“Restaurants are the ultimate social setting,” says the American chef Matt Orlando in the first episode of The Recipe. “To understand a restaurant is to kind of understand society as a whole.”
In a way, this describes the purpose of our new podcast perfectly.
On one level, The Recipe is an attempt to understand what makes restaurants succeed and why.
And yet, as Matt suggests, figuring that out may tell us something about the way we live now.
In his eyes, however, it isn’t a pretty picture.
Our food system is “broken”, he tells us, while restaurant awards “don’t help the industry at all” and chefs who fail to benefit society or the environment are “irresponsible business owners”.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom.
Matt says that restaurants have all the tools they need to make the necessary shift in thinking — that changing their mindset could even help make them financially secure.
Matt, who owns the Copenhagen restaurant Amass, is one of three restaurateurs we interviewed for the first episode, as we sought to take stock of things — almost two years into a pandemic that has devastated the restaurant industry.
One of them is Beau Clugston — the owner of the Copenhagen seafood bistro Iluka.
He explains how his restaurant got through the past eighteen months and tells us what needs to change in the industry — even if diners won’t like it.
We also hear from Lau Richter, the general manager at Noma’s sister restaurant, Barr.
He tells us about the positive impact of the pandemic, how Barr survived it, and why he’ll never look at polishing wine glasses in the same way again.
Be prepared — this might be one of the most inspirational conversations about restaurants that you’ll ever hear.
In fact, we think it should be required listening within the restaurant industry.
And who knows? Perhaps by understanding what’s required to run a successful restaurant, we can all learn something about what’s required to build a better society.
Matt Orlando: To understand a restaurant is to kind of understand society as a whole.
Beau Clugston: Fresh restaurants, new restaurants, fresh blood. People flock to that.
Lau Richter: When I started 25 years ago, we’d probably look at our industry and say it’s 50 years behind all other industries and nowadays it’s only 20 years behind, but we’re still behind.
Hello and welcome to The Recipe, a brand new podcast about the new generation of restaurants and the people behind them. My name is James Clasper and in this podcast, I want to find out what makes restaurants succeed and why. As a writer and broadcaster in Copenhagen, I’ve spent years covering restaurants, but there’s still so much I don’t understand about them. And as a diner, I’m full of questions about what makes a particular restaurant work. Like, who created this dish? Who designed this space? Why did they call the restaurant that? And why does it work in this location when so many other restaurants before it failed? Of course, the failure rate of restaurants is notoriously high. So in this podcast, I want to explore what it takes to run a successful eatery and take a closer look at some of the ingredients involved. Along the way, I’ll be meeting many of the food world’s most forward-thinking individuals. I want to find out how they think, how they work, and how they're shaping the future of the industry. But first, I think we need to take stock of everything that’s happened in the past 18 months. The pandemic has devastated the restaurant industry and continues to disrupt supply chains, decimate the labour market, and send much-loved to restaurants to the wall. At the same time, restaurants are increasingly seeing the food system’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change, as well as their own contribution to the crisis. So in this episode, we’ll hear from three experienced restaurateurs and get their thoughts on the state of the industry. And to get us going, I can think of no better guest than Matt Orlando. Matt is the chef and owner of the Copenhagen restaurant Amass, where the mantra is responsibility and every aspect of running the restaurant has become a conscious effort to do better on behalf of the environment. In April 2020, Matt helped launch Bowline, an open resource platform on behalf of restaurants, dive bars, and other friendly spaces. I sat down with Matt recently and as his team got started on their mise-en-place, I began by asking him how his eight-year-old restaurant was doing.
Matt Orlando: If anybody tells you they’re good and everything’s great, they’re lying to you. Everyone is operating with limited staff and that affects the overall experience you’re able to deliver. And it’s frustrating because you know what you want to deliver, but you can’t always deliver that, because you just don’t have the bodies to be able to do it. We do work hard in this industry. I think that’s why we’re having such a hard time finding staff right now because people have time to reflect on what they’re doing, what they want to do in their life, and they don’t want to work — I mean, 50 hours a week in a restaurant, that’s like normal — and people just don’t want to work that anymore. We’re on a militant four-day workweek here for people: we’re open five days, but people only work four days, but that requires more staff to do that.
Superb: But of course, more staff means higher costs and that, of course, puts pressure on already razor-thin margins. So surely something’s got to give?
Matt: What restaurants charge is just not enough for what food costs and the business model for a restaurant is a hundred years old. It’s so outdated and the cost of goods for us right now has gone up 15 to 25 percent across the board, on everything. And it’s hard to reflect that in the price of your menu because people are like, “oh, it’s too expensive, blah, blah, blah”. We’ve created this inward dark cycle within the restaurant industry of: “We can only charge this” but people’s perception of food and the value of food is so skewed. I mean, when you really look into what food costs and what it should cost, if you’re doing it the right way, we just don’t charge enough money.
Superb: So the million-dollar question is, how do we change it?
Matt: It all stems from a broken food system, to really show people the value of food and what it costs. I mean, someone sits down here and has a piece of fish and they’re like, “Oh, well, I can buy this fish for this up there at the store.” And you’re like, “Yeah, but that fish was trawled or farmed in some pen that’s polluting the ocean floor below it.” But people don’t know the process of producing food and the impact that has. And so it’s so hard to justify to 90 percent of people out there that this costs this because of this, and you’re paying this and these are the adverse effects it’s having on the environment.
Superb: Tell me, Matt, how have the past 18 months or so shaped or affected your thinking about restaurants and how to run them?
Matt: I’ve never in my life ever had this much time to just sit there and research everything. Everything that is connected to the restaurant industry and not connected to the restaurant industry. I was so interested in life and culture and how people perceive things and the psychology of information and how it’s absorbed, because you can directly translate that to a restaurant. I mean, we are the ultimate social setting. To understand a restaurant is to kind of understand society as a whole. And you see the kinks in the armour first-hand on a nightly basis in a restaurant setting.
Superb: And looking at this suit of armour, what kind of health is it in?
Matt: Society is far from healthy. Far, far, far from healthy. Both physically and mentally. I mean, I don’t think as a society, as a whole, we have a grasp on what’s actually happening around us. We’re so disconnected from, first and foremost, nature. We think we know what nature is, but yet we still try to manipulate it in so many ways. Until we start to understand that and how every single thing on planet Earth is connected, we’re just so disconnected from that thought process. You know, the last 18 months has been so difficult on so many levels. But if I look at a bigger picture, at the trajectory we are headed on now, it would never have happened without the pandemic happening. We are pushing our agenda so aggressively because what are we doing, if we’re not like, “Why are we even here?” A restaurant is an extremely materialistic entity. Extremely. People pay money to have food and an experience a lot of people can’t afford to have. So how do we give a restaurant more substance, more meaning behind it? And unless you aggressively push an agenda that benefits society or the environment outside your four walls, then you are just an irresponsible business owner, especially in the context of a restaurant, because a restaurant just takes, takes, takes, takes, takes, takes — absorbs resources, absorbs human energy. Of course, we provide great experiences, but that doesn’t balance out to what we’re sucking out of the earth and the resources we’re using. So how do we then use our platform that we have chefs to actually do good outside the four walls of the restaurant and promote an agenda that is beneficial to the human race and not just to ourselves. I’m sick of looking at the industry around us and just seeing people operating at the status quo. Maybe a few years ago, you saw the restaurant industry really making some moves and this conversation happening quite aggressively. Now we’re being left behind. We are not aggressively pursuing this agenda as a whole. I mean, we’re almost no better than the fashion industry. It’s like, we just take, take, take, take, with no thought of the consequences. And I know people are trying to survive, don’t get me wrong, and that’s important, but you know, this is also an opportunity to make that shift.
Superb: And how do restaurants make that shift? What’s required?
Matt: We have the tools to do this. Restaurants know how to do this. It’s a mindset thing. There are so many restaurants out there that understand fermentation. They understand products. They understand flavour. I mean, flavour is the most important thing. But they’re not willing to make that effort to do this mental shift. We need an aggressive cultural shift within the restaurant industry and running a restaurant. And we need people to become aware of the impacts of what they’re doing.
Superb: And so tell me, how do you do it at Amass, specifically?
Matt: There are three words that we live by here. It’s awareness, first and foremost, because everyone always asks me, “Can you sum up sustainability?” And if one word sums it all up, it’s awareness. Because if you’re aware of the impact you’re having, that’s the first step to be able to take steps to fix that. Impact. What kind of impact am I having, once I am aware of what’s going on? And then responsibility. This is a responsibility to everyone. And so those three words are embedded in the culture here. We talk to the staff constantly about what we’re doing. We make custards and amino acid sauces and meringues out of these egg whites that you normally throw away. Over a year, you save 500 kilos of something that was being thrown away. When you show that to your staff, they’re like, “This is real. There’s a bigger picture than just me being in the shit during Saturday night, cleaning off egg whites. There’s a larger cause going on here.” We are also aggressively engaging with large-scale food producers because we do 40 or 50 guests a night here. That's not a large group of people to impact, and maximum impact is what we’re going for now. And there’s always been this kind of taboo about restaurants at a high level working with, say, Ikea or Nestlé. It should be acknowledged that they do all have sustainability departments. And if we just engage in one intercepted by-product that they’re producing, turn that into another product for them that they could resell, we’ve just diverted hundreds of thousands of tonnes of something that was just being thrown away. That is maximum impact. For us, it’s about just putting your ego in your back pocket, and that’s not to say we don't engage with small businesses as well, but maximum impact is through large food producers and understanding their processes, and then helping them become more responsible. We’re trying to set an example so people know, “Okay, you can do this. It doesn’t affect the quality of what you’re doing. There's no compromise. You actually enhance the experience”. And people are just not willing to take… I mean, I’ll just say it straight out, these lists and these awards and all this shit — that doesn’t help the industry at all. That stops it because people are afraid to make that move and change their mindset, because they’re afraid to drop on a list, and people spend so much energy on trying to get on these lists and stay on these lists and that energy could be put into making themselves a more responsible restaurant, really analysing what they’re doing. The underlying deep problem in our industry right now is that people are so caught up in this materialistic world of accolades and egos that they forget about the world itself that is burning around us. That information I just gave you is a catalyst for change.That’s the kind of information that drives me to make a difference, but you have to be willing to acknowledge that that is the reality of our industry before we take a step forward.
Superb: So tell me about Bowline, the open resource platform you founded last year.
Matt: Bowline was created during the first lockdown. There was no information. Everything was locked down, there was so much uncertainty — what’s going to happen, is this whole industry going to collapse, what’s going on? We wanted to somehow start conversations about what was happening. Let people vent, let people hear other stories. Also, there was no central place where information from around the world about how people were engaging with the lockdowns and solutions, because everyone was being affected differently, depending on where you were and how your governments were handling it. So we just started putting up information that we collected. We were just aggregating information from the internet into one place, so people could sift through it and see if anything was relevant to them. It’s been a great sounding platform for us, within Bowline, to just have these conversations, to understand what’s going on. For me, it’s really refreshing to have these conversations with someone that’s removed from the industry company because it gives you a fresh perspective. We’ve had students come out over the last year and a half to do business evaluations, to really evaluate what our business is and what it means. The rude awakening is when a business student tells you that if you were to lay your restaurant over another functional business, like an architecture firm, we should be charging three times the amount for what we are providing, full stop, if it should be a functional business in the functional business model. And when you hear that, you're just like, what are we doing? How can we get this far with our industry? And the answer is that there’s so much passion for what people do. I mean, the creative process, the ability to make people happy, that’s really gratifying. When you’re in a business to make people happy, you’re just screwed from the beginning. Because generosity comes out of that and when you’re generous, you make less money. There are moments in time in the dining room where you just want to make people so happy, or this table is so excited about that and they’re just so engaged, they’re having the time of their life, and I want to send them an extra course because they’re really… and you just lose money there. But you’ve provided this experience, these people are loving it, and that is so gratifying that you overlook the fact that you’ve just taken your small margin and thrown it in the garbage. So we inherently are terrible businesspeople because this is our driving force, not the bottom line.
Superb: How should chefs and restaurateurs be thinking about their business then?
Matt: We have run a restaurant in the same way for 100 years. It’s archaic. And we need to start looking at a restaurant as more than just a kitchen and a dining room. That is part of a restaurant. And the pandemic for us has really shown that there are things and processes that you do within your restaurant that have real monetary value. So if the industry wants to survive and thrive, we need to start looking at what we can do around our restaurants. We need to start identifying what has monetary value within our restaurants that we could potentially push out of the four walls, to actually create another source of revenue, so we can actually keep making people happy and not be super stressed every month, but not forgetting that we also have a social responsibility to the staff, to the environment. I mean, there are so many responsibilities that come along with running a restaurant.
Superb: Speaking of finding additional sources of revenue, tell me about your spin-off project AFC, or Amass Fried Chicken.
Matt: That was a huge move for us. We survived because of AFC. It was a whole other revenue stream within the four walls that we’re able to produce. We are lucky to have a lot of space here, so we just split the dining room and then made a wine bar where we serve fried chicken, among other things. If we’re doing 35 guests at Amass — which is not a full dining room and we’re not going to do more than that — and we do 50 over at AFC, that’s just money on top of what we would have made. So it allowed us to come out okay on the other side. It didn’t take away the longer-term debts, but it allowed us to weather the immediate storm. I think moving forward, in general, with supply line difficulties and raw materials being more expensive, you need to diversify yourself and have multiple outlets for things. We are making a shift away from just serving fried chicken, leaning into vegetables. We have so many amazing farmers that we work with, and just making vegetables dirty because showing people that vegetables are a thing that can be super dirty and delicious and fun. For me, that’s more exciting than just frying chicken.
That was Matt Orlando of the Copenhagen restaurant Amass. And we’ll be hearing from Matt again in forthcoming episodes of The Recipe. Coming up, we’ll be hearing from the former Noma service director, Lau Richter, and getting his thoughts on the future of the industry. But first, we’re heading to Iluka, a seafood bistro in central Copenhagen, which the Australian chef Beau Clugston opened in 2018. I stopped in at the 28-seat restaurant recently and began by asking Beau what went through his mind last year when, like so many other eateries, Iluka was forced to close.
Beau Clugston: You need to imagine this is a restaurant with no investors. It’s my and my wife’s big risk. So when we first started seeing the cases come to Europe, it was frightening. I mean, I was losing sleep like everyone else in the industry, but it was, “Do we have enough capital? Can we get enough capital to get through this?” This is before knowing if the government was going to help with the salaries, anything. So it was terrifying. We had faith in the government because of where we live. So we knew there would be some sort of help. We have a very small bank as well. So it was very easy to go in the minus with him, knowing that he believes in this project, we believe in this project and somehow together we can get out of this hole. Chefs and the hospitality industry, they’re fighters, so it was quite exciting to try to look at your business from scratch again. Where can we improve? How do we attack different avenues? How do we make different revenues? During the lockdown, of course, we did Iluka at Home. We didn’t want to do takeaway because we worked so hard on our brand, which is quality. We also wanted it to be educational. So we wanted to teach the Danes about different species of fish. We do the prep and they do the finishing touches, with video instructions. So that was our take on takeaway. That was one revenue [stream] and also more about revenue for the future. You give them a good experience, they’re going to come back to the restaurant in the winter and try the real thing. So that was sort of the approach.
Superb: Did it work?
Beau: We’ve been busy and it’s almost like that feeling of the Roaring Twenties again. It’s hard to describe. People are out and they want to have a good time. It’s the new normal, I would say.
Superb: Thinking about new restaurants and the challenges facing them, do you think it would have been harder to open Iluka now? Is it harder for new restaurants?
Beau: The risks are the same but it’s different now. It’s different times. It is harder now, I would say, especially with staff. I couldn't imagine opening a hundred seat restaurant needing 10 waiters and 10 chefs. It would be frightening. And people taking those risks, we need to support them and salute them. You stand on the platform and it’s so hard to jump and sometimes you have to push them or encourage them to jump. That step is a huge step. You stand on a cliff and you're scared. Will the parachute open if I jump?
Superb: What do you make of all the changes affecting the industry as a result of the pandemic?
Beau: I think it’s good for the industry. Everyone is underpaid. Everyone is overworked. The profit margin is so thin that there rarely is profit. Where does this come from, the money to create more staff? At the end of the day, the only answer is the customers. Collectively, we need to raise prices, pay better, work less. So I think it’s brilliant. I mean, it’s tough now, but it’s needed.
Superb: But how do we get guests to think differently about this? How do we bring them along?
Beau: It’s hard because the guests still pay the same price and if they have a waiter down or a chef down, they don’t care. I mean, that’s not their problem. They’re still paying the same price. But this shift, it does take time. I mean, they need to just be a little understanding that things are hard for the restaurants and it is a change that is coming and is needed.
Superb: And finally, looking around, it seems at least one other silver lining to the pandemic was it gave you an opportunity to redo the interior, is that right?
Beau: We could never afford it when we opened. It’s always been on my wish list, but at the end of every financial statement, we had no money. When COVID hit, it was now or never. I mean, we’d already taken the risk. “Are we going to be able to afford to reopen? I’m not sure.” I mean, I know we’re going to fight for it and the bank was sort of a bit more lenient. So then we decided to take the risk and say, “You know what, let's just do it. We’re going to lose all the food tourists.” We were going to be only Danes and the Danes love design and interior. They love hygge. They love being cosy and comfortable, of course. And of course, we’ve only done it three quarters. I mean, we’ve got new tables, new chairs, new lighting, new fabrics. And now what we’ve got left to do is tile the bars, the back wall. It’s pretty funny because we talk about staff shortage — I mean, I’ve had the tiles for four months now. I’m waiting for the tiler to come. You know, they’re so busy and they have no staff. So it’s across the board, everywhere.
Superb: You could end up doing it yourself?
Beau: I looked at YouTube videos, I was very close. My wife wouldn’t let me. It’s not that hard actually, but these ones are very expensive handmade tiles from Italy. Get it wrong and it looks horrible.
That was Beau Clugston, the owner of Iluka in Copenhagen. And our final guest is Lau Richter, who was appointed general manager of restaurant Barr in 2018, following a 14-year stint at sister restaurant Noma. Located on Copenhagen’s waterfront, Barr describes itself as a casual restaurant serving classic dishes from Northern Europe like salted waffles, schnitzel and Danish meatballs. I dropped in at Barr recently and began by asking Lau how it was doing.
Lau Richter: We’re doing pretty good, actually. Obviously, it’s been a horrible time, extremely challenging. I mean, we’ve been really scared about the future. What will happen? Will people survive? Will we survive? Will our neighbours survive? I mean, we’ve really tweaked and twisted everything that we can and tried to think a little bit out of the box, like everyone else. We haven’t done takeaway, but we have changed the lunch format at Barr and done a lot of other things in the organisation to adapt. So, yes, there was a moment I had no idea and it could be either/or, but I would say when we opened up again last year after the lockdown, even though we lost money every month, ever since the first lockdown, I still wasn’t that afraid that we would lose Barr because there’s still demand to visit Barr. When I looked at other restaurants, they were also only one-third full. So if we were half full, then I would say there should be a future.
Superb: What was it like when Barr finally reopened?
Lau: It was amazing being with your colleagues again. You know, you’ve been thinking so much about what you can do, how can you do it. The numbers and staff — most things were about numbers and surviving, and very little was about, you know, how do we make this better than the last time we were open? It really was survival mode. So, first of all, it was really good to be together with the staff again and the so boring tasks that you do not necessarily enjoy every day, they were suddenly amazing because you’re doing it again with your guests. Polishing glasses was, “Wow, have I missed it?” You know, I never thought that I would say this. And then the first couple of weeks of opening was crazy. Just crazy. Everyone wanted to go out. Everyone wanted more, more of everything.
Superb: And lastly, in what way do you think what restaurants have been through in the past 18 months or so will change the industry?
Lau: When I started 25 years ago, we’d probably look at our industry and say it’s 50 years behind all other industries and nowadays it’s only 20 years behind, but we’re still behind. And I’m not sure if we would catch up if we weren’t forced to, by this thing. It’s everything in the package of how we treat everyone in our industry, with salaries and working hours and so on. That does need to change. It does. And I think it will with this. There’s a bit of a timing issue because all these things cost money and if there’s one thing restaurants don’t have at the moment, it’s money. But if we weren’t forced to do it, I’m not sure that it would really happen. When we get on the real other side of it, I think it will improve our industry and, eventually, I hope that would also make this industry more attractive to young people, which again, down the line, would probably lead to even better experiences, because the general mass of people working in the industry feel better treated and therefore will feel even more dedicated.
That was Lau Richter of restaurant Barr. And if you want to get more of Lau’s views on how restaurants are changing and find out how he went from serving soft ice to waiting tables at Noma, then do check out the exclusive profile of him that just dropped on Superb’s website. Now, we called this podcast The Recipe because, well, we want to take a closer look at some of the ingredients required to run a successful restaurant. It’s a little on the nose, I know, but the plan is to get into all of those ingredients in due course, so stick around. But looking back at this episode, it’s obvious to me that there’s a disconnect between what chefs and owners think is required to run a restaurant and what the average diner thinks is necessary. And it all comes down to the price point. Matt Orlando told us that diners misunderstand the value of food and that his restaurant should really be charging three times what it does. Beau Clugston said that a reckoning is long overdue and that restaurants simply need to charge more for food, pay their staff more, and work fewer hours. And we just heard Lau Richter say that for restaurants to catch up with other industries, they need more money and that’s something that few of them have right now. So, as I say, I think there’s a fundamental disconnect between what restaurant people are saying and what the average diner thinks. Just consider these two posts which appeared in, where else, my Instagram feed, just this week. The first was a review of a popular cafe in Copenhagen and, among some amazingly snarky remarks about the number of toddlers’ high chairs and how dressed up the other diners appeared to be, was a somewhat indignant comment about the cost of some of the dishes. For what it’s worth, the review’s recommendation was that you try to get your in-laws to take you to this cafe, such were the high prices. To me, that would only be pouring oil on troubled waters, but no matter. The second Instagram post that caught my eye this week was written by a professional chef named Kwasi Moses. He used the post to show how the cost of several key ingredients has soared in the past year. For instance, fryer oil used to be $21. Now it’s $45. And chicken wings used to be $45 a case. Now they’re $175. And then Moses made his point. He wrote: “If a local restaurant adds a few dollars to your meal, it’s not to get rich, it’s to continue to stay in business. Remember they’re in business to stay profitable and support their families.” I think we could do an entire episode on restaurant profitability, and I’m guessing we will. For now, I think it’s enough to say that while there are countless factors, or ingredients, that go into making a successful restaurant, it’s all for nothing if the restaurant isn’t sustainable. And it seems equally clear to me that this is going to be one of the biggest storytelling challenges for restaurants in the years ahead: persuading people, serious eaters and casual diners alike, that the bill they get at the end of the meal simply has to reflect the true cost of all those ingredients. And at this point in time, I think we’d all do well to remember that, especially if we have the privilege of being able to dine out. In the next episode, we’ll meet some brave individuals who have all launched a brand new restaurant or bar in recent weeks. They’ll include a former member of a Japanese punk band who wound up in Oslo by way of Silicon Valley and has just launched her 14th culinary venture.
Ann Lee: There’s always a world of things that can make or break your restaurant and I’ve experienced all of them.
And a cocktail aficionado introducing a trendy Japanese concept to the Copenhagen bar scene.
Peter Altenberg: We still nerd a lot about the drinks, obviously, but the drinking experience should just be a little bit less complicated, I think.
All that’s to come, though, on the next episode of The Recipe. Thank you so much for joining me. I really hope you’ve enjoyed this first episode. If you have, why not get someone else to listen to it? Until next time, take care and thanks again for listening.