Copenhagen has developed a reputation for challenging the diners who enter its restaurants. The city’s chefs regularly ask their guests, people often from places with a well-established definition of fine dining, to expand their worldview to include such ingredients as freeze-dried ants, burnt chocolate, fermented grasshoppers, fried bull testicles and ramson leaves that grow wild in the fields outside the Danish capital.
The motivation and philosophy behind these Danish innovations have been debated, dissected, celebrated and mocked for years, as diners and critics alike have tried to wrap their minds around questions big (“Are the ingredients a monumental razz to the major food companies and distributors?”) and small (“Do I even like this stuff?”).
But as my wife, Carrie, and I sit around the dining room table at Henrik and Lotte Amfelt’s cozy home in a former working-class neighborhood called Kartoffelraekkerne, I’m confronted with perhaps even tougher questions from our hosts: Do Americans work all the time? How much vacation do you get in the States? How much maternity/paternity leave? Why can’t American politicians agree to pass laws anymore?
This isn’t the Danish inquisition. It’s an informal dinner that I arranged through Dine With the Danes, a service started more than 15 years ago by Anette Haargaard when she worked for Visit Copenhagen, a tourism arm for the city. Haargaard revived a Danish Tourist Board concept from the 1970s, which itself had its origins in wartime.
After World War II, notes Haargaard’s sister and business partner, Marianne Barrett, “when there were many Allied soldiers in Denmark, many Danish families would invite them home for dinner.” The idea was to give the soldiers a home-away-from-home experience. “We thought it was a wonderful concept,” Barrett writes in an e-mail, and thus, in 1998, Dine With the Danes was born. It now has about 150 hosts around Denmark, eager to give tourists a small glimpse into Danish home cooking — and, perhaps, the Danish psyche.
In discussions about food in Copenhagen, restaurants tend to get all the attention. Chefs like Noma co-founders Claus Meyer and Rene Redzepi and Rasmus Kofoed from Geranium have accomplished what few cynics thought they could in the 2000s: They’ve developed a cuisine from the cold, often barren Scandinavian landscape, using almost exclusively local ingredients. Redzepi is such a purist for local products, in fact, that he freeze-dries Danish wood ants and mixes them with salt to sprinkle atop beef tartare. The ants, he has learned, contain an acid that tastes much like lemons, a fruit that is not, of course, native to Denmark.
Copenhagen restaurants that specialize in so-called “new Nordic cuisine” have become magnets for international tourists, despite checks that can top $400 for two people (including drinks) at places that locals consider “mid-price.” These kinds of bills keep many Danish families where they’ve been for much of their history: in their kitchens, preparing food for their own tables.
Which is why I wanted to dine not only at a few of the newer establishments that have sprouted around the House that Redzepi and Meyer Built, which has regained the title of No. 1 restaurant in the world, but also at the home of a Danish family. The home, after all, is not the theater of new Nordic cooking. The home remains the place where traditional Danish dishes are served, dishes that preserve what was once seen as the limited bounty of Denmark.
We arrived in Copenhagen just days before Easter, a holiday that Danes take seriously, despite the fact that the country is considered among the most secular in the world. Much of the city’s business community, including restaurants, shuts down for the weekend, leaving the home as the spot for dining, drinking seasonal beers and celebrating the coming of spring after a long, bone-chilling winter.
The Amfelts hosted Carrie and me, plus a couple from London, for a traditional Danish Easter lunch (which the family served for dinner, probably to shorten the meal, should this table of strangers have all the chemistry of warring street gangs). The multi-course lunch, Henrik said, typically starts at around 2 p.m. and lasts until 10 or 11 p.m.
“Or till you explode,” added Emma, the couple’s teenage daughter, who provided comic relief.
Henrik, a management consultant, started the meal with a shot of aquavit for the adults. “Cheers,” he said, “and let the fish swim!” The toast was both a welcome and a warning that the first course was all fish: shrimp, fried flounder, roe, salmon and several types of pickled herring. The dense, flavorful rye bread, a staple of the Danish diet, is reserved for the herring (the white bread for the salmon and shrimp); we essentially built our own smorrebrod, or open-faced sandwiches, and washed them down with an Easter stout from Bryggeriet Refsvindinge, a small Danish brewery that Henrik loves.
“My family is a herring family,” Henrik explained.
“And it’s scary,” chimed in Emma.
“My mom, she would prepare like 14 different types of herring in different marinades,” Henrik continued, “and then my [father], who unfortunately has passed away, he would prepare 14 different types of schnapps.”
The meal then moved on to a meat course, a cheese course, a fruit course and finally a dessert course, complete with chocolate Easter bunnies. The key to the Easter lunch, noted Henrik, is never to mix courses: fish with fish, meat with meat and cheese with cheese. The Amfelts’ two youngest children, Frederik and Amalie, had long ago split the scene by the time coffee was served, leaving the table to the adults (and teenager) to quiz each other and share a raunchy YouTube video, a sure sign that the ice had been broken.
Our Danish hosts had many questions for the visiting Americans, most concerning our quality of life, which seemed to pale next to the Danes’. Henrik and Lotte told us that they get 52 weeks for paternity/maternity leave, not to mention lots of vacation time. As Americans, we apparently made the Amfelts feel better about Denmark’s sky-high tax rate, a small gift to our hosts.
We also got to ask questions in return. Such as something I’d heard earlier at a Copenhagen restaurant: that no one in Denmark eats the fatty, spongy flesh of the lumpfish, only its roe. Lotte confirmed the fact: “It tastes awful.”
Diners do eat lumpfish flesh at Amass, a restaurant in an old shipyard tool depot, where former Noma chef de cuisine Matt Orlando takes considerable pains to transform this cold-water fish into something delectable. I didn’t realize the significance of Orlando’s handiwork, of course, as I first sat down to dinner at Amass with Leonardo Pereira and his wife, Kiki Sontiyart, a pair of trained chefs working in Copenhagen.
These days, Pereira spends much of his time in the wilds outside the city, foraging for ingredients for Noma. He knows his ground elder from his fireweed (a plant that tastes like rhubarb). As we reviewed Orlando’s menu, noting that the chef was serving lumpfish, Pereira explained that locals can’t stomach the fish’s flesh.
“No one eats it,” he said flatly.
Before I knew it, Orlando had trotted out a whole lumpfish for inspection: a plump and strangely leathery-looking specimen. Its caramel color was part of Orlando’s secret. He said that he salt-cures and hot smokes the fish before pairing its flesh with ramson leaves, green coriander seed and a crisp made from seaweed and yogurt. It made for a meaty and radiantly aromatic dish, with no signs of that offensive sponginess.
The lumpfish plate, while borrowing elements of the Noma formula, is sort of Orlando’s declaration of independence from standard Nordic practices; it’s a dish both bold and edgy, not afraid to mix it up in Denmark’s famously orderly society. Before he opened Amass, Orlando tried to clear his head of Noma, where he had spent nearly three years serving as Redzepi’s eyes and ears. So when he left Redzepi’s employ, in February 2013, he immediately flew to Japan to rediscover his own approach to food.
“In some ways, I went out of my way to be different from Noma. I knew more than anybody I was going to be compared to Noma,” said Orlando, whose résumé is larded with other high-profile stints at the Fat Duck, in England, and Per Se, in New York.
Amass is southeast of Copenhagen’s city center, in a former shipyard area called Refshaleoen. The location is symbolic to Orlando, who wanted to put distance between his place and Noma, philosophically and geographically.
The space feels worlds away from the chef’s competitors in Copenhagen, where the restaurants tend to channel the clean, minimalist elements of Danish design, whether the spare artsiness of Geist or the austere rusticity of Noma. Amass’s interior remains largely industrial, a spacious room of concrete and tables with a limited palette of grays and whites. The room’s primary color comes from graffiti, supplied by a Copenhagen artist who tags under the name Soten; there’s also a large raised-bed garden out back. The restaurant, in a sense, reflects not only the neighborhood’s history, but the chef’s, too.
Orlando is an American who grew up snowboarding, skating and surfing in San Diego. He likes hip-hop, which can be heard bouncing off the hard surfaces in Amass, so different from the jazz that echoes throughout many Copenhagen cafes (or even in private homes such as the Amfelts’). The music at Amass reminds me of a stressful scene I witnessed at Noma one Saturday night.
Around midnight, as a few guests lingered in the dining room and cooks prepared for their weekly tastings of staff dishes, Redzepi was giving one of his line cooks a dead-eyed stare, as if the underling were a prey animal. “Who put this music on?” Redzepi demanded. The entire kitchen went silent as Redzepi escorted the offending cook somewhere for, I figured, certain execution. I had no idea what had happened.
“Rene hates electronic music,” a Noma cook told me later. “He doesn’t want to hear this music playing while there are still guests around.”
By contrast, Amass is not just modern in its musical tastes, it’s American in some of its gastronomic sensibilities. Scandinavian food, Orlando said, tends to be light and acidic. He wanted something bolder and more in-your-face. Something like his course of roasted chicken skins, which has become a kind of signature dish in the 11 months since Amass opened last summer.
For the plate, Orlando freezes a stack of about 70 chicken skins and cooks the block overnight at about 175 degrees, rendering out much of the fat. The chef then compresses the skins under pressure, slices them thinly and roasts them off, to create a crisp but lush texture. It is, to be sure, unlike anything I tried at Noma.
Amass is arguably the highest-profile Noma spinoff to date, but it’s not the only one. Other former sous-chefs have opened their own places in Copenhagen, including Christian Puglisi at the one-Michelin-star Relae, and Victor Wagman and Sam Nutter, who launched the eccentric Bror restaurant, where one night I dined on cod cheek (and cod eyeball), fried bull testicles and beef heart, among other offal-oriented dishes.
But I also spent a large chunk of time exploring Torvehallerne market, a pair of modern buildings that house more than 60 vendors who sell fresh fish, meats, Danish pastries, sandwiches, tapas and the most delicate, tealike coffee you’ll ever sample (from the Coffee Collective). Torvehallerne is where you’ll find many of Copenhagen’s chefs during their off hours, including former Washingtonian and current Noma chef de cuisine Daniel Giusti, who introduced me to one of the market’s prized vendors: Ma Poule.
Tucked into a corner at Torvehallerne, Ma Poule lures customers, sirenlike, with a pair of oversize pans in which shredded duck meat slowly simmers in its own fat, the aromas filling this glass-enclosed building. I’m surprised that half the dogs in Copenhagen aren’t begging outside the windows. After I polished off my sandwich, a baguette stuffed silly with duck confit, I briefly debated the wisdom of eating anywhere else.
The relative bargain of Torvehallerne cannot be overstated. The market, I confess, became something of a Copenhagen destination for me, for reasons that locals can understand: After dropping hundreds and hundreds of dollars for restaurant meals — to the point where I started to cancel other reservations — I needed to find something far cheaper to eat.