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Organic Connection

Chef Jonathan Tam of the Michelin-starred Relæ in Copenhagen explains why the restaurant's own farm forms the heart of its cuisine
23/12/2017 - 05:50

Serendipity may well be Jonathan Tam's middle name. It's the best way to explain how a bright-eyed 21-year-old chef arrived in Copenhagen 10 years ago as a stepping stone to his dream job in elBulli, but ended up staying on to become part of the powerful Nordic cuisine movement that swept the world and still remains a key influence today.

Now 31, the Canadian-Chinese head chef of the Michelin-starred Relæ remembers how he applied to numerous restaurants for an internship, and the first to respond to him was a chef named Rene Redzepi, whose restaurant Noma had just made its debut on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list in 2007.

"The moment I stepped in, I knew something (exciting) was happening," he says. He worked closely with Christian Puglisi, chef Redzepi's right-hand man until 2010, when he decided to open Relæ and almost single-handedly turned the drug-infested Jægersboggarde into the city's hippest street with his brand of affordable gastronomy.

"When I was staging in Noma, Christian kept asking me when I was going to leave," chef Tam laughs. "I told him I didn't want to." He did in the end, to follow chef Puglisi to Relæ, where they worked side by side until a year ago when chef Tam was appointed head chef while his boss focused on the other restaurants and projects in his stable. One of them includes Relæ's own farm, located a 40-minute drive from the city. The farm produces vegetables, milk, eggs and some meat entirely for Relæ which is a certified organic restaurant (90 per cent of its ingredients are organic) and was also named the world's most sustainable restaurant by the World's 50 Best.

Having a similar mindset as Ivan Brehm of Nouri in Singapore led to chef Tam coming to town this week for a four hands event at the restaurant in Amoy Street, where he got a chance to explore locally sourced produce.

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But Singapore's farmers are just a drop in the ocean compared to Relæ's own farm, which forms the heart of its cuisine. Every morning, chef Tam and his chefs design the day's menu based on what the harvest brings.

As head chef, it's his job to build a strong connection with the farm, "starting off with more experimental crops and how to get them working in the restaurant," says chef Tam. "All of Copenhagen uses the same few purveyors so wherever you eat you will see the same ingredients. But we have a different opportunity because we can experiment with the crop - from the seed to the flowering stage to when we get the vegetable. We can utilise the whole growing sequence."

While the Nordic cuisine movement is still going strong, chef Tam feels that chefs in Copenhagen are still evolving creatively. "The next phase is that a lot more young chefs who have worked at these high-end restaurants are opening their own places where the cooking is more personal and with a little more ethnicity."

One example is Rosio Sanchez, Noma's ex-pastry chef who started a market stall selling tacos which became so successful, she is now opening her first full-fledged restaurant. "There's going to be a boom in ethnic cooking because we are really lacking that. Right now the dining scene is either very low end or high end but in the mid-range there are still so many areas to develop. One of my old cooks now does ramen but he uses Japanese and Danish flour to make his own noodles. So whatever these chefs decide to do, it's going to be done really well."

But of course, the biggest thing to happen in Copenhagen will be when chef Redzepi re-opens Noma in a different location sometime in spring 2018.

For now, chef Tam is looking forward to Christmas with his Danish partner and their six-year-old daughter, where he'll be helping to cook dinner at her grandparents' home. Danish Christmas traditions include roast duck stuffed with fruit and bread and æbleskiver, which are like pancake balls cooked in a special pan. "Living here for so long, you pick up some of the local traditions," adds the chef who still returns to Edmonton in Canada to see his parents.

But right now, his life is in Copenhagen, where a twist of fate has led to a bright future ahead of him.