Christian Puglisi won’t forget March 11 any time soon. It was the day the Copenhagen chef thought he’d lost it all after the Danish government closed every restaurant in the country to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Puglisi hasn’t lost it all, but he has made the agonising decision to draw the curtains on two of his iconic restaurants – Relae and Manfreds – at the end of the year, following a decade of local and global acclaim.
In the space of just over a fortnight, Copenhagen lost three destinations – including Noma spin-off Restaurant 108 – that have helped transform the city into one of the best restaurant scenes on the planet. And it might only be the beginning.
But for Puglisi, who was born in Messina, Sicily before moving to Denmark with his family as an eight-year-old, COVID-19 wasn’t the defining reason behind his decision.
He knows he could have rallied his troops and developed a battle plan to come out the other side. But he didn’t want to. The time is right to tighten his focus on the other restaurants he owns and runs.
For too long, he spread himself too thin. Now Puglisi is determined to take his world-renowned organic pizzeria Baest, his all-day bakery and eatery Mirabelle and, when the time is right, his vermouth bar Rudo to even greater heights.
“On the day they shut down everything in Denmark the feeling was: I’ve just lost everything; it is done; it is over,” Puglisi told Man of Style.
“Losing everything is not really the right way to put it. Losing my financial security, losing my business was what I really felt. I think that there are elements of knowledge, experience and skills that you amass during ten years in the case of Relae and Manfreds that no one can take away from you.
“As much as it becomes clear that you can lose it, it also becomes very clear that these things will never go away; nobody can take the past away from you; it’s not going to disappear; it’s not going to be erased; it’s not going to be out of my mind; it’s just going to come to an end and that’s fine.
“That was a crazy experience but also liberating to some sense because it allowed me to think, ‘if I want to rebuild, would I do it exactly the same?’ I figured maybe I won’t.
“When I look back at time in the past few years, I see the process of ending the circle was already on its way back then, but clearly the corona situation has given me the time to consider and reflect on things. That has helped me with time to really think things through but also with this situation of really experiencing to lose it all.”
Puglisi is one of the most celebrated chefs in Scandinavia. He was the original Rene Redzepi alum to make it big when he opened his first restaurant Relae in 2010, following stints as a sous-chef inside the kitchens at Noma and El Bulli – two of the most influential restaurants ever – in the second half of the noughts. And he has carved out a reputation as the most sustainable Michelin starred chef in the world.
But despite his stature in the culinary landscape, the 38-year-old is a vocal critic of the endless lists and awards that have propelled chefs – including himself – into superstardom across the past two decades.
Actors, athletes and musicians have always been famous, but chefs and restauranteurs have attracted increasingly more of the limelight since the start of this millennium, thanks in some part to Anthony Bourdain’s brilliance on the Food Network, A.A. Gill and Jonathan Gold’s phenomenal prose in The Times and Los Angeles Times respectively, as well as David Chang’s growing media empire, Majordomo Media, on Netflix and The Ringer.
Puglisi’s disdain for the industries obsession with recognition hasn’t stopped Relae earning a Michelin star, featuring on the World’s 50 Best List on a few occasions, winning the world’s most sustainable restaurant award and him featuring on the best chefs in the world list, much to his scorn. And that’s why he believes the fine dining industry has been humbled by its insignificance amid the virus crisis.
“The feeling that this pandemic has given me: restaurants are just restaurants. When it comes down to it, if the shit goes on fire, it’s not the restaurants that we need – it’s a lot of other things,” he said.
“Yes, we need food and produce, accessibility to food, but restaurants are not essential. I think it is humbling after 10 or 15 years of just feeling like you’re the shit, which has been the case for our industry where we’ve had so much focus and felt so important.
“I think it is nice to get the lesson where it’s like move away; we need doctors and nurses and restaurants are just not that important. I know a lot of people have been hit very hard business-wise – harder than I have – but personally I feel it is humbling to realise that they are just restaurants, take an edge off this world where you have smoke blown up your own arse. That’s healthy.”
After spending years overseeing the entire group from above, Puglisi is excited to return to the ground level. He wants to get his hands dirty at Baest and Mirabelle, which are literally next door to each other on a tiny dead-end street, just over a kilometre from Relae and Manfreds, which are across the road from each other. And he wants to continue to focus on his organic farm, the aptly named Farm of Ideas, which is an hour drive west of Copenhagen.
“Baest and Mirabelle will be my culinary base. Instead of trying to fly around and do all sorts of shit all the time, I’m just trying to have one place where I show up and go to work,” he said.
“I really look forward to that and I think both Baest and Mirabelle will have a big scoop in how we move and developing the gastronomic level of it. I think it has unrealised potential. I want to go into that and spend a lot of energy on that.”
Puglisi is also returning to Sicily twice next year to host two week-long immersive cooking workshops in late April and mid-October inside a luxury villa between Catania and Taormina.
“I did an event in November last year where I cooked for seven days and there were a bunch of people who joined me for a workshop experience. And I loved it,” he said.
“I find that inspiring and also a way I can go a little bit deeper with my discussion about food. I was born in Sicily so that’s why I find it has an interesting spin because as a professional I’ve never really had anything to do with Sicily. That’s a big thing for me and that’s just one thing I want to go a bit more into. I’ve had a lot of fun doing it.”
For now, that’s all Puglisi plans to do. He will put all his energy into Baest and Mirabelle. He will reopen Rudo when the bar scene in Copenhagen starts to resemble some sort of normality, whenever that happens. But when it comes to expansion down the track, never say never.
“I don’t want to exclude it, but I don’t want to put it in my head,” he said. “A lot of people have reacted to the news asking: what is your next step going to be? It’s like, people, I’m not retiring, I’ve got a lot of shit going on – I’ve had like five jobs at once for the last ten years, so I’m fine with having an almost normal busy life, you know? I want to savour that for a little bit.
“When it comes to the future, if I get an idea three years from now, five years from now, like this could be great, man I dream about doing this, then I’ll try and do it, I won’t be afraid to try it out. If I don’t, then it’s fine.
“Right now, with Baest and Mirabelle I have so much to work on and so much I’m excited to work on. It is more in the details of things and less on the big project stuff that people pay more attention to.”
And just like that, you get the feeling we will see another restaurant from Puglisi in the future. Maybe even more than one.