Chef Bo Bech’s achievements in gastronomy are well documented. A leading light of the New Nordic culinary movement, he made his name at the avant-garde Restaurant Paustian in the early 2000s, and then at his own Geist, which became a like a North Star in the constellation of world-leading Copenhagen restaurants.
There has always been the sense that there is much more to Bech than the chef in the kitchen. And surely enough, when he stepped away from Geist recently, he began to share more of his personality and his creative process.
The Relation Between Us is Bech’s latest book and probably his most personal work to date. It’s an invitation to take a glimpse at the man’s soul, under the chef’s whites so to speak, to discover a curious, open-hearted human who seeks a connection with others.
“This time around, I’m actually a little bit nervous,” says Bech. “I usually never care if you are the first or the last to do something. What I’m curious about is whether you are honest or not. Because if we are honest, then we all get certain revelations ourselves. It’s your time, your moment, when you arrive, it’s your moment, in place, in time.
“With this it is different because it feels like I’m attempting something new. The attempt is to try and bring you along with me when I travel - in whatever market, in whatever restaurant, plastic chair, fine dining, whatever - it’s my attempt to bring you along with a person who really is searching. Searching for new experiences, for food, for people and all of these things, and through all of that give you my honest opinion on things.”
Travel is, for now, something most of us can only dream about, but one day we will get back to far-flung places. It’s a moment in time to contemplate: what is it that we are looking for when we get on a plane and fly halfway around the world, to a country where we don’t speak the language and look different? For Bech, it is the spontaneity, the creative freedom it offers, and above all, the connection with other human beings that he is looking for.
“I over-complicated going to Japan, I waited too long,” he says. “It sort of became like a mountain to climb, like now Africa is the next mountain for me. Because I had the deepest respect for it I wanted it to be perfect, I wanted to avoid all the tourist traps, I just kept postponing it for some reason. So, what happened on New Year’s Day, one of my friends just said 'let’s go to Japan tomorrow', so we went, and we didn’t have all the right reservations and we didn’t do all the ‘must-see’ things, but we got to stay in Japan and Tokyo, and we got to interact with locals. And most importantly, we got to forget about our differences and we got to see how similar we all are. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
It must be said that the world has missed Anthony Bourdain and his style of food-focused travel documentary. People were able to connect with him because of his authentic storytelling, and that is why his legacy is so strong. The Relation Between Us is crafted in the same vein – different, yet similar in intent. The lockdown period has given us a glut of recipe books, the full extent of which we are yet to see, but this book really does feel like something else. Something quite unique.
"My last book In My Blood was a very easy book to write because we just had to show what we were doing at Geist,” says Bech. “We wrote the recipes and how we approached food. The funny thing was though, when people ate at Geist, they would always smile and say ‘I can do this’. I would always smile and look into my own heart and think ‘yeah, try it under the stress of 200 covers’. Then when the book came out, it was a huge success, but people said ‘I love the writing, I love the imagery, but I can’t do these recipes they’re way too complicated’.
“I thought they were joking. There are four or five ingredients, food doesn’t get simpler than that. And I guess maybe it was because of the visual design, and maybe people were put off by that? So then I didn’t take a single photo, besides with my phone, for a year because of that. I was fed up with taking photos.
“Then it slowly started coming back to me. I began to think about how I disagree with a lot of people’s approach to life at the moment. I think a lot of people are getting it wrong right now, they have a tendency to point out what’s wrong with things. People want to emphasise the differences. Not only with food, but it seems with everything, and I just can’t identify with that.
“What gives me those peak experiences is when I’m lost in another culture, I don’t speak the language but my body language is communicating with people. That I want them to cook for me, that I want to be there, there’s something special that happens. All these moments are generated by generosity, from my side, from their side. People that work in our profession and in food, their main engine, their main drive is actually generosity and a wish to create a happy moment.”
The Relation Between Us, a collection of writings, photography and recipes, is an attempt to capture those ‘peak experiences’ and to share them with us. It’s something Bech writes about in the book’s introduction.
“Peak experiences are moments that I cherish. I believe when a child experiences the world, in a new world - in Danish we call it a ‘tiger jump’ - their eyes are opened, they see the world for the first time. For me a peak experience is something you can point to and say: ‘Here is everything before and here is everything after’. Things have changed.
“So then it became pretty clear to me, what happens with food before it reaches the kitchen or the table? What do these ingredients say, before it gets interpreted by my kind of neo-Nordic, architectural interpretation of mine?”
The camera has been a window to the world for Bech, allowing him to venture into places he wouldn’t normally go. At times it has become a purpose in itself while travelling.
“The camera has really helped me when I travel. It helps me to challenge myself much more. I’ve been to so many places when I’ve agreed to do a dinner, or give a talk, and I arrive, maybe it’s night, the weather is shitty, and I think ‘what the fuck am I doing here?’. Then I go out into the streets and I start taking photographs, I start meeting people, things start happening and I think ‘why didn’t I book more time here?'"
The intrepid traveller is someone who often feels like an outsider, they seek out experiences that accentuate their foreignness in order to find the sameness in people. But for someone who has been at the culinary epicentre in one of the world’s most dynamic food cities, it is surprising when Bech says that he feels like an outsider there. It’s the one place he doesn’t take photos.
“I always feel like an outsider in Copenhagen, but it’s a positive vibe. Most people see it as something negative, but it’s not. It means you can go your own way, you have your own path. I’ve always asked myself ‘why go the way others go, why?’. In life, as you get older, you begin to understand what makes you happy and that’s what you do.”
With travel off the menu, what is Bech going to do to make himself happy?
“I’m 100 percent going to do a restaurant. I stepped away from Geist, handed my part to my business partner and head chef. When you work on something and you get to a point where you’re no longer exploring, but defending what you’ve built, that for me is the time to step away. This book was what I’ve been doing for the last three months so now I’m going to enjoy the rest of the year and then start looking for other projects."
The traveller revels in uncertainty, it’s where those peak experiences lie. The restaurateur, though, looks for certainty. So what does the future hold for restaurants?
“Right now no one knows, there are a lot of ‘ifs’. It’s funny, when something like a global pandemic happens it’s always the arts, and I include the culinary arts in that, that suffer most. But try and live without them. We can’t, because they feed our soul and we need them.”