Paul Cunningham is head chef at Henne Kirkeby Kro, a 200-year-old inn in western Jutland that won its first Michelin star last year and its second this spring. Cunningham was born in England and has lived in Denmark since 1994, but had to close his previous restaurant, The Paul, in 2011 after developing a blood clot in his shoulder and being diagnosed with stress-related anxiety.
He sat down for a candid conversation about New Nordic cuisine, mental health in the restaurant industry, why he turned down a role at Noma, and the secret of his success at the restaurant he affectionately calls “our Henne”.
Congratulations on the second star. Can you describe what you’re doing at Henne?
I use the best rhubarb I can get, the best butter I can get, the best herbs I can get. I’m not a big forager, but every chef would give their right arm to have a restaurant situated in this area. We don’t forage because if things don’t taste nice, I’m not going to serve it. I’m not going to serve you a dish with wood sorrel if I don’t want to eat it myself. I’m a very egotistical chef. I cook for myself. I cook physically for my guests, but I’ve always cooked very selfishly, because I cook food I want to eat myself. I would love to sit here and eat a little bit of roast chicken and some really nice buttery potatoes and some crumble for dessert. There’s got to be space for that. This is a nice relaxed place, but one shouldn’t expect fireworks, because that’s not what we do. This is a 200-year-old thatched coaching inn, in the middle of nowhere. And I like that.
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Have the Michelin stars changed anything?
When we got the first star, we got a lot of people expecting white gloves and chefs’ hats. And when I walked in wearing baggy old pants and a pair of slippers, some people just didn’t get it. But I think people are relaxing a lot more. We’re not going to change for the sake of change.
But do you feel extra pressure to keep the two stars?
Obviously, but not from the guide, more from the guests. They have expectations, very high expectations, from what they’ve seen in newspapers and on social media. But we got the second star for what we did before, not for what we’re going to do tomorrow.
Tell me about what you call the flip-side of the industry—the negative impact on mental health?
The stress is always there, because you’re constantly performing, you’re constantly on. You’re not always on edge, but you are constantly being judged – by diners, by critics, by restaurant guides – and no matter how much you say you’re not affected by them, you are. I recently went to my doctor and said I could feel it creeping back. He said I should speak to someone else, so I was referred to someone who could help me more. I spoke to someone for two hours the other day and think it’s amazing. And it’s a fact of being honest. I’ve had anxiety for about six years, and it gets worse and better, worse and better. I just need to get control of it. You have to learn to control it – to be friends with it. You have to go through it and not take the easy way out. The first thing I did this morning was pull the staff together and tell them what’s going on, and why I’m weird every now and then, because I’ve got issues. If I’m not honest with them, they’re going to think I’m an ogre.
Tell me about Noma. Its founder Claus Meyer asked you to head up the kitchen, right?
Noma didn’t exist at that point. Claus phoned and said he had an idea. I went round to his and sat in his kitchen, and he had all this paperwork spread out over the table. We sat and talked for days, and I thought the idea was amazing, but it didn’t make sense for an English guy to do it. I said he needed a Nordic chef, and recommended two. One was René Redzepi. I knew at that point that I would never have been able to put myself in that Nordic box.
Do you see yourself as part of the New Nordic movement?
I’m a ‘locavore’ – this is a local kitchen with local ingredients, but I spice my kitchen with my travels because I’ve travelled far too much not be inspired by pickled seaweed in Japan, or roasted spices in Goa, or Parisian asparagus. I travel shitloads. We’re always travelling, and out of season we travel an awful lot more. And I think it would be wrong of me not to be inspired by other cuisines. I’ve always done that.
What’s your take on the state of the New Nordic kitchen?
It has become a monoculture. It irritates the life out of me when you get some knob opening a restaurant when he’s picked herbs at Noma for three months and wants to get six Michelin stars in the first year. That irritates the life out of me because it’s childish. I mean, don’t you think further than the end of your nose? And it’s really problematic when everyone does the same stuff, day in day out, and no matter what restaurant you go to, you know you’re going to get the same food and the same wine pairings.
Is Copenhagen’s scene overrated?
I’ve always said it is. It’s overrated because it’s watered down and sells itself incredibly well. There are some incredible places to eat in Copenhagen, but there are loads of lousy places as well, where you think, “For god’s sake, you can’t take that amount of money and tell people it’s some sort of biodynamic organic carrot that’s been excreted from Farmer Giles’ bottom, when you know and I know you bought it down the market and it’s been lying in a box for three weeks.” And there’s a lot of that going on. M