Stargazing: Six tips from a pair of Danish restaurants that won their first Michelin star within months of opening
Denmark now boasts 26 restaurants with a Michelin star — including two newcomers to the celebrated list. JATAK and MOTA both received their first star at the Michelin guide’s glitzy awards ceremony in Stavanger on 4 July.
And that’s not all the two acclaimed restaurants have in common.
Both restaurants were launched in early 2022 by first-time restaurateurs who had previously won Michelin stars in other people’s kitchens. First-time restaurateurs who’d gone on a year-long roller coaster just to open. When we spoke to them for our podcast, The Recipe, we asked them about the most valuable lessons they’d learned along the way.
Here’s what they told us.
Jonathan Tam won plaudits as the head chef of Relæ — a Michelin-starred restaurant in northern Copenhagen. When it closed at the end of 2021, Tam decided to launch his own place. But after facing numerous challenges thanks to the pandemic, he eventually opened JATAK a year later. Looking back, his advice to others thinking of doing the same is to “pause and take your time — and with all these challenges, look into it before you say ‘go’.”
Chefs want things done fast, Tam says — “to go full-on into whatever challenge we face”. But when entering unknown territory — like starting a restaurant — it’s important to learn about everything you can first, he says. “Whether it's understanding the plumbing or the electrics or how to write an employment contract properly, you’re in control,” Tam explains. “Give yourself time to really analyse and think it all the way and then really attack it.”
Embrace the unfamiliar
After leaving the Michelin-starred restaurant Dragsholm Slot, Claus Henriksen was invited to open a new restaurant — in a former psychiatric hospital in bucolic Sjællands Odde, a two-hour drive from Copenhagen. Reluctant at first, he changed his mind as soon as he saw the area’s natural beauty — and the building’s potential. “I’d never met anyone who was so crazy that they wanted to go into an old psychiatric hospital to create a restaurant. It could only be a stupid person,” he says. “I thought, that’s me. I'm going to do that.”
Having taken a whole year to launch JATAK, Tam now advises would-be restaurateurs to manage their expectations. “As a young cook, you always imagine what your restaurant will be like — how big the kitchen will be and all the things it has to have,” the Canadian chef explains today. “But you'll be lucky to have something that even hits 50 per cent of those dreams.”
Take your time — and learn as much you can first
Before he opened MOTA, Henriksen ran a summer pop-up on the same site. He called it ATOM and used it as an opportunity to figure out as much as he could about his new space. “It allowed us to be in the kitchen and find out how it worked,” he explains. “You know, should we rebuild something? Have we got some measurements wrong? We were also able to see how guests responded to being here.”
The next time Henriksen opens a restaurant, he’ll start two years in advance, he says. “You know, being a cook is very simple”, the Michelin-starred chef explains. “I peel a potato, I cook it, I serve it.” But building a restaurant? Not so easy. “You have an idea, you draw it, you send it somewhere, you discuss it, you send it back, you discuss it again, and then there's a new idea,” Henriksen says. “That's what makes it a long journey. But it's also necessary to ask all those questions — are you sure this is the right way of doing it? Is this what you want? And is this really what you need for these things?”
Keep your chin up
Common sense, yes — but good advice that’s often forgotten when launching a new restaurant. “Try to stay positive,” says Tam, whose own Michelin-starred restaurant faced many delays before opening in early 2022. “That's what you have to do in these projects.”