Jonathan K. Berntsen is not just a chef but also a sommelier. Hit by the terrible year his Michelin-starred restaurant CLOU had to close but he has now returned with The Samuel, a restaurant located in an old historical villa from 1891 north of Copenhagen in Hellerup.
What makes Jonathan special is that for him food and wine are in symbiosis and hence they need to be precisely equally weighted. These means that he often selects the wines before creating the dishes.
This devotion to pairing has been acknowledged with numerous awards such as winning the Copa Jerez 2013 and again at the Copa Jerez 2019; the most prestigious international competition in food and wine pairing.
His passion for wine is so big, that he actually uses it as a starting point for almost every dish he creates for The Samuel. Like the ‘Squid Pollock’, a dish born out of the notes from a very special Oloroso Sherry from Sacrastía AB from Antonio Barbadillo – a type of wine that isn’t traditionally consumed in Denmark. Or like the Spanish chipirones en su tinta, he uses small squid and fills them with brown rice boiled with the bones of the Cinco Jotas Iberico ham bone, topped with a very thick ink glazed and chip. An artsy yet classic dish inspired in the paintings by Jackson Pollock.
Another example is the Norwegian langoustine that has been butter-poached. With the same butter he makes a beurre blanc with katsuobushi and serves it with a lot of spring flowers and seaweed. It goes with an amazing Gewurztraminer from Alsace. Something happens when you age wine for a long time and the Gewurztraminer is from 1986, so it’s old and very atypical. But if you have the right Gewurztraminer aged from the right vintage, it gets this roasty, smoky, beautifully bitter notes that go perfectly with the seaweed salads and the creaminess of the langoustine.
The wine menu at The Samuel is also special. Here you will find just one wine from this century. The rest come from vintages from the 1990s, 1980s and 1970s. Find out how he makes this possible below.
When did you first start enjoying wine?
From a quiet early age because my parents were very interested in the subject. Normally on vacations we drove around Europe, visiting Burgundy or Alsace, for example, and visiting small Châteaus or wineries where we were actually allowed to try the wines.
Do you always start the process of creating a new dish with wine or does it change sometimes?
Mostly yes, but of course there are sometimes where I find an amazing product that I need to include in my menu and I’ll have to find the wine afterwards. At this point with The Samuel I have quite a long pipeline with these old wines that I’ve found and love, so I pretty much know the wines that we’ll have for the next couple of years and so I can create dishes based on that.
Tell me about your favorite wine – dish pairings of your current menu.
It would be one of the desserts. The 1989 Pineau Des Charentes, Héritage Familial, Pierre De Segonzac from France, a cognac liquor with 20% of cognac and 80% of sweet wine that’s super deep and complex and goes with an ice cream made of whole oranges and marcona almonds with a cream of white chocolate, saffron and raw kumquat peel. A combination that to me is absolutely insane.
Do you have a favourite wine profile to work with?
It would definitely be sherry and champagne. First of all Sherry is not often used in Denmark so it’s very interesting to see the reaction of our guests when they get not one but two on our wine menu. And with Champagne, it’s a common idea that it’s something super fresh or sour and something that you only enjoy for weddings or new years. It’s actually one of the most diverse types of wine so it’s super interesting to work with. Especially the old ones.
Are you in the process of creating any new dishes right now? If so, can you explain it to me without giving all of it away?
I just changed a dish. I got some amazing summer truffles and created something that matched with the wine. It was quite easy and we made a stuffed quail. But after a week, even though it was the perfect combination, we were bored. We’ve done it before, it’s beautiful, rich and good but we needed something more.
It’s been a while since I worked with pasta. I got some pig’s bladders from a small Danish pig breed. We wash them and put pasta with heavy cream, truffle and pecorino and steam in the oven. Then turn at the table so you can see this beautiful balloon of a small bladder and it’s cut and served with a very powerful truffle glaze.
Is there a wine that you love and that you want to prepare a dish with but haven’t been able to yet.
No, actually I’ve been very lucky so far. I had a dream of using a special very iconic wine from Burgundy, 2016 Beaune 1er Cru “Grèves Vigne de L’Enfant Jésus” from Domaine Bouchard and I had a chance to put it on the wine menu when we opened The Samuel and served it with wild duck and preserved berries.
How do you get to create the – perhaps – best wine menu in Denmark?
It takes some time and by answering I’m giving away one of my secrets, but it’s ok. Instead of just going to the distributors, we buy wine straight from the wine houses. That way, after a lot of work, I can still have a direct dialog with the winery and discover amazing wines that my distributors maybe don’t have on their catalogs. We still always buy them through our distributors so he or she still gets a cut, but creating a pipeline gives me the ability to put some amazing wines on the menu that only few can get.
We’re known for our great wine and food combinations and we have such a long pipeline going for amazing wines… I wish that more restaurants would spend more time on their wine menus and for guests to go less a la carte and lean more towards tasting menus and pairings. That’s always a better experience.
Would you say that your taste in wine reflects the classic ways of The Samuel?
Yes, super classic. As I see it, both with food and wine, if you really want your personality to shine through and make the best experience for your guests, then you should give them the experience that you think would be perfect for yourself when you dine at a restaurant. If you don’t like what you serve, how will others?
Copa Jerez. You’ve won it twice. Can you elaborate?
Copa Jerez is the biggest competition on food and wine pairing. For me, the first time I entered the competition as a chef in 2013 and won was amazing, but it was even a bigger deal in 2019 where I was both chef and sommelier. That meant that I could put my foot down in both food and wine.
I love this kind of competition because it circles the whole experience of going to a restaurant. It’s not only a blind tasting competition or a chefs competition, it is actually about what it all is about. There should be more competitions like this.
To you, what is the most underrated wine?
I would say Sherry. It’s super diverse. In Denmark and Britain it’s something you always drink during Christmas, the cream sherry. I’m not the biggest fan of that type actually. Sherry is more than that and I wish that more people would try other types of sherry. It’s super complex, diverse and nerdy, a fun wine to drink. I’m doing what I can to promote it here in Denmark.
What is the most exquisite pairing of food and wine you have made?
(long pause) Actually we made this baby squid dish with Oloroso Sherry from Bodega Barbadillo. One of the best and most expensive wines we ever had on the menu. The combination and depth of the wine and dish are just impressive.
What is an unusual pairing that really works?
I think that more and more people are starting to use oxidized wines. It’s quite interesting. It doesn’t have to be Sherry or even actual oxidised wine. It can even be white wine that has been on the floor and gets the taste of the floor. That’s a super trend that I hope will continue.
Do you remember the first time a wine really blew you away?
Yes I do. It was when I was very young on one of our family trips to Alsace and I tasted a wine for the first time. It was an amazing experience.
What mistakes do restaurants most often make when serving or selling their wine?
There are quite a few but it actually starts with not putting enough energy on choosing the right wines. Another thing is serving the wine at the wrong temperature. There’s a lot of old norms of how warm a red wine has to be, for example, that is a problem. A red wine can be chilled and give you a completely different experience. It’s a shame when you actually get a great one and the temperature is off.