Karen Leibowitz | 2.18.2015 | Issue #11
When Christian Puglisi opened Relæ in 2010, he was striking out on his own after two years as sous-chef of Noma.
Many of the choices he made could be interpreted as an effort to define himself in opposition to the restaurant he was leaving, and as Puglisi declares in his Relæ cookbook, which boldly prioritizes ideas at the expense of recipes: “I do not feel that I’m part of the New Nordic movement, as I don’t adhere to a dogma of using only ingredients from Denmark […]. I’m an individual, and Relæ is a unique restaurant with its own identity.”
The restaurant industry is built around this cycle of apprenticeship and graduation. The most ambitious cooks seek out the greatest chefs, learn what they can, then eventually break away to establish their own reputations. Redzepi has certainly helped Puglisi’s career, as Puglisi acknowledges in his book, and the two seem genuinely fond of one another, but Puglisi puts enormous energy into repudiating New Nordic ideas. Although Relæ never critiques Redzepi personally, the book as a whole dramatizes the narrative of the modern chef, who instead of laboring to refine an ancient tradition, must create a wholly new culinary philosophy. Must chefs these days disown their mentors in order to ultimately join them as peers?
Redzepi introduced Puglisi at the 2013 MAD conference as "provocative," "unafraid," "unpretentious," and in possession of “the biggest set of half-Italian, half-Norwegian balls in all of the Nordic region.” Puglisi does radiate ambition, and in his presentation, he painted himself as a swashbuckling restaurateur unafraid to open his first restaurant on a crime-ridden corner of the Nørrebro neighborhood. He reminisced about the bad old days, when dealers would count their money in the restaurant’s doorway while customers inside wondered about the tipping policy, or when a teenager appeared at the kitchen door with bloody hands asking the cooks to help his friend who’d been shot. Puglisi shrugged it off: “Our food would conquer the street, and then the whole city, I was certain it would.”
Eventually, Relæ did conquer the block, and Puglisi later opened Manfred’s, a lower-priced restaurant across the newly-gentrified street. If he still seems to revel in the idea of running a world-class restaurant on a dodgy block, it is because he is fundamentally interested in challenging the social conventions of fine dining. In Relæ, Puglisi makes a case for many of the restaurant’s deviations from tradition in an effort to focus attention on the food. For example, silverware at Relæ is stored in drawers under the table, so that diners may set their tables as needed. It reduces the cost of labor and keeps prices lower, but it also means that the table is bare when diners first sit down, setting the stage for a more immediate experience of the food. Throughout the book, there are little innovations like this, which suggest another kind of unadorned table—a tabula rasa—upon which Relæ is reinventing what it means to be a great restaurant.
The book, too, seems intent on reinventing the genre. It doesn’t feel like a cookbook as much as a well-organized reference guide to the brain of Christian Puglisi. The first half of Relæ is titled “Ideas on a Plate,” and it’s composed of tabbed chapters on topics like “Textures” and “Theory,” which are in turn made up of short essays on everything ranging from “Leathery” to “Challenging the Guest: Why You Shouldn’t Always Let People Choose What they Want.” The second section, “Dishes,” looks aesthetically a bit more like an haute cuisine cookbook, but instead of ingredients and procedures, each dish is described in a lovingly detailed essay and annotated with the “Ideas” to which it alludes. Recipes are confined to an appendix at the end, with tiny type that effectively communicates the chef’s relative interest in his own Recipes and Ideas.
In a chapter called “Hiding on the Plate,” Puglisi explains Relæ’s signature plating style, which layers ingredients so that “the qualities of the food do not reside in its surface, but deep underneath, in its flavors and textures, and in the ideas behind it.” In a way, the plating feels like a metaphor for his whole cooking style, but as he admits, the technique also lets him smooth over less-than-photogenic cuts produced by the restaurant’s nose-to-tail orientation. As a bonus, layered plating takes less time for cooks, thereby reducing labor costs, and lets him control the diner’s experience. A total of 21 individual Dishes are listed in this one chapter—including “Lamb, Turnip, and Samphire,” which in turn lists 25 pertinent Ideas—forcing you to flip back and forth, exploring the philosophical orientation of the food. There’s even a chart, situated between the first two sections of the book, which draws literal lines between related Ideas and Dishes.
He writes that “everything is connected in a sort of web in which one thing springs out of another in a big hot pot of inspiration, hard work, and craft,” and that seems true; it certainly speaks to the multicultural orientation that distinguishes Puglisi from the New Nordic movement as a whole. In an introductory chapter called “Locavorism: When It Makes Sense, and When It Does Not,” Puglisi argues that neither he nor his food cannot and should not be defined by a single place. “I am a child of the globalized world, and anyone who draws up national borders and geographical restrictions on people—or vegetables—always provokes me,” he writes. “The question of whether our cooking is locavore, Nordic, Italian, or French is the same as asking me whether I am Italian, Norwegian, or Danish. The answer is yes to all of them. [My] mixed background, not the color of my passport, is what defines me as a person and a cook.”
It makes sense, both emotionally and intellectually, that an Italian-Norwegian chef who has trained at both El Bulli and Noma would lay claim to olive oil and butter, to imported sardines and local cod. This is not to say that there are no limits at Relæ; in fact, the book celebrates constraints. Dishes are limited to three or four components. Vegetables must not be relegated to second-class status. Prices must be kept reasonable. Above all, Relæ must never follow a trend: in order to avoid being labeled a facsimile of Noma, most trademarks of New Nordic cuisine are forbidden, including foraging, saucing, and in his words, “extravagant use of herbs.” But ultimately, “My main goal with the cooking at Relæ was fundamentally the same as Noma’s. Maybe the most important gift René gave me was to say, ‘If a guest eats here with his eyes closed, he must know where he is eating.’ That is exactly what I want people to feel while eating at Relæ. That it is unique—in its good and its bad.”
For all the rebelliousness of Relæ, the central idea in Puglisi’s “Book of Ideas” is that ideas matter, whether they appeal to your personal sensibilities or not. Great chefs will carry contradictory banners—Redzepi will champion locavorism while Puglisi prefers internationalism—but as long as their beliefs are deeply held and boldly enacted, then they are all worthy of respect. After reading Relæ, chefs may not feel persuaded to move their silverware into drawers or hide meat beneath layers of vegetables, but they will undoubtedly feel free to indulge in ideas of their own.
Relæ: A Book of Ideas, by Christian F. Puglisi (Ten Speed Press, 2014).