Michelin heads outside Copenhagen

With the Michelin judges finally going beyond five Scandinavian cities, why some truly astonishing restaurants should soon be getting the recognition they deserve

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, February 2015. Photography by Ulf Svane)

After eating 17 courses at Frederikshøj, it’s hard to know what on Earth has just happened. Chicken egg “nests”, potatoes that look like rocks, edible egg shells, a steaming mushroom forest, and a sugar-lemon-within-a-sugar-lemon, which emits a fragrant little puff of smoke when you crack the outer layer.

With caviar, sea urchin and perfect foie gras to the fore, it’s a bewildering and glorious two-finger salute to the reclaimed wood and restraint of the New Nordic movement – yet every dish from Lebanese-Danish head chef Wassim Hallal is exquisitely crafted and delicious. In other words, this is classic Michelin food.

So why doesn’t Frederikshøj have at least one, possibly two, Michelin stars? Because it’s just outside Aarhus, Denmark’s second city – or, to put it another way, it’s not in Copenhagen.

Until the end of this month, when a new Michelin Nordic guide will award stars to restaurants in new cities, Michelin have only included restaurants in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki and Gothenburg in their Nordic guide.

For all its hype, Fäviken in northern Sweden hasn’t got a Michelin star; neither has Claus Henriksen of influential Danish New Nordic restaurant Dragsholm Slot, on Zealand’s Odsherred peninsula.

Now that Michelin’s Nordic guide is “expanding gradually”, Hallal is unashamed that he would quite like a star or two, thanks very much. “Of course it matters,” he says. “As a person and as a chef, it’s important – I’ve always dreamed about it. A lot of people ask me if I have a Michelin star, and when I say I don’t, they ask, ‘Why not?’”

While Michelin are being tight-lipped about which areas they will visit, Hallal says that two separate inspectors have visited Frederikshøj. “They came alone and we didn’t know at the time. But afterwards they gave us a paper to sign. Other than that, we have no idea – the whole thing is very secret, so I’ll be finding out the same as everyone else.”

If he does get recognised, it will not be a huge surprise. When he was head chef at Molskroen, overlooking the sea in the Mols Bjerge National Park near Aarhus, the restaurant was named the best restaurant in Denmark in 2006.

Since then, he’s only become more ambitious. It took him a year, from idea to execution, to figure out how to use the perfect proportions of black meat powder to make potatoes look like smooth stones. His lemon dessert took closer to a decade. When I speak to him a month or so after my visit, he tells me the new menu features gold paper that tastes like celery.

One thing it’s not is classic New Nordic. “My food doesn’t fit into any box, and I don’t want it to,” he says. “I want people to come here and have a spectacular experience that they couldn’t have anywhere else.” It’s little wonder that Frederikshøj is booked up to two months in advance, with most diners opting for the full 17-course menu (three- and six-course options are also available).

“I could have gone to Copenhagen,” he says. “But my family’s here, and now my business is here, so I want to stay and fight. I want my restaurant to be up there with the best in the world – that shouldn’t be impossible because of where it is.”

As for Michelin, they wouldn’t get back to us about why it’s taken this long to expand outside the main Scandinavian cities. “They’re very good at keeping things tight,” says Kasper Fogh Hansen, the director of communications at the Food Organisation of Denmark, and a fount of knowledge on all things Denmark and food. “None of us know, and they’re experts at avoiding leaks of any kind. They want the launch of the guide to be an event, and it will be.”

Hansen says that the influence of the new Nordic guide’s expansion depends on who you speak to. “On the one hand, it’s still very important – it levels the playing field for restaurants by creating a gold standard, and it’s a massive thing for a young chef to strive to have on his or her CV. Plus, it’s recognised worldwide.”

Still, he thinks that some in Scandinavia’s fine dining community have moved away from Michelin. “A new way of judging restaurants has emerged,” he says. “Whereas Michelin still judges on classic fine dining criteria, things like the 50 Best list have made darlings of the most experimental chefs. The chef community, especially in Scandinavia, have started to rate the likes of Fäviken and Noma as the most influential restaurants. It’s a subject of contention that Noma only has two stars, and there are definitely people who feel like Michelin hasn’t been rewarding the most innovative restaurants.”

After eating at Frederikshøj, I head across Jutland to the west coast, and Henne Kirkeby Kro, an old guesthouse given a stunning modern makeover by wind turbine (kroner) billionaire Flemming Skouboe – and where British chef Paul Cunningham cooks up spectacular set menus of beautifully-presented local ingredients.

The guesthouse has its own 40,000m2 kitchen garden; there are already pigs and sheep on the grounds, and chickens are coming soon. “Most of what you eat here, I can grab from out the window,” says Cunningham. “If you have oysters, you know they were picked locally that morning.”

Cunningham already has a Michelin star for his eponymous restaurant, The Paul at Tivoli Gardens, which closed in 2011 – and he’s a slightly unlikely celebrity chef in Denmark, on account of the understated beauty of his dishes, his cookbooks and his bluntly outspoken humour.

Among the collection of striking contemporary photography at Henne Kirkeby Kro, one shows Cunningham with a giant overblown head, slumped abjectly over a chopping board. A few years ago, he challenged Wassim Hallal to take him on at the Danish Hotdog Championship with a terrorist-style video that played loose with the boundaries of political correctness.

The comparison with Hallal is an interesting one. Both cook up sensational set menus, but their style couldn’t be more different. Hallal cultivates the aura of a serious chef, while Cunningham calls his sourdough Keith Moon and greets diners wearing his slippers. Hallal’s signature dishes are shape-shifting potatoes or golden celery; Cunningham rejects “hocus pocus” food, saying that he does “real cooking, with frying pans rather then machines”. Another key difference is that, while Hallal is odds-on to make the Nordic Michelin guide this month, the chances are that the judges won’t make it to Jutland’s west coast, even though Henne is easily Michelin-worthy.

“You know, I’m old and grey, so I can handle not getting a star here,” says Cunningham. “But it would definitely be nice for the young staff here, for the owners, for everyone involved. Whatever people say, Michelin is still the standard.”

As for Michelin not making it past the big cities, Cunningham says: “I play for Team Denmark, not Team Copenhagen, and it would be nice if that gets more recognised, especially since nine out of ten ingredients they use in Copenhagen come from Jutland. I think people will be a bit disappointed if the guide doesn’t get much further than Aarhus.”

Still, he refutes the idea that the Michelin guide is becoming an anachronism, pointing to the two stars awarded to the Hand and Flowers, Tom Kerridge’s unpretentious gastropub in the English village of Marlow.

As for the new stars of the 50 Best list: “As much as the likes of René Redzepi and [Korean-American] David Chang might see it differently, there is a logic to the way Michelin judge a restaurant – if you serve 20 dishes chosen by the chef, it’s very hard to make them all bullseyes, especially if the diner happens not to like veal tartare with ants crawling on it.”

As Cunningham puts it, “‘What is delicious?’ is as complicated a question as ‘What is art?’” It’s a debate that will get a new injection later this month – for now, all you really need to know is that  in Denmark, as in the rest of Scandinavia, there are some mindblowingly good restaurants that happen to be outside a capital city.

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