Jeppe Foldager from northern Jylland is currently enjoying a wave of culinary attention as the winner of the silver Bocuse medal earlier this year. The 27-year-old proudly represented Denmark in the biennial Bocuse d’Or world chef competition, nicknamed the “Olympics of cooking.”
By Philippa Stasiuk
For five hours and thirty-five frenzied minutes, chefs from twenty-four countries converge in a kitchen in Lyon, France to prepare two extraordinarily complex courses of fish and meat with extensive ingredient lists, served on ornate and custom-made dinnerware. With emcees giving a running commentary and flag-waving onlookers cheering their countrymen on, it has a reputation for being one of the most famous and unique cooking competitions in the world.
Unlike other food competitions on reality TV or elsewhere, practice is valued over culinary cowboy improvisation. Contestants at the Bocuse d’Or have been perfecting their two dishes for up to a year and a half.
“You know the raw materials, but then you have to figure out the courses,” says Foldager.
All of this year’s contestants were given the main ingredients of turbot [a white-fleshed flatfish], European blue lobster, and Irish filet of beef.
“For months” Foldager recalls, “we tried many different ways to make the perfect piece of fish. We roasted it, grilled it, and pickled it. Once we had the fish figured out, we had to add sauces. Finally, you make the entire dish again and again until you can almost make it in your sleep.”
Working with his sous chef, Daniel Ditman, Foldager first salted his fish, then poached it, then grilled it, topping it with turbot that had been set aside and smoked separately with burnt hay.
Foldager prepared his beef tenderloin with morel mushrooms, tongue, and cranberries, ox jaw terrine with parsley, a broth with onions, cheese and wild herbs and celery in truffle cream and smoked marrow. He also served glazed beets with truffle and chives, and potato with pickled mushrooms and carrot.
When a younger (and presumably even more baby-faced) Foldager discovered that cooking championships even existed, he was ecstatic. “I was always competitive as a kid, in tennis, football, whatever. It was natural for me to be in competition.”
Foldager was born and raised in the coastal town of Hirtshals, a stone’s throw from Skagen. By age nine, he was certain he wanted to be a chef. When he finished school, he moved an hour south to begin his five-month basic training at Aalborg Food College. Then, like other aspiring Danish chefs, he found a 3-year apprenticeship in a restaurant. It was there, Foldager says, that he was first exposed to the world of fine cooking.
“It was all good food with expensive materials; caviar, turbot, truffles, and all made in totally the right way.”
Foldager even found a way to integrate cooking into his required military service: he spent nine months as chef on the Dannebrog, the Danish Royal Family’s yacht, sailing up and down the coasts of Europe.
“We would come to harbour and I would visit the fish shop, the butcher, the vegetable shop, and I would go back to the yacht and speak to the Prince. Then I’d go ashore again and buy the food after the menu was decided. Sometimes, the Prince even came shopping with me.”
It was while Foldager was deputy head chef at the 335-year-old Søllerød Inn that he decided to try and compete in the Bocuse d’Or, first winning an internal cooking competition for the right to represent Denmark. The risks and pressure were enormous. Competing in the Bocuse d’Or meant taking special leave from his job in order to train for the months leading up to the competition. And then, it is a highly visible competition in the culinary world. Those who compete risk not placing in the top, a career stain with potential repercussions.
Foldager is not the only Dane to find glory at the Bocuse d’Or. Last year, chef Rasmus Kofod, from Parken Stadium’s restaurant, Geranium, won the gold. A Swede took the silver and a Norwegian the bronze. Paul Bocuse, famous chef and the competition’s namesake, joked that they should have renamed it the ‘Bocuse du Nord’.
Of why Scandinavians are so strong in the world gastronomic scene, says Foldager: “We have trained and learned to think for ourselves. I currently have four students in my kitchen and if something goes wrong, of course they can ask, but they should try to figure it out. People have to use their brain. Chefs are only in school when they are training. It is about lifelong learning.”
Shortly after returning home with his silver chef statue (in the likeness of Paul Bocuse), Foldager was offered and accepted the job as head chef at Alberto K, the window-lined restaurant atop Copenhagen’s Radisson Blu Royal Hotel. Since starting in April, he has worked to transform the menu from strictly Nordic cuisine (which he dismisses as oversaturated in Denmark) to more classical food, “with a touch of Nordic.”
Foldager is already eying his next prize: a Michelin star. When the anonymous ‘inspectors’ sweep through Copenhagen this fall, “everything”, says Foldager, “must be right. To win a Michelin star, not only the food, but also the wine list, has to all be perfect and wonderful.”
And one lesson Foldager learned from the Bocuse d’Or will also likely apply: “It’s about adding your personality. They have to see you in the dish.”