As a master storyteller, Kristian Brask Thomsen leaves the best for the end. He is walking the streets of Barcelona clad in a mask when we speak. I’d love to do the same but have to take notes and record the conversation. I haven’t yet found a way to do it on foot. They say that creativity flows on long walks and soon after we end, he sends me a snapshot of the number of steps he’s walked while we were speaking, over 10,000.
The Danish communications guru and organiser of impossible events has two huge projects up his sleeve when I ask him what he wants to achieve in the next 10 years. This year, he has celebrated 10 years of Bon Vivant, a culinary agency that specialises in culinary diplomacy, exclusive dinner parties, star chef world tours, marketing, filmmaking and entrepreneurship. His core expertise is brand management and PR for restaurants and star chefs.
My final question is inevitable. What do you want achieve in the next ten years? And this is where the creativity starts to flow.
“It would be DI:SPACE – Dining Impossible Space. I want to host a dinner party at the International Space Centre or somewhere similar by 31st December 2029. I know it sounds crazy. But I had this idea when I organised DI: JET – Dining Impossible Jet the second time. But what if I could host a dinner in space? They told me DI: JET was impossible, they told me Dining Impossible was impossible. Space is a different thing but it is possible. Look at what Elon Musk is doing,” Kristian said.
It is a tall order but he has imagined it all. “Technologically it is possible though to organise it financially is another thing. What I want to do is connect the world through food which is our common language. Imagine a 10 course tasting menu in space with prominent chefs from around the world, from all continents and with government’s being a part of this. Imagine the world stops for six hours, the time it takes to get to the International Space Centre. Imagine you make the world stop around a dinner party,” he said.
Today, Kristian is on top of the game. Representing some of the top chefs in the world, with a list of contacts that is nothing short of incredible and living the life in Barcelona, a city he came to love thanks to Matt Goulding, an American food journalist, book author, and producer based there.
It was a period of grief, sorrow, shame. I educated myself in classic literature reading everything I could put my had on. My way back to the industry and life was through the pen
Like all great stories, Kristian had to face adversity. He worked in the restaurant industry and had two restaurants but was forced into a crazy personal bankruptcy losing 1 million euros in today’s money which he did not have.
“It was a technical bankruptcy but I lost everything. I had to give up my lovely corner apartment and had to move back home to my native island in Denmark. It was a period of grief, sorrow, shame. I educated myself in classic literature by reading everything I could put my hand on. Maybe the most influential were Dostoyevski and Tolstoy.”
While reading these books as a form of escapism, Kristian realised that he could write. “My way back to the industry and life was through the pen. With my knowledge of being a restaurant man, I could put things in writing through my ‘bon vivant eyes. I was writing about the good life which is really what I wanted.”
But like many writers, he realised that while the experience of the good life was great and was also a way to absorb the world’s culture it was not for the long term. “I wanted more and believed that I had the ability to create something that was more substantial and that was when the idea to host dinners came to me.”
In a counter move to the financial crisis of 2009, Kristian started hosting private dinner parties. “While many people had lost lots of money, billionaires had become millionaires, those who were millionaires were still well off. Those who were well off still had a good life, but they didn’t spend, which is bad for the economy.”
The first such dinner was in a cheesy Copenhagen 5 star hotel. Only half the guests paid to be a part of things, but it was enough to get things off the ground and a writer from a Danish financial newspaper was there and wrote about the event, and suddenly it became ‘the thing’.
“I hosted these parties for a year or two. At the time Mads Refslund, a noma co-founder was looking to do something different. I told him I believed that we could create a good future. I told him I would work to help him and if we made a future, I would be paid at that stage. He ended up getting the opportunity to build a restaurant in New York and I still work with him.”
With his experience of knowing how chefs think, how sommeliers think, how restaurants work, what guests want and writing about restaurants he came up with the idea of setting up a culinary embassy which would look after the interests of clients from PR to communications and business opportunities. “I had two clients and ended up with Geranium, AOC, Clou in Denmark. Since then have worked with 10 different Danish chefs or restaurants and helped put them on the map,” he said.
2011 turned out to be the turning point for Kristian. Noma had taken the world by storm clinching a top spot in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list toppling el Bulli from the top. At the time the restaurant used to have 1 million requests for a table with just 22,000 seats. “I got to know that they had built a staff room at the end of 2010. I said to the guys, why don’t I use the table to host some dinner parties and I am sure that it will be of benefit to you. These dinner parties turned from being local to being global. From local bank directors to entrepreneurs my guests became people coming from around Europe who could finally get a seat at Noma. All of a sudden, I had counts, sport celebrities, very colourful people, a spy and very famous actors. There were lots of writers from around the world who finally got a seat at Noma. The restaurant booking system was very democratic, anyone had the same possibility to book at the time which made it hard to get a booking.”
Kristian expanded to organising dinners for three nights in a row at Noma, Geranium and AOC. “We called it Dining Impossible and created this Mission Impossible sort of feel to it because no one really believed it could happen.”
Matt Goulding, who would go on to set up Roads and Kingdoms, a project that was supported by the late and beloved Anthony Bourdain contacted Kristian as he was writing articles about Denmark.
“I met him in Copenhagen where I had a good set up. He was working on a range of articles for Time magazine and the New York Times. We instantly became friends and I took five days off my calendar to show him and this great partner in crime, Nathan Thornburgh, around Denmark. I took them to AOC, Noma and to my mother who cooked for them at my native islands and crazy setups in the rural part of the kingdom. As a thank you Matt invited me to Barcelona where I only briefly had been before.”
All of a sudden I was the guy who not only could get a table at Noma but also at el Celler de Can Roca and it went bananas. It was like the zeitgeist.
His guest list for his dinner parties was getting better and better. “I had people from all over the globe. My table was the most coveted in the world and I had a fortunate situation that I could take to the rest of the world.”
With this in mind he spoke to Matt again about doing something similar in Barcelona. “He knew Joan Roca of el Celler de Can Roca and told him that if he could get me a table then, we could do something there. On the first night, Matt cooked for our guests in his penthouse, on the second night we went to el Celler de Can Roca and then we did a tapas run that ended at Tickets/buyout of the legendary 41 with Albert Adria as a personal chef – it was a massive success.”
Luck would have it that he would attend the World’s 50 Best ceremony the following week and El Celler de Can Roca would be named no 1 restaurant in the world. “All of a sudden I was the guy who not only could get a table at Noma but also at el Celler de Can Roca and it went bananas. It was like the zeitgeist.”
His next private dinners were in Copenhagen, then Barcelona, then San Sebastian, New York expanding to Lima, Mexico, Chicago, Hong Kong and much more. The world was his oyster and his biggest challenge was to focus.
After the dinner parties it became DIJETs flying to different restaurants in private jets. It started with a tour of the top 3 restaurants. Since then he has helped star chefs like Diego Munoz organise world tours. With Munoz he worked on 20 short term projects in 17 countries in a period of a year compressed within four and a half months. He did the same for Mitsuharu “Micha” Tsumura of restaurant Maido in 2018 and was supposed to do the same for Rodolfo Gusman in 2020 before COVID-19 struck. That is now scheduled for 2022.
Since then, Kristian has also produced documentaries. The first was Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen which premiered at the San Sebastien film festival in 2017. This will be a trilogy. Work on the second has already started and is currently being produced. He lectures as well and is also working on two cookbooks in Europe.
We turn to the pandemic and the impact this has had on the restaurant world.
You are a very savvy traveller. When did you realise the pandemic was going to be a huge problem. How did you react and pivot, I ask him.
“I actually did not see it coming. I was on a Brazil, Chile, Argentina trip in January/February last year and it was the first time I noticed it. We were sitting at a terrace in Buenos Aires and we were discussing this virus that can spread very fast. We did not think about it again.”
Returning to Europe he was on his way to the Nordic Michelin gala in Norway and there people were discussing it but many did not give it much thought thinking they would be spared. “I went to Moscow and there the news started to spread very fast. China closed down and there was talk that other places would lockdown. I had a choice. I could either stay in Russia, I could go to Denmark or back home to Barcelona.”
Kristian decided to go to Barcelona. He had been ‘living there’ since 2013 but has not really been there with all his travels. “I felt like I had fallen in love with the most beautiful woman in the world but was cheating on her. So I decided to lockdown in Barcelona and reconnect with the city. It was a ghost town, I could hear ambulances all the time and was only allowed to walk outside to shop, go to the pharmacy or hospital.”
The ‘Bon Vivant” does not think there will be major changes in the high end of gastronomy. “We will get back to normal. I see there is such a big appetite from chefs after six months of restraint that creativity will blossom on the plates. I think the starting point is that you do not become a chef to become famous. There is a lot of energy and creativity that will be unleashed. People have been using time to be with their families but also to create new things. You cannot be a winner if you have not been creating new stuff,” he says.
“I don’t think chefs that have found a successful model are going to change it now. I don’t think Rasmus Kofoed, for example, who has refined his food in decades to create world class bites is going to change to a la carte. Those menus that create or curate a menu in a good way throughout a night are not going to change because the the business model would not be tangible for them. But I would not exclude restaurants, even high end ones like Noma starting at 5pm and having two seatings. This might be the way to do it. Maybe they will not serve 23 but 15 courses,” he said.
The last decade was the golden age of gastronomy. The whole world became connected through social media. Social media, Noma, the World’s 50 Best have created a perfect storm. René used the combination to conquer the hearts of millions.
Since this year, Bon Vivant has been involved in helping communicate The Best Chef Awards, a relatively new award that has been growing in stature over the past few years. I ask him why he got involved, what he thinks of the World’s 50 Best and Michelin and whether in a more decentralised future whether their power will wane.
“The last decade was the golden age of gastronomy. The whole world became connected through social media. Social media, Noma, the World’s 50 Best have created a perfect storm. René used the combination to conquer the hearts of millions. With the World’s 50 Best things went from being old school conservative into the creation of a global culinary society where norms were broken and people from around the world got connected. I am a fan and at the same time not a fan of the World’s 50 Best. I am a huge fan of the organisation itself and how they have created a global culinary family. It has unleashed creativity and friendship. This is incredible and also valuable for the culinary society. What I don’t like with 50 Best Restaurants is the whole game around it. If you know the voters, and you have wealthy restaurants they can easily influence the votes. Voters had to vote for 10 restaurants a year. Food writers might travel 10 to 15 times in a year. If they are treated to private jujitsu, have breakfast with a chef or go to explore the wild, then it is obvious they will vote for them. All this focus on lobbyism is corrupt. If you have the money you can buy your way to the list, there is no doubt. With the Best Chef, it is a different animal. I call it like the Cannes Film Festival of gastronomy because it is fun, young, colourful and about having a great time. It is what World’s 50 Best Restaurants used to be in the past,” he said.
Voters for The Best Chef are chefs but also people who travel around the globe, pay their bills like a Michelin inspector would and are not easily influenced. “They have to be anonymous. These are people in private business and would never say they vote for the award. I think that it will become a more accurate ranking and this is also the philosophy of the creators of the Award.”
He believes that the Best Chef awards has a great future ahead. “Baron Rothschild used to say that when there is blood on the street, you need to buy property. The World’s 50 Best have been silent throughout the pandemic except for an auction in a way where it looks more like a commercial business,” he said. “For The Best Chef therefore, it is an opportunity to break through while others might be sleeping. The people organising the Best Chef are good people, they do it because they are crazier and more passionate than most and this is what the industry is about. I think that there is a future. If the world is going to be decentralised, you need an animal like The Best Chefs to keep it all together,” he says.
Kristian is a fan of Michelin. “They’ve started in 1900, they have history and have the Michelin business behind them. For me, there is no issue if the Thai government gives them 5 million to publish a guide for a few years as long as they don’t influence who gets the starts. If there is a culinary secret service, then it is a Michelin inspector. I do not always agree with their assessment but it is certainly a denominator you can trust. They have paid their way and tried to be anonymous. What’s not to love about it,” he says.
One of the most popular stories on Food and Wine Gazette has been the one of Jordanaer which is really interesting. The chef and his wife have six children and wanted to take weekends off for them and their staff. Kristian represents them and I ask him whether this is the future. Does it mean we will have to pay more to dine out in future.
He makes the analogy with art or football. “Imagine a painting from a top 100 artist or a top level footballer. I think that dining even if it is a lot of money is not expensive relative to top level art or theatre or ballet just to give an example.”
“The story of Eric is fascinating. He was on the wrong track, fell in love with his wife and cooking and has been doing really well. In a humble three-star hotel outside Copenhagen, he has clinched two Michelin stars in two years. His obsession with focusing on the best produce helps him support producers. He makes no compromises when it comes to purchasing pristine products and is not afraid to pay for them. He is extremely creative with a very strong palate. Because they have six children and need more time for them, they are closing the restaurant on the weekend. It is an example to follow. I hope that we will use this time we had to become wiser and focus on the things in life that are important.”
My conversation with Kristian is coming to an end but not before he tells me another of his dreams and that is to direct a full-bloodied motion picture which will be called The Dinner Party. “He has it all figured out, thinks it should be set in Hong Kong. It will be dangerous, it will have fun personalities. There will be sex, a murder and a heist. I have to direct this film and I’d love Kevin Spacey to come back and play a key role.”
You might think it is impossible. But given what he’s been told in the past and what he has created, you wouldn’t want to bet against him.