Go back some years and no one would have bet a dime on Eric Vildgaard. Maybe neither Eric believed that if it got dark enough he would be able to see the stars. Except Tina Kragh Vildgaard. She saw potential and she believed they could not just create a family together but also a restaurant. She had fallen in love with Eric despite his troubled past. “The most attractive part about Eric is that he is so passionate,” she said as she looked him in the eyes. “He does everything at 100 per cent. That is what I fell in love with and I am still in love with. It is his passion and never being one to compromise.”
The minute Tina took Eric to the room which would end up being the highly acclaimed Jordanaer restaurant on the outskirts of Copenhagen, he thought it was a joke. He had other ideas and it certainly was not a restaurant outside the centre of the Danish city. She had walked home from a business meeting and told him that they were going for a drive. “We arrived in this place and she told me imagine this would be our new restaurant. I told her she must be crazy to think this space could be the restaurant we dreamed of opening together. She said close your eyes and imagine the space not with the dirty tables that were in place but the room. I closed my eyes but still could not imagine this. I told her I was not convinced and that she needed to work to convince me,” Eric recalls.
Those were not easy times. While Eric and Tina dreamt of opening a restaurant together they did not have the money nor the means to invest in the best part of Copenhagen. Getting a loan was out of the question because of Eric’s troubled past. “She told me that unless we wanted to work for someone else which is something we did not want to do because I’ve rebelled in the past against that and I am a free spirit, then we needed to use this space,” Eric says.
They had the equivalent of 10,000 euros in cash. That wouldn’t take them far. Tina had a Rolex and a diamond ring which she sold and that would turn out to be their investment in the business. They used it to buy the first plates, wine glasses, cutlery and wines. They also needed the money to pay their producers because no one really trusted Eric with credit.
Tina knew that the location was not important as long as the food was good. “Luckily Eric could cook.”
Eric had done it all from flipping burgers to working in canteens but he’d also worked in high-end restaurants including Noma but what kept him back at the time was a dark past in the Danish criminal world. That was the past and after falling in love with Tina, he knew that there would be no turning back.
10 kilometres outside of Copenhagen the space was inside a humble three-star hotel. The restaurant’s name in Danish means ‘Down to Earth’. And this is the grand love story of Eric and Tina, the couple that has taken the Danish restaurant scene by storm within just three years.
Jordnær has two Michelin stars, has won the Michelin Nordic Countries Welcome & Service Awards, and is ranked 53 by The Best Chef Awards.
Today, they are married, Tina keeps him calm and grounded when things take a bad turn and the couple have six children apart from their second family, the restaurant.
The restaurant was clearly down to earth in the first years of its operation. Tina and Eric say that they shared the kitchen and dining space with the hotel. The kitchen and restaurant served also as the breakfast area for the hotel. “Daily we would need to start from scratch, clean everything and bring in our cutlery, wine glasses and all. We only had 40 wine glasses and we needed to move them carefully after every service because we could not afford to have two broken glasses as that would set us back financially,” they tell me.
In boxing it is not how many times you hit the canvas but how many times you get up. That defines you as a fighter because we are always going to hit the ground sometimes and we always need to find a way out.
In these difficult conditions they not only won a Michelin star in less than a year but also lots of acclaim, both local and international. Today they might be on the crest of the wave with many betting that Eric and Tina’s hunger, drive and passion for what they do will get them a third Michelin star sooner rather than later.
But the story is neither about stars nor about awards. Rather it is a laser-sharp focus on pleasing their guests. It is a story of hunger, experience and passion. It is also a story of perseverance because Eric and Tina are determined today to serve their customers in the best possible way. Eric does not want to go back to where he started. “I am an old boxer and in boxing it is not how many times you hit the canvas but how many times you get up. That defines you as a fighter because we are always going to hit the ground sometimes and we always need to find a way out. We get back on our feet because we are hungry,” he tells me in an interview.
That hunger or focus is part and parcel of their success. “If we decide to learn to dance salsa we will become very good at it because we have the mental stamina that keeps us on edge. We never cooked for anything other than passion. We love Michelin, it is the bible but we don’t cook for the Michelin guide. I think that is our secret,” he said.
Apart from the cuisine, which is clearly Eric’s domain, Jordnaer is also known for its exceptional service. Tina spends a lot of her time researching guests, she gets to know them before they arrive in the restaurant. “It is what keeps her up at night,” Eric tells me.
“We do service like we would like to receive service when we dine out. We cook food that we would love to eat as guests. We try to create an environment we would like to experience ourselves. We also make a lot of mistakes and we have also seen a lot of mistakes when we have been dining out and it is what we try to avoid,” Tina and Eric said.
They knew that given the location, the restaurant needed to be good. “We were convinced that if it was good people would come. And indeed they came and also Michelin came to see what was happening. We got a first star and with that we were on the map,” they said.
Everything we do professionally is for the guest. That is our ambition. It is to give the guest the best experience we can. If better is possible, good is not good enough. That is the mantra of the restaurant
In that first year, they made some money which they invested into buying ceramic plates. “We had seen these plates but we could only afford to buy 10 plates for forty guests,” they said.
It was a formula that they would repeat time and time again. There would be no holidays or getting extra money for themselves. Instead whatever they earned, they would put back into the business to give to guests. If there is one constant for them, it is that they will always be the same. “Everything we do professionally is for the guest. That is our ambition. It is to give the guest the best experience we can. If better is possible, good is not good enough. That is the mantra of the restaurant,” Eric said.
Work Life Balance: Rest is essential
Recently, they have decided to close the restaurant on a Saturday to be able to spend more time with their children but also because they also wanted to give their staff time off.
They use the analogy of a race car. “You might drive around all the time to get to the pole position but if you don’t stop for a pit-stop, change tyres and get new oil, you stop running so for the longevity of the business and the restaurant, rest is essential.”
Eric and Tina said that without breaks you end up tired. “When we are delivering a service we are giving 120 per cent because we try to push boundaries for ourselves. We want the staff to understand that when it is hard, it is hard but when it is fun, there should be time for fun,” they say.
“Work-life balance plays a role here. If you have rested human beings around you and you have staff that feel respected and are not used as a tool, it works batter. Like in any high-performance activity, tension and the right amount of stress is necessary. I like to use the juice analogy. If you squeeze to get a little more juice it is fine but if you squeeze too hard you get the bitter part of the fruit from the peel and then you have more juice but it tastes like shit. To get the best quality you need to apply the right pressure. And that is work-life balance. To be able to perform at 120 per cent knowing that you can also rest 120 per cent,” Eric said.
With six children, the need to be present and active was also important. “If you are a bit grumpy, or a bit tired you have no quality in your personal life and this also impacts your professional life because you go to work and feel that you were not attentive to the children. You start to feel that you should have taken them to the playground but you were too tired. So it becomes an uneven life,” Eric said.
They decided to bring down the days the restaurant is open from 5 to four to have more time with the children. Now they’ve also decided to close on a Saturday and open on a Tuesday instead. “When we first did that we were a little scared because Saturday is the day when people go out to dine but actually when we look back at the numbers, we do better on Tuesdays than on Saturdays because as a fine dining restaurant weekdays attracts a business clientele which might be more eager to spend money on a better bottle of wine that they would normally buy if they went to a restaurant,” Eric said.
It turned out to be a win-win situation. “It is better from a business perspective, it is better from a health perspective and we have more time with our kids. Staff also feel appreciated and we do not have a lot of staff turnover. People don’t leave that fast. That helps because we become attractive as an employer. To be honest this is a dream. And it should be the end goal of all restaurants which is to create the best space where people can perform as a team in the best possible conditions,” he said.
Tina adds that this extra time also allows Eric to develop his cuisine. “When he is not tired, he has more energy to be creative and to develop new approaches. There is always a process but you could say that instead of hanging behind the train and being tired he is actually sitting and riding the train.” Eric agrees saying that this has also been the key to their success having the time to focus on what matters.
Having six children can be a challenge. “Tina is the one running the business both at home and at Jordnaer. She is the corner-stone of what we do. Without her, we wouldn’t be here. With six kids you need to have a structure and a game plan. You need to know where you are going and you cannot shoot from the hip. It is the same at the restaurant as it is at home,” Eric says.
It is a game of logistics as anyone who has children knows. “Sometimes it can be hard but with structure you can manage,” she said.
“As you can see Tina is the structured one of us,” Eric says.
“The children give us a lot. Sometimes professionals might think and even say that kids can get in the way of success but I think that for us they give us the energy and the space to be able to clear our minds,” Tina said.
It is not necessarily easy. When they are working, they spend four days away from the kids. “We are there in the morning but when we return back home they are sleeping so we sacrifice that when we are working. And that is why it is important to not waste time,” Eric said.
They are both determined to be successful. “We want to be somewhere with this restaurant in the next five to 10 years, We are there for the guests and we give our all for the guests but we want to do the same for our kids,” they say.
“We do not want to float on the surface,” Tina said. Eric agrees and says it is not easy. “If it was easy, everyone would do it.”
Anyone who has seen Tina at work cannot help wonder how she manages to do what she does. She seems to know her guests, who they are, what makes them tick. I ask whether she sees areas where things can improve.
“We like to know our guests when they arrive at the restaurant. The experience is so much better if customers feel like guests and not like customers. One of the comments we get is that they feel that they know us but we also want to know them when they arrive. We want to know the small details about them so they don’t feel stressed or embarrassed on the evening.”
Tina recalls that one time they had a father and daughter as guests. The daughter was 19. The father often used to go out with his daughter for dinner in various fine-dining restaurants but this could give rise to gossip among restaurant staff in the places they went. They might ask whether they were married or comment that he was too old for her. “When I welcomed him and his daughter and showed that I knew that she was his daughter he immediately remarked how nice it was that we took the time to find out about them,” Tina said.
Eric says that Tina spends nearly half her time focusing on guests. Sometimes she would be researching at night. “We want to know what guests prefer, whether they are celebrating an anniversary or a special occasion and we want all the staff to be briefed and know it is a special occasion. Our aim is to make every guest the star of their night,” Tina said.
I am fascinated and ask how she manages to find out who the people at a table of four are. “In general I try to catch the names without them knowing. It could be during a phone conversation or email. They might drop a line saying they are celebrating a birthday. When I greet them at the restaurant I introduce myself and then they introduce themselves and like that I have names for the next time,” she said.
“If we have a young couple say in their early 20s who we know are studying we will not put them on the spot by offering them a bottle of champagne,” they say.
“I’ve experienced it so many times. Sometimes I’ve asked for a recommendation for a glass of wine and they recommend the most expensive glass ever. It puts you on the spot. Of course it is different if you are a CEO of a large company when you don’t have to worry about expenses,” Eric said.
You come to taste what I am cooking not what my employees are cooking. I taste everything that leaves the kitchen. When you come to eat at Jordnaer, you are eating my food. You have travelled to come to eat at my place. I owe it to you to be in the restaurant.
For Eric and Tina this is essential. “We are a fine dining restaurant but we don’t want to put people in an awkward situation. Our guests might be students or people who have had to save money to come to dine with us. If we know that in advance we can give a little bit more special attention and make their night even more memorable. Our aim is for guests to feel at home.”
And that brings me to another constant at the restaurant. The pandemic may have, or might not have changed things after all but Eric is someone who never misses a service. If he is not around, the restaurant is closed. “This is one of the things that is extremely important to me. You come to taste what I am cooking and not what my employees are cooking. I am not doing all the sauces as we are a team but it is ultimately my sauce and I will taste it and season it. I always finish off all the things. I taste everything that leaves the kitchen. When you come to eat at Jordnaer, you are eating my food. You have travelled to come to eat at my place. I owe it to you to be in the restaurant,” he said.
He tells me that they’ve often been to fine dining restaurants when it was evident that the chef was not there. “If you can taste that the chef is not in the kitchen just by tasting the food than it is a big problem. It is the chef’s kitchen that has been awarded recognition so I cannot even start to think of not being in the kitchen,” he tells me.
Tina tells me that everything is planned in advance. The restaurant is closed seven weeks a year and if Eric needs to go and cook with Christian Bau, as he did a few weeks ago, it needs to be connected with a holiday or on a day when the restaurant is closed.
“When he invited me to go and cook with him it felt like cooking with Messi for me. He is one of my biggest idols. He has been so influential in giving European cuisine an Asian touch. It was a dream come true for me to go and cook with him but I told him that I cannot come on any other day than this,” Eric said.
“He respected my decision because he has also never missed a service in 23 years including when his daughter was born,” he said.
Eric and Tina know that this is part of the reason for their success. But they also have to deal with situations where organisers of events or awards get upset because they are not present on the night. “We always tell them that we would not even be taken into consideration for the list if I was not in my kitchen. What is the most important for me is not the list or the guide but the guest. If you travel across the planet and you spend the equivalent of a journey around the globe to dine with us, you book a hotel and want to meet me, how arrogant would that be if I am not there?” Eric said.
This is something on which both Eric and Tina are not willing to compromise on. Another area they are not willing to compromise on is their focus on quality produce. “I was very fortunate to have worked at Noma and I met the best suppliers in Scandinavia. They are the best fishermen, the best growers, the best foragers. We respect their work and treat them well and they also respect what we do. For me, it is extremely important to support sustainable fishing and farming. It is not about being green but rather about keeping local businesses afloat. On a global scale, if we end up with just big suppliers of meat, fish, huge farms, our planet will suffer as we will disappear as a race. I don’t want to leave that mark on the planet,” Eric said.
“We are not green and I am no hippie but you need to take everything into consideration before you do something. For a product to come into the kitchen it needs to have had a good life. I have fired many people from the kitchen for not treating a product well. Whenever I recruit someone in the kitchen, I look them in the eyes and say that I hire personalities not CVs. One thing I cannot tolerate is to throw a fish into the bin because it is not treated well. People have a choice. The fish had no choice. If we have killed an animal we need to honour it. This is what’s wrong with the world. We have access to everything so we think we can consume anything. It is this over consumption that is a problem.”
Eric knows that these days chefs have a position in society where they can be heard. “We are like modern-age rockstars. If you are fortunate to have a speakers’ corner you need to use that voice for the greater good and not for your publicity,” he said.
Eric’s passion for caviar
There is another secret at Jordnaer and that is Eric’s genuine love for caviar. At a recent dinner I attended in Antwerp a number of dishes had caviar. He said one of his reasons But the way he used caviar was an integral part of the dishes. And as he himself said, there was a time when he could not afford it and now that he does, he feels that he can treat his guests to it. I ask him to reflect on a point made by Daniel Humm, who when speaking about caviar in the context of his decision to go plant-based had said that caviar was not necessarily good.
“Then Daniel and I don’t have the same supplier,” Eric laughs. “For me and for many years I’ve worked as a chef it did not make sense to me. It was over salted fish eggs. And in reality 9 out of 10 tins on the market are not of good enough quality. What changed that for me was a caviar from Bulgaria which I tasted and fell in love with. Sometimes it happens with an ingredient. You taste it and you feel a connection. It happened to me with caviar and I had never liked it before. All of a sudden it was an epiphany for me. The depth and complexity is deeper than any burgundy wine you can taste it is so complex. If you cannot taste this, it does not have value. That is why this value trascends into passion for me which I want to share with guests.”
Eric might have fallen in love with Bulgarian caviar but he did not have the money to buy it. “I was feeling very frustrated as we were opening the restaurant and wanted to have caviar on the menu. The supplier told me there was another caviar I needed to taste. It was Royal Belgian caviar. When I tasted it was different but also had many good qualities. It is made with respect and you can taste the respect for the fish in the caviar. I started using the Belgian caviar. Then, we became more successful and I had more money to buy the Bulgarian caviar but I loved the Belgian caviar.”
He jokes that he could not chose one over the other. “It is like saying to one of the kids that you don’t like them. We said we would make a dish with one, another with the other.”
Eric says he never asks about the price but always focuses on the quality. It is Tina who tries to keep him grounded.
He tells me that if you use caviar for caviar’s sake it is wrong. “When you cook with caviar and it is an active ingredient than it is a part of your DNA. It is easy to say that with caviar everything becomes easy. But it is the same with Foie Gras, turbot and truffles. ‘Should we all cook with carrots, celeriac or cucumber,” he said. What’s important is to know the product. “I agree that to use caviar as a garnish is a joke. But as an active ingredient it makes all the difference. Then there are different aspects depending on the seasonality. If you use a standard product, it is super boring. If you don’t understand an ingredient, don’t cook with it,” he said.
One question I always end with is where they see themselves in five years time. They have a clear view but they don’t want to share it yet. “We have a plan of where we want to be but we are not yet ready to share it,” Eric said.
I have to contend with their view of where the world of fine dining will be in 5 to 10 years. “I hope that it will change a bit. I don’t know which change will come first. What we see as a fact is that more and more chefs are becoming ethical in their choices and hopefully this is not just a way of promoting themselves but also the community around them. We will see the impact from customers who will not want to buy farmed fish but rather local fish. When this change happens, and I think we will be close to such a change in the next five years, we will be more sensible to the protein we use. What’s for sure is that what Daniel Humm is doing is the future. We will see more plant-based approaches and also a focus on the quality of products without the use of typical luxurious ingredients. It might not happen in the next five years but I think the changes we will see are going to be remarkable.”
Eric is sure that there will be new thinking on what is luxury. “In the next 100 years water will be a luxury. Things we consider basic today might become luxury. The food system starts at the top and change also needs to come from the top. Fine dining restaurants have a big responsibility. I hope that more and more restaurants will be more sensitive in their choice of ingredients.There is still a long way to go. We have just started.’”
I cannot end the interview without asking what advice would they give to youngsters who might be on the wrong track. “You need to be realistic. You cannot become a success in whatever you do unless you are going to put in the hours. I see a generation of young chefs who have unrealistic ambition but are not willing to necessarily work for it. You need to grind for a lot of hours before you work in fine dining. Experience comes from putting the hours and working hard. You cannot sit and expect things to fall into your lap. Be realistic and work. Of course we are now part of a change and focus on work-life balance but it took us 20 years to get to where we are. It does not happen without work.” both say.
Eric knows a word or two about patience. “If it is dark enough you can see the stars.”