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Jun

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The queen of vegetables

 
"It's not just ecological nerds that are thinking about the importance of eating organic food." A short interview with food writer and chef Mette Helbæk

Author of the cook book ‘Grøntsagsbiblen‘ (The Vegetable Bible), Helbæk opened Stedsans restaurant with her husband, Flemming Schiøtt Hansen, this May. Integrated into the city’s first rooftop farm ØsterGro in Østerbro, guests can dine in a green oasis high above the city. She has been called ‘the vegetable queen’, so it makes sense that she has some rather strong opinions about the state of our agriculture and the importance of eating right.

Can you explain where your interest in food and produce comes from?

“Like so many others, I come from a family where we cooked all our food ourselves and never really went to restaurants. It was never anything too fancy, but when I was ten, I started to help out in the kitchen and cook. Growing up, dinnertime was always a very sacred time with the family, and the act of eating together was very important.”

The rooftop farm Østergro. Restaurant Stedsans feeds its diners in the central greenhouse (Photo: Peter Stanners)

The rooftop farm Østergro. Restaurant Stedsans feeds its diners in the central greenhouse (Photo: Peter Stanners)

What is the concept behind your restaurant Stedsans, and what is your collaboration with the rooftop garden ØsterGro like?

“I work as a food writer and have worked on recipe books, and the food I write about in my books is the same as the food we make in our kitchen—delicious yet easy. Our concept is based a lot around sustainability. My husband believes that you can never be too sustainable, and that is how we approach everything, from dishwashing to produce. We can be pretty dramatic about it, and we don’t allow any kinds of chemicals in our kitchen. But it is also very important for us to have a good, positive working relationship with our staff in order for that to translate into the food. ØsterGro was started last year as a membership organisation that allows consumers to track the food from the harvest to their table. When people dine up here, they do so surrounded by the food they are eating.”

What do you think is the most interesting thing about our food culture today, and do you find that the way we think about food has changed?

“I think we are now in a new green wave, as we have started to realise that we live in an ecosystem that we all have an impact on. It’s not the case anymore that it’s just ecological nerds that are thinking about the importance of eating organic food – it’s also just average people.

“The other thing that has changed is that people have become more interested in eating local produce. This has been apparent with gourmet restaurants like Noma, but many other restaurants have started to take the principles of local produce to heart, too. In my work as a food writer, I also go to plenty of restaurants, and I have noticed that things don’t need to be as formal any more. There is a lot less focus on waiters standing in the right spot, or the napkin being in the right place. Today things revolve more around creating a nice, cosy atmosphere where people can enjoy themselves.”

 The farm's chickens. (Photo: Peter Stanners)

The farm’s chickens. (Photo: Peter Stanners)

Last year, Denmark chose a national dish. What do you think of that concept, and how do you rate the work of agricultural minister Dan Jørgensen?

“I didn’t really follow the debate about the national dish too closely, but I think that the winner stegt flæsk (fried streaky pork) is a very bad example of what Danish gastronomical culture has to offer. It is not healthy to eat a lot of it, and our pigs are treated terribly. I like stegt flæsk when it is prepared properly, but I can go a really long time between servings. I think we should have chosen some of Denmark’s outstanding produce, such as our cream or our potatoes.”

 The curly cale was flowering a bright yellow and attracting the honey bees from the farm's hives.

The curly cale was flowering a bright yellow and attracting the honey bees from the farm’s hives.

“With regard to our agricultural policies, I think we should change the VAT so that eating green costs less than eating things that are bad for us. Our policies also seem to be very shortsighted. We should focus more on the pesticides we are using and how we treat our ecosystem. I think Jørgensen is a nice guy, but I fear he is stuck between some very big interests”

What are your favourite restaurants in Copenhagen, aside from your own? 

“There are so many top restaurants, but if I had to pick a few, it would be AOC, which is different without being too avant-garde. Bar’vin is a place I often go with my husband to have a nice evening. There is Lumskebuksen if I want some traditional smørrebrød, and you can’t really beat Copenhagen Street Food on a nice, sunny day. M

Culture

By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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