We Met the Canadian Chef Taking Over One of Copenhagen's Hotspots

Six years after Relæ opened in Copenhagen, there is a changing of the guard as chef-owner Christian Puglisi hands over control of his restaurant to the Canadian chef Jonathan Tam.

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May 27 2016, 4:00pm

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Jonathan Tam. All photos by Sarah Buthmann.

Six years after Relæ opened in Copenhagen, there is a changing of the guard. Six years after chef-owner Christian Puglisi dodged the dope dealers on the sofas outside the front door and brought a new brand of affordable and progressive gastronomy to the cobblestoned, bohemian hotchpotch of Nørrebro, he's handing over control of his restaurant to the Canadian chef Jonathan Tam.

While Puglisi switches his attention to the kitchen at Manfreds, another of his four Copenhagen spots, and a new organic farm project that will supply his restaurants, Tam is taking over as head chef at Relæ, charged with building a menu that embraces a more freewheeling approach. A "bustling dining experience" is how Puglisi describes it.

Tam, 29, is no stranger to Relæ; he's Relæ DNA, having joined when the restaurant opened in 2010, following a two-year stint at Noma. Tam hails from hockey-obsessed Edmonton in Canada, but the ink on his upper left arm befits a seasoned labourer on the Copenhagen docks. It depicts a battle going on in Copenhagen harbour with a giant sea monster. "You can see the canal boats, the Black Diamond library and the Opera House," says Tam. "It's that whole area where I have spent a lot of time in my life. It was good to get that captured."

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In Relæ's open restaurant kitchen, amid gun-metal coloured tiles, bundles of fresh nasturtium and a bubbling pot of brown cheese fat, Tam is capturing the essence of his cooking style and the new-look menu. In a small shallow dish, which was previously used as a side plate for bread and olive oil, a custard-yellow lemon curd has set and a yoghurt sorbet is spread evenly on top. Finally, blitzed chervil is frozen with liquid nitrogen and dusted over the sorbet. With clouds of frozen fog billowing from the dish, it looks like a freshly-cut golfing green in the morning dew. "You kind of get that feeling of spring," says Tam.

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While Relæ Mk II will broaden its repertoire to allow for more improvised side dishes and sharing plates, the Relæ vocabulary, as expressed through the lemon curd dish, remains intact: a few components giving centre stage to the produce are presented in a deceptively minimalist style.

It's an approach that has won Relæ a Michelin star and a prominent position on the world's top 50 list, while sticking to its fiercely organic ideals (it's the only Michelin restaurant in Denmark to gain a 'gold star' for using at least 90% organic produce). But it's also an approach that has infuriated some guests when presented with a lonely grilled leek or shavings of potato. When Relæ wanted to let the produce sing, naysayers wanted bigger orchestration. But that's missing the whole point, explains Tam.

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"Christian and I have the same approach. We want a maximum of three flavours and really focus on the core ingredients. We are not trying to add too many components or make it too fussy. But if we say it's asparagus, then we are going to add a little bit of technique and make it memorable, rather than disguise the produce."

The white asparagus is hardly disguised in Tam's next dish. The stems are cut into perfectly matching three-inch julienne sticks and placed like a miniature logpile over the asparagus tips, which have been blanched and spray-dusted with bergamot juice. Preserved bergamot peel and fresh buttermilk is added, setting hints of aniseed off against the cool acidity and the sweetness of asparagus. Tam jokingly refers to this as a savoury take on the quintessential Danish summer dessert of koldskål. Texturally, the dish is a gem: there is crunch from the stems and the blanched tips have an almost fatty bite. "We want to make a really memorable dish, but the guests should still be able to understand it," says Tam. "You can use all these crazy techniques, but when you are trying to communicate to the guest, then sometimes they don't know what they are eating."

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So how will the changes at Relæ actually manifest itself on the new menu? While the restaurant won't budge from its entry level four-course menu, the structure will be less linear and there will be more room for improvisation. While you are eating rainbow trout fillet, the belly of the trout might suddenly appear as an extra dish, served with rhubarb as a savoury palate cleanser. Green asparagus will be tied up with herbs, cooked in papillote and served as a sharing dish for the whole table. For diners choosing to go down the more adventurous rabbit hole, precious ingredients such as sea urchins or mahogany clams could be introduced. Puglisi has faith in Tam to deliver this ambition. "Jon is extremely talented," says Puglisi. "My biggest worry is that his creative work could exceed what we have accomplished so far."

Tam doesn't seem easily faced by a challenge. When he was at culinary school in Edmonton, he had mapped out a plan that would see him end up at elBulli via a brief stop at this new-fangled place in Denmark called Noma. In the end, he never made it to elBulli. While his friend from Edmonton followed along on the journey and had enough of the Noma experience after only a day in the kitchen, Tam was hooked, and eventually landed a job as chef de partie. "I pretty much wouldn't let them get rid of me," he says.

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Part of the attraction was the relatability. "Looking at René Redzepi's menu," says Tam, "he was doing stuff with apples and celeriac, things that I could actually use in Canada. In that sense it really stood out. It translated well for me." Nine years later, living with his Danish girlfriend and their young daughter, there is little chance that the tattoo of Copenhagen landmarks on Tam's left arm is about to get erased.

Growing up, he liked eating food but didn't care much for cooking. That urge and a competitive zest were fostered later on in high school when he lost out on first place in a cooking challenge. "I was making powders and slicing nuts and I don't know where it all came from," he says. "I didn't win the competition, but from that point I really liked working with food. His parents are from China and were raised in Vietnam, and it's the blend of these two food cultures he still craves and cherishes. And although they seem like disparate siblings, the balancing act of Asian spices and tastes has been a source of inspiration when cooking in the produce-centered and spice-deprived Nordic region.

"Growing up on heavy things like fish sauce and soy sauce, you can really taste the difference in tastes and the range," says Tam, "so you learn to balance things in different ways. Chinese food is all about sweetness and spices, and Vietnamese food is rally about acidity. And if you think of some of our dishes at Relæ, they kind of incorporate that. Without using spices, we still have a bit of heat from horseradish, for example, and then we have acidity from bergamot. There is rawness intertwined with heavily cooked things.

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"That training in Asian cuisine by eating it since childhood has helped a lot with developing food for Relæ, even if you can't really read it at first sight. But it comes through a lot."

Tam has embraced the produce in Denmark. Even when he is less enthused - "I get bored of Jerusalem artichokes really quickly" - he finds ways of cooking that are novel but relevant to the ingredient. At Relæ, the artichoke skins are now fried and served with a melted Danish red rind cheese called Rød Løber. "It's kind of like fondue and nachos," jokes Tam.

With Puglisi's organic farm project on the way - located in Lejre, it is less than an hour's drive from central Copenhagen - the link between soil and plate will be even more evident at Relæ in the future. As evident as the desire to take the restaruant in a new direction.

"We have built up our repertoire over the last five years," says Tam.

"And now we really want to mix up the experience."