Christian Puglisi may have worked at Noma, but he prefers to stand apart from the New Nordic movement. The Sicilian-born chef’s Relæ restaurant in Copenhagen pays homage to his roots, as does his latest project, Bæst, an Italian restaurant with a pizza oven and salumeria.
Heritage is important, but his real passions lie with local, organic ingredients and nurturing the next generation of young chefs.
As mentor to Nikolaj Schmidt Skadborg, winner for the Scandinavia region at S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2016, he spoke to FineDiningLovers about tradition, farming and making his own mozzarella in Copenhagen.
How did working under the likes of René Redzepi and Ferran Adrià shape you as a chef?
They have done a lot for me in two ways. There were a lot of creative methods at El Bulli. Ferran was good at thinking outside the box, and seeing things with a different perspective. René has a way of being very focused on doing what he wants, and that has made his own success. Those two ways of working have been an inspiration to me.
Why is organic food so important to you?
I’m a father who serves food to my kids, and I’m also a chef who serves food professionally, so I think it is my responsibility – as it is for everyone else who works in this industry – to communicate that there are things we take a bit for granted. We should really take care of the food that we eat, and the culture around food. That’s very important to us, and I think that the agricultural part of the food system really needs some help. It’s important for us in the food industry to communicate this and be a part of it.
How important is tradition in food?
Food is tradition and tradition is food. There’s no culture without food. I think it’s something we really need to keep holding onto, and take an interest in how other generations can keep passing on their knowledge. We are in danger of losing that around these generations, so I think it’s important that we keep up the standards and the fascination of food.
You explore your Sicilian roots in your food – especially at Bæst. How important is it for chefs to have a connection with their heritage?
I think that it’s just a part of it. I don’t think that it’s essential for you to cook good food. There should be a pride in what you put on the plate, and whether that’s because you have your roots in it, or it’s a part of you, I think it’s important for your identity that you transmit something. When you look at it from that point of view I think it’s obvious that there is a lot of value in it.
Tell us about making your own mozzarella in Copenhagen.
It was a decision that, instead of approaching pizza as an authentic Neapolitan thing, with buffalo mozzarella, I was more interested in having an authentic restaurant [Bæst]. You do that by making choices based on where you are. I thought it would make sense for me to get inspired by the craft behind making mozzarella, but to create something special in Copenhagen that you don’t find in Italy. You won’t find a restaurant in Italy where they make mozzarella daily, from fresh Danish milk.
Scandinavian and ‘New Nordic’ food is one of the most talked about cuisines in the world right now – is this reputation a help or a hindrance for young chefs from this region?
It’s great to have a lot of focus on our region, a lot of people wanting to work and eat here. You just need to be able to make use of that in the right way. It’s important not to buy into some kind of trend or movement. People really need to spend more time understanding what it is they want. That’s how you become authentic. The media puts everything in boxes all the time. People keep calling us a Nordic restaurant, and I have tried to say we are not, but there’s just no way around it. I’m an Italian immigrant in Denmark, and I cook food that I find interesting. For me there is no geography involved in the food we do. But people need things in boxes to make it easier to understand. And I understand that too. That’s just how it is. I think it’s important to find your own way, and to fight to define yourself.
What’s next for you – any plans for new restaurants or ventures in Denmark or further afield?
We just set up a farm project, which is going to be a big deal for us. It’s a small farm, 40-minutes out of Copenhagen, where we have vegetables growing right now. We are adding cows to provide milk for the mozzarella. For me it’s a question of going deeper now, into the raw materials and the produce, and trying to make our restaurants better. We also got involved in a small project with a guy who is making ramen, and we support him with that because he is focused on organic, local produce. That’s the sort of thing that we are going into now. I just want to go deeper into what I love doing.