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'There are tons of English chefs in Copenhagen': The Brit who helped build Denmark's food scene

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
'There are tons of English chefs in Copenhagen': The Brit who helped build Denmark's food scene
The English chef Paul Cunningham poses with a lobster. Photo: Anders Schoennemann

Few Brits have made more impact on Denmark than Paul Cunningham, who won two Michelin stars on Monday for the eighth year running. He tells The Local why his adopted country's New Nordic cuisine is "in general, bollocks".

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American readers might call it "crap" instead. And if you found that offensive, beware, there are a lot more profanities to come.

Cunningham, who still speaks with the accent of his native Essex, spoke to The Local on his first day back from the Michelin Guide Ceremony for the Nordic Countries in Helsinki, where his Henne Kirkeby Kro restaurant near Esbjerg had the second Michelin star it won in 2017 confirmed. 

"I've never ever chased stars," he says of his career in Denmark. "When I moved out here, we thought there was no way we were going to get stars out of Copenhagen, and then all of a sudden, there was this one English guy sitting in the restaurant, and I was like 'no fucking way'. I mean, I left Copenhagen to get away from this."

The main entrance to the Henne Kirkeby Kro restaurant. Photo: Anders Schoennemann

He's not interested, he claims, in doing what it would take to win a third.

"I think we'd have to make some changes and I don't really want to," he said. "I don't want 20 waiters in the  restaurant and 20 chefs in the kitchen, I don't want that. This isn't that sort of place. This is a 200-year-old thatched coaching inn on the wild west coast of Jutland, and I think we should stay like that. People come here and get a lovely, homely experience." 

One of the things that struck him in Helsinki, he said, was the number of British chefs who have been doing great things at restaurants in the Nordics, with the British chef Connor Laybourne picking up a star for his restaurant Tapio Ruka in Finnish Lapland. 

"I was really surprised that there's so many English people going up on stage. It was incredible," he said. "He's from Cambridge and he ended up moving to Lapland, which is the arse end of nowhere. And he's got a star up there. He came up to me and said 'you've been such an inspiration. Thank you very much. Blah, blah, blah'. He was such a nice fella. And then all of a sudden he was on the fucking stage getting a star. I was really shocked." 

Cunningham moved to Denmark for love in 1994, after training at a string of top restaurants in the UK. 

He settled with his Danish wife Lene in her home town of Korsør on the west coast of Zealand, but was soon commuting to Søllerød Kro, north of Copenhagen, winning it a Michelin Star a few years after rising to be head chef, and then repeating the feat when he started his own restaurant, The Paul, in Tivoli. 

"I love where I live. It's a beautiful little old harbour town and my wife is from there. I've got two lovely boys, Christian's reading English at Copenhagen University, and Valdemar has just finished high school, so he's hopefully going to learn architecture or something, so we live our life there. I like it." 

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At Henne Kirkeby Kro they are not averse to creating some classic dishes. Photo: Photo: Anders Schoennemann

Cunningham's own kitchen has also long been something of a British, or even English, enclave. 

"It's quite difficult to get into Scandinavia now after Brexit. That's a bit bollocks. But before we had so many English people. I think our record was, like, maybe five or six, and we're only a little team, seven, maybe eight, people in the kitchen." 

His restaurant manager, Garrey Dylan Dawson, and his head chef Paul Proffit, are both English. Dawson was the head chef at Fat Duck, moving to Denmark sixteen years ago and then starting Henne Kirkeby Kro a year later. He lured Cunningham to join him four years later.

Their recruitment of British chefs has helped create something of an English mafia within Denmark's food scene. 

"There are tonnes of English chefs in Copenhagen. One of my earlier chefs, Jamie Lee is at Fiskebar, which is very, very busy. He's a very good cook. Alan Bates, my earlier sous chef, the owners of this restaurant set him up with a little restaurant in Copenhagen, which is called Connection by Alan Bates. There's tonnes." 

 

Some of the more delicate 'snacks' served at Henne Kirkeby Kro. Photo: Photo: Anders Schoennemann

Together, his proteges form something of a resistance to New Nordic cuisine, which Cunningham says is a label and a concept he has been uncomfortable with ever since its creator Claus Meyer tried to involve him right at the start. 

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"It's not for me. I've never wanted to put myself in a box," he says. "I was approached by a gentleman called Claus Meyer  20 years ago and he asked me to look at a project. It wasn't Noma at that point. There was no name, but it was the New Nordic kitchen, and we worked backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards and after a couple of months, I said to him, 'listen, I've got to be honest, I just don't think it works with an Englishman'." 

He's now quite critical of all that is most successful in Denmark's high-end food scene. 

"In general, I think it's bollocks, to be honest with you," he said. "It doesn't say anything for me, the new Nordic cuisine when you sit there and you eat a menu, and you're eating twigs and fermented this and fermented that, and Kohlrabi ice cream. I saw someone was making fish ice cream the other day. I mean, what the fuck, why? Why would you do that? Who wants to eat that?"What's wrong with vanilla?"

"When was it illegal to serve normal fucking beautiful strawberries and cream? It's all illegal at the moment. The strawberries have got to be green. And the cream has got a taste, taste like hay, or a cow's behind. I just don't get it. You know, we have lovely ingredients." 

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Some restaurants in Copenhagen, he added, are taking their customers for a ride. 

"I don't like BS. I don't like it in anything. And if it's BS in a way you're cooking....I mean, I've got an ex-friend that runs a restaurant in Copenhagen that serves like, sort of shit asparagus from the market and he's telling everyone it comes from a specific garden, but everybody in the business knows it just comes from the market."

He's increasingly lost patience with how things have developed. 

"It's just awful, awful. Who would do that? You know, take five absolutely normal mushrooms on a plate, and charge people 150 kroner for it. It's fucking ridiculous, and then they just tell this long, winding story of all the things that have happened to them, blah, blah, blah. I just don't get it." 

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At Henne Kirkeby Kro, he claims to focus on extremely good ingredients sensitively and inventively combined, with seafood and meat at the centre of most dishes, together vegetables from the restaurant's four hectares of gardens. 

What annoys him is that too many high-end restaurants fail at the most basic level. 

"I've been to these restaurants where they've cooked the fish on the bone and it was fucking raw. Don't serve me a piece of turbot, the King of the Sea, and it's raw. You're bastardising a beautiful piece of fish. It's when people undercook lobster, they don't understand that lobsters should be cooked all the way through."

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"The problem is, is people don't know how to fucking cook because all they're doing is getting a recipe card from a head chef saying sous-vide this fish for 20 minutes, take it out and just mask it with a sauce, and the sause is usually some dill oil with some sort of buttermilk thing and it doesn't taste nice."

A particular bugbear is wood sorrel, a herb that can be easily foraged in Denmark. "They put wood sorrel in fucking everything and it's so acidic. It's such a powerful acid, that it's just like a horrible thing to eat." 

He approves of using flowers in cooking at the right time and in the right way, using chive flowers in the early summer when, he says, they taste amazing, or borage flowers later on, when they taste, he claims, like oysters. What offends him is chefs using flowers indiscriminately even when they taste bad. 

In general, he argues New Nordic cuisine simply lacks the foundation that lies behind more established cuisines. 

"I find that there's no big foundation to Nordic cooking. You know, the Italian kitchen is based upon pasta, on tomatoes, on basil, on wild mountain herbs, beautiful. The French kitchen is based upon butter, based on goose fat, based on foie gras, wild herbs, beautiful. What have we got in Scandinavia? What is it based upon? There is there is no foundation in the Danish kitchen at the moment." 

Henne Kirkeby Kro has four hectares of gardens making it largely self-sufficient for vegetables in summer. Photo: Anders Schoennemann

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Cunningham has suffered health problems recently, going blind in one eye, having dialysis, a spinal operation, and losing the muscles in his knees and other joints. 

"I'm a sort of a victim of the darker side of the hospitality industry. I mean, Michelin stars are lovely, but the stress takes a toll on your body. I find it very hard. My balances is off. I, I should stop. I should stop now. And I should retire. But the problem is, I'm totally and utterly in love and besotted with the business and with the industry."

Some time this summer, between July and September, he hopes to celebrate his career in Denmark with an anniversary meal.

"It's 30 years this year I've been cooking in Denmark. So it's my anniversary. We're going to do like a little weekend later in the year, where we celebrate 30 years, where I'm going to cook a menu with dishes from all the way back all the way back to when I started." 

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