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As a boy, Per Hallundbæk dreamt of being a chef. That dream would take him across Europe on a culinary adventure that saw him working in Michelin star kitchens before settling at the Engø Gard hotel in Norway. After receiving the Relais & Chateaux Grand Chef Award, he returned to his homeland of Denmark, where he took the helm of the French kitchen at the historic Falsled Kro hotel. His food is known for its purity and lightness, with a Nordic twist.
Drawing on considerable experience of nurturing talent, Hallundbæk will be mentor for the Scandinavia-Baltics region finalist at S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018. He spoke to Fine Dining Lovers about his career, his food and his expectations for the competition.
Can you remember the moment you decided to become a chef?
It was when I was at school in Denmark. I did work experience as a chef. I was always inspired because it’s very simple to be in a kitchen. You only have one boss and you just say: “yes chef!” At that point in my life it was perfect to fit into a hierarchy like that. There were no obstacles because everybody told me you have to work weekends and evenings, so for me it seemed right, and it still does.
What was your biggest triumph as a young chef, and is there anything you would consider your biggest failure?
My biggest triumph was to be named number two in the European championships in 1998. It was a big contest in Bordeaux, similar to the Bocuse d’Or. My biggest failure was for three times in a row I was named the number two chef in Denmark! When you do that for three years, you get called ‘The Number Two Chef’.
As a mentor, what do you expect from your young chef?
They must have respect for what they are working with. It is something unique, an animal that has been killed, so we don’t fool around with food.
What would victory in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition mean for a young chef?
The competition has grown very big, so I think when you win it you are a good chef. It means a lot of work, training and effort. To win means you are the best, because it’s very, very hard work.
How would you describe your food?
It’s very honest. We have a big garden where we grow our own vegetables. We have over 70 fruit trees. It’s a very local kitchen, but still spiced with the best ingredients from France and Italy, like pigeons and truffles. It’s very honest and tasty food, with no influence from the fashions of the day, like New Nordic or Spanish. It’s a countryside Inn. We do our own thing. You feel the DNA in the food and the building. It’s a very un-snappy place.
What for you is the essence of Nordic food?
We are not ‘New’ Nordic food. What the likes of Rene Redzepi have done has been a triumph for Scandinavia, and I respect that very much. But there are a lot of other kinds of foods, and that is what we are doing. Traditional Nordic food is about pickling and fermentation, curing salmon and herring. We still do stuff like that at our restaurant because it’s important to maintain the old way of conserving things.
You have travelled and worked widely in Europe. Tell us about some of your experiences and how they shaped you as a chef.
As a young chef I worked in Switzerland for a while, then Spain and France. I worked for three-star chef Emile Jung at Le Crocodile in Strasbourg, and for me it was a good learning curve, because in a three-star restaurant you do not do nothing. It’s a team and everybody has to do something. The dishwasher is maybe the most important guy, because nobody wants to do it, but if he’s not there everything is chaos.
You have a close working relationship with your wife Randi Schmidt, what are the challenges involved in such a relationship?
It’s not funny, but she is my ex-wife now! We still work together and everything is fine. She is the managing director here, and I have been working with her since 1995. What I love and respect about her is, if we agree about something, I just know it will get fixed. We have the same passion for the industry and for this place (Falsled Kro) and I would not be able to do it without her. She’s amazing.
Falsled Kro is a historic location for your restaurant, how important is an appreciation of tradition in your cooking?
It’s very important to be honest about the history and the ethos of the original founders of the restaurant 45 years ago. When you come here you feel the DNA. You are coming into our house. Otherwise it would be just another restaurant, and just another hotel. It’s a French kitchen, but still adapted to this area.
What are you working on at the moment and what are your plans for the future?
We’re just launching our apple champagne. It’s a very good result. I just did a cookbook, but right now we don’t have any particular plans, other than trying to win restaurant of the year in Denmark.