Christian Puglisi earned his stripes at elBulli and became sous-chef at noma. He opened Relæ in Copenhagen's Nørrebro district amid the scrutinizing stares of local drug dealers, published a highly-acclaimed cookbook, and won a Michelin star despite playing Johnny Cash in the dining room.
So what next? He turned to pizza, house-made mozzarella and cured meats at his new restaurant, Bæst (Danish for beast). Not that Puglisi—whose father is Italian and mother is Norwegian—would ever bracket this as an Italian restaurant. To him, authenticity shouldn't be confined by geography. The food world still gushes over the Nordic dining scene and its locavore penchant for oddball beach herbs and gnarly root vegetables, but more than a decade on from the New Nordic manifesto, Copenhagen looks ready to adapt a more global flavor. Puglisi certainly is.
MUNCHIES: Hi Christian. Why did you turn to pizza when Nordic cooking is still stealing headlines around the world? Christian Puglisi: When we opened Relæ in 2010 it was very anti-New Nordic. I think New Nordic has been dead for a long time, but people keep pumping life into it; keep performing CPR. I didn't want what we were doing to be considered as Nordic and I fought hard not to be defined by geography. They wanted to box us in, but there are so many layers. I'll never forget this one journalist who asked me to describe my cooking in one sentence. I told her to try and describe herself in one sentence. If it's got substance, you can't reduce a restaurant to one sentence, just like you can't do with a person.
After running Relæ and Manfreds for a few years, I thought the time was right to explore things which I couldn't put on the menu but which I have so much affection for: artisan food which is all based on craftsmanship, and this is exactly what Italy does. You slice the cheese, put oil and salt on it, and that's it. If you want to do that kind of restaurant then you need the craftsmanship, and to me, that's not calling Italy and getting them to ship over their finest produce. It's about understanding it and then developing it yourself.
Bæst is not a self-proclaimed Italian restaurant. Nowhere do we say this is authentic Italian cuisine. I hate that approach. The only authenticity about Bæst is that we do exactly what we want. You get mozzarella which you wouldn't get in Italy and the pizza is made only with sourdough—which is probably more inspired by French traditions. Is it Neapolitan pizza? No. Is it a Neapolitan oven? Yes. Is it inspired by the Neapolitan style? Of course you can say that, but there is certainly nothing certified Neapolitan about it and we don't accept any dogmas.
What are the biggest crimes committed against Italian cooking?
Italian cooking has been abused for years but they almost asked for it themselves. There is a conservative way of preserving traditions and I think it's restrictive because everything should evolve. That's where I think you have the biggest problems in Italy because they are protective of how things used to be rather than making it better. I think it's progress that we can use Danish cow's milk of the highest quality and turn that into mozzarella. And in no way is that authentic Italian; it's not buffalo, but to me that is the greatest sign of respect you can show to those people who have spent decades developing a technique with their hands and thoughts. Pick that up yourself, question it, and then push it forward and make something unique. That is the soul of Bæst.
Has the dining scene in Copenhagen become too insular? The lack of success is fatal, but success can also be fatal. If you know what works then you don't need to think too much about what to do next. Noma showed us the way by saying: "Fuck you, now we are doing things our way. Let's stop making restaurants like they do in Paris. We'll do something unique." So what did people here learn from noma? Apparently, they learned how to do cream with dill oil, chickweed, and fermentation. Too often it becomes about trends and surface rather than understanding what noma fundamentally changed. I think that's a shame because the key to the future is to keep trying to create something unique.
What would you like to see happen in the Denmark restaurant scene? The next thing that has to happen for Denmark is that gastronomy embraces organic. You have got the world's spotlight on our food scene and a very strong environmental profile, but Relæ is the only Michelin-starred restaurant with an organic certification. More chefs need the balls to go that way and show that Copenhagen is where you can eat at a high level and get top organic produce.
For us at Relæ, the next step is to add a new level to the menu. For a limited number of guests each night we want to offer a menu option with no limits, where we serve several dishes and charge a market price depending on what ingredients we get hold of. I want to challenge the idea of a top restaurant. I like the synergy when a couple can be having a four-course vegetarian meal and right next to them is a group going all in on truffles and the full works. That creates a better experience for both parties. The problem with many of the gilded, velvet-draped top restaurants is that most guests are people over the age of 50 and then the odd trainee chef who has saved up money.
And the drug dealers have moved their sofa outside your entrance at Relæ? They have been like migratory birds for the last couple of years. One moment you think they are gone, and the next day, they all come back. I was much more observant when we first opened, worried about what to say and do. Our guests had to walk through clouds of hashish smoke to get in through the front door. I have stood out in the back and cried my eyes out. I have punched the walls in frustration and helplessness over people who wanted to knock us down. But it has been a huge driving force. What shapes your character and personality are the limitations and challenges you have to face along the way.
Do you still have that drawing of the teddy bear with a massive erection? Yes, Teddy has been allowed to stay. He's hanging on the wall next to the men's toilet. We were the angry teenager when we opened. I didn't want to follow anybody's rules. I was ready to pick a battle with whoever wanted to face me. Even the critics. But at some point, you move on from that and you get fed up with the same old battles. You evolve and find out what makes your day more enjoyable. One day, our sommelier Alessandro told me it was a stupid idea that we had paper napkins. For me, that used to be a Relæ standpoint because I wanted to prove that this place was all about the food—not the napkins. But Alessandro was right. We didn't need to make that statement anymore. We needed to evolve. That's how you grow up.
Thanks for speaking to me.