too organized, you kill creativity.” That stayed with me. We don’t need a food lab; we just need a small space out of everyone’s way where we can fool around. It’s important to leave a little bit of madness, a lack of precision and planning. When you’re put on the spot and you need to get something out there, something really good can happen.
All photos by Per-Anders Jorgensen.