British chef Paul Cunningham, the head chef of Denmark restaurant with rooms Henne Kirkeby Kro, has told of his utter shock at being promoted to two stars this week in the Michelin Guide to the Nordic Countries 2017.
Speaking to The Caterer today, the Essex-born chef, who trained in England at country house hotels Lords of the Manor and Danesfield House, among others, before moving to Denmark in 1994, said: “It’s nuts, it’s crazy. Faithfully, 110%, I didn’t expect this. I’d like to think I cook lovely food and I like my sauces and flavours, but I don’t break boundaries, I don’t use fermentation techniques and I don’t use water baths. I just cook with a pan, a block of butter and a piece of fish or some vegetables. I swear I’ve never cooked for stars and I’ve always felt, if I think to myself ‘I’d gladly pay for that’, that’s good enough. ”
Cunningham, who held a Michelin star at the Paul in Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen from 2003-2011 but was forced to close the restaurant following the financial crash, said that he was aware that he had had several inspections over the past year or two, but said he had been delighted to receive a star in the 2016 edition of the guide last year.
“To think that 12 months ago we were in this situation, about to open up the restaurant after the winter break with a Michelin star, and now, here we are, 12 months on, and we’ve got to open up the restaurant with two, I’m still a bit weak on my legs.
“But we got two stars for what we did last year, so I’m not going to go and get silver cutlery and diamond plates. I’ve never played an attacking game – I haven’t got the competition gene in my body – I hate competition. And while there are lots of awards out there that do an incredible amount for the industry, shining the light on our industry, Michelin is more of a club, it’s not about being a number, it’s about being consistent, being honest and giving people value for money.”
Cunningham said on previous inspections inspectors have alluded to the fact that some of his meals have been “the top of one star, sometimes two”, but he said that he never saw that as a good thing. “That’s not good because it’s all about consistency, consistency, consistency and I would much rather be a really strong one than a dodgy two. But, of course, we know Michelin don’t award dodgy twos.
“The fact that Michelin make a point of talking about value for money is important to me. Growing up we never went to Michelin-starred restaurants, we could never afford to, but we always went to a good fish and chip restaurant.”
Nestled in the heathlands of west Jutland, Henne Kirkeby Kro is owned by the Fænø Estate, which is under the ownership of the Skouboe family. Working hand in hand with the family – Flemming and sons Martin and Simon – Cunningham also works alongside general manager Garrey Dawson, the former head chef of the Fat Duck.
“Food wise and business-wise I’m in a very lucky situation,” explained Cunningham. “I’m the creative mind and I have said to myself for many years, unfortunately, I have a massive heart, and I think with my heart all the time. I lost my restaurant the Paul during the financial crisis – I was taken with my pants down, and that’s what happens to people who think with their hearts before they think with their mind.
“As chefs, are we craftsman or artists and this is where art comes into it – artists think with their heart, they don’t question how long they are working on something, what it’s going to cost, but I am working with people who have the financial means to do this sort of thing.
“I was in hospital at end of the Paul, I wanted to stop cooking and to write and travel and take photographs and then I met these people through Garrey and he said ‘come here and see what we’ve got’. The Danes have got a saying which is that someone has style to the end of their fingertips, you can see they are well dressed and well groomed, but not in a showy off way. That’s who I work with, they are classy people and I’ve always loved classy people and it works really well.”
Cunningham and Dawson received the news at the Michelin unveiling ceremony in Stockholm on Wednesday. He said the pair celebrated in the Grand hotel with a pot of tea.
“We were hopeful that Dill in Reykjavik was going to get a star so we wanted to be there for my former sous chef Ragnar Eiriksson. The event was held in a beautiful building, an old theatre, and everything was red. We thought it had come to the end of the proceedings when international director Michael Ellis paused and said there were two new twos stars. I turned to Garrey and said ‘that’s great, there’s two new twos’ and when I looked back at the stage Michael Ellis was looking at me. I was flabbergasted, I couldn’t stand up. Garrey started kissing me and told me to get up.
“I know I mess around with two-star chefs such as Sat [Bains], Claude [Bosi], Andrew [Fairlie], Tom [Kerridge] and Nathan [Outlaw], but I’ve always been so proud that they acknowledge what I do, and when they come over they always say such nice things about my food which is not cutting edge. I make everything from scratch. I still make my sauces. My kitchen and my food changes with the temperature of the garden – if it’s warmer my food gets lighter and if starts raining in the afternoon I put a few drops of cream into the sauces. I’ve been very moved by this.”
Cunningham added that critical to his success was his relationship with Dawson. “We’re inspired by the same things – we come from the same generation but he’s from the posh part of England and I come from Essex. But he’s been wonderful for me. I know from his earlier days here that he was met with a brick wall – he came with ideas and because they weren’t Nordic ideas the team wouldn’t always listen. But I’m not stupid – Garrey was at the Fat Duck when it went from zero to three stars so he’s very knowledgeable. We have a really nice working relationship and I know exactly what goes on behind his little skinny face, what he’s done and what he’s capable of doing.”
The road to stardom
Fellow two-star chef Sat Bains, who runs Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms in Nottingham, has known Cunningham since the early noughties. “I first got to know him because he sent a chef to me… although I had to send him back. He was rubbish.”
But later, Bains sent one of his own chefs, Ben Greeno, to work with Cunningham at the Paul in Tivoli Gardens. It was when Bains went to visit Greeno that he met Cunningham for the first time. They hit it off instantly.
“We all know that he’s very creative and I absolutely love his handwriting – he could be a graffiti artist – but what he did at Tivoli was stunning, even though it was a bit of a funfair. Paul’s food highlighted his British roots. It was classical, with only two or three ingredients on the plate, but luxury ingredients: a stunning piece of turbot cooked old-school in the pan with a knob of butter, or heightened slightly with a touch of lemon. His cooking would not be out of place in a three-star in Paris. That’s how beautiful his food is.”
A few years later, Claude Bosi, Simon Rogan, Daniel Clifford and Bains went back to Copenhagen to the Paul. “He cooked every single dish for the four of us and, looking back, that was one of my favourite times. We knew that this Essex wide boy was killing it out there.”
Bains has invited Cunningham to the UK a few times. They judged the Nottinghamshire Young Chef of the Year together and Cunningham was the first chef to eat at the chef’s table at Restaurant Sat Bains in 2007.
Cunningham also came over to cook at a fundraising dinner held at Hibiscus in the run-up to Bains’s trip to Nepal for Hospitality Action, when Bains was attempting to set a new Guinness World Record for the highest formal dinner party at the North Col of Mount Everest.
“Garrey Dawson has been seminal to him,” adds Bains. “He found Paul when he was desperate to find a way forward and to find his own style. Garrey knows the calibre of Paul, and Garrey is himself a phenomenal chef who operated at three-star level. It took a chef to understand a chef, and allow that chef to be a chef. That’s why their marriage is one of the best in the industry.”
While Cunningham says that he was genuinely shocked to go from one to two stars, Bains wouldn’t be surprised if Henne Kirkeby Kro was promoted to three in the next two years.
“He has never deviated in his cooking or been whimsical with it. He has created a solid base for chefs to come and be taught old-school techniques – roasting, deglazing – and together with Garrey, one of the best chefs this country has ever produced, they have created something sensational.
“I was as proud for Paul as when I won two stars myself.”
From zero to hero
Essex-born Paul Cunningham says he was a happy, round fellow as a baby with a “rather healthy appetite for almost everything edible”. Although he originally wanted to get into graphic design, he says he chose the “universe of foods, textures and flavours” as his artistic medium.
His career started off in a country pubin Widdington in Saffron Walden before he moved to a Cambridge hotel and then to the Kent countryside. “My travels took me to Buckinghamshire and the wonderful Cotswolds before I moved to Denmark in 1994,” he says.
Arriving in Copenhagen with his then girlfriend, he took on his first head chef position at Søllerød Kro, a restaurant in the northern suburbs of the city. “It was here that I was lucky enough to receive my first star from Michelin,” he says.
In 2003 he opened the Paul, a glasshouse set in the famous Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. Once again, he received a Michelin star within a few months. “I closed the Paul after almost 10 years, following a rather nasty bout of stress. A change in pace and style was needed,” he explains.
The building for his next restaurant, Henne Kirkeby Kro, was built around 200 years ago and it lies 4km from Denmark’s west coast. “The thatched coaching inn was beautifully renovated by the Skouboe family 10 years ago, and she is wonderful,” he boasts.
“We have 12 bedrooms and just 12 tables. In addition to our kitchen garden (and a private forest), we have our own lamb, pigs, chicken and rabbit, and honey production within our fruit orchard.” Over the past 200 years, the garden has developed into, he argues, probably the biggest kitchen garden in the country.
The Michelin Guide describes Henne Kirkeby Kro as a charming 18th-century thatched inn with a contrastingly modern interior. “Menus celebrate the surrounding farmland, with top-notch seasonal produce including plenty from their own kitchen garden. Cooking is founded on the classics and dishes are original and technically accomplished; sauces are sublime.”
Incredibly, Henne Kirkeby Kro received its first star in February 2016 and its second in February 2017.
British chef wins two Michelin stars in the Michelin Guide to the Nordic Countries 2017 >>