The mad dash for the cooks and stages to set-up our mise has expired. The arms of the clock in the kitchen are now a straight black line, indicating it's 6 PM, the start of service. Only seven more hours to go.
"Four guests, table nine, extended menu!" yells Matt Orlando, the chef-proprietor of Amass in Copenhagen.
"Yes, chef!" responds a group of sous chefs and cooks, composed of David, Jens, Alex, Kim, Milton, and Scott.
"Soigné," Orlando reminds them.
"Ja tak!" the sous and cooks reply in Danish.
This exchange was emblazoned in my memory during my two-week stage at Amass. It signaled the start of service again on a given table, the start of four more covers—and a clean slate from the shit-show I found myself in only ten minutes prior, when I placed the dehydrated beets in all the wrong directions on six different plates in the middle of a very busy Friday night while the Romanian dishwasher, Tibi, laughed at my failure.
It was going to be a long couple of weeks.
Having taken off as much time as possible from my full-time military career as a private cook in the US Navy, I'd come to Copenhagen to learn as much as I could. Once I arrived, however, I came to the realization that two weeks wasn't nearly enough time to spend in the city—though I was lucky that the stage program at Amass was set up the way it was, maximizing the opportunity to learn.
The kitchen at Amass is open; half of it looks out into the expansive dining room and ever-changing graffiti mural, while the other half is lined with windows with a view of the former industrial site of Refshaleøen. The bike ride to the restaurant (because when in Copenhagen, do as the Danes do) winds through Refshaleøen, which has a secluded, Pink Floyd Animals-esque vibe. Smoke stacks shoot up from a nearby industrial center, around which small construction sites and wild fruit trees are peppered among a few hidden neighborhoods.
Outside the restaurant are wooden planter boxes that hold hints of what will be on diners' plates later that evening. I thought I knew what to expect before walking through the doors of my first day. A bunch of sandy greens that look and taste similar to what I might see in Washington, DC.
But my expectations, I quickly learned, had to be abandoned.
During my first week, I'm assigned to work on the hot section with Kim Wejendorp—a master of sai krok Isan, among other things, and a burly New Zealander who wants results, not diarrhea of the mouth. An intimidating character to be working alongside, he notices every detail that goes on in his section, and most of what goes on outside of it.
The day has just begun for prep. "Kim, I'm going foraging for green plums. How many do you need?" asks Jackie, the groundskeeper with a thumb greener than the love child of Martha Stewart and Monty Don.
"Patrick, stop what you are doing and count the unripe green plums," Kim tells me. I drop the task at hand and begin to rummage through the refrigerator, pulling out containers of beach horseradish, beach mustard, seakale pods, beach cabbage, salicornia. Finally, I find the green plums and count out the unripe, deep green ones which were no bigger than the size of a dime. "Three-hundred twenty-eight, chef!" I tell Kim. Instantly, I second-guess myself and feel a minor anxiety attack coming on.
"OK, put those away, finish what you are doing, and get to quartering the 250 you've already counted for today's mise," Kim says without breaking his concentration from his monkfish fabrication. I do as I'm told and finish chopping the mélange of beach herbs that are used in the sauce that succulently complements the monkfish. I clean down my station and reset. I then run through the plums faster than I've done the previous four days of the work week. Afterward, I take both the almond and hazelnut milks from the fridge and begin to strain each; they are slightly thickened before being incorporated into one of the mains. I knock out a few other pertinent tasks on the prep list: picking quart containers of beach mustard; picking kale pods and dividing them up by size; fermenting grains; portioning pork with rye.
Every day around 3:30 PM, the staff stops what they are doing and cleans the kitchen from top to bottom. Because Amass is an open kitchen, it's not uncommon for guests to walk right up and see what's going on. Orlando and the sous chefs are more than willing to give a tour, so the kitchen needs to be presentable—and it should go without saying that cleanliness is of paramount importance when handling food.
After the kitchen has been completely sanitized and reset, usually a 30-minute process, the staff sits down for family meal. Responsibility for the main offering typically rotates among each of the cooks, with everyone else pitching in with sides, and the dessert section taking care of something sweet for the day. Once family meal is done, around 4:30, we have until 6 to finish any last-minute prep before service starts. When the first orders come in and plates start to make their way to the pass, the stage of the hot and cold sections is expected to be there with Orlando, David, and Jens to help plate all the dishes from beginning to end.
In the course of my time at Amass, I discovered that what Orlando and his wife Julie have done is nothing short of unique. I'm not talking about the food, which is an experience all its own; I'm talking about the work environment. Orlando seems to have found a happy medium with his team members, who want to improve both themselves and the restaurant as a whole. Alex wants to portion the fermented potato breads more precisely than the day before. Kim wants to fabricate the lot of monkfish three minutes faster. Scott always wants to be one more task ahead than he was the day before. Milton eats last at staff meal and stays behind after the end of the night meeting to ensure his prep list is solid for the next day. Sous chefs David and Jens tag-team the expediting with nothing out of place or half-assed, ever.
There is no "It's OK, it can slide this one time" here. That mode of thinking doesn't exist.
It's not so much a job for these guys as it is a place to create something day in and day out—with an emphasis on "create." Amass isn't a restaurant for snapshots. The menu is ever-changing with an emphasis on seasonality and hyperlocality. Diners come to Amass for the food and service, which are flawless, but there's a reason for such consistency: It starts with the people, who are humble, assertive, and willing to put their colleagues in their place to ensure the quality doesn't falter.