Editor's Note: Pølsevogn literally translates to "sausage cart" and is the Danish term for the most prominent and traditional street food in Denmark, which you can find on every corner. In these culinary carriages they sell the traditional Danish-style hot dog and other sausage-related treats. The proprietor of such a place is called a pølsemand (sausage man).
It's not exactly an ordinary wiener looking up at us: This particular hot dog consists of lobster sausage—garnished with red pepper pesto, thin strips of onion, and beet dust—served between two pieces of crispy toasted bread.
We are at Top Dog Charity, the unofficial world hot dog championships, in Copenhagen, where eight teams of top chefs from around the world have gathered to stuff sausage casings to the best of their abilities. The profits from the event goes to the NGO Care Denmark and their efforts to feed the people of Tanzania.
The task: at eight different food stalls and food trucks, the chefs must present their best attempts at creating magnificent hot dogs to a panel of judges including René Redzepi, Paul Cunningham, and food critic Jonathan Gold from the Los Angeles Times.
But to win the hearts of a group of elite gourmets is one thing. It is an entirely different beast to try to convince a dedicated Danish "sausage man," whose culinary repertoire normally doesn't extend beyond pickled cucumbers, fried onions, and remoulade; a man who makes hundreds of hot dogs every single day. So we joined forces with Dan Gorell, owner of the stall 'Den Blå Vogn' in Copenhagen's City Hall Square, to pass judgement on the top chefs' attempts.
First, we try the lobster sausage with beet powder and pesto from Japanese chef Hiroki Yoshitake, who normally works at restaurant Sola in Paris. It most certainly challenges the norms of what a hot dog is. But before we get to taste the stuff, Yoshitake has to prepare hot dogs for the prominent judging panel and the wait time is annoying Dan, who keeps glancing at his watch.
"Hot dogs are about three things: Speed, quality, and taste. At City Hall Square, we sell 700 hot dogs a day," Dan explains. "These guys would take three days to finish the same amount."
But the fancy result is worth the wait. The hot dog gets the highest rating from Dan, who is thoroughly excited about the crispy bread that manages to still be soft on the inside. The light and airy consistency of the lobster sausage blows our wiener expert away.
Emotions are also running wild over at the Irish hot dog embassy, run by chef JP McMahon of restaurant Aniar in Galway, Ireland.
"Why did you bake such a heavy loaf?" Dan asks as he's presented with a hot dog made with dried sea weed. "This isn't a hot dog." He stares at it in silence.
McMahon obviously disagrees, and the tattooed Irishman is clearly annoyed with the candid and blunt criticism from the Dane.
"Do you specialize in insulting people?" McMahon barks, and looks like a man who is ready to throw down the apron and wrestle.
"I sell 6,500 krone ($981 USD) worth of hot dogs at City Hall Square every day," Dan claims. He doesn't seem to feel that JP McMahon, with his Michelin star, can teach him anything about making hot dogs.
Finally, Dan actually tastes the "Irish Sea Dog" with pork sausage, kelp mayo, pickled seaweed, beach mustard, and pickled rose leaves. "The sausage has a good consistency but all the seaweed makes it too salty. And the bread is just awful," says Dan and awards the hot dog two out of six stars.
Hot dog life is not just fun and games for Dan. Actually, sausages might be a contributing factor to his survival. A few years ago, he suffered an infliction that paralyzed his back and sent him in a coma for four months. When he woke up, the doctors said he would probably never walk again, and instead he could look forward to a wheelchair and early retirement.
Dan said "fuck you" and sought alternative treatment in places such as the Dead Sea, and moved from Spain back home to Denmark, where he had been a restaurant owner for more than 30 years. His condition slowly improved, and when the opportunity presented itself, he jumped at the offer and bought Den Blå Vogn at City Hall Square.
"The sausages got me back on my feet and saved my life," Dan says.
Our next culinary journey at the competition takes us to Venezuela, where Federico Tischler from restaurant Alma in Baltimore, Maryland presents his "Amazonian Dog": tapioca bread and a pork sausage garnished with crispy tapioca, cilantro, and chili sauce.
Dan's face lights up when he sees it. "This is very interesting!" the Danish hot dog maestro exclaims, although he's disappointed with the tapioca bread. "It's dry. Rubbish, really. But the sausage is extremely well seasoned. That's a damn good sausage!"
Five stars from our wiener expert.
With renewed enthusiasm, we head for the Belgian cart, where Benoit Dewitte from Benoit & Bernard Dewitte in Zingem has garnished his sausage (90 percent pork, 10 percent beef) with cream cheese, onion confit, radishes, herb oil and—as a loving homage to his home country—a crispy sprinkle of crushed French fries.
Dan is pissed off about the hot dog bread once again.
"Hot dog bread has to be light and soft. It shouldn't have any particular flavor or be tough to chew. You have to be able to taste the sausage, because, let's face it: it's all about the sausage. The bread is all wrong in this one, and on top of that, the sausage is really dry," Dan complains.
There's no time to waste, so we head for the local contestants in the red and white Danish cart, represented by Jeppe Foldager and Christoffer Brink from Alberto K in Copenhagen. "Finally, bread that's good for something," Dan cheers, while biting into the brioche bun from Foldager and Brink, containing a sausage made with free-range pork, fried morels, and mushrooms.
Our resident sausage man is in bread heaven, but the fond memories of the Japanese lobster hot dog still linger. Dan's verdict: "This is a really good hot dog, but it lacks something truly unique to really reach the top."
Next stop is Kurdistan, represented by Yasser Naz and Anas Amin from Restaurant SAK on the tiny Danish island of Samsø. They offer a 'Shish-Dog' with a chargoal-grilled shish kebab sausage made from lamb hearts, garnished with hummus, yogurt, fermented chili, lamb cracklings and garlic chips. The bread is sprinkled with toasted black cumin seeds and steamed in a weaved basket, like the ones used for dim sum.
Finally, there is proper bread for Dan. That must appease the stern sausage chef. But no. "This is dough, not bread. It tastes like it hasn't risen properly, and it sticks to my teeth. That is incredibly frustrating."
In the English sausage cart, Victor Wågman and Samuel Nutter from Copenhagen-based restaurant Bror join chef Douglas McMaster from restaurant Silo in Brighton. Both restaurants are famous for their extreme approach to sustainability and utilizing the most under-appreciated cuts. That manifests itself in a hot dog full of stuff the butcher would normally discard. There is nothing wrong with these cuts; there just aren't many customers asking for cow uterus or bull's dick and balls. But the guys from Bror and Douglas love all that stuff, so their hot dog contains a uterus glazed with cherries, a crispy bull dick that crunches like pork crackling, and testicles, which are mixed into the sausage mince.
'The Hot Love Dog' is overflowing with genitals, but Dan finds that it lacks soul, and isn't impressed when he notices that their sliced hot dog bread has been left out in the open air. "They will dry up in no time," Dan says. "They would have been fired if they worked in my sausage cart.
Finally, we reach the tiny Norwegian cart, where one last attempt is lying in wait for our wiener warrior.
Knut Lake from Urban Eatery in Oslo offers a fried hot dog bread made from rice flour and a little fat lamb sausage with porcini mushrooms. The garnish is pickled chanterelles, Chinese garlic cream, and a sprinkle of dried kale.
Dan is at a loss for words after tasting the Norwegian creation. After a while, he gathers his thoughts. "I have nothing negative to say about this one. This is bloody good. This is a real hot dog!" he shouts, and doesn't hesitate to give them the highest rating.
The global hot dog tasting tour ends on a happy note. The local sausage man has experienced disappointments, but the struggle has been worth it. Dan is full, exhausted, and thirsty, but more importantly, he is content.
"When you've struggled with the things I have in life, you feel like you're living on borrowed time. So you have to do stuff that you enjoy. And hot dogs really make life worth living."