Chef Rapid Fire with Chef Kasper Christensen | Kraft Heinz Food Service

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Chef Rapid Fire

with Chef Kasper Christensen from Nordic Dining
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1. Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in hospitality?

I always enjoyed cooking; I believe it’s something I was born with. My mother had a beautiful veggie patch, I would eat anything that was growing there. She was under the illusion that the bugs were eating off all her produce, but it was actually me!

I always knew I wanted to be a chef, I had a passion for handling, cooking and eating food, so for me it was about working with fresh produce. I wanted to cook; I knew very early on that that was what I wanted to do.

Back home in Denmark, my mom used to work in hospitality where she managed two hotels. My mother wasn’t a chef, but I used to sit on the kitchen bench and watch her cook at home. I used to visit her at the hotels, and I started doing some cooking there. I started when I was 14 or 15, doing odd shifts at the hotel she worked at, and then started an apprenticeship at a hotel in the area.

2. What do you consider your signature dish or cooking style, and why?

I love cooking Nordic inspired dishes and like to do a lot of foraging. I live near the beaches and along the coastline is a good place to collect local plants. It’s a very sustainable practice.

Utilizing seasonally available produce is important too. I like to hero foraged ingredients and build a dish around the produce. If there’s beautiful Lilly Pilly’s in season for example, I would create a dessert with them in mind.

My signature dish has to be the Salt-baked Fish, it’s something I first cooked in a restaurant with Peter Gilmore at Quay. I really like the way you cook the fish; it cooks and seasons it at the same time and you also get the flavour from the bone coming through as you bake it. It gets the perfumes and aromas of the fish, while maintaining its integrity. It gives you a very visual representation that can be very spiritual as it is a lot with cooking – you can see the whole fish and it respects the fact that you’re now eating it. I also stuff the fish with fennel tips to give it as much of a flavor punch as possible.

The sauce is made with Pipis, I love that the natural saltiness of the Pipis works well with the fish. My main inspiration and cooking style is more towards the Nordic food movement. It can easily be transferred into any cuisine in the world. The produce is seasonality focused, and we let the produce tell its own story.

Similar to wine, you can taste different flavor profiles; what the soil is like, where it’s from and that translates very well into the produce. Where have they been living, what are they feeding on, I love telling that story!

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3. What is the biggest cooking trend that you've observed recently, and how do you stay updated with it to incorporate it into your dishes or menus?

What I’m seeing now is that chefs have moved away from slow cooking, but rather trying to produce things quicker. In restaurants, especially since Covid started, they want to focus on less time-consuming operations, and we have taken a little bit of a step back in terms of time efficiency. But we’re slowly going the opposite way where restaurants are starting to fill up to capacity and things are looking up!

The way I stay updated… Well, you go out for dinner every now and then and you can’t help but notice these things, a lot of it is networking too. Staff meals are also a great way to find out about new foods from different places and is a great way to have those chats with fellow chefs and get inspired to create something different that wasn’t previously on the radar.

The main trend I’m inspired by is provenance of produce. It’s always great to know more about the ingredient’s origin like which rural region it comes from, and some restaurants take it a step further by giving us more details about the produce, for example what diet the livestock was on. I’m a huge fan of this terroir side of things.

4. Tell me about a challenging situation you faced in the kitchen and how you resolve it. What did you learn from that experience?

That’s the great thing about being a chef, you’ve got challenges every day. You’ve got people with passion in a stressful environment, and it’s a recipe for disaster. A leader of a team is trying to manage their chefs’ passions and their egos and help them work as a team. If you’ve got two chefs that are really skilled, but they’ve got friction and can’t work together, then the challenge is for the Executive Chef to get them working together. Kitchen teams are tight so if you don’t get along the whole team can go down.

You could maneuver the tasks by giving some people more responsibilities. I think people skills are important also, sometimes all you need is to remove people from a stressful environment and take them out for a beer. It’s important to get your team outside, get to know them and inspire them out of the confines of the kitchen. The main resource in a kitchen is the staff so you want them happy and inspired.

5. Can you explain your creative process when developing new recipes or menu items? How do you come up with unique and innovative ideas?

When developing new recipes and specials, I’ll always look at the price of produce that’s in season first. If I really want to cook with beautiful celeriac in season, I ask myself; what do I do to that to make it a sellable dish? Are there other things in season that I can combine it with? I’m into foraging so can I add any of those things from nature to add on?

Every now and then I take my chefs to the veg or farmers markets for a field trip to see what’s beautiful and bountiful out there and we implement those ingredients. It’s also important to go out and see what others are creating. When I go to fine dining restaurants, I analyze what they’re doing. Is there something that I like? It often gives me a good starting point. You could even have a chat with the chef at the end of the meal and talk about the food and get inspired.

I love my cookbooks too – I’m not the type to sit and read through a cookbook, but I skim through them and pick up bits and pieces to get a bit of inspiration. I like my Nordic books, and any old cookbooks from Noma. I like Ottolenghi, a bit of Rick Stein too – Jamie Oliver is quite easy and straight forward as well. I worked in France, so I like Jamie Oliver’s Mediterranean style.

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6. Who are 3 chefs or restaurants that you find interesting and why?

I’ve got a soft spot for Peter Gilmore, he has a great understanding of texture, colours and flavors. He inspires me and I love going to Quay. The restaurant is always evolving, and he’s lucky to have a fine dining restaurant going for so many years. I try to go to his restaurant every couple of years, I love to see how he’s progressing. I admire that he had the balls to rip off the snow egg from the menu, which is one of his signature desserts.

I can’t stay away from Rene Redzepi from Noma. I always keep up to date on what him and his team are doing. It was so eye-opening to see them work together in the kitchen; he really engages with his team and really works to inspire them. He would come and shake hands with the juniors and get know what they were up to on the weekend. Before service there would be an inspirational talk with the team, the tension was there but he worked hard to start every day off on an inspiring note.

He is such a force, not just by the way he operates his kitchen, but also with food and the way he constantly challenges himself. He gets bored so easily which is the force that drives his new inspirations. He works in seasons; one was just only about the sea, one was his vegetable season in the Spring, and another was his forest season with wild game. Now he’s gotten bored with that and has announced that he’s shutting down. I’m interested in seeing what he does next!

7. Can you provide examples of how you have trained and mentored junior chefs or kitchen staff to improve their skills and performance?

Asking chefs to prepare staff meals is a great way of seeing their own unique twist on food. You can assess their cooking level as well as their ability to create and innovate. When you put them on a station, it’s easy to train them, but if you want to know what cooking style they have behind them, ask your staff to prepare a staff meal.

In an environment surrounded by food, I believe its important to encourage your staff to eat together. I like to call it a family meal, and it gives my chef’s the opportunity to step out of a high intensity environment and into a more casual and inspired one – where front and back of house sit together.

I also keep my staff involved with menu development. Explaining your thought process and asking for feedback enables you to bounce ideas off each other whilst making them feel like they are contributing. At the Sydney Opera House for example, different head chefs would present to me what dishes they liked creating and then we would taste them together and tweak them. We would then test the menu items as specials. Daily specials are a good way to keep chefs engaged, give them responsibility, and provide them with a chance to show their own creativity.

8. Can you recall an instance when you dined at a restaurant and remember how memorable the food or experience was?

When I was dining at Noma, there was a very simple cauliflower dish, where the cauliflower was roasted off in sheep’s butter. He then allowed the cauliflower to steam in its own juices and poured over a whey emulsion from the sheep’s butter. It was so simple but so mind-blowing. It really allowed for the produce to be the star of the dish. Its amazing to see chefs just take one ingredient and hero that by maintaining simplicity, and not bastardizing it. That’s what sticks in my memory.