Drake’s in Copenhagen: Nordic Living with Mikkel Karstad
You don’t have to venture far outside of Copenhagen to be surrounded by nature. A few miles on a long, straight motorway — through clusters of unremarkable municipal offices, billboards for Danish television shows and red brick apartments on the city’s outskirts — into flat green fields pockmarked with a few sheep and horses, the skeletons of November trees, agricultural equipment dealerships and the occasional faded pastel clapboard house — pale yellows and pinks blurring against a dim sky. It’s a cold, grey and very Scandinavian-feeling Monday morning and we’re on our way to meet a famous chef in a cabin somewhere in the woods of North Zealand. A short(ish) drive and a world away from the city.
Mikkel Karstad is one of the pioneers of New Nordic cuisine, a term that he now sees as outdated, but one that serves to describe the hugely influential 2000s wave of experimental, natural, foraged, sustainable and hyper-seasonal cooking that has made Scandinavia, and particularly Copenhagen, the centre of the culinary world. The city’s restaurants regularly appear at the top of the world’s 50 best list, the most recent being Geranium, on the eighth floor of a football stadium. Noma, fronted by the star chef René Redzepi, famously became a long-standing synonym for a certain kind of high-minded, multi-course religious experience. Endlessly referenced, mimicked and obsessed over.
Karstad spent some time working with its co-founder, Claus Meyer, as a gastronomic adviser and developed recipes at the restaurant’s experimental offshoot, the Nordic Food Lab. As a younger chef he trained alongside Ramsay at Aubergine, worked at Pierre Koffman’s legendary three Michelin star La Tante Claire in Chelsea, and at the two Michelin star Kommandanten back in Copenhagen.
All of this is to say that… the man has done some cooking.
We meet Karstad at the end of an unmarked and unpaved country road, surrounded by spindly pine trees. “They are a bit… naked at the moment,” he says, glancing up at the wintery branches. Hair neatly cropped and beard prodigious, he’s wearing a navy blue watch cap and mock-neck fisherman’s jumper, blue jeans and rubber gardening clogs. He turns to lead us towards his family’s cabin, which is a slightly unfair description for such a beautiful building.
Nestled low amongst the forest, it’s a Kevin McCloud fever dream of natural light, dark wood and impeccable taste. Built two years ago, it’s where Karstad, his wife Camilla, and their four children come to get away. They cook, they host and they forage. Mushrooms, berries and wild flowers. Long summer evenings by the fire pit and at the large outdoor table. “There is an old couple who live down the road,” says Karstad, “who grow the best vegetables. They haven’t raised their prices in 30 years. The only problem is that they will only sell to you on the day. If I want to prep the night before, they’ll say ‘no, come back tomorrow.' It has to be totally fresh. I respect their philosophy, although it makes things harder!”
Inside, the cabin is equally well appointed. A wood burning fire, midcentury furniture, a couple of Noguchi paper lamps and a child’s drawing of the cabin’s exterior. A book shelf and two bedrooms and a recently started jigsaw of Berlin. The kitchen is one compact corner, which is exactly how Karstad envisaged it. “I wanted to keep the kitchen as small as possible. A few essentials.” Built by a friend, there’s a thick oak work surface, a stainless steel sink, a portable gas hob and a few plastic tubs of ingredients. It turns out that you don’t need an industrial kitchen’s-worth of gear to be a great chef. What a nightmare.
After years spent as an elite chef in fine dining kitchens, Karstad decided that he wanted a change of pace. “That environment is tough,” he says. “I basically slept for three months at my mother’s house when I came back from London. Brutal.” Today he runs a multi-stranded business. A canteen and event space at a photography studio in Copenhagen, while cooking regularly at kitchen residencies and private functions. Camilla will often work the front of house, with various children weighing in when and where needed. “That family element is super important to me.”
He’s just returned from cooking at Soho House in Amsterdam and is set to host a dinner at a gallery in Copenhagen a few days on from our meeting. He’s also the author of five books, on subjects ranging from fish to vegetables and family cooking. His latest is on dining with friends. Does he ever miss the rush of a restaurant service? “I still get it get it with my cooking, but yes, sometimes you do miss the feeling of a whole team coming together and delivering something great. I think all chefs need, or want, that feeling.”
A short drive away is Liseleje Strand, pine forest, sand dunes and, when the season is right, thickets of sea buckthorn, leading to a beautiful stretch of sandy beach and coastline along the ‘Danish Riviera.’ The pale green lifeguard hut is unmanned, a frigid wind drives up from the shoreline. Even in proper winter clothes, it’s cold. Denmark in late November cold.
Karstad is a long-standing devotee to the powers of cold water swimming, year-round, at dawn and dusk, whatever the weather. He wades out both here and plunges in right outside of his apartment in Copenhagen. Does he need a wet suit in winter? “No!” he says, laughing and looking slightly hurt at the accusation. “Just straight in. It gets you pumping for the day. Cold water and a sauna. Nothing better.” I look at the steel grey water, which looks about as inviting as a slap in the face with a giant old eel, slowly considering this information. He also spear fishes off these waters. “Turbot and plaice, if I can find it.” Of course he spear fishes, too.
Back at the cabin, it’s time for lunch. Karstad fires up the little hob and begins to fry eggs, a handful of dark green cavolo nero, finished with a heavy shaving of parmesan. A loaf of homemade bread and cold butter. In Denmark they call it ‘tooth-butter,’ straight from the fridge and thick enough that you can see bite marks in it. “This is a great, simple breakfast or lunch,” he says, untying his faded blue apron and hacking into the bread. “You don’t need much.” He’s right. We talk about football and families, the winter sun wanes and the bare trees rustle outside of the cabin’s large windows. It’s all very hygge.
In the foreword to his book, Nordic Family Kitchen, Karstad sets out something of a culinary philosophy. A Nordic ideal. “The most important thing is that you spend some time every day cooking, making an effort to prepare a nice meal, using good local ingredients and, above all, eating it with your family and the people you care about.”
It sounds like a wonderful life. Just as long as we don’t have to get in the sea in December.