Kasper Kurdhal, executive chef of Le Chalet de la Forêt in Brussels, Belgium loves intellectual stimulation, discussion and reading. It is what guides him in his interactions with chef patron Pascal Devalkeneer and it is also what he cherishes in his friendships. Here are 10 lessons I’ve learned from my long conversation with this talented Danish chef.
Learn to say no: At the age of 27, Kasper Kurdhal could have gone to Seville to open a restaurant for Ferran Adria. Most people would have jumped at such an opportunity but Kasper thought this offer was too good to be true. The reason was not for lack of experience or self-confidence or even age but rather because he did not want to become a ‘product’ of the el Bulli method for the rest of his life. Ferran Adria not only understood the decision but also told him he was right at that stage. Sometimes, it is best to take a step back and say no. Even when others might tell you otherwise.
Identify what can hold you back and take action: When Kasper was growing up in Denmark, he realised that he needed to leave if he wanted to cook at a certain level. Of course, the scene today is completely different but that was also due to a number of chefs including Rene Redzepi and Rasmus Kofoed who also left the country before they returned and translated what they had learnt back into what would become the new Nordic cuisine. Kasper realised very soon that if he wanted to do something special with food he had to leave Denmark. And he fought against the odds to make that happen.
Read: When I ask what his favourite book is, he does not list a book related to food or a cookbook but rather The Art of War by Sun Tzu. This is an ancient Chinese book that for 1,500 years has been considered as the leading text on strategy. The Art of War is an influential strategy text that has had profound influence on both Eastern and Western military thinking but also business tactics and legal strategy among others. He says everyone should be reading more because this is where ideas come from.
Believe in yourself even if others don’t necessarily believe in you: The first time Kasper sent a letter to work in Belgium at Roger Souvereyns, who at the time was one of the most important chefs in the world, the tutor advised against. Not only, the school actually sent a letter to the chef asking him not to recruit him because according to them he was trouble. The Belgian chef did not succumb to this and told the tutor on a visit a few months later that ‘all good chefs have trouble at school’.
Follow your mentor’s advice: Kasper has full respect for Roger Souvereyns. It was he who set him on the road to fine dining and it was he who called him back to Belgium to work as executive chef after his experience at el Bulli and Ducasse among others. When the restaurant closed, Kasper opened not one but two restaurants in Antwerp. Roger advised him against that idea and Kasper admits that was a mistake.
Being number 2 is also fine: Kasper is the executive chef at Le Chalet de la Forêt working with chef-patron Pascal Devalkeneer. But he does not miss being master of his own destiny. ‘I still am’ he says adding that he does not mind not being the owner because he can do the job he loves, be creative and not have to hassle with the back office. Learn to find what matters to you and focus on that.
Too many cooks can spoil the broth but two cooks are better than one: Although Pascal Devalkeneer is the face of the restaurant, if you go to the website of the Chalet de La Foret you will see that the two are working together. Working together helps the two to grow and clients end up benefitting from this collaboration that is also visible in the dishes that are served. This, according to Kasper, is a modern way of working and it is very positive.
Discussion and arguments are important: Intellectual stimulation is important for anyone in whichever domain or whichever function. There is spontaneous creativity and there is strategic creativity. Spontaneous creativity can be amazing but it is the strategic creativity that is essential. Discussion is important because you can question, you can take a step back and it helps to keep your ego in check. Arguments help to feed the brain, feed creativity and help to create emotions.
Nothing stops you from doing what you want: Michelin is extremely important for a business but it has also been given a lot of importance by chefs who consider it their ultimate aim. But for Kasper, who has worked in 6 different 3 Michelin star restaurants you could also say it is a book. He acknowledges that the experience can be fun but it is also hard and tough and does not make you sleep better or worse. He believes that if you reach the journey you can still remain progressive. If you’ve decided to be progressive, then you can decide to remain progressive, the guides will not constrain you. Ultimately it is all a question of choice.
Communicate: Food has become an integral part of travel. Scandinavia was the first to do this and we all know the results today. They took a political decision to push food and in the end it helped them to breakthrough in the culinary world. Strategy and knowing what you want is essential but you also need to then be able to communicate that. Without a strategy or without objectives you cannot reach your targets but once these are set you need to be able to communicate well.