The Specials is an ongoing series of interviews with the unsung heroes of hospitality — from managers, waiters and sommeliers to dishwashers, farmers and foragers.
Lau Richter is the general manager at Barr, a restaurant and bar in Copenhagen that serves classic Northern European dishes such as salted waffles, schnitzel and Danish meatballs. Barr is located in the space that once housed Noma, where Lau held several FOH roles — including restaurant manager — between 2004 and 2018.
I’m from Copenhagen.
I grew up in Sydhavn, which means the southern harbour. Most people would call it a working-class neighbourhood, but the majority of people I knew didn't have a job. I grew up there with my mum in the 1980s.
I didn’t go to a restaurant until I was at least 15. I’d heard about them, but where I grew up, it just wasn’t something we did. Copenhagen was a different world back then, too. Besides the tradition of having smørrebrød [Danish open-faced sandwiches], we didn't have a culture of dining out in Denmark, not like we do today.
I wasn’t bad at school. I actually did well in some classes. I just wasn't interested in it. One day a careers advisor told me: “You appear to be a very jolly guy who likes to socialise and gets on well with most people. How about becoming a waiter?” I wasn’t sure what it involved, but it seemed reasonable to try something else. I quit school and signed up for a basic education at Copenhagen Hospitality School.
My first job was serving soft ice at an amusement park just north of Copenhagen, in the summer before I started at hospitality school. On some days, I sold thousands and thousands of soft ices, but that was my way into the service industry.
After hospitality school, I became an apprentice waiter. In time, I got a job at a restaurant called Nouvelle. Back then it was one of only four or five Michelin-starred restaurants in Denmark. It was scary for me because I felt I was entering the world of the rich. I felt very small. But I settled in quickly and realised that if you want to learn from the best, work hard and enjoy being with people, you can be part of that world.
A friend of mine asked me to do some shifts at a new restaurant called Noma. I was in between jobs and wasn’t that serious about my career. I helped out at the restaurant once or twice a week. I remember walking in and thinking it was very different. It was so focused and completely unlike anything I'd seen before.
Noma asked me to run a beach bar project called Mona. It was a harbour-front bistro with Nordic references like musk ox and salted salmon. It wasn’t a big project but I was still young — 23, 24 — and had never built a restaurant from scratch or been a manager. We had the worst summer in decades, very bad weather. I had to let my team go after three or four weeks. Then, in late July, we got two or three weeks of full sunshine. We got absolutely smashed because we had no staff. Some days I had to close up on my own, at three or four o’clock in the morning. As I had to be back again at nine, I slept in a deckchair under a blanket behind the bar.
I joined Noma’s front of house team as a waiter after the summer. We had a small team — just nine or ten people — with Pontus Eliasson combining the manager and sommelier roles. But within a year it was natural for me to be doing the front of house schedule and organising the floor, so Pontus could focus more on the wine. He and René [Redzepi] made me Noma’s restaurant manager in 2005.
One of the most important skills a manager should have is the ability to very quickly analyse who your guests are and how you need to deal with them — in real time. I learned that very early in my career. Because we're talking about individuals, no two situations are alike. That’s the beauty of it and it’s why I love doing it.
Team leaders and managers need to be very hands-on, too. Some managers are very good at being hosts and prioritise that part. Others are very good at working with the team and prioritise that part. For me, the best managers are those who can strike a balance because both skills are equally important.
You should constantly train your team to be hosts. Even if you're an amazing host who can be with your guests and provide a great experience, you can't host all the tables at the same time. It's always been important to me to try to have everyone in the team be hosts. That was my approach at Noma.
The service at Noma has changed over the years. It has become more and more organised. It had to — simply because the organisation got bigger and bigger. When you have 20 people on your team, they need to know what they’re doing. Paradoxically, service at Noma is relaxed — super professional, super-honest and dedicated, but the interaction with guests and with each other is relaxed.
Where René and I grew up helps explain Noma’s relaxed style. We both come from very humble backgrounds. In fact, we grew up in almost the same neighbourhood in Copenhagen and even played handball together when we were 16, 17. René was much better than me, though. Pretentiousness is so far from where we come from. That explains Noma’s relaxed style in a way — as does our thinking about what the most important thing is when you're dining out. Is it a white glove or a silver candelabra? Or is it the way that you interact and are together?
Hiring the right people is definitely key. Prospective employees need to be team players. But how can you look at someone and see they are a team player? You can’t. These things are based on conversations. You analyse what people write or how they talk and so on. It’s very much a gut feeling.
In general, I hire personality and attitude before CV. I prefer it if people have some sort of experience within our industry because it costs more to train people, time-wise and financially. And someone might have worked in a good restaurant for 10 years and there's no way that I can change a bad attitude. If you have the right attitude, we can teach you anything. And we can inspire you to want to learn.
The guest experience has changed in the course of my career. Most of my experience is within Copenhagen, of course, but in general, guests and restaurant staff have become a lot closer. There’s no wall between them any more. That makes dining much more fun. And fun is important. Humour is important. It breaks down barriers and makes people more relaxed and comfortable. Very few people understand my sense of humour, but I’ve learned to live with that!
I became Noma’s service director in 2011. I took on more administrative tasks, as well as organising front of house and service. That was also the time when we started to do pop-ups [in Japan, Sydney and Mexico]. I did that for seven years until I became the general manager of Barr in 2018, a year after it opened.
We’ve achieved what we wanted with Barr in many ways. But we're still a young restaurant and it's in my nature after working at Noma for so many years never to be satisfied. I always aim for something better and we still have room to improve. I’m constantly thinking about ways to improve — when I'm having a shower in the morning, when I'm on my bike on the way to work, when I’m on my way home.
I want to do more to support our team culture at Barr. When I was at Noma, roughly once a month, I would organise things for us all to do where we could also learn something. A wine tasting, say, or visiting a brewery, distillery or farm.
Be curious and eager to learn if you want a career in hospitality. You can never learn too much. The worst thing that can happen is you learn something that you're never going to use, but I won't call that a waste of time.
You can always learn from your mistakes, too. Most people make mistakes everyday. Mistakes aren’t that bad. What matters is how you deal with them. I've been upset with colleagues who’ve made mistakes but I don't think I've ever shouted at anyone for making a mistake. I always look at the reason for the mistake. Could or should we have changed something that would have prevented it from happening?
My approach to dealing with guests hasn’t changed. I try to treat people with equal respect. But it’s also important to treat people as individuals. It sounds like another paradox, but if a guest comes here, I don't treat them any differently whether they’re a superstar or someone I don't know at all. They deserve equal respect but I’ll treat them differently because they’re different individuals with different needs.
Working at the Noma organisation has been an amazing journey. The most satisfying part of it has been seeing all the people I've worked with — all the front-of-house apprentices I’ve had responsibility for, people like myself when I was a kid, coming in here not really knowing anything — growing and maturing as people and becoming some of the best professionals that you can imagine in this industry.
As told to Superb. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.