Jakob Kjær is the handsome young head chef at the very cool and hip Manfreds and Vin, a happening restaurant in the Norrebro neighborhood of Copenhagen. This formerly rough neighborhood haunted by drug dealers and the like has been transformed into a popular dining destination. Manfreds & Vin is part of the restaurant group that also operates the two Michelin star Relæ across the street with Chef Christian Puglisi at the helm in the kitchen. Noma, Geranium, Amass, Relæ etc. are well known outside of Denmark but Manfreds & Vin is one of the most popular casual dining spots in Copenhagen. Two visits to Manfreds & Vin, one post dinner at Relæ were enough to warrant an extended conversation with the young chef Jakob (all of 26 years old) in the kitchen. The menu he serves is not extensive and each dish features a few chosen ingredients, mostly organic and local in this small restaurant with the open kitchen on the right as you walk in. The communal tables on the sidewalk outside attract a lot of locals and regulars, interspersed with a few tourists here and there.
One morning Chef Jakob cooked a superb meal at the Danish organic festival where I tasted once again his mustard braised sweet onions, pickled strawberries and an aromatic pork roast. We met again at the MAD symposium and over all these conversations I came away with a real appreciation of his personality and of course a desire to know more about him.
My questions for Chef Jakob Kjær:
Where are you from and who inspired you to start cooking?
I am from a small town called Grenaa in Jutland – the Western part of Denmark. I started working as a dishwasher when I was 14 and at 18 after finishing high and after a bit of travel joined culinary school.
While growing up I started to help prepare meals since my parents had very extensive work schedules so I did a lot of the cooking at home. Also I am not too cool to admit that I was inspired by watching cooks like Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsey and even Jamie Oliver on TV and luckily my parents encouraged me to follow my dream.
Organic cooking has become a buzz word but in Denmark since the use if organic products in commercial kitchens has increased exponentially in the last few years. Why is it so important for you?
I think organic produce in general is finally getting the attention it needs. So is sourcability. Therefore the demand for restaurants focusing on produce is higher. For me, and the whole team at Manfreds & Vin, it is about taking a stand. We don’t want our guests to eat something we don’t feel good about. If we wouldn’t eat it, why should they?
Any thoughts about the informal service replacing traditional service in restaurants like Manfreds & Vin and Relæ?
The informal service, as it is at Relæ and Manfreds & Vin, is a growing tendency. If we were the one starting, I will let others be the judge of. In any case it is nice to see that people reward the focus being put on something else then a formal service.
Does the MAD symposium bring more attention to your part of the world and how?
Of course the MAD symposium brings more attention to our part of the world. This is when the super elite of the industry come to Copenhagen and eat in our restaurants then go home and spread the word.
How do new plates and recipes evolve in your kitchen? And what inspires your cooking?
At Manfreds & Vin the development of new dishes is very dynamic. We get a vegetable and we do something about it on the same day. Maybe we have tried something like it before, maybe we substitute one vegetable with another or maybe we want to apply a technique we haven’t tried yet. It is an everyday ongoing process and we don’t like to stay the same place for too long. At Relæ development of new dishes is quite different. They have a food lab, and will test something from a week to a couple of months before deciding on an end result. This is a major difference between the two places. What is common in both places, is that we try to let the produce lead us in the direction we need to go, instead of trying to dictate a dish and then fit in the produce as we please.
Which kitchens have you worked or staged in since you began your career?
I was just very fortunate to land in the job I have! Before I came to Manfreds & Vin I worked in a very classic French Brasserie here in Copenhagen called Le Sommelier. There I learnt basic cooking and I have all the respect in the world for kitchens like these. Not everyone can be cutting edge – lacto fermenting everything! It’s nice to have places were you get a duck confit or foie gras terrine that blows your mind.
Are there any young chefs that you admire or who you think are going to be very successful?
Since I am still trying to grow and develop myself, and don’t have the experience to be a “scout”. Of course I admire some people. Magnus Nilsson and what he is doing I think is insane. Christian Puglisi of course I think is very important in today’s restaurant scene and Chad Robertson for changing the way many people approach bread making to name a few .
If I asked you to name a few “Gods” of cuisine, who would you include?
Gods of cuisine. Hard to say, and didn’t Time Magazine already do this? But Rene Redzepi is a given. Allain Ducasse, Michel Bras I think are also a given. I don’t know, so many people did so many different things. Heston Blumenthal put a lot of focus on molecular gastronomy, Ferran Adria obviously did what no one thought was possible.
What is your pet peeve about restaurant menus?
I hate it when restaurants give the impression they are organic or regional or whatever, just because they write on the menu that the butter is organic.
Tell me about your perception of the future of Nordic cuisine?
I don’t think that Nordic Cuisine of the future will be the same. The post- Noma period is ongoing and we see chefs focusing on regional/local produce and what is near to their heart instead of following a special dogma.
I think Nordic cuisine has changed in the general perception from being based on produce from the northern part of Europe/Scandinavia, to using all local products. If you want a perfect definition of Nordic cuisine I think you need to ask Noma. (I did ask Redzepi)
Where do you travel for vacation? What would be your dream vacation?
When I travel I like to go somewhere and relax. To think about something completely outside the kitchen. I don’t go on as many “food trips” as other chefs. I would like to go, but I like just being able to do what I want, when I want and just enjoy the local food without being stressed by a program of the 15 restaurants you need to go to.
Any American chefs that you admire?
I don’t know as many American chefs as I would like to, but Sean Brock I think is cool. I would like to be in his kitchen.
Your favorite music or band?
I have a thing for Prince. I like electronic music a lot, and also old hip hop.
What is your favorite hangout in Copenhagen?
I live in the North West part of Copenhagen, which is a bit far from the city centre. In this area there is a high population of Middle Eastern people, so I love going to a good kebab place. I also have a very nice Vietnamese restaurant close by.