Ann Lee: Every time we are opening a venture, we like to think that we have acquired a certain amount of knowledge of how to do it better.
Peter Altenburg: When enough is enough, you just know it. And I was like, ‘No. No more.’
Claus Henriksen: I’ve actually never met a person that was so crazy that they wanted to go into an old psychiatric hospital and try to create a restaurant. It could only be a stupid person. Okay, that's going to be me.
Hello and welcome to The Recipe, a podcast about restaurants and the people behind them.
I’m James Clasper and this episode is all about fresh starts, new beginnings, and leaps of faith.
“You stand on a cliff and you're scared. Will the parachute open if I jump.”
That was the chef Beau Clugston, talking about starting restaurants and, quite frankly, it’s a pretty good metaphor.
As the former Guardian restaurant critic John Lanchester once put it: “The economics of setting up a new restaurant are scary in good times and terrifying in bad ones."
So who on earth would open a restaurant right now — and why?
Well, in this episode, we’ll meet four people who have done just that — or at least are trying to.
We’ll meet the former guitarist of a Japanese punk band who wound up in Oslo by way of Silicon Valley and has launched her 14th culinary venture in just six years.
A cocktail aficionado who called time on his old bar right before the pandemic and reckons the time is right for his brand-new concept.
And a celebrated Danish chef who left his previous role last year after 13 years at the helm and has just launched his first restaurant.
But first we’re heading to a cafe in the Copenhagen district of Nørrebro, where on a recent morning I caught up with the Canadian chef Jonathan Tam.
Born and raised in the blue-collar city of Edmonton, Tam set his sights on a career in fine dining and, like so many young chefs, made his way to Copenhagen. In 2010, following an internship at Noma, he joined Christian Puglisi’s brand-new restaurant Relæ and was eventually appointed head chef. And when Relæ closed for good in December 2020, Tam decided to launch his own restaurant, JATAK. The journey since then, however, has been anything but smooth. And when I sat down with him recently, he still wasn’t sure when he’d be able to open. But I began by asking him what it was like working at Relæ and how he felt when it closed.
Jonathan Tam: I loved it and I had such great creative freedom. So even after 10 years I was really happy there. But then I couldn't really see myself for years being anywhere else, other than just doing my own thing. Getting to close Relæ on our terms, the obvious thing was to do my own restaurant. And I needed some time to just gather myself, because, you know, it was 10 years, it was a huge part of me. So actually I was very fortunate to get to have freedom and time to really be able to dive into the process. I think, as a young cook, you always imagine what your restaurant would be like, how big the kitchen is and what are all the things it has to have, but you'll be lucky to have something that maybe even hits 50 percent of those dreams. And that's just what the process was like. And we were lucky to find this small space that even in the time of the pandemic, even if it was the worst-of-worst scenario, there were things that we thought if we had to pivot, we could do it on our own. And that was the main thing. I wanted a project where I could see myself in it every day, that was completely in my control and I could have my hands, with my partner, Sarah, shape it into what we felt was right.
James: Jonathan, tell me what your experience of opening a restaurant has been so far.
Jonathan: It’s been quite a ride. It's been a long process. And with it, it's filled with great moments of getting to be really creative and really happy. But then at the same time, of course, lots of challenges come. So it's really a little bit of a roller coaster. And I think having it be in this period where we're still kind of in the pandemic makes it even more of a challenge. I think a big thing right now is just the supply chain. For example, the acoustic ceilings — we were talking about it for months and everything was lined up nicely, and all of a sudden it became an eight-week waiting time. And it was the same thing with wood. And we've been trying to have this custom grill made in Atlanta and they were going through a steel shortage. So we thought we were just going to open the restaurant without it, but somehow things came through and it just arrived. So it was just dealing with those things all the time and it's things you can't really control, so we just have to take it on the chin.
James: How do you feel? I mean, it must be pretty frustrating.
Jonathan: It is, but I'm pretty patient person, but it's definitely getting to a point where we just can’t wait to open. So we're trying to utilise this extra time and be more creative or work a bit closer with the team to develop things and kind of focus on the finer details. So it was great with the time, but there's still so much to do that it seems like more time is also a good thing. So I think they're just trying to stay positive. I think that's what you have to do in these projects.
James: What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started to launch your restaurant?
Jonathan: I think the main thing is: really, really pause and take your time. And with all these challenges look into it before you say ‘go’. Because we chefs always want things done fast. We want to go full-on into whatever challenge we face and I think it's important, but I think with starting a business, going into unknown territory, really learn about everything and then pull the trigger and go, with every element, whether it's understanding plumbing or electrical or learning about how to write an employment contract properly. Everything. You're in control, so make the time. Give yourself time to really analyse and think it all the way and then really attack it.
UPSOUND: Street sounds, door opening, construction sounds
James: Speaking of plumbing and electrical and acoustic ceilings, we decided to leave the cafe and cycle up the road to see how the build-out was going. (UPSOUND: “Do we have power? We have power.”) With the lights finally on, I asked Jonathan what he was hoping to do to ensure that JATAK is a healthy and happy place to work in.
Jonathan: Oh, well, that's super important, you know, because I have a family. I have a 10-year-old daughter and you don't really hear of chefs who get to be in ambitious restaurants or high-pressure environments and get to do that. You know, a lot of chefs have to either give up cooking or go into some other way to relate with food. And I was fortunate, thanks to how things were set up at Relæ, that I was able to cook at a restaurant while having a family for 10 years. So that is super-important that I create a space that my staff can do that, you know? We want to find ways that our staff works better hours, works fewer hours, can have time outside of the restaurant. So we're really trying, going into this, to find ways to make it a good workplace, because that's what the whole industry needs. And we were taught that at Relæ. We opened only working four days. Chefs got to have a rotation of four days off, including weekends, and we would always sit down and eat staff food together. We would get wine with our meals on the weekend and there are restaurants now, even high-calibre ones, where the cooks are eating while they're prepping, or they're sitting on some milk crate and that's their break and then they get back into it and ends up being 14, 16 hour days. So we were really well-treated at Relæ and I want to continue that here and see if we can make it better because the pandemic has made people realise how tough a daily life it is. When I have my own place, if I don't consider that, I think that would be irresponsible.
James: Of course, the question is, how do you make the sums work? Restaurants that want to do three or four days a week open, they still also have to bring in revenue. I mean, was that something you learned from Relæ, how to balance the competing interest of providing time off and good staff hours, but also making enough money to keep the lights on?
Jonathan: You need to have really talented people. You need to think outside the box so that we could have a smaller team, but maybe people that do a little bit of everything, that want to learn about wine. So we could have chefs presenting wine and pouring wine. And then if we all work together, we could be more efficient and then that's how you can start cutting down hours. And then if you're really efficient, we can start our R&Ding at the start of the week together. We can all sit down. We could really plan the week while, you know, in the restaurants you're finding five minutes at 11:30 at night to have a meeting and discuss these big decisions for tomorrow and plan a menu or make these changes. And you're already there 15, 16 hours. Like, your mind is not clear about it, so can that work? And what if it ends up being because we get a bulk of our stuff done at the beginning of the week, or we just do the things that make sense? Because if I get really high-quality fish at the beginning of the week and we purposely age it and use techniques so we don't have to do it every day, things like that, it maybe ends up that we get our staff getting more sleep at night, because we can start later, because we planned and organised and structured. So there are ways to do it. And I think restaurants always think in order to be more efficient, we just need to have more people doing stuff at the same time for a longer time where people have to stay longer or come earlier, you know? No. There are other industries that have figured it out. Why can't we?
James: If Denmark has to go into another lockdown and you're open, do you know what your response will be already?
Jonathan: You know what? I was one of the fortunate ones that didn't have to go through that this year. Relæ closed and I was just focused on working with Sarah, developing this project. I even got to go to Stone Barns and got a life-changing learning experience. So, yeah, I'm going to have to talk with my friends and hear how they handled it. But I have a great team. I think people are excited about what we do. So if we pivot, I'm sure we'll come up with something fun, to kind of get things rolling.
James: You can call it… JATAK-away
Jonathan: Oh, wow. Oh, man, thank you. Thank you. I might have to use that one. I might have to use that one.
James: You’re very welcome.
Jonathan: JATAK-away. I will have to open a stall down the street and then just do that now. Because that's just gold. That's pure gold, man.
That was Jonathan Tam of restaurant JATAK, which is slated to launch soon, hopefully. Now, our next guest is Peter Altenburg, who for many years ran a cocktail bar in the very space that’s, slowly but surely, becoming JATAK. Altenburg decided to close that bar in 2019 and start afresh with Bird, a cocktail bar in the more upscale neighbourhood of Frederiksberg. Bird takes its name from the jazz musician Charlie Parker and its inspiration from old-fashioned bars in Japan known as kissa, where patrons gather to listen to jazz records in a group setting. I paid a flying visit to Bird recently and after Peter had mixed me a cocktail, I asked him why he called time on his previous bar.
Peter Altenburg: A lot of people didn't really understand what it was all about, having a group of eight people coming in at 12 in the evening, super-smashed by drinking a lot of beers just around the corner. Maybe they were not looking for it, but they heard that we did great cocktails. So they came in and I think they just spoiled the evening, not only for themselves, but also for all other guests. They weren’t rowdy or anything, but it was like, “Hmm, this is weird.” This is not what we were looking at. The thing we're going to do here is so very different, at least in atmosphere not necessarily behind the bar.
James: So, in other words, can pick a location, but the location could change around you?
Peter: Exactly. When enough is enough, you just know it. And I was like: “No. No more. I want out.” It was probably the best decision I made, just before Corona.
James: Why this location? How did you narrow it down to this?
Peter: I had three spots in the city and they were all super nice, but when I first saw this, I was like, “Well, it can't be anything else.” When I first walked in the room, it was a ladies’ clothes store before, I just felt “this is magic”, and it really felt the way I want it. And I could see all my ideas for designing the place, straight on. I was never in doubt. This felt like it was going to be the place.
James: OK, so tell me about Bird. What’s the idea behind it?
Peter: Copenhagen has, for quite a while now, been missing a place where we take everything that you do behind the bar very seriously. And then, on the atmosphere and music side as well, that’s something that we think has been neglected for a very long time. You can find super spots where you get great music, and you can find awesome bars where you have a great playlist, but that doesn't necessarily fit the whole scheme of the night. I think tying those two ends together was what we really wanted with Bird. We didn't want to be just another cocktail bar. We don't want to be one of those cocktail bars that are so up their own [backside], they forget what is most important, and that is definitely our guests. My first inspiration was from a jazz kissa, which is what it's called in Japan. But I think doing a jazz kissa without doing coffee and being there as your own DJ all day and just having that one venue where people come down to listen to your music and just relax is not something that will pay my bills. So what we do is we operate with a guy that takes care of all our music. He actually curates all our records, and he takes care of all the bookings and makes sure that the people that I invite to play here are in line with our musical manifesto, which is that people need to have something on their mind and heart to be able to play here. And we want music lovers more than people that are great at partying. Music has been so neglected, like the experience of putting on a [record] — I mean, when did you last do that? Instead of just going to Spotify and playing something from a playlist — that’s so convenient — but having that moment of just being yourself together with that record and a cup of coffee or a good drink. You never, or rarely, do that. And I think also that when we come to the weekends or Thursdays and Saturdays, where the DJs are playing right now, everything is curated. So they actually do that because this is what I feel is really good music. And you can just feel it. You can feel that this is someone that has something on their heart. That was the idea that I think that no one is doing right now.
James: Are you doing anything different in terms of how you run the bar that you didn't do when you first started out in the industry?
Peter: Well, the first major thing, from the very beginning, is obviously that our guests know alcohol. When we opened, they had no fucking clue. Sorry, but they didn’t. They thought alcohol or great drinks were strawberry daiquiris and mojitos and stuff like that. But then we came to a period where everything was about how crafted we can be and I think that was probably one of the worst periods of going out, especially in cocktail bars. It was dreadful to see so many bartenders just being about themselves and about “our concept” and all that. So I think the cocktail industry is right now — or the way I see it internationally at least — is that it’s all about the guests and that's the major change. I think for us, in particular, it's been the change from à la minute cocktails, where you do everything on order, more or less, to now, where we do almost everything pre-service. So we take a glass, put in an ice cube, pour over our alcohol and garnish it and we serve. I've always been a great fan of those 10-second cocktails, which was like a huge thing back in the eighties and nineties. The cocktails were dreadful and not very interesting, though. I think the idea of spending more time with the guests instead of being so deep into orders, when you stand behind the bar, it's just, well, why not? I don't even think it's cheating. I think it's improving every aspect of your business, if you batch. The more you can batch, the better. We do all our drinks pre-service. We batch pretty much everything. You can still come in, order a whiskey sour, get it on regular lemon juice and stuff. But we want to offer a drinking experience that is closer to when you just have a glass of wine. We also want to do something that is not necessarily upscale, but people went to Gilt to get that drinking experience that you could maybe — how do you say — put next to the Michelin restaurant experience, which I think is crazy because, well, we spend a lot of hours pre-service making drinks, but it has nothing to do with what chefs do. We still nerd a lot about the drinks obviously, but the drinking experience should just be a little bit less complicated.
That was Peter Altenburg of the Copenhagen cocktail bar Bird.
From Japanese jazz bars to Japanese punk bands now.
It’s long been something of a cliché to describe chefs as the new rockstars and cooking as the new rock n’roll, but for my next guest, the parallel isn’t entirely unwarranted.
Ann Lee is the founder and CEO of the Core restaurant group in Norway, which has launched 14 ventures in the past six years and currently operates four restaurants in Oslo, including La Mayor, an upscale Mexican eatery that opened in August.
To understand how she got there, though, you first have to go back about 20 years ago, to this.
SHORT SAMPLE OF MIKABOMB SONG “Heart Attack”
That’s a track called “Heart Attack” by Mikabomb, a Japanese punk band from London who were briefly on the Beastie Boys’ record label — and that’s Ann on the guitar.
Later, Ann joined the Norwegian shoe-gazer band Serena Maneesh, for whom she played organ and backing vocals.
And it was around then that she first realised food might well be the new rock n’roll. Quite literally.
I called Ann shortly after the launch of La Mayor and began by asking her why she swapped shredding guitars for shredding vegetables.
Ann Lee: One of my bandmates was a chef and so whenever we were not on tour, I needed work and I loved cooking and so I started to work as an apprentice in kitchens with him. I just fell in love with it. I actually had my own catering company and I was working in a restaurant at the same time. So I had this insane typical chef lifestyle and it was easy to get burnt out. It was not actually too dissimilar from the rock n’ roll lifestyle, you could say.
James: That’s a very good way of putting it — and, as I understand it, you eventually decided to leave the music industry and go into the world of tech and startups. How did that happen?
Ann: I studied for about a year to they to get into business school. So I went back to the States, North Carolina, and I studied for a couple of years and got my MBA. In business school, the things I was most attracted to were startups and the lean startup mentality. And then I wanted to try my luck in San Francisco, around Silicon Valley and I specialised again in nerdy project management stuff. At the same time, I lived just outside Outer Mission, so I was on Mission Street all the time. I loved the food culture. San Francisco is still one of my favourite cities in the world. I had been long-distance dating my now-husband for about a year. Since I didn't have any luck getting a dream tech job, I decided to try to move to Oslo and be with him, and see if I could get a job in tech in Oslo. So I interviewed with all the Big Four and did that whole thing, but I think as an immigrant, it's really hard when you don't have the language. So my friend had bar and he said, “Hey, we have a kitchen. Do you want to do something?” So that's how Mission Taco started: a kind of hole in the wall, little taco venture. Again, I had sworn that I wouldn't go back to the chef world, I wouldn’t go back to Norway, and I ended up doing both those things.
James: You talked about having a lean startup mentality, when you graduated with your MBA and then worked in the tech world, so to what extent would you say you've had a “move fast and break things” kind of approach, “just go for it and see what happens”?
Ann: Yeah, I've thought a lot about it. I mean, the thing with startups, you know, is a lot of people think that if we go into a risky venture, it’s all about being able to bear as much risk as possible. But actually it's the opposite. When, you know, you’re going into a risky industry, what you're trying to do is create all these ways to protect yourself from all this risk. I guess being in the restaurants themselves is giving you that sort of insight to it. So, for sure, we have a lean startup mentality to opening restaurants. Every time we are opening a venture, we like to think that we have acquired a certain amount of knowledge of how to do it better. And there's one more thing to protect ourselves against that we can try to prevent from happening. But what's so interesting about this industry is there's always a world of things that can make or break your restaurant and I've experienced them all. Whether it's a bad location or maybe bad leadership or bad management to Corona. Corona is one that we never could have predicted.
James: Absolutely not, no. Now, across the six years, you’ve had many different concepts and there have been some general principles that I guess apply. So what are some of the biggest learnings that you've had that apply no matter what gets thrown at you?
Ann: It’s not too dissimilar from what I'd say a lot of lean startups and businesses say, which is to try to minimise debt. That was the same concept with Mission Taco. I used my savings to invest into a very small thing, and it grew organically and the money we made on that we invested into Way Down South and so on and so forth. So we've never taken on a huge amount of debt. Of course, everything, when it comes to Corona, you have to separate. But at least in the first five years, we've managed it really well by using this lean startup [approach], that we open right away, we get a small amount growth, but we get cash coming in.
James: OK so, tell me about your latest restaurant La Mayor — can you describe the cuisine, the idea behind it.
Ann: The brief was really: how can we elevate Mexican food in the market and environment we're in? I had this idea of using Norwegian produce, mainly seafood that we have around, Also a lot of seafood that Norwegians don't eat, like octopus. Different things that Norwegians aren't accustomed to, but very good quality from small producers that are excellent, and cooking them with a sort of Norwegian heart.
James: So can you explain how La Mayor typifies the lean startup mentality?
Ann: La Mayor still opened in a very Core style, even though we've had extreme delays through COVID — and that is we don't have the money to have six months to a year of test kitchen-ing or a huge team to perfect dishes before we open. We really are building the restaurant in as lean a way as we can and then we do mostly everything ourselves and then we just open. Of course, we cook for some weeks and we’re testing, but there’s a lot of test kitchening on the fly, while customers come in. So the plus side of that is that you have cash coming straight away, starting to pay down the small amount of debt that you've invested into it. But the most successful restaurants I've had all have paid down the debt within the first year. In 2019, all my restaurants were profitable, which we've been very, very fortunate about. But I think it’s, again, because we started to grow very organically and not have huge amounts of debt investment in the beginning. We’re too impatient. We want to break even the first year and start making money after that. The downside of that is in the beginning, you'll get a lot of negative comments on the food and then you have to bear with it, and that's what we call the feedback iteration loop. You get people complaining, “Oh, this was too this, you should've done that, you should tweak the planning of this”. But we like that. And we have meetings — like, we are now in this early phase about the food every single morning. We talk about each dish. We talk about the feedback of the customers from the day before. This is a really important part of our growth process.
James: That’s so interesting. Tell me, what’s it like trying to open restaurants in Oslo? What kind of restaurant scene is it?
Ann: I feel like Oslo still has a way to go. There are a lot of reasons why it's not as developed, but I think one of them has to do with these property developers and the really high barriers to entry in this market. There’s extremely high taxation. There's just so much regulation in this market that I don't recommend people without experience go into it. Even people with experience go in and fail. I mean, if you look at the failure rate of the 14 places that we … failure meaning: having to close down within one or two years, that's kind of the classic success rate, like many restaurants don't survive past two years, basically … it’s a really challenging place to open a restaurant.
James: Now, in the six years you’ve been running restaurants, you’ve had various challenges thrown at you, but what’s different this time in terms of trying to start a restaurant and then actually launching it?
Ann: Well, obviously, it's really made those who want to do this, I guess, stick around or not. So I think this has been a big issue around the world, for a good reason, though. I mean, we've been joking that chefs are like, “Oh, the colour is coming back to my face. I'm actually the weight that should be, I can have time with my partner." On the other hand, there have been those, maybe like myself, who see opportunity and there's been a lot of people who are like, “Well, now I really have a choice either I can quit this, because if there's a better time to quit, it would be during COVID, because COVID really just kind of destroyed everything.” So one, either you start all over from scratch doing something else, or you start all over from scratch doing what you were doing but trying to do it better. And I guess that's kind of where we're at. I still don't know if that's the right decision, but in a way, you know, you have to try. It’s our living. We wouldn’t go down without a fight.
James: It sounds like it causes so many headaches and so much hard work. Why keep doing it?
Ann: I know, I ask myself that every day. No, it's first the people obviously that you're very close with that you love. And that's a clichéd answer but you're in this boat, really, together with people and, you know, they use the word family a lot in this industry, and it's not too dissimilar. You hate them, but you can't live without them. And then it’s also just that maybe this is the most challenging thing and if things seem so impossible so often, and that in itself, if you're a bit crazy, motivates, incentivises you to try to do something that no one else has done and create something really beautiful. I kind of imagine in the future, when everything is replaced by AI and we have robots doing all these different kinds of jobs, I wonder if that experience of going to the diner and having that waiter who knows your name and what your favourite foods are, the sort of social aspect of the memories you have of eating a meal with somebody, I don't think that's ever going to go away, or I hope it doesn't.
That was Ann Lee, CEO of The Core restaurant group in Oslo. And if you want to hear more about Ann’s journey from Japanese punk to Silicon Valley to running restaurants, then head over to Superb’s website, where you’ll find a truly inspiring profile of her — the second in our new series, The Specials. Our final guest today has had quite the career so far, too. Claus Henriksen was born in Jutland and spent years working in top-tier restaurants such as Noma and Søllerød Kro, before being appointed head chef at Dragsholm Slot in 2007. Under his leadership, the restaurant won a Michelin star in 2017. In late 2020, though, Henriksen left Dragsholm Slot and soon started making plans to launch his own restaurant. Alas, it wasn’t plain sailing for him either. The idea had been to open MOTA in May, but a cruel twist of fate meant the launch was postponed to November. To find out why, I jumped in my own, um, “motor” and made the hour-long trip from Copenhagen to visit Claus in the leafy grounds of the Anneberg Cultural Park in northern Zealand. After he gave me a tour of the building — which, it turns out, used to be a state psychiatric hospital — we sat down in his office and I began by asking him why his time at Dragsholm Slot came to an end.
Claus Henriksen: I think we wanted to go in two different ways. And for me, I wanted to go the more natural way. I wanted to use the things for me that lie closest to my heart. It's not because I don't want to do a one star, two-star, three-star [restaurant]. I just simply think that we wanted to go and get the stars in two different ways. I think they wanted to do more classic things. More truffles. More caviar. For me, it's very simple. There's no personality in it. It's easy to cook with those things. I want to cook with vegetables where it's going to be tough. I want to use different kinds of shellfish and fish. For me, it’s a much tougher job. I wanted the challenge to do other things, I wanted to go the other way. Shaving truffles over a beautiful piece of meat is very nice, I love it. But I want to create something where the personality can be asparagus, it could be a beet, it can be all those things. If you can create something out of that, it is a lot tougher to get those things to work. There are more possibilities in the world of vegetables. There's a lot more complexity and it's not easy. It's very tough. It's very time-consuming to do vegetables. And for me also, I think it's so beautiful. You know, having simply a beautiful carrot and it doesn't need to look the same. It doesn't matter. It’s beautiful on its own. It can have different colours, flavours, it can have another crunch, you cook it, you can ferment it, you can make ice cream out of it. So there's a lot of different things, where if you have a piece of meat, you know, you can serve it raw, you can fry it, and for me, that's basically it.
James: When you left Dragsholm Slot, what were you thinking you were going to do next? Was there a period of reflection where you didn't know or were you quite quick to decide: okay, I'm going to go and do my own restaurant?
Claus: When I stopped, it was very tough. Everybody knows that Corona just closed the restaurants from one day to another. For me, it was a very big disappointment because I created my last month, ending up with a new year and all these things and of course, we couldn't do that. From one day to another, within two hours, they just closed my entire life,13 years. We cleaned, we made it up and, for me, the restaurant, the house was done and I had to give it onto somebody else and I just needed to be myself. I didn't really want to make a big restaurant. If I should make a restaurant, I wanted to do a small one. I can also just do some different events. And then they called at the end of December and asked me if I wanted to come up here and I said no. I really did not want to go. But I said, “okay, I want to come and take a look at it”. And they showed me around and showed me all these things. And I fell in love with it because it's the silence, the nature, you know, you can hear the birds outside the windows. And then I thought I actually never met a person that was so crazy that they wanted to go into an old psychiatric hospital and try to create a restaurant. It could only be a stupid person. Okay, that's going to be me. I'm going to fucking do that. And we simply just started up. It was the start of February, the middle of February.
James: So the plan was to open restaurant MOTA in the spring, but that's not what happened.
Claus: No, the plan was that we were going to open MOTA in the middle of May and we were having these meetings every Wednesday morning to find out who's going to do what and what was going on. And then one day I came out here and I just got the call: “You have to go home, something’s wrong, you have to go to the doctor” and I said, “What are you talking about?” And I went home and my wife was crying and I said, "What's going on?” And we went to the doctor and they found out she had cancer. I could just see her hopes, her eyes, her dreams just collapse. And then I needed to find out exactly what was going to happen because we were standing with this whole new project. We were on the way and everything was going according to plant. And then, you know, you're like, “Hmm”. I was just thinking about how I was going to open a restaurant with two kids and no wife. You know, I was thinking very much of her. She was just lying on the couch, couldn’t say anything, wouldn't eat anything. She was just somebody looking out of the room, and of course, because she thought she had got a death sentence. So I had the kids and I was home and we started taking all these tests and then they called me up and said, “Shouldn't we just close the whole project?”. I said, “Ah, no, let's go”. You know, I could feel like I had to go out instead of being at home and everything was sad for me because I needed to go out and also just have a little bit time of my own and come back to be a better father, to be a better husband, simply just for reflecting and coming out in the world. So they called me up and said if it was okay, they would do a pop-up restaurant and I could come and go as I wanted. And I said, “yes, of course”. And we started the whole treatment, every 14 days with chemo, and I was very lucky, everybody in my family really supported us and came and helped. And, of course, as everybody knows, it is a very big problem getting cooks and waiters. So, like everybody else, I had to be here every day, while the restaurant was open almost. And I'm so happy for all the people that helped me during the whole summertime, the waiters, everybody. So the project slightly just started and I felt like, how are you going to live out your dream with this thing? But we had to talk a lot about these things and I asked her, “So when do you think… should we open MOTA this year?” And she said, “You know, I'm done with my chemo at the end of October and you know it's Christmas, there's a lot of people coming for Christmas, you need to open this year.” So she actually decided when we were going to open. She’s not going to be a part of it, but she's always in my heart, my thoughts. And so she decided the opening date. She decided all these things. Because for her, it was also like she said, “It's like I’m crushing your dream”. And I said, “No, you're really not, because this is much more important right now”. And we've done chemo, we're going to open in seven days. And I actually don't know how I'm feeling about it. It sounds very strange, but for me the whole year, we decided that the whole year was shit, but it can only go up, you know. We are at the bottom and we can only go up.
We paused the interview at this point, for fairly obvious reasons, and when we picked it up again, I asked Claus what his team had learned from the summer pop-up.
Claus: It allowed us to be in the kitchen to find out how it was working. Should we rebuild something? Have we got some measurements wrong? But we were also allowed to see the routines, to see how the guests respond to being here. Because there's never been a restaurant here. There's never been anything else, and I didn't want you to create what you could get all your other restaurants out here. I want to create something on my own. And it allowed us to create some very funny things.
James: So having done the pop-up, do you know what kind of restaurant it is going to be?
Claus: People that know me also know that I have to say no. It’s going to be a restaurant where you're going to come and you're going to experience some ideas and a thought of cooking. It needs to be an experience. I'm not going to serve five courses where all of them are going to be the best courses in your life. I'm going to serve dishes that I never thought about this. And there's also going to be something that's recognisable. I want to create something where you will feel at home. The whole idea is that you're going to feel at home, like you're sitting at somebody else’s. A dinner with a lot of vegetables, fish, and shellfish. And if needed, we are going to add meat, but it's going to be up to my providers what it is going to be. It’s going to be that if a fishermen comes that caught three lobsters, I’m going to serve three lobsters for three tables, but then the rest is going to get turbot or squid. And most of all we need to have fun. If we don't have fun, it doesn't matter for me.
James: What do you wish you had known a year ago that you know now about the industry, about opening a restaurant, about yourself?
Claus: It’s a very good question. Next time, if I'm going to open something, I'm going to start two years in advance. It takes so long. You know, being a cook is very simple. I peel a potato, I cook it, it’s done, I serve it. You build a restaurant, you get an idea then you draw it, then you send it somewhere, then you discuss it, then you send it back, then you discuss it, then there's a new idea. You know, all these things constantly. And I think that's what takes a long journey to create a restaurant. But I also think it's very necessary to have all those different questions: “Are you sure this is the right way of doing it? And is this what you want? Is this really what you need for these things?” And I think that's probably one of the things. But I knew it, but I was just like, “Ah, it doesn't matter, it takes one week to do this, it only takes a week.” But it took seven months.
James: And my very last question. How, how are you feeling?
Claus: For me, it feels like coming home to something new. And I'm very much looking forward to start being able to write this kind of story, on my own. It's the first time I tried it like this. It’s the feeling of something ending, because now this time it was me who decided when we were going to end and we decided when we were going to open. And, for me, I hope that's going to be the final journey of something new or the beginning of a beautiful new fairytale.
That was Claus Henriksen of restaurant MOTA, which opened in November.
And there you have it — four different takes on starting a restaurant or bar right now.
And the red thread connecting them all lies, I think, in what Claus said about the final journey of one thing and the beginning of another.
It reminds me of what TS Eliot once wrote — that “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning / The end is where we start from."
I think the end of something is where all four of the guests began their latest ventures.
All four have closed the chapter on one project and begun another.
All four have drawn from hard-won experience and summoned the courage to walk to the edge of the cliff and leap into the unknown.
And all four have, in a way, used what they were doing before as a point of departure.
In the next episode of The Recipe, we’ll explore another point of departure and talk to three restaurateurs about how they decided what kind of food they were going to serve.
We’ll meet an Australian management consultant who missed Melbourne brunches so much he decided to launch his own restaurant.
André Rossi: “It was kind of an obvious thing for me that there’s this thing that I used to do and love and I can’t do that here in the same way, and maybe there’s something there.”
And a sometime web developer giving Copenhagen’s best pizzerias a run for their money.
Lars Hylby: “We would like to try to do something just a tad different, without trying to invent the new pizza, because it’s hard changing perfect.”
We’ll also resume our conversation with Jonathan Tam and find out what he’ll be cooking at JATAK.
Jonathan Tam: “To put words on summing up the cuisine, I still can’t do that and I think that’s exciting.”
This episode was produced and hosted by me, James Clasper, for Superb.
You can find the show notes for this episode, including a full transcript, on our website.
Many thanks for listening — I’ll see you next time.