June 21, 2013 2:04 pm

Everything they know

Each of these young cooks was inspired, taught – and hugely overworked by – one of the world’s top chefs

Copenhagen

René Redzepi, Sam Nutter and Victor Wågman

Sam Nutter, René Redzepi and Victor Wågman, at Bror, Copenhagen©Isak Hoffmeyer

From left, Sam Nutter, 27, René Redzepi and Victor Wågman, 30 at Bror, Copenhagen

Sam Nutter and Victor Wågman met “randomly” beside the vacuum-packing machine when they were working at The Vineyard restaurant in Berkshire. That much they remember. But they have been so busy since that other details have lost their bearings: “I think that was 2007, wasn’t it?” Nutter asks Wågman. “We’ll go for 2007.”

This year should be harder to forget: the two chefs have also just opened their first restaurant together, an 80-seater called Bror, in Copenhagen. Bror means “brother” in Danish – a nod to their fraternal feeling. But if Nutter, from tiny Eggleston in County Durham, and Wågman, from even tinier Alvsbacka in Sweden, are siblings in the kitchen, then towering somewhere above them is Uncle René: their former boss at Noma, where they worked for four years.

It was a picture of René Redzepi on the cover of a magazine that prompted Wågman to swap Berkshire for Copenhagen in 2009: “I looked at pictures of the food and I thought, wow, I have never seen anything like it.” He wrote to Noma and applied for a placement. The idea was “just to look around” but he ended up with a full-time job, and Nutter soon followed suit.

For Redzepi, there are hundreds of hopeful faces who pass through Noma’s kitchen but “it takes a special type of people to be here, and when they leave they all do well for themselves”. (Bror, Redzepi points out, is the latest “seed” to be sown from Noma; there are others. His former head chef, Matt Orlando, is soon to open Amass, also in Copenhagen.)

So how does a promising Nomaphile stand out? Not for their way with vintage carrots or steamed oysters, Redzepi says, but for the age-old asset, personality. “Victor was right from the get-go a very high-spirited character that I immediately liked a lot,” he explains. “That’s mostly how we choose people. It’s not so much about their résumés.”

When Nutter arrived (both men were already “excellent cooks”), he was more reserved, and possibly more misunderstood: “He used to speak with such a fat northern accent,” Redzepi recalls, laughing. Noma’s kitchen is not as polyglot as its staff: to avoid confusion between, say, a Russian and a Japanese intern, the working language is English, brogues and all: “We had an Irish sous chef and we couldn’t get what he was saying … ”

Day to day, at Noma, Nutter recalls a “light hierarchy but anyone can step forward if they have an idea”. Wågman agrees: “[Redzepi] was always fair. Other places I worked at you could get into trouble for small, silly things; if you made a mistake, he would explain how to correct it for the next time.”

Redzepi, who claims the food industry “is filled with the most insanely devoted people I have come across”, admits that he himself “semi burnt out” a few years ago (his forthcoming book chronicles part of this time). When asked about mistakes the pair might make – or try to avoid – he says: “The road to success is unfortunately packed with pain and failure and mistakes. The big [mistakes], the immoral ones, the bad ones, they haven’t done any of that. Minor ones that they’ve learnt from, sure, but that’s the way it has to be.”

By the time they left, Nutter was in the test kitchen and Wågman was product sous chef. They were ready for something else: “[Noma has] grown into us and we’ve grown into it,” as the Englishman puts it. Redzepi, for his part, is braced for young talent to leave: “You fail as a boss if people don’t leave ready to attack their own projects.”

The idea behind Bror is to create somewhere that makes people feel welcome, where you can “stop by and have a glass of wine”. The food doesn’t sound so casual – for lunch think raw mullet marinated in pine vinegar, with grilled cucumber broth; “We don’t want it to be boring.” There is a daily, four-course set menu for DKr350, or about £40.

Above all, Redzepi warns the two men to safeguard their friendship. “That’s the only thing I told them to be very clear on … They said nothing can ever go wrong; that’s fine, and it can work, but most of the time it doesn’t. You have to make decisions together, and just make sure you have very clear separations on who does what.”

Natalie Whittle

-------------------------------------------

New York

Daniel Boulud and Hooni Kim

Hooni Kim and Daniel Boulud at Danji, New York©Steve Schofield

Hooni Kim, 40, and Daniel Boulud at Danji, New York

Hooni Kim wanted to work at Daniel mostly because of a book. Yes, the restaurant’s three Michelin stars were a little bit of a lure. And so was its location on East 65th Street, right in the neighbourhood where Kim grew up, no more than five blocks from his parents’ apartment. But more important than any of that was Letters to a Young Chef, a short volume by Daniel Boulud, the charismatic Lyon-born owner of Daniel and several other first-rate restaurants in New York and around the world. With its emphasis on mentorship and discipline, the book convinced Kim that Boulud would be the best teacher he could have. So, fresh out of culinary school, he went to Daniel and offered to work there for three months for free.

On his first day, he cooked beside Boulud. Within a few weeks, he was offered a job. And eight years later, he’s the owner of two Manhattan restaurants of his own, Hanjan and Danji, the latter of which was the first Korean restaurant ever to be awarded a Michelin star. The approach to cooking he first encountered in Boulud’s book is still at the heart of what he does: “[The book] should be mandatory for every single cook in every single culinary school,” Kim says.

On Daniel’s menu, you’ll find the odd ingredient like yuzu or shimeji, so Kim’s training there wasn’t in a French cuisine of single-minded classicism. But it was still a very long way away from the spicy buckwheat noodles and beef-fat rice cakes that he now serves up. To Kim, however, it doesn’t matter what you go on to cook: the superior training is always French. “The best Japanese chefs in New York, the best Italian chefs, you look at their backgrounds, they all come from a French kitchen,” he insists.

Boulud agrees: “If you teach someone to cook French, you can’t ever take that away from him, even as his cooking continues to evolve, even as he goes back to his own cuisine.” In the most pragmatic terms, French is simply the lingua franca of the range and the oven. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from – everyone says arroser [to baste],” says Kim. “One word can save five minutes of explaining.”

But Boulud believes that, in a more profound sense, it’s the obsessive pursuit of excellence at the core of the French tradition that makes it such a useful grounding. At the moment not a single one of the cooks who work for Kim is Korean: above a certain level, sheer mastery becomes a lot more important than familiarity with the cuisine you are cooking. Just as Boulud is happy to mix wasabi into his steak tartare, Kim is constantly importing French techniques. His galbi jjim short ribs, for instance, are seasoned, seared and then braised at 160C for nearly three hours – the exact same method used for the famous “beef duo” at Daniel.

Boulud seems enormously proud of Kim’s achievements: “He still asks me for advice but he doesn’t need to. I can’t wait to see what he’s doing 20 years from now.” With a smile he recalls “the anticipation I felt when eight of us from Daniel came to Danji the month it opened and Hooni was cooking for us”. But Boulud is hardly a first-time parent in this respect: the list of chefs from his restaurants who’ve gone on to great things is varied and long, from David Chang of Momofuku to Dominique Ansel of the eponymous bakery (packed every morning because of its croissant-doughnut hybrid “cronuts”). “We challenge our cooks,” he says. “We don’t babysit them.” The work ethic, adds Kim, “is undeniably the toughest in New York. Every kitchen after his kitchen has been easy. But I’m grateful, because if I hadn’t been pushed that hard once, I couldn’t push my cooks that hard now.”

In April, 17 of Boulud’s former protégés returned to Daniel to cook a dinner to benefit Citymeals-on-Wheels, a charity on whose board Boulud sits. For Kim, the thrill of cooking there had still not worn off. “I hadn’t run in the kitchen in five years. I was with all these famous chefs, and I know they never run in their kitchens either. But the energy was still there. That night, we were all running.”

Ned Beauman, author of ‘The Teleportation Accident’ (Sceptre)

-------------------------------------------

London

Sam Clark and Ellen Parr

Sam Clark and Ellen Parr©Anna Huix

Sam Clark and Ellen Parr, 27, at Moro, London

A wild sea bass tells you everything you need to know about what Sam Clark has taught Ellen Parr. The chef and co-founder at Moro, who employed Parr for three years, puts these “wonderful” fishes on the main course menu at her much-loved Exmouth Market restaurant. But next door, at her tapas bar Morito, she serves the heads as a snack: “There’s a lot of meat in the cheeks. We deep-fry them and serve them with a date molasses and sherry vinegar sauce. It’s delicious, and we’re not wasting anything.”

Thrift and quality are two important factors for Parr in the venture she left Moro to begin: an interactive pop-up restaurant called The Art of Dining, in which she and business partner Alice Hodge dress up different venues with all the attention to detail of a Broadway hit (if none of the budget).

For their last event, themed around the old merchant trade routes and held at Rainham Hall in Havering, they presented the menus inside old glass bottles, like messages from shipwrecked islands. “We’re clever with money I think,” says Parr, “we beg and borrow. Alice found the bottles going through the bins of pubs … you can make great things out of very cheap materials.”

Since opening in 1997 Moro has become a London classic, but for Clark and her chef husband Samuel, it was Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, at the River Café in west London, who provided their own kitchen baptism. Their training there “set the foundations for Moro in every way”.

The relatively small size of the kitchen they run now – no more than four chefs on duty – means that she and Samuel can hope to make a similar impression: “[New recruits] start at the bottom and we try to nurture them – hopefully the aim is that over time people blossom.”

Many, like Parr, arrive with not much experience to their name. Aged 21 Parr had dropped out of a maths degree and turned to a career in food. “I was at Kingsway [culinary college] and I didn’t enjoy it at all – it was chef hats and a sexist environment.” She approached Moro for a trial and after two weeks she was on the payroll, making the yoghurt cakes and chocolate tarts for dessert.

“Over the years we’ve got better at knowing who we want to employ,” Clark says. “It’s the whole package, it’s about everyone gelling.” Just after breakfast at Moro, you get a sense of what Clark is talking about: the young staff are getting through the morning chores – shelling broad beans, massaging giant bowls of couscous, cleaning the bar, sorting the bookings – and the whole place has a contented hum.

But both Clark and Parr agree that things were hard at first: “We’ve all been there – getting used to a professional kitchen, the speed and the detail.” The chefs work their way up to run every section and eventually are left to marshal an entire shift. If they do leave to do their own thing “they’re really set up”.

The Art of Dining event at Rainham Hall was one of a series to be held at National Trust properties. Also in talks for later this year, possibly at Frieze art fair, is a collaboration with Parr’s father, the photographer Martin Parr, in which she’ll “cook” the colour-saturated, greasy-spoon food from his photo archive. This was trialled at an event in Tokyo, based around Parr’s famous photo of a cup of tea against a chequered tablecloth: “The menu was on postcards, we found the same tea cups and I made a Thai broth with coconut milk, poured from the teapot.”

Clark smiles at this – and pitches in: “Each event is beautifully styled, they really go for it … The great thing about food is that you can go off in any direction.”

Natalie Whittle

Moro’s Souk Dining Tent will be at this year’s Wilderness Festival, August 8-11; www.moro.co.uk

The Art of Dining’s next event, ‘A Night with the Mistress’ will be held in the grounds of The National Trust’s Fenton House, London NW3 6SP from July 15-20 inclusive; tickets are available at www.theartofdining.co.uk

-------------------------------------------

Paris

Alain Passard and Bertrand Grébaut

Alain Passard and Bertrand Grébaut at L’Arpège, Paris©Antoine Doyen

Alain Passard and Bertrand Grébaut, 32, at L’Arpège, Paris

L’Arpège, with its hushed calm, curved wood and Lalique glass panels on a smart seventh arrondissement street, and Septime, with its artfully distressed paintwork and industrial lighting in the hip Bastille, couldn’t appear more different. One is home to a master, the other his former pupil: Alain Passard’s three-starred kitchen is where Bertrand Grébaut learnt his trade for almost two years before eventually opening his own restaurant in 2011.

Reunited in Passard’s office-cum-gallery at L’Arpège, the men are relaxed in other’s company. Grébaut, sporting a neatly trimmed beard, is bullish about his talents. “I’ve created a restaurant for my generation,” he says. “Above all, I wanted to create the sort of restaurant where I’d like to go myself. In France we have been resting a bit on our laurels. There was a boom in Spain, a boom in Scandinavia, a boom everywhere – here not much happened.”

When Septime happened it immediately became one of Paris’s most hard-to-book tables, with its casual atmosphere and vivid dishes, arranged with calligraphic precision. Grébaut studied graphic design before turning to cuisine – but “learnt as much about colour at L’Arpège as at art school”.

“I find it very stimulating,” says Passard, “because even without talking about my former assistants, there is a whole new generation of chefs out there, who work hard and who search. Uncontestably, they have talent, and for me and the chefs of my generation it is a real booster. It forces us to remain on the ball, to be at the stove.”

With his enthusiasm and charm, Passard is a conversational tour de force; Grébaut listens respectfully as the older man continues: “The young French culinary scene is in pretty good health. You can tell that they are enjoying themselves, because they have spread their wings, and have their own places. That is really something that counts, to work in liberty, to not have to answer to an employer who says ‘not too much lobster’ or not too much this or that. It is important to have this freedom.”

Although Passard insists that he hasn’t spawned a Passard style – nor, indeed that he knows what his own style is, “if I knew that, it would be the end” – there’s no doubting the influence of his pioneering approach to vegetables. This hit the headlines in 2001 when he announced he was taking meat off the menu. (It has since returned along with fish, but vegetables from his three kitchen gardens continue to take centre stage.)

“I think more and more that, today, vegetables are the path for creative cooking,” says Passard. “One doesn’t have that creativity with animal tissue. We have already done a lot of things with the fish and shellfish, whereas we haven’t yet done much with vegetables. There is still everything left to do with carrots … ”

Passard believes firmly in the “crucial idea”of seasonality: “One mustn’t mix spring and winter in a dish. In respecting the season one escapes routine because it forces us to remould ourselves. You cannot think about tomatoes 365 days a year or use courgettes 12 months out of 12. What is important is the idea of a rendezvous. The fact that you haven’t touched a tomato for a year gives you the pleasure of rediscovery.”

Grébaut has taken this on board: “When I was at L’Arpège, I worked above all on the vegetable post. I even try to reverse the proportion of protein and vegetables in my menu. I don’t have a garden, unfortunately, but I change the menu every day. In the evening it’s a single menu in six stages; I work with people who cultivate naturally, so I have the same constraints. But they are positive constraints. It obliges us to research what we do.”

Passard puts it another way. “Perhaps what we share,” he says, “is this notion of the senses. A lad like Bertrand or Pascal Barbot [of Astrance] has realised that to get somewhere one must sharpen the senses – whether it is sight, taste, of course, or smell – so that they become better and better. The hand refines over time, it becomes more precise. We are like couturiers. In summer they work on very light fabrics, silks, linens, while in winter, there is wool, warmer cotton. Cuisine is the same – and we rightly talk about vegetable fabric.”

In the days of superchef-entrepreneurs with global empires, Passard stands out as a figure who has kept his independence and remains in the kitchen: “You have to know what is going on, who comes to your place. I come out of the kitchen more and more, sometimes I bring out the plates … A restaurant is like a baby, you must always be there.”

“L’Arpège is a three-star but it’s not straitlaced,” says Grébaut. “It’s not really a question of being a bistro in the 11th arrondissement or a three-star in the seventh, it’s an approach. At Septime, we work like a three-star. Nothing remains in the fridge each night, we start again with every service and we make changes every day; we are eight in the kitchen which is a lot, but we serve lots of people every day, because I wanted a restaurant that is alive. What moves people most is giving the most warmth, the most pleasure; that’s what I learnt here.”

Natasha Edwards

Related Topics

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE