Chef Conference: Cooking with the Vikings

20 April 2006
Chef Conference: Cooking with the Vikings

British chef Paul Cunningham has won a Michelin star at the Paul restaurant in Copenhagen. Joanna Wood caught up with him to find out why Denmark lured him away from English shores

Why Denmark?
My wife, Lene, is Danish (we met while I was working with Chris Colmer at the Greenway in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire), so that's the original link. We left England for a life of luxury in Denmark 13 years ago. We've got two sons now - Christian, aged seven, and little Valdemar, who's almost two.

Tell us a little bit about your restaurant, the modestly named Paul Nobody back home believes me when I tell them it's named after the architect, Poul Henningsen, who designed the building! Anyway, potted history: the Paul is in the Glass Hall building that lies in the centre of what is best described as an antique amusement park, the Tivoli Gardens. They were opened 164 years ago and are a strong part of Danish heritage. The gardens have always had a quality restaurant, but never a Michelin-starred establishment until we got a star in 2004. In the evenings we generally have between 50 and 60 guests every night from Monday to Saturday. The gardens close down over winter (except for Christmas), so we do too!

You held a Michelin star when you were head chef at Søllerød Kro - did it feel better getting one for the Paul? Are you joking? The Paul was my first restaurant that was personally financed, so when we received our star after seven months of operation it was the cherry on the cake. Pleased and proud, I was.

Tell us more about your menus I write and cook a long tasting menu in the evenings, served with lots of lovely wines, so the dishes are simple and to the point. We use as many Danish and Swedish ingredients as possible. We have a small à la carte menu for lunch, together with a sized-down version of our evening tasting menu. I write a new tasting menu every 14 days to follow the seasons and our restaurant manager and head sommelier, Henrik Yde-Andersen, matches the dishes with wines.

We have a lounge and a terrace, so we greet guests in both with maybe Champagne or summer cocktails served with eight snacks and a couple of spooned appetisers. Iberico ham with roasted almonds follows. The tasting menu starts at the table with a small appetiser followed by four light dishes based on maybe local fish and shellfish, maybe a vegetable dish, a roast fish, light meats (quails, pigeon, rabbit). Then a meat course of organically raised, specially sourced beef, lamb, duck or chicken - and after that, perhaps a little dish of the leg, or a second cut from the beast. This year we're also planning a cheese dish. And the menu ends with a battery of desserts from the pastry kitchen. Bloody hell - that was a long answer…

Has your food changed much over the years? I used to cook big and very elaborate dishes but the tasting-menu-only thing came about when I worked at a restaurant in Copenhagen called Formel B. There were only two of us with responsibility for the kitchen, but we also needed time off. By doing a tasting menu for all the guests we could run the kitchen solo. So, if people were coming in order to taste my dishes they would book on my day - and if they wanted to eat the other chef's creations, they came on her shift. A rather strange concept, I know, but it worked and we received high acclaim and were full every day. Our guests at the Paul know the menus and the style of my cooking and they seem to like it - so why change?

What are you cooking in your masterclass at the Chef Conference? Braised Limfjord oysters with lamb sweetbreads and escabèche of vegetables. The sweetbreads are from new-season organic lamb (well, 99% organic lamb - they're from a place called Krenkerup Manor and there's a little school for handicapped kids in the area and the kids do have a tendency to feed the animals with sweets, chocolate and leftovers from their lunchboxes!) I'm also using vegetables flown down from Gotland, an island in the north of Sweden - they're 100% organic, with a super taste. I'll poach them escabèche-style - and the big, lovely oysters are from Limfjord in the west of Denmark. They will be warmed through in the liquor at the end. The dish is finished with small leaves of wild garlic from the forest near to where I live.

Give us a couple of wine matches for the dish Any Spanish Albarinho will do. Fino sherry is our absolute favourite.

Presumably you've picked up a few choice Danish kitchen terms… for dealing with slow staff, say? Only English is used, I'm afraid. The "c" word is very popular, with the "f" word coming in a close second. But if things get really out of hand, the silent treatment always works.

You mentioned that you close in winter. Do you have another source of income other than the Paul that keeps the tills ringing? I have a partner in the Paul project, Morten Tønnesen, and we have a catering company that does about 3,000 lunches daily for clients throughout the Copenhagen media, TV and advertising world. And we also have a small café project with the Ordrupgaard Museum of Impressionism.

How dynamic is the restaurant/eating-out scene in Copenhagen? Very dynamic, even though it's a very small city with just 1.8 million people living in central Copenhagen - just ask the folk at Michelin. Ten stars so far and new, exciting projects opening almost every week. Restaurants? Noma with Rene Redzepi is super, one star using only Nordic products. Bobech at Paustian is probably Denmark's answer to Monsieur Gagnaire. Thomas Rode Andersen at Kong Hans stands firm with French classicism. And my earlier trainee Mads Refslund at his own MR is also proving to be a little whirlwind of late.

What do you miss most about England? The English country pub. I was never really a pub bloke, but I miss having the opportunity of going to the pub, I think. I started my career as a cook at the Fleur de Lys in Widdington near Saffron Walden (best regards to any regulars, reading this). And I miss my folks, gossip, good fish and chips, sandwich bread, really nice sausages, Cornwall and pasties - and getting Caterer on time!

Conference countdown Find out more about Paul Cunningham at the 2006 Chef Conference at the Landmark hotel, London, on 8 May. There's culinary inspiration in spades, too, from Pierre Gagnaire, Jason Atherton, Sat Bains, Andrew Fairlie, Brett Graham, Vineet Bhatia and Tom Kerridge. And a view from the "other side" from the Observer's restaurant critic, Jay Rayner. To book or for information call 020 8652 8680 or click here.

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