Rasmus Kofoed has had, by any standards a stellar 2019. The Danish chef lives at the very pinnacle of the fine dining world. After claiming Bocuse d’Or, bronze (2005), silver (2007) and gold (2011), this year he returned to the competition as coach and mentor and guided chef Kenneth Toft-Hansen and team Denmark to first place on the podium.
As if that weren’t enough, Kofoed’s restaurant Geranium retained its three Michelin stars when the guide was announced in February. Kofoed, is at the top of the tree in a city that is on top of the culinary world at the moment.
Anyone acquainted with the level of dedication it takes to acquire one Michelin star, never mind the retention of three, will be aware of what an incredible achievement it is. For Rasmus though, it just seems like the default position, absolute excellence.
You have to wonder, what drives this chef? What makes him find that level of consistency and achievement? It’s something that you see in the sporting world at the very highest echelons of competition. Kofoed’s story could have very clear parallels to any story of sporting greatness, it’s just that this one plays out in the world of fine dining.
Determined to achieve the greatest prize in cooking, Kofoed pursued the Bocuse d’Or, with singular focus. The competition is known for the toll it takes on the lives of those who enter. They have to completely dedicate themselves to it. He went from winning Bronze, to Silver and eventually his holy grail, the Gold in 2011. There is probably no need to point out the Olympian narrative here. Through training, discipline, dedication and perseverance, Kofoed went for gold and the rest is history.
To return in 2019, this time as a coach, to guide a young protégé to a place on the podium is like a story that plays out in the back pages of newspapers the world over. Great athletes don’t always become great coaches, to do so, they need to understand the human condition.
The sporting analogy becomes all the clearer when you realise that his restaurant Geranium, the first in Denmark to receive three Michelin stars, is located in the Parken stadium, the home ground of FC Copenhagen and the Danish National football team. The restaurant is very much its own place and while inside, you don’t feel like you’re in a stadium at all, but you can’t help but feel if perhaps Kofoed was drawn to this as a ‘home ground’ for him. Perhaps he feels at home in this type of theatre just as he did in the theatre of the Bocuse d’Or.
When I ask Kofoed how he maintains such a consistently high standard, it’s not really surprising that his first answer has to do with physical training.
“First of all, it’s very important, I try to stay in good physical shape,” he says. “I’ve done it since I was five years old. Back then I was running around with a stick, pretending it was a motorcycle or something, and I still do it. Not with a stick, but I exercise, and I test myself.”
Staying in good physical condition is only the foundation on which to build, as any professional athlete. By far the biggest barrier to success is mental and Kofoed realises this, especially as at Geranium his role is leader.
“It doesn’t come naturally if you’re just working your ass off, there has to be a balance,” he says.
“I’ve been spending a lot of hours in the kitchen and I need to do that, but it’s also about creating a good balance in your life, because if you’re not happy, then it’s difficult to shine.”
Leadership is not something that comes naturally to many, but it does to Kofoed, who seems to have a very clear idea as to how you make people follow.
“When it comes to leadership, you just have to be the first one to do it, whatever it is. Always to take the next step, instead of saying “do this”, I will show them how to do it. You inspire that way. We have a very open kitchen, we work very closely together, it creates a good team spirit. Also, if one section is busy, all the others will come and help. That’s the type of mentality to work with that we’re in this together and let’s get the best out of it.”
It’s not how Kofoed leaned himself, yet the chef has the presence of mind to understand that not everyone learns in the same way.
“I learned a little differently, I learned though participating in tonnes of cooking competitions, where I had to motivate myself and my colleagues to perform on the exact day that the competition took place. I had to understand how I could be focused and calm and ready in an extremely stressful environment. So, I needed some tools to stay focused and perform at my best. How could I do it?
“You have to be mentally ready, prepared for the challenge. Physically, you have to be in good shape, and then you have to deal with logistics as well as your mindset. These are the tools that I still use. Even though it’s not a competition, some the tools are the same.”
For a journalist who has interviewed many successful sportsmen and women from some of the best footballers in the world, to Olympic gold medallists, for me Kofoed’s mentality is that of an elite athlete. It’s not something he seems preoccupied by though. When I ask him if he is a competitive person, he takes a moment to reflect.
“I can be,” he says. “I like a challenge. I mean not when I’m walking around here though, but I’ve participated in a lot of cooking competitions and when I’m running, I like a good challenge, I like to do it faster the next day. That’s something I will never change, it’s part of my DNA. It’s not that I want to be better than the next guy, it’s just a way for me to perform better.”
For Kofoed, there was no sporting reason to house Geranium in the national football stadium.
“We were in another location, it was very romantic and charming, but it was blocking our ideas, for the restaurant that we wanted to create. What I found special with this place is the view. We’re on the eighth floor and you have a view right to the ocean and the park.
“From the mise en place kitchen, I can see the football pitch and it’s nice to see when they’re playing., but it’s not something you really feel as a guest here. It’s a modern building and we don’t want to run away from where we are, but it has given us opportunity to realise our dreams.
“We’ve been working with on the dining room, since we opened it years ago. It’s about to get there, I feel. I feel it represents me and Soren as human beings, it’s a very open space, it’s light, it reflects who we are as individuals. Actually, when you are there you don’t really pay any attention to where you are, more that you are in a room with light and colours and creativity. That’s how we want our guests to feel.
As for the food on Geranium’s menu, it seems like Kofoed has naturally designed food that, will work with the body. For example, it’s not particularly meat heavy.
“We’re not more vegetable focused than we were at the beginning,” he says “If you’re a real meat lover, then maybe this is not the place to go, but, if you’re open minded and want to try lots of vegetables and shellfish, then this a good place for you.”
“We will have meat on the menu, but it will be only one course out of 19 perhaps. I like to work with game when it’s in season. It really has the flavour of the season. It’s a very natural piece of meat that is interesting to work with. In terms of flavour you can go the salty direction, the sweet and sour direction, you can find inspiration from your surroundings.”
So when this chef isn’t cooking at one of the world’s best restaurants, he of course enjoys spending time with his family. It’s not surprising either, that he enjoys watching the odd game of football too.
“I like to watch football. When I like to relax after a long week, I like to sit on the couch and watch a match between two great teams. That’s really where I can relax the most, it’s peaceful, with enough activity, that’s good for my soul.”
Elite athletes never rest on their laurels and you have to wonder what’s next for Kofoed. Geranium seems to be the centre of his attention, but is he done with Bocuse d’Or now?
“I don’t know, the heart will tell. I do it because it’s inspiring and motivating and I can help other people. So far, I’m done but I’m involved in the Danish organisation because I think it’s a great challenge for a chef to work with great focus and great ideas. But also, on a human level I like to work with people and see them achieve great things.”
As for what’s next for Kofoed, I suggested that a natural next step would be some sort of collaboration with the athletes next door. Certainly this chef and the coaches of the Danish football team have a lot to offer each other.
“I don’t know,” laughs Kofoed. “Certainly we could definitely learn from each other but until now that hasn’t happened. You never know, maybe we will team up”.