Q&A: Matt Orlando

The chef and owner of Amass restaurant talks about the future of food and why running a kitchen is like live theatre

Matt Orlando is one of Copenhagen’s most celebrated green-fingered chefs and now he is on a mission to change how restaurants think and work. Orlando was born in San Diego, but moved to Denmark in 2010 where he became head chef at two-star Michelin restaurant Noma. In 2013 he launched Amass in the post-industrial neighbourhood of Refshaleøen. Since then, he has turned it into one of the world’s most forward-thinking restaurants.

Sustainability and doing away with as much waste as possible are the watchwords at Amass and at the heart of that philosophy lies its kitchen garden, built on a disused dry dock. Herbs, plants and tubers grow seasonally, while fruit and vegetables flourish within a poly-tunnel, thanks to a state-of-the-art aquaponics system. We caught up with Orlando recently and asked him about the future of food, how to reduce waste, and why running a kitchen is like live theatre.

What has growing your own produce taught you about being a chef?

It doesn’t matter what you can grow – if it doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t matter. There’s this romantic idea of the kitchen garden, but it takes incredible mental effort to manage it. This summer was a prime example. I sat down with my head gardener Jackie last March to plan the harvest. All the seeds we were expecting to sprout at the end of May did, but the June batch never sprouted. All of a sudden all this stuff you’ve planned, you can’t do. But you have to accept chaos. You have to accept that not everything goes to plan.

So our menu has to be very flexible, which means we’ve gotten into a groove that means we’ve never repeated a dish. We’ve never gone back to a dish that we did the year before. Now we’ve come to this weird masochistic way of thinking – that even if we can repeat a dish, we’re not going to, because that’s just what we’ve done for the past two years. Also, if you start falling back on dishes you’ve done before, your kitchen will never progress the way you want it to, or that I want it to.

Are there any dishes that have only come about because of what you’re growing?

Crosnes, which we did lightly warmed with almond oil and dried plums on top. A crosne is a little tuber, very similar to a sun choke [Jerusalem artichoke], but a bit denser and nuttier. You can’t see them growing, they don’t sprout, so you just need to know you’ve scattered seeds, and then dig your hand in there. We had them for two days, and we only had it on the extended menu, so there were only 30 orders in total. It was a dish that happened in the moment. Jackie just scattered some seeds. We created a dish that night, it kind of just happened.

It’s those special moments that wouldn’t happen unless you were able to cook in this spontaneous way. Also, we don’t have a test kitchen and we don’t really test dishes that much. I think if you try to test it, you beat the hell out of the idea. A lot of times, the first time we plate a dish is at the beginning of service that same night.

That’s brave.

Right, but I also think that when you’re in service your senses are heightened much more, because obviously there’s all this information coming in.

It sounds like live theatre.

That’s exactly what a kitchen’s like. It’s that sense of not being 100 percent confident in what you’re about to deliver, but thriving off that. I love it. Some of the guys in the kitchen are like: *sighs* “All right, chef…”

What are some of the clever ways you use to eliminate waste?

A lot of effort goes into [baking] bread, so you don’t just want to throw it out. We’ve started to soak it overnight in leftover yoghurt whey, then we puree it, spread it out on a baking sheet, roast it and make chips out of it. All of our green kitchen-waste goes to the lady who does our eggs. Hens eat hay in winter, and the flavour changes. They eat grass from May to September. Every time she drops off eggs with us, twice a week, she collects bags of green kitchen waste.

Then there’s excess water – from our ice baths, or the bottles of water on tables. There’s usually half a bottle on each table at the end of a meal. The first night [we collected water] there were 80 litres. Five days a week, that’s 5,500 litres a year, all now saved and used in the garden.

Could this be a sea change in how restaurants think and act? Perhaps it’s time for a new Nordic manifesto.

For me, that’s the goal. 100 percent.

How do we get there?

I’m still trying to figure that out! noma [re-opening as an urban farm in 2017] will definitely help this movement, if you want to call it that.

I think we need to lead by example. That’s the best way to get anywhere, to do as much as you possibly can and not do it half-heartedly and really get behind what you’re doing and show people you believe in what you’re doing.

With regards to sustainability, I’ve found you need to be a bit careful of not sounding like you’re preaching, because people hate that. It’s more about feeding information, as opposed to doing it in this philosophical way – you know, the moon and the stars and all that.

It’s about providing straight facts: “This is what we’re doing and why we’re doing it”. Of course, it is about the environment and the grand scheme of things. But it’s also about where you are right now and how you can affect things right here, right now, and hope that it spreads.

It is important to just keep that line of impact, because there are so many shallow materialistic things about this industry. I mean, you see these chefs driving around in their Lamborghinis, their Ferraris, and they post pictures on Instagram of the speedometer in the Mercedes, which they got sponsored by, and I’m like, “What the fuck, how can you be so shallow? You have a restaurant, which in itself is materialistic, and if you can’t do anything around that restaurant that has a positive impact on your immediate environment, then you are in this for the wrong reasons.”

I think if you have that responsible way of thinking, it will spread, and my ultimate goal is that it just kind of spreads and people start thinking like this. And try to improve the environment of their restaurant and the environment around them.

Care to share some of the secrets of running Amass?

I’ve learnt a whole new level of patience. I’ve also learnt how to pick battles well. Because you can pick them all day long, but I’ve learnt how to do it in constructive ways that are more about forcing my staff to deal with the problem themselves rather than me saying: “Do it like this”. So managing people has been a huge part of it.

I love cooking even more now because, within a restaurant, cooking is an escape from all the other stuff you need to do. I love the process of getting from here to there, whether it’s cooking or putting a new floor in the kitchen. But ultimately cooking is why I started. I come in early, a couple of hours before the guys, so I get everything done before 11, like answering my emails.

When you’re head chef at Noma you’ve got three jobs. First and foremost you’re a psychiatrist, because you have 47 chefs and egos and opinions, and then you’re a chef, and to a certain extent you’re also a babysitter. So that was an amazing learning experience, and I think that taught me so much about the psychology of working with a large number of people.

Where do you like to eat out, and why?

If I’m going out to dinner, hands down my favourite meal in the city is Relae. Definitely. It’s good and it’s interesting, and for me it’s my favourite meal in the city. If I’m going out to eat, super casual, I love Bror.

What would your final meal on Earth be?

Definitely Mexican food. But Mexican food from Baja California, not central Mexico. It’s very different. Maybe I’m biased because I more or less grew up surfing down there. Central Mexico is really deep – like moles and braised meats. Baja California is very fresh, seafood-focused – lots of fresh tomatoes and jalapenos.  A drink on the side? Horchata, a rice drink they make. They take raw rice and blend it with water, then they season it with a tiny bit of sugar, and then add cinnamon and cloves. M


By James Clasper

Contributing editor. @jamesclasper

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