The idea behind the newly opened Restaurant Ghrelin is to reinterpret the word gourmet to include not just food, but the entire restaurant experience from start to finish. We sat down with Anders Kuk Kristensen, Co-owner and Restaurant Chef, to learn more about their take of hosting memorable guest experiences, and to discuss the fundamentals of opening a new restaurant: be patient, trust your game plan, focus on your guests and most importantly, have fun while doing it.
Introduce the team behind Ghrelin. Who are Anders and Nicklas? Can you describe the unique work dynamic between the two of you?
The team running Ghrelin is my partner and best friend Nicklas, my soon-to-be wife Stephanie, and myself. We have a small but hard-working team behind us to make sure the guests are our focus at all times and to make sure they get the service experience they come for and expect from us. Nicklas and I have been working together since he started as a Chef Trainee. I was his Head Chef. Now nearly nine years later, he is the Head Chef at Ghrelin, and I am the Restaurant Chef.
Respect is what makes the team setup work. Respect for the people you work with, and making sure everybody feels like they have a voice, and that they are respected. I respect that Nicklas has control over the kitchen, and Stephanie, the restaurant. But we make all the decisions together and we make sure we all achieve success not only from your own work area but overall.
What is the story about the opening of Ghrelin?
Nicklas and I decided to open Ghrelin back in 2014 when he was my student. I was his Head Chef. We just clicked. He had a unique talent and the skill to learn new things on his own, which is a skill I never had. I needed to see, taste, and feel. But Nicklas was able to read and learn, and to then do it. I always had massive respect for that skill.
Back then we were working together and we felt we did a lot of things just because that is what we somehow needed to do when working in this type of restaurant. It was all about either a concept (French, Italian, Danish) or the ego of the owner. We somehow felt, already back then, that the guests needed more attention. Not that they did not get an excellent service, but the guests had to fit in the concept, not the other way around. The idea behind Ghrelin is to put the guests in the centre of the dining experience. The chairs, bathrooms, smells, sounds, food, wine, temperature... everything. We choose everything in the guests’ best interest. From our own experiences, we find what we think is best for our guests. And if we do not hit the right spot, we change it, listen to the guests, and make sure to incorporate their wishes.
What are you hoping to achieve with the opening of Ghrelin?
The goal from the start was to take the restaurant back to the old days when the restaurant was about good food, good wine, and having a good time. To make sure the guests do not walk from the table unfulfilled, disappointed, or hungry. To make sure the basic needs are covered and to let the service, design, and personality of the staff be the little something extra that you did not expect but came to appreciate.
The experience at Ghrelin is not only about the food, but the whole restaurant experience from start to finish. Can you describe your take on hosting a great restaurant experience today?
I think the best restaurant experience for me is being in a place where I can relax, enjoy and take it all in — a place where I can let my shoulders rest, and enjoy the company I am dining out with. So we try to respect the guests' time and let them decide what kind of experience they want. Hosting in a gourmet restaurant like Ghrelin is all about understanding our guests’ needs, their wishes, and what they want. We do not need to make us the centre of attention. We let the guests decide what they want: Some guests want to hold hands and look deep into the eyes of their dining partner, some guests want to get to know about the restaurant, and some want to get the full experience. The job is straight forward: making sure the guests get what they need, and making sure you do not overcrowd them. A first date might not be too interested in the way you cooked your scallop, or the soils special combination to make this grape taste different than the other wines you tasted this evening. Make room for the guests, make them comfortable, that is the hosting job at Ghrelin.
You mentioned that each guest visiting your restaurant should feel like friends or family. How do you make this happen and why is it important?
The importance lies in the knowledge of the guests. If we know them, we can make sure to provide an experience that suits them and to make the evening as close to a family-style setting as we can. We have 24 dinners per evening, three days open. Both these things are like this to keep the guest focus in mind. Making sure we know all the guests, have time for all of them and make them relax and enjoy.
Another thing is that if we, as the staff, see our guests as friends and family, we relax more, and we feel like "having company over", not being at work. I think the guests can see and feel if a waiter or chef is working or having friends over for dinner. The smiles are genuine, the jokes are warm, and the spark in the eyes of the staff is real. That to me is more important than knowing all the grapes in Italy or knowing all the kinds of cheese made in France.
How do you make sure guests visiting your restaurant are coming back?
We try our best to make sure that each guest has a pleasant experience. If they do, they come back. And if they come back, we have achieved our goal.
Why is it essential to have a strong team culture to ensure a consistent guest experience?
If we do not have fun and enjoy the work we do, it affects our guest experience. If a waiter does not like his or her job, they forget the small things, and it affects the way they pour wine, water or serve the bread. They do not smile sincerely, they are tense and feel like they are performing an act. Having a strong team culture makes sure that everybody will be taken care of, gets everybody to perform, and gets everybody through the evening. Every evening is an exam: the guests are looking forward to this evening, and might have for a long time. They pay 100% of the bill, so they deserve 100% of commitment from the team. Therefore we need to stick together and lift up as a team, so everybody gets the excellent evening they deserve, both guests and staff.
What is unique about your approach towards running a restaurant?
I’m not sure if it is unique, but we work for the guests, not anybody else, just the guests. We see no problems, only challenges. We do not say "no, we do not do that here"; we find a solution. We have never declined a request from our guests and we have tried a lot of different things. Everything from a seven-course dinner with only three ingredients to a guest wanting a coca-cola without the bubbles. We do not look down at these kinds of requests; the service is the same.
What are the critical elements of running a successful restaurant concept today?
Passion for the game plan. You can have a concept you want to do, but if you cannot find staff as passionate about the game plan as you are, you cannot make it. Your team is the most important thing. It is essential to get the right people in to make sure the culture of the concept lives. You cannot do everything by yourself, and if you try, you will fail.
What are some of the challenges of opening and running a high-end restaurant today?
We did not have a "hard time". We were known chefs and a lot of guests from the former restaurants were waiting for us to open. But I think some high-end restaurants might have trouble getting started because at the high-end level the guests are looking for mistakes and always weighing your experience up against established restaurants that they already love. Also, they might open with a goal in mind: Michelin, top lists, or maybe earning a lot of money. And it all removes focus from the guests in the seats. If there are no guests in the seats, there is no restaurant. It does not matter how skilled you are: no guests, no job.
What learnings about opening a new restaurant would you like to pass on to other like-minded chefs looking to open a restaurant one day?
Be patient, do not open too soon, know your game plan, your concept, and your competition before you open a restaurant. Look for a hole in the market, so you do not open the 5th or 6th restaurant in your city which has the same idea and concept. Trust the process, and make sure to have good people around you that want to see you succeed, or share the success with you!