A version of this piece first appeared on MUNCHIES Denmark.
There's a tried-and-true path in the restaurant industry—you work your way up from the bottom, busting your balls the whole while, before you maybe reach the apex of the culinary vanguard. Or you can do what Morten Barsø did and freewheel your way into a wild world of pop stars in Los Angeles and Michelin stars in Copenhagen.
Barsø, who grew up in the anarchist "free town" Christiania inside Copenhagen, never went to culinary school but has worked all kinds of jobs both in food and out. He has been in charge of Noma's private dining room, organized street parties for Copenhagen's massive annual Distortion festival, and even did a short stint as a flight attendant. For the past five years he has worked on and off as chef for his childhood friend Lukas Forchhammer, frontman of the Danish pop band Lukas Graham. We talked to Morten about cooking for musicians and why he's partly responsible for Alexander Skarsgård's ripped body in the latest Tarzan film.
VICE: Hi Morten. Why did you decide to go into the restaurant industry?
Morten Barsø: I dropped out of high school in my final year. There I was, wondering what the hell to do. I went to a bar in Christiania to see if there was any work there for me to do. The manager said his friend needed someone to go to Sweden to run catering events for a restaurant, and it turned out it was the same people who owned the Michelin-starred Kommandanten in Copenhagen. It was very regimented. I would sweep the floor for hours and clean silverware with a toothbrush.
How did you end up working as a chef for Lukas Graham?
Lukas [Forchhammer] is my best friend. I've known him since we were kids in Christiania. Food has always been really important to Lukas because it gives us a sense of joy and comfort. When he was going to Los Angeles to record his album, it was only natural for me to come along and cook for him and the rest of the crew. If you want to be the best in the world, then you can't live off hot dogs and In-N-Out burgers every day. You need brain food.
For breakfast [Skarsgård] had eight eggs, which he cooked in the microwave to make an omelette, served with basil and sprouts.
What did you cook for them?
Lukas was on a strict diet because he was about to play Grøn Koncert in Denmark. He got a personal trainer, a Swedish guy called Magnus Method, who also trains some of the biggest Hollywood stars. Magnus had me making seven meals for Lukas to eat throughout the day—three large meals and four snacks—salads with quinoa, broccoli, goat cheese, walnuts, pears—you name it. And always cold potatoes, never warm, because the starch changes so it takes longer to absorb. After Magnus saw what Lukas had achieved, he asked me to cook for "Tarzan."
You mean Alexander Skarsgård in The Legend of Tarzan?
Yes. Alex was on the set of True Blood, but needed 7,000 calories a day to quickly beef up for the Tarzan role. I started off by spending two whole days studying nutritional fact sheets to find out what the hell to feed him. I would get up at 7 AM to cook vegetables and meat for Alex's lunch before making breakfast for Lukas. Then I'd take the meals to Alex's place in LA, including small notes if he was to reheat something or add sauces. For breakfast he had eight eggs, which he cooked in the microwave to make an omelette, served with basil and sprouts.
Do you ever get starstruck?
No, and I really don't know much about music. I think that's one of my strengths from the restaurant business and places like Noma. A guest is a guest, and it really doesn't matter whether you are the crown prince or whoever. Once when we were in LA, I was cooking steaks in the studio (which belonged to the singer Raphael Saadiq and which we shared with other bands). Lauryn Hill's bassist stopped by and he looked very suspicious. "You white boys living good," he said. I asked him to join us, but he just stared at me. Then he asked me where I was from: "Copenhagen," I told him. "Christiania." Then he lit up: "Oh, Christiania, I used to play there with Lauryn back in the day." Then everything was cool.
Do you miss Christiania when traveling?
There's just a different energy there. But sometimes you do need someone to show you that there's a world outside. When I was working at Noma in 2009, I invited Lukas to come and hang out with me in the kitchen and try a few dishes. I could feel there was something simmering inside him that needed to get out. We were running behind on the cod tartare starter, so I told Lukas to help me with the garnish.
I don't think René Redzepi ever found out about it. The dish was frozen cod tartare, cucumber balls, mussel stock and dill. Lukas helped place the dill sprigs on the dish. It was my way of giving him some inspiration. If I was standing there as an untrained 23-year-old, working at the world's best restaurant, there was absolutely no reason why he shouldn't become the world's biggest pop star.