When Ferran Adria was riding the crest of popularity he offered Kasper Kurdahl, then 27, the possibility to become his sous-chef and go to Seville to open a restaurant with him. Most people would have jumped at that opportunity or pinched themselves to make sure they heard it right.
But Kasper is not like that. While most people would think this is too good an offer to refuse, the Danish chef thought otherwise and reasoned that that it was too good an offer to accept so he turned it down. Were you too young I asked him. “No. I was very precise about it. If I had accepted, I would have become a product of el Bulli for the rest of my life. I did not want that. I wanted to be myself,” the Danish executive chef of Le Chalet de la Foret, in Brussels, Belgium told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview.
Kasper doesn’t look back at that decision and does not regret it. “I am happy with the decision I took at the time. I think I did the right thing,” he said.
“Ferran was a genius, an absolute genius. I remember going with him to Torino. He was giving a speech and he almost convinced everyone in the audience that he had invented grilled fish. The way he crafted the speech, the way he told the story was incredible. He was really strong. When I said no, Ferran told me it was a very wise decision from his point of view.”
The Danish chef arrived in Belgium when he was young to work with the legendary Roger Souvereyns. That was also a testament to Kasper’s determination. If the culinary school and his tutor had had their way, he would have never made it to Belgium to work with one of the most avant-garde chefs of the time.
If I had to do something special with food, I had to leave Denmark. The culinary school wrote to Roger Souvereyns telling him not to recruit me. He told them all good cooks have trouble at school
Back then, he was cooking at one of the top restaurants in Copenhagen but at a dinner cooking a menu from a 3 Michelin star restaurant in France he realised that the level in Denmark was way below that level and he needed to leave his country. “It made me realise that if I had to do something special with food, I had to leave Denmark. In school, they told me there were possibilities to go to restaurants in Italy, France or Belgium. I reflected that France was not a good idea as I did not speak a word of French. Italy was interesting weather-wise but the restaurant scene wasn’t that good. Roger Souvereyns at the time was named Gault & Millau chef of the year in 1994 and I reasoned that I could speak German and English and I could therefore manage in Belgium.”
Kasper decided to send a letter but then asked permission to the school who told him he should not go. “They actually sent a letter to the restaurant telling Roger that I was not a good guy and that he should not recruit me because I did not want to clean up the kitchen and was also absent from school. Roger received the letter but still called me and said I could start on 21st January. Three months later, when the tutor arrived and asked Roger how I was doing he told him “all good cooks have trouble at school.”
The issue Kasper had with schools was that he had a Bachelor level so he knew more than the teachers who were teaching students subjects like english or chemistry. “For me, sitting for four hours on a Friday afternoon learning something I had learnt four years ago was not interesting, it was actually boring.”
Having worked with Roger it was time for Kasper to seek experiences elsewhere. Doors opened given he had worked with Roger and from 1995 to 2002 he worked with renowned restaurants like Wolfhart, el Bulli, Ducasse, Don Alfonso and Mikuni.
But then Roger called him back. “It is now time to come back home he told me. I considered Belgium to be my gastronomic home at the time. He told to come back and work alongside him as executive chef.”
Kasper said his relationship did not change even if he had more baggage and knowledge from the experience he had gained. “He remained my gastronomic father and he will always be.”
The Belgian chef had a huge following at the time. “He was extremely famous in the past. He was one of the stars of that époque but when he sold the restaurant in the beginning of 2000s everyone seemed to forget him. He was extremely important for my career. He was very hard, very straightforward, pushing, working hard and always asking the best from everyone. The plates we served were huge. I remember we had a salad with sweet breads and goose liver. Every salad had 150 grammes of sweet bread, 150 grams of goose liver, a whole artichoke and a huge salad. The plate was 35 centimetres and this was just the starter. We had a seven course tasting menu where we would serve half a lobster. It was a very rich cuisine but we were already working with flowers and herbs. Every night we served 120 covers so you can imagine the kilos of food we had to prepare. It was maybe the most beautiful restaurant I’ve ever seen. In the countryside, with original paintings from Van Dyck and a garden, it was really well done.”
Having worked with Souvereyns and then travelled his arrival at el Bulli did not shock him though he admits it was a relief for him to see something new.
Kasper started to cook when he was eight years old. “At home, my sister and I were tasked with cooking for the family once a week. We had to do the shopping and cook for the family. The rest of the days my parents cooked so it was a kind of education where you had to be independent. Every cook has a grandmother who loved to cook and who made it happen and this was also my case. Whatever she made she did extremely well and she would make biscuits for her 24 grand-children every Christmas” he said.
Kasper is particularly fond of a dish which his grandmother made and which he still remembers. “It was goose breast with horseradish cream which was his favourite and I can still recall the taste of that dish.”.
“Taste memories are important. My children will not have the same memories as I’ve had. We are also losing these memories because we have too many influences. In the pasty we grew up with a simple identity. There was Danish food, Swedish food, French food and at the time, if I had to look up a recipe, I needed to buy a book. I don’t think our children will lose their memories but there are so many influences today that we do not have the same identity of food at home today as we had in the past. But taste memories are essential when you are cooking because you can build on what you know and on your experience.
After Souvereyns closed the restaurant, Kasper headed to Poland to help open a restaurant, training staff and whetting it up and then worked for the first time at Le Chalet de la Forêt in 2002. “I came for two weeks and stayed for two months before I opened my own restaurant in Antwerp.”
The restaurants Hecker and Diningroom Harmony did well but despite the advice of Roger, Kasper opened not one but two restaurants in Antwerp. “It was a mistake,” he said.
Do you miss being master of your destiny, I ask? “I am still the master of my own destiny. Even more now. I don’t mind not being the owner. I am happy, I do a job I love, I create and I do not need to hassle with the back office so it is actually very nice. Maybe in my old days, I will open a bed and breakfast with my wife as she is in the hotel business and that would be a natural transition but I don’t miss being my own boss,” he said.
An idea can go everywhere. You can call it a mind-mapping exercise. We end up narrowing it down before we test it with clients we know for feedback. We then taste again and adapt the dish. It is a long process. We can be working on 10 different ideas at a go. Then there are the classic dishes that are so good that they cannot be changed.
In 2014, Kasper called Pascal. It was perfect timing. His previous chef was leaving so he joined the Belgian chef at the Brussels restaurant. “The objectives they set was to make it to the top. We want to put the restaurant on the map, to enhance the experience and also to create a future for the restaurant. The way we have been working is in parallel. We exchange ideas, we test new products. Our space is not large physically as this was an old house so we don’t have a laboratory and everything is done on the spot. The creative process is integrated into our daily routine. It will take a dish months from the first idea for it to be ready to be served in the restaurant. I was working on a dish one month before Christmas to get the first ideas and talk about it. It then took me 2 months to finalise. The idea can go everywhere, you can call it a mind-mapping exercise and then at the end we narrow it down, taste and continue to narrow it down before we test it with clients we know for feedback. We then taste again, adapt the dish so its a long process and we could be working on 10 different things every week constantly trying to improve or reinvent existing dishes. Then there are classic dishes that are so good that they cannot be changed. We try to improve them with different wine pairings.”
For Kasper inspiration comes from everywhere and it is difficult to find the source of inspiration. “Ideas can come in the shower in the morning or driving the car through the forest.”
Kasper is unsure what the next level is. “Who defines that? Is it us, is it our clients or the guides? What is sure is that working together helps each of us to grow. The clients benefit from this collaboration and I think that when you eat here you can recognise this. We are working with equal goals as a team, we can discuss, criticise each other which is really nice. It is not like the old days when chefs would not give you the recipe. It is a modern way of working and it is very positive,” he said.
Working together with Pascal helps each of us to grow. The clients benefit from this collaboration. As long as we keep on arguing things will be fine. It feeds the brain, it feeds creativity and helps to create emotions
So what happens when there is no agreement, I ask. “Actually that is very nice. When you cannot agree, you need to find the arguments to win. Pascal will have the last word but we will always find an agreement or else we will agree not to send out the dish. It might be too complicated or too narrow and we can agree that it might not be the time for it.”
Kasper believes there are two types of creativity which is the spontaneous creativity and the strategic creativity. “Sometimes spontaneous creativity is amazing but it is not perfect. Then there is strategic creativity which modernises or perfects the dish. That is when it is good to be two.”
Does this keep you grounded? “Discussion is important. I can say why I don’t like something and the same goes for Pascal. You can ask why, you can take a step back and that helps to keep the ego in check. As long as we keep on arguing things will be fine. It feeds the brain, feeds creativity and helps to create emotions,” he said.
Kasper and Pascal have words on the kitchen wall to create a good atmosphere and guide their staff. “We have a few rules but otherwise the parameters are not rigid. “We try to have some spiciness, acidity and fat in each dish and we also have the less is more mantra which is extremely difficult for every cook and chef. You need to ask yourself not what you can add to the dish but what you can take out from the dish. You need to find the elements that are not necessary and eliminate them. What we want is to create experience and emotion through sexy food. For me sexy food is when you leave your guest with an emotion or a surprise.”
Kasper is Danish and left the country before Nordic cuisine revolution which changed the face of Danish and Nordic food. He doesn’t mince his words saying the cooking was not good in his home country. He has seen how Denmark and the Nordics have build things from the ground up.
“I think the people in Belgium are not proud of what they do. They are happy to keep a low profile. Who should promote Brussels? Should the Belgians do it or do the expats who live here have a responsibility to also promote this city? In Flanders, things are starting to move. They’ve taken a political decision to enhance tourism through food. Scandinavian countries were the first to do this. I remember sending a friend at my restaurant to take part in a Nordic challenge. He won with the first dish of the competition but when it came to the second part he lost. He went to Denmark with a silpat and his knives while the Danes and Swedish arrived with trucks that incorporated all the equipment they had in their kitchen. It was a political decision to push food and they won of course,” he said. “That helped create their first culinary breakthrough,” he said.
I really hope Belgium win the World Cup because it will have a huge impact on the country.
Kasper is really routing for Belgium to win the World Cup in Russia. “I really hope Belgium win the World Cup because this will have a great international impact. When Denmark won the European cup it was great because it became visible to the outside world.”
Like me, he believes that is is good that Flanders promotes the region for food but this is narrow minded because in his view Belgium needs to promote itself globally. “We need to look beyond Belgian borders. International exposure is extremely important. We can think that we can serve the locals and we can still be happy but that means staying local and taking the approach that you want to stay below the radar without making a rumble. In Denmark, the chefs wanted to show the world what they were doing,” he said.
To this end, communication is important. “For me, the key question is where do we want our restaurant to be. Are we still Brussels focused or do we want to be international? Can we export this vision? My vision is not to stay small. I don’t think we can do the same thing. I don’t know if I would be happy. If we take that approach we lose the creative process. We become just focused on strategic creativity. There is no spontaneous creativity, every decision becomes calculated. There is no more love or sex in it,” he said.
At the end of the year, Belgium will lose a 3 Michelin star restaurant with the closure of Hertog Jan. In two years the country will have lost two 3 Michelin star restaurants. What is the impact going to be? “I think that this is an opportunity for those who want it. I don’t think there is a maximum number of three Michelin stars that a country can have but of course the country will be left with one for now. Shouldn’t there be more? I think that if there is the capacity to create 3 Michelin star restaurants, then restaurants should go for it because it has a huge impact on international exposure and also enhances quality.”
“The Netherlands has never managed to get that. In the Netherlands, the top level is amazing. Just under is also good but the average is terrible as is the case in Germany. When you go to a good restaurant in Germany they blow your mind away but then you go to a normal restaurant and it is terrible. In Belgium, it is the opposite, the middle is high, the average is also very high. I think that if there are more top quality restaurants even the 2 star level will go up.
“But ultimately, chefs created the hype of Michelin. You can also say it is just a book. But it has been given importance by chefs who consider it the ultimate aim,” he said.
Kasper has worked in six different 3 Michelin star restaurants and he says the experience was fun. “It is hard, it is tough but it does not make you sleep worse or better.” There are some who say that the journey from 2 to 3 stars is more interesting than when you get there but Kasper believes it is a question of choice. “The journey is of course extremely interesting but if you’ve taken a progressive approach, then you can decide to remain progressive. It is all a question of choice.”
The Danish chef can only imagine himself doing this type of food. He pushed the boundaries in his own restaurant in a 4 square metre kitchen cooking above the level of what the restaurant was supposed to be though there were physical constraints due to the size of the kitchen and the amount of people who could work there.
Kasper is in his element doing what he loves, working creatively with Pascal by his side. But while he loves what he does he would be prouder if his children graduate from university rather than work in a Michelin star restaurant. That’s understandable coming from someone whose favourite book is Sun Tzu. (Find out more in our Q&A in the coming days)