Cooking demo with Christian F. Puglisi of Restaurant Relæ

I was fortunate enough to be invited to a cooking demonstration with Christian Puglisi of Copenhagen 's restaurant Relæ on Monday. Puglisi is one of the most talked about young chefs in Denmark right now (he was named one of the most promising young chefs in the world by the Wall Street Journal last year). 


His restaurant, in Jægersborggade, won a Bib Gourmand from Michelin within a year of opening, and he has just opened an already highly acclaimed wine bar across the street, called Manfred's.

I like Relæ because the food is thoroughly original. Puglisi never takes the well trodden path. Relæ serves highly refined, conceptual food in a very simple, Scandinavian 'kælder', with bare wood tables, white walls, and pared down service. It looks like the kind of place which usually serves seven ways with cous cous and grilled chicken breasts. All his focus goes on the plate; that's not to say his dishes are terribly overwrought, they aren't. His is deceptively simple food with four or five ingredients on the plate at most, not unlike Le Chateaubriand in Paris. I also like that, though he sources locally and seasonally most of the time, he isn't afraid to occasionally go beyond the strictly Nordic larder espoused by his alma mater, Noma. So you will sometimes find, say, bottarga on your plate (Puglisi was born in Sicily; I got the feeling he is rather 'over' all that New Nordic business, actually).

So, to the demo. It was for a group of canteen chefs. Not the usual crowd for a 'vanguardia' chef to be presenting to, but actually Puglisi had a great deal to say which was relevant to them in terms of approaching familiar, low cost ingredients in a new way.

For instance, he sliced a filet of salmon, tossed some sea buckthorn berries (you could use diced, pickled cucumber perhaps) finely shaved carrots, and dill over it, then poured over a 50/50 vinegar and water 'cure', which had just come off the boil (shown in the photo above).

For another dish he chopped and fried some field mushrooms, but added about 10% porcini, whose flavour, he said, would be enough to boost that of the cheaper product, serving them on toast. Interestingly, instead of deglazing with white wine and reducing, as I was always taught at Le Cordon Bleu, he pre-reduced the wine and added it to taste at the end. The mushrooms, served on toasted sourdough, were completely delicious.

He also served a moreish cauliflower dish with toasted hazelnuts, chopped chervil and a butter/sherry vinegar/garlic vinaigrette; talked about the importance of sourcing really good quality chickens (from Sødam), and the difficulty of getting decent pork in a country where pigs outnumber people; explained various sous vide techniques; and low temperature eggs (a practical way to serve poached eggs en masse). A brief demo of xantam gum caught the audience's attention – he showed how 0.1% could nicely thicken a sauce without heating (useful with fruit coulis), but admitted that it does get rather over-used in the 'molecular' kitchen.

Here's the cauliflower:


During the course of the evening there were some other interesting insights:

Puglisi doesn't use Maldon Sea Salt, not that he doesn't think it's a good product, but because everyone uses it. He uses sel de Guérande. Again, I think this is quite revealing about his approach to food: he's a bit bloody-minded, but in a good way.

He talked about his time at el bulli, and how they used clay models of the food as it should look on the plate to keep all the chefs dicing and chopping ingredients to precisely the same size. He did say later that he didn't necessarily agree with the regimented chopping of veg to the same size (citing the cauliflower florets which could be both pleasantly soft and crunchy), but I suspect some of the el bulli regime has influenced his way of running a kitchen brigade as he also told us how his team timed every task, not just using timers to check on how long things cooked for, but for allocating how much time they gave themselves for everything. That's pretty anal, but I am sure makes for a remarkably efficient kitchen. 

This was a great dish: poached leeks with boiled egg, toasted rye bread, red onion and anchovies, the leeks very sweet, the anchovies and onion giving an umami-sharp tang, and the rye bread giving texture:


And even in a photo you can see how juicy and tender this pork belly (poached in pork fat) is:


A clean-tasting parfait made with just cream, egg yolks and sugar was spruced up with crunchy rape seeds, which gave an almost chocolatey, malty flavour, as well as crunch – although they do need to be blanched three times, dried, caramalised and then blended before being used, the chef explained.

I liked Puglisi. I admired his pragmatism: he explained how his wine bar allowed him to benefit from economies of scale in purchasing and more off-the-cuff experiments with produce. I admired his inventiveness with humble produce (he's a big fan of mackerel, for instance). And like all the best chefs, he radiated a calm authority, but was modest and unpretentious. 

It's going to be fascinating to see how, and in what direction he develops over the next few years.

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