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Relæ: an organic Mecca

His name, like his food, reflects the poles of his heritage. A Dane of Sicilian-Norwegian origin, Christian F. Puglisi has made his indelible mark on the Copenhagen food scene with first two and soon four food establishments catering for a wide range of pockets and tastes. But the tastes are as thoroughly his, as his Relæ restaurant is entirely organic – seemingly the first Michelin starred restaurant to be so.

Christian F. Puglisi By Julian Isherwood
Photos: Per-Anders Jörgensen

Few non-Italians know the name of Pietro Cuppari, the 19th century Italian doctor and agronomist who helped revolutionise southern Italy’s agriculture. But sitting here in a spartanly furnitured, Michelin-starred restaurant in the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen, and facing a young Danish Italo-Norwegian, Cuppari’s concern for the significance of European ecology and agriculture seems uncannily close at hand.

Somehow it seems rather apt that Master Chef Christian F. Puglisi and Cuppari were born in the same region of Sicily - Christian in Messina and Pietro in close-by Itala. Born over a century apart, both men have shared a passion for ecology that made Cuppari one of the most influential agronomists of his time and Puglisi one of the most innovative chefs of his generation.

“For me, organic certification is not just something to try to achieve, it is an integral part of the way we think and do things. Our certification means so much to us and apart from a minute share of our wine cellar, we are, to all intents and purposes 100% organic,” says 32-year-old Puglisi of the twin Relæ and Manfred restaurants.

Born in Messina of a Sicilian father and Norwegian mother, Puglisi arrived in Denmark at the age of seven, entering the food trade as a cook’s apprentice at the age of 17. Eventually working in France and Spain before returning to Denmark, the young chef’s ideas for a different approach to the restaurant trade quickly matured into what is now an internationally acclaimed establishment.

“I was lucky to work at some of the world’s best restaurants,” Puglisi says modestly of the Gardinier family’s Taillevent, Ferran Adrià’s now-closed El Bulli, and René Redzepi’s NOMA – the latter following the former with several crowns as the World’s No. 1 restaurant.

Relæ relæ dish
It may look Spartan but the food is anything but basic

“There came a time when I could feel that I had my own views as to how things should be. I felt that I was too specific in what I wanted to be able to give as an experience, that it would be difficult for me to work somewhere other than in my own restaurant,” Puglisi says.

At his highly creative level of gastronomy, Puglisi felt there was a paradox in having to provide an expert gastronomical experience only in a ‘posh’ restaurant.

“I felt that one should be able to give a gourmet experience on the plate – but get rid of all that whipped cream on top, which I felt was unnecessary. To cut through the bumph and get to the food experience itself. No luxury, exclusivity and the suchlike, just down to the food,” he says.

There is little doubt that his philosophical view of the slow food experience has been in keeping with a more modern and youthful attitude towards eating out - no longer the exclusive remit of a hand-and-foot service-seeking bourgeoisie. The Puglisi idea, he says is to provide another framework that is a bit more fun, a bit more accessible and relaxing.

Not least, he says, there is the issue of costs – both for the establishments themselves and for its guests. Hordes of waiters hovering around tables to get rid of crumbs, or continuously pouring water into guests’ glasses.

“I felt it was interesting to see whether I could reduce all of that to a minimum so that I can see that we give people who pay us the maximum back on their plates, rather than all the ancillary things that cost so much in running a restaurant,” Puglisi says.

But make no mistake. Whether in the open kitchen, back office or the restaurant itself, all who are there are specialists in their trade – beit the sommeliers, maîtres d’h, or chefs and kitchen staff.

“We have cut away the unnecessary things and use the funds on people who really know the food and wines,” he says.

Relæ table
An innovative way of laying a table – eating tools in a draw

A clean slate
In many ways, Copenhagen and its New Nordic Cuisine restaurants that have taken the gastronomic world by storm, have been lucky in having a clean slate to work from. In Italy, France or Spain culinary traditions are engraved as if in a bible. There are set ways of doing things.

“In Denmark it’s refreshing because the restaurant culture and the gastronomic heritage haven’t been as indelibly etched in stone and difficult to renew. NOMA and its influence on Danish gastronomy both at home and abroad would not have been possible in Italy or France – there, traditions are too embedded,” Puglisi says.

Refreshingly undogmatic, Puglisi’s fare is undoubtedly his own and only allowed in the restaurant if it suits his palate. Not that traditional food does not win his acclaim, but for him, the tastes in other restaurants are someone else’s taste.

“Here I decide what tastes good. I put my personality on the plate, it’s a very personal cuisine. When we make food here we try five different versions before they come onto the menu until we find the one that we think works best. So far it has worked well,” he says of his menu development.

“Perhaps the most important thing we brought with us from NOMA was precisely not just starting another NOMA, but to have an understanding of not doing something the same way as they do it in Paris. We’re going to do something that is ours. So instead of going to Paris for something French-inspired, you can come to Copenhagen because there is something you can’t get in Paris,” Puglisi adds.

The Manfred twin
While there may be a tendency to think Relæ alone in Puglisi’s growing empire; that, however, would be a mistake. Close by, the restaurant’s twin – Manfred’s – is as much part of the Puglisi philosophy as Relæ – or indeed the bakery and pizzeria that will be opening later this year.

“Manfred’s is the perfect appendage to Relæ – a little more rustic, everyday type of restaurant. Over there you can just go in and eat a single dish or have a couple of glasses of wine, or have a takeaway. But it’s a vital part of the whole idea,” Puglisi says.

With staff equally at home and swapping back and forth between establishments, Manfred’s winery and restaurant adds the necessary volume to secure prime quality, organic raw materials. Instead of having to order only chicken thighs or legs for a Relæ menu, the group is able to order whole chickens. What is not used in Relæ is used in Manfred’s.

“That synergy is vital for us and particularly our organic position. If Relæ has calf cheeks on the menu, we would never be able to get enough to keep a reasonable price level. But we can as Manfred’s can order half or whole animals and use the rest there,” Puglisi says with a happy smile.

Creamery and cuisine philosophy
One would have thought that after a hectic but successful couple of years with Relæ and Manfred’s, that the Puglisi project would be taking a well-earned rest from new endeavours. Not so. There are plans to open a pizzeria and bakery later this year – all part of the Puglisi synergy project. If you’re making some bread for the restaurant, why not make all the bread for the restaurant – and sell it out of house too. And if you’re making bread – why not make pizza – which may be quintessentially Italian – but make it ‘my way’ and experiment with the flour that’s used.

Perhaps most daring is a plan to build a small caseificio/cremeria and make his own quality mozzarella – a cheese that does not travel well, if at all.
“With a little help from Copenhagen University and Christian Hansen we’re setting up a little creamery where we’ll be stretching our own mozzarella for the restaurants. It may not be Neapolitan – but then there’s nothing that says that the Neapolitans are the only ones who can make mozzarella. It’ll be ours, good and local,” Puglisi says.

The mozzarella project fits neatly into the Puglisi philosophy that traditions need not be imprisoned ideas that cannot be developed.

“Denmark has some of the world’s best milk and the process of making mozzarella does not have to take place in any particular location. We will be stretching our mozzarella with our own local produce. It will be our mozzarella,” he says.

That philosophy also permeates the long awaited Puglisi book of cuisine ideas which is due to be published on October 28. Unlike traditional cookbooks, this one is a novel perception of how to provide the consumer with the ideas behind the recipes.

“In a traditional cookbook you have ingredients and method. But I thought that a cuisine is much more than just what’s on the surface as an ingredient. A meal is not just the onions that go into it – but the 8-10 ideas that have gone into the considerations for the dish,” Puglisi says.

Relæ
The interior of Relæ

Although there are traditional recipes and pictures in the book, it is peppered with the ideas that have gone into their making, and ideas of what else the same ideas can be used for.

“I told the publishing house that this was to be a book of inspiration and not just information. Inspiration to allow people to see some ideas and use them in their own creations. The essays tell you what we have actually been thinking – how the raw materials should be used, why we cut them in this way and not that,” he says.

“It has lots of pictures and lots of dishes so that it can satisfy the manic recipe-book hunter, but it also provides something for those who just want to leaf through and be inspired. It’s been really hard and I must admit that if I had known what it was that I was letting myself in for, I probably wouldn’t have embarked on it. But now it’s done, I’m happy with it,” he concludes.

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