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Frederik Bille Brahe

"In times where everything is changing so much, there is something to say about the ability to not change."

Frederik Bille Brahe is the chef and creative mind behind Copenhagen’s celebrated Atelier September, the Apollo Bar and Berlin’s Sofi Bakery, amongst many of his ventures. This summer  for the release of his new cookbook, Atelier September: A Place For Daytime Cooking, published by apartamento, Frederik was invited for a residency as part of our Mona Supper Club Series. Between his nights of cooking for an intimate group at the Living Room, we spoke to him about his experience in Athens and how he adapts his practice while on the road.

Photography SPELA SIVIC EFTIHIA STEFANIDI       Interview HOUSE OF SHILA

House of Shila (HOS): Tell us a bit about your urge to travel by way of your work and what your impressions of Athens have been.

Frederik Bille Brahe (FBB): I am from Denmark, it’s small country. It was even smaller when I was younger. I have always had this hunger to go and experience the world. And I think when exploring a new culture, you get extremely nourished. Sometimes when you’re out of your comfort zone, and you experience other people doing what you do, or something completely different, you’re more likely to take it in. My eyes are very open. My senses are very awake.

For me, this thing with travel is to be inspired, to reflect over my own existence, and my practice. I feel Athens is extremely interesting, because it has a different energy than what I’m used to. There is an old-world energy and a manufacturing one, where you still have a lot of tools and pots and people peeling garlic on the street and selling bottles of lemon juice and the smelly fish market, cars…. And then you have the ancient energy, like every time you look up, you see the Acropolis. There is a beautiful mix. I’m still trying to understand it.

HOS: How does it feel to be a guest chef, to do pop-ups?

FBB: What goes into doing a pop-up and what actually happens is very much about how quickly your soul travels with you. There are parameters to consider. Are you prepared for cooking for the guests? Is it going to be full? Will it not be full? Who are the guests? Are they nice? Are they not nice? Are they here for the food? Are they here for the ambience? Who are the waiters? Who are the people the we will work with in the team? Where does the salt come from? What sugar do they have? What are the herbs like? Can you get this? Can you get that? And, you know, all these things are running alongside while you cook and you have to get to know people. It’s not as a critique. I’m happy to be here. I could stay here for a month…

HOS: In light of your recent cookbook Atelier September: A Place For Daytime Cooking, published by apartamento, you have been touring and cooking in different cities. What is the creative process here in Athens? Is it different, let’s say from Paris, or London, or Nice?

FBB: Yes, of course.

Every place is different, like the supply chain is different. I just came back from Seoul and there you basically order a lot of stuff online and someone comes on a scooter and drops it off. But they also have three giant food markets, where you can get everything from dogs to chicken brains and weird medical mushrooms. They have this old system and a new system, and cities are built up around these supply food chains. That’s basically how a city becomes possible, right?

 

“When exploring a new culture, you get extremely nourished.”

HOS: True. What is your take on our current food culture?

FBB: The whole way we cook, the entire food system, is built up on cooling chains and transport. When you live in a city, you rely on this. You get a tomato from a farm that has sent to a corporation, driven by car to a supplier, then delivered to you. So already now it’s been harvested for like six, seven days and maybe been refrigerated in three, four different places. I think the moment you actually harvest or butcher or kill something, it loses energy. I think there’s something wrong about that. Ideally the products we use should be as alive as possible.

HOS: Tell us about your residency at Mona.

FBB: It’s funny when you go to a place and you’re like: I have a plan. And then you arrive and everything you wanted to be in a certain way is different than home. So, you have to accept that the reality of what you set out to do, is not possible. And make a new plan. So today, I decided to change everything. And there’s this energy here, which could be described as like, taking cucumbers and tomatoes and olives, and putting them on top of boiled fava beans and olive oil. That’s what I will try to do here, with all my food.

HOS: Your time in Athens influenced the way you approached your cooking during Mona’s Supper Club. The dishes felt more Greek than Danish…

FBB: I’ve been trying to adapt to the climate, to the people, to the energy of the city. To understand what people here would like to eat, how they feel in the moment. What effected the menu was the temperature, the people I met, the food I tried here. For example, since the weather was so warm, I decided to dilute some of the flavors, to make it less intense, add more acidity. Perhaps I will only actually process and understand what I’ve experienced at Mona in a few weeks. And I will learn a lot from this.

HOS: The first thing we did when you came was to go for lunch at Diporto, this old subterranean tavern that is sort of an institution in Athens. You were impressed, I could tell. Can you share a bit more about your experience of that place?

FBB: You know, I was looking at the chef and I was trying to understand this very deep and established narrative. On one hand, to make a restaurant that is so humble, but at the same time, extremely artistic. It was like a ‘diva’ or an opera singer in its humbleness. And the food…you get a bowl of chickpeas; you look at it and you have this water broth with broken bits. It basically feels like diluted paint, like a Peter Doig painting where everything is emotive and cloudy.

HOS That’s such an interesting way of putting it.

FBB: I was also thinking that in times where everything is changing so much, there is something to say about the ability to not change. The way that food is cooked is very precise. It made me wonder: what is the nerve of the Greek people? What’s going on here? What is the poetry? What is the history? I don’t really know.

But it all tasted so good! This food is like one Michelin star. And I was asking myself, in terms of cooking and aesthetics: what is ‘fine’? This ability to achieve this perfect mix, where when you eat it, you’re comfortable. When I was walking home, I was feeling the top of my belly full, and at the same time I felt perfect. It’s interesting, right?

 

“For me, this thing with travel is to be inspired, to reflect over my own existence, and my practice.”

HOS An oxymoron! Any comment on the owner’s attitude being a little… brash?

FBB: I find restaurant workers to be extremely humble, hardworking, and generous for almost no money. I think the exchange of energy is very important in terms of customer and restaurant. In Japan, for example, you have this thing where you go to a very special sushi bar and there’s no price on the menu. And then depending on who you are and what you’ve done and how you enjoyed the food, the price is decided, written on a piece of paper at the end. If you’re an idiot, it’s pricey. If you’re very humble, and they believe in your energy and your presence, it may be very little. And, perhaps, if you’re like this and you have no money, it’s maybe almost nothing. So, when we entered Diporto with a camera crew, I felt impolite and disrespectful. I totally understand the reaction.

HOS What about owning a restaurant? Do you believe a chef needs to own a place?

FBB: A life without structure? A restaurant is an investment. It’s your own platform. This little thing where you can invite people in to be a part of. Every day you come, and you put on the chickpeas and they boil, and the fava beans and the potatoes and you can smell the smell, and the same guy comes with the bread and the fish…This is where all the magic comes from, from the everyday.

I think if you don’t have the privilege of being taught by other people who know, and you don’t have the privilege of teaching others, or have time to prepare and organize and repeat and actually see the fruits of your hard work, then I could imagine that some of the connections would be missing.

Creativity for me when I cook is that you do something and maybe you realize “oh this is actually shit” and you take something else, and you’re like “oh this is actually good!”. But you need to know where the pistachio nuts are, or the split peas. If you don’t have that, then it would take time to achieve it.

Time is also a parameter, so managing a restaurant is of course also tough, but life is tough too, and I have been lucky that I can do both – own restaurants and traveling for pop-ups.   

HOS: So how do you become a good Chef?

FBB: You practice, right? How do you practice? Is practice just cooking for yourself or cooking for others? Yesterday while I was cooking, I was looking at your face and other people’s faces while eating the eggplant and I was thinking, do they actually like it? Is it good? You know, that reaction is important.

 

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