In the past few weeks, the announcement of the permanent closure of three acclaimed restaurants has put Copenhagen’s food scene on alert. Noma’s sibling restaurant, 108, run by Kristian Baumann, will cease operations at the end of September. And trailblazer chef Christian Puglisi posted on his Instagram that Relæ and Manfreds, his two flagship restaurants that helped transform local gastronomy, will close their doors at the end of the year. His three other restaurants in the city (Mirabelle, Bæst, and Rudo), will remain open
Although in the case of the latter, the pandemic was not the main reason for closing, the news endangers the future of the dining scene in a city that in recent years has established itself as one of the major destinations for food lovers. The 'Noma effect' put Nordic cuisine in the spotlight, gave visibility to the work of other local cooks, and placed Copenhagen firmly on the world food map. How the local scene will look like after the pandemic is still uncertain, but tables are being filled again, and diners are keeping some restaurants fully booked for weeks in advance.
“Copenhagen has been a strange bubble in the time of Covid,” says chef Nick Curtin, from the acclaimed Alouette, a contemporary American eatery located in Islands Brygge. “Compared to what we were seeing elsewhere in the world, with outdoor dining, temperature checks, masks on employees, this felt surprisingly lax.” Recently, Denmark's government imposed 10pm closing times on bars and restaurants in the city, in an attempt to control infection rates, and made the use of face masks obligatory for customers.
Curtin says restaurants have had constructive and specific financial assistance from the government, and were financially motivated to retain staff for the duration of the closure. Now they are open, they can have guests indoors, the limitations seem reasonable among chefs and restaurant owners, and the guests seem cognisant of social distance (but not paranoid), and happy to spend money again after months of lockdown.
Curtin, who used to run Rosette in New York and decided to open his venue in Copenhagen in 2018, says the general consensus is that business around the city is down by 30% to 50%. "For us, we feel lucky. We haven’t felt much of an impact after reopening. Of course we fear the ramifications of a potential second wave. But we are happy to be here, happy our business is in Copenhagen.” According to him, some places have even experienced an upturn. “For many, it feels the style of dining and your clientele impact your current revenue.”
Run by husband-and-wife team Nicola Fanetti and Ursula Waltemath, Braceis a modern Italian restaurant, which balances bold Italian flavours and Danish simplicity in the city's Latin Quarter. When the lockdown was announced, the couple pivoted to a take-out model, becoming one of the first in the city's fine-dining scene to do so. “It was the way we found to keep our staff on the payroll. They depended on us, and we felt responsible for doing something. From the beginning, everything went very well,” says Fanetti.
The initiative was based around a selection of dishes that could be collected, heated if needed, and enjoyed by guests at home. With good feedback from customers, they created The 4 Hands Edition, a series of collaborative dinners available exclusively for take-away with some of Denmark's most talented chefs, artisanal producers and local suppliers, bringing together Nordic chef and Noma co-founder Claus Meyer, and chef Steffen Villadsen, from Molskroen.
“At first, it was something that many restaurants did not want to do. I have the impression that adopting measures such as delivery or take-out was seen as derogatory. I didn't think twice. We don't have investors. We are a small, independent restaurant. It was necessary to keep the business and the people. I am proud to have done it that way,” says the chef.
Fanetti, who started his career at Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy before moving to Denmark where he worked at Noma, agrees that it is advantageous to be in Copenhagen. “In Italy, we probably wouldn't have made it through,” he says. “The scene here is more consolidated. People are more open to different concepts, value them more, which also brings us security. There is a professionalisation of the market in general, at all levels,” he says.
Nicola FanettiandUrsula Waltemath courtesy of Brace Restaurant
If, in the very beginning, the closure of restaurants was felt throughout the food industry (from suppliers to restaurant owners), following the reopening, even the farmers could give a breath of relief. Neel Seerup comes from a Dutch-heritage family that has been producing food in Denmark for centuries. On her seven-hectare property, just over 20 minutes from downtown Copenhagen, she grows more than a hundred varieties of organic vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers that she supplies to many local restaurants, including Brace.
In early March, her sales declined considerably with the lockdown. “We had an overproduction of leeks that we were unable to sell. Orders dropped and sales to clients didn't meet the offer,” she says. Now, with restaurants open again, she is back to supplying 70% of her usual client list. "One or the other stopped buying, but I believe the resumption has been better than expected. At least, we didn't need to go to the bank.”
Jordnær has also been resilient. Since the end of the lockdown the restaurant has had a two-month waiting list — proof that local guests (and a trickle of returning tourists) are more willing than ever to enjoy a good dining experience. “The pandemic has left the city’s food scene in a slightly uncertain shape, and a little startled,” says co-owner and maître d’ Tina Kragh Vildgaard. “All the good energy some have put into a restaurant project can be lost, if not overnight, then in a couple of months, whereas things perhaps looked good before the pandemic.”
But she believes Copenhagen is a “strong, healthy and resilient food city,” so perhaps the pandemic also makes those who are still open even sharper? “The pandemic hit like a meteor shower and had the whole industry stop. But it showed that we are an adaptable industry that is used to fighting,” she says. Along with her husband and Jordnær’s head chef, Eric Vildgaard, they closed the restaurant, but kept all the staff members, and used the lockdown weeks to prepare themselves for the reopening, which has been very positive.
“On the Copenhagen food scene we have enormously strong forces and those will keep pushing Danish gastronomy forward. Just think back 20 years — where was the Copenhagen food scene at that time?” Tina asks. “Our belief in the future is, despite some uncertainty, very bright.”
Tina Kragh Vildgaard and Eric Vildgaard: Photo credit Jesper Rais
This bright future won’t arrive without some shade, however, as the recent announcements have proved. Many chefs and restaurateurs have been saying for years that Copenhagen has been an oversaturated market. In some way, Covid can create a ‘survival of the fittest’ scenario: businesses that were limping through, were overpriced, or lacked quality, may not make it.
But for chef Nick Curtin, the closing of restaurants like 108 and Relæ means a possible end to the culinary renaissance that has driven Copenhagen for the last decade. The stemmed flow of highly experienced cooks and servers, and of food tourists, coupled with a decrease in the number of ambitious restaurants, will have consequences.
“We may, one day, get back to ‘business as usual', and for Copenhagen that day may come sooner than elsewhere in the world, but it will be an uphill battle to get things back to the way they were,” he says. “And it begs the question, should we go back? Or should we push forward in new directions?”
The ‘new normal’ for Copenhagen’s restaurants will be defined by how the city weathers the pandemic storm.