Prince of Copenhagen

9 minute read
Lisa Abend

With only a few hours remaining before the arrival of his first diners, Matt Orlando was still experimenting with the oat chips he planned to have waiting on the table to welcome his guests when they sat down. As a quintessential Southern Californian–with the skateboard and hip-hop collection to show for it–he could have made the chips his own by using corn or another typically American ingredient. But he had chosen Denmark as the location for Amass, his debut restaurant, and so he stirred cod roe, one of the essential elements of Danish cuisine, into the batter. He wasn’t thrilled with the result, however. Pulling an experimental sheet from the oven, Orlando tested one, then impassively dumped the rest into the trash. “Tastes like Cheetos,” he said.

A Cheetos kind of place Amass definitely is not. When it opened in Copenhagen on July 17, the restaurant already had more than 1,800 reservations on the books–25% of those from outside Denmark, a record for the local online booking system. Foodie websites like as well as some notable chefs, had pegged it as Europe’s most important opening of the year. Most of the expectations centered on Orlando: the 36-year-old chef has overseen some of the best kitchens in the world, including New York City’s Per Se and Copenhagen’s Noma. But they were also born of the seismic changes that have remade the restaurant world in the past few years. At a time when the debut of a restaurant on the overgrown shore of a Nordic city’s warehouse district can become a global event, Amass and Orlando are a fair barometer of the pressures and possibilities confronting ambitious young chefs today.

Tossing pizzas as a 14-year-old in his hometown of San Diego, Orlando could hardly have imagined that two decades later he’d be poised to enter the upper echelons of today’s fevered culinary world. Tall and dark-haired, with a swimmer’s shoulders and a tattoo–three dots inside a circle–on his elbow that commemorates both the father who died nine years ago and a record label he loves, Orlando dreamed as a child of becoming a professional snowboarder. But stopgap restaurant jobs gradually yielded to a career that eventually landed him at prestigious establishments in New York and abroad. He was cooking at the three-star Fat Duck in the U.K. the day a young Danish chef named René Redzepi came for lunch; a few weeks later, he was standing behind a stove at Noma, Redzepi’s trailblazing restaurant. He stayed there two years until becoming the executive sous chef at Per Se, a job he won by cooking a four-course meal himself for legendary chef Thomas Keller. In 2010 he returned to Noma, this time as head chef. But by then he knew he was nearly ready to strike out on his own.

Like most good chefs, Orlando has not only natural talent but also a remarkable ability to absorb. From his mentors he has acquired both the determination and the near obsessive attention to detail that it takes to make it as a chef. (He insists that his cooks wash down the steel cabinets in the kitchen each night by scrubbing in the same direction: perpendicular to the length of the counter.)

But if Orlando has evolved in the short time it’s taken him to rise through the ranks, so too in that period has the restaurant business. Consider, for example, how many accomplished chefs these days are eschewing formality, giving up the stiff service and heavy silverware for an approach that fits more easily with today’s laid-back zeitgeist. Housed in a former warehouse, Amass hews to the trend: there’s not a tablecloth or flower arrangement in sight. But its ambition is still obvious in its details–the way servers use string to align glasses and napkins, or the fact that a starter of peas stuffed into juicy St.-John’s-wort leaves is served only during the two weeks when the peas are at their peak, not the six when they’re in season. “You could serve this food at a fine-dining restaurant,” Orlando says. “I just don’t want to. Amass is the kind of place I want to eat in, someplace fun and open that just happens to serve exceptional food.”

And that place just happens to be in Copenhagen. “It wasn’t that long ago that we were a gastronomic Siberia,” says Kasper Fogh, director of communication for the Food Organization of Denmark, a nonprofit that promotes Nordic cuisine. “But today you ask someone like Anthony Bourdain what the great food cities of the world are, and he says Tokyo, New York, Paris … and Copenhagen.” Noma is largely responsible for the transformation: ranked best in the world from 2010 to 2012, it not only taught Danes to appreciate the culinary bounty around them but also turned Copenhagen into a global gastronomic destination. According to the Danish hotel and restaurant association, 1 in 3 tourists to the city now arrives with the intention of visiting a specific restaurant.

Like the diners who come from all over, aspiring young chefs from around the globe see it as a mecca. These days, the kitchens of the city’s most intriguing restaurants, including Amass’s, are staffed with Australians, Brits, Spaniards and Americans. If that international tide has turned Copenhagen for cooks in 2013 into what Paris was for writers in the 1920s, it also helps explain why Orlando, like other Noma alums–including Sam Nutter (from the U.K.) and Victor Wagman (from Sweden) of Bror–have decided to set up shop here. “I never expected these guys to stay. I thought they would all go home when it was time for them to open their own place,” says Redzepi, who is an investor in Amass. “But there’s been an immigration of talent to Copenhagen. It makes you feel that something is really happening here.” Despite having offers at home, Orlando stayed, in large part because of that feeling. “Everyone here is working so hard to make something of this city,” he says. “It makes you feel a part of something bigger.”

But the local chefs’ community is not the only one to which Orlando belongs. Months before the restaurant opened, Amass had a Twitter account, a Facebook page and a blog. It also had a p.r. person to run them and field the onslaught of media requests. “I thought I’d answer my own e-mails and maybe post a few things on Twitter every so often,” Orlando says. “But that was before I saw how much people were actually talking about this place. One day I opened Twitter and thought, Why are all you people here? We’re not even open yet. Give me a running start.”

But that is something young chefs like Orlando can no longer expect. “He’s not just opening a little restaurant in Copenhagen,” says Redzepi. “When we opened in 2003, nobody knew us. We didn’t have Eater watching our every move. We could just work in our quiet little corner trying every day to make a good restaurant. But Matt doesn’t have that, because that world doesn’t exist anymore.” It’s not just the global tribe of bloggers and reporters and culinary tourists armed with Instagram that Orlando has to watch out for. He also has to worry about the 50 Best Restaurants in the World list, an international ranking overseen by Restaurant magazine that has become a remarkably influential arbiter of ambitious restaurants’ success. “Anyone who says they don’t care about 50 Best is lying,” says Orlando. “It has way too big an impact on how many seats you fill.”

All this weighs on Orlando. He knows it’s not enough that his food be delicious and creative. His restaurant also has to look good, keep a tight rein on costs and cultivate relationships with farmers and artisans so he gets the products he wants. He has a staff to mentor, including one utterly inexperienced commis–a kitchen assistant on the lowest rung of the hierarchy–whom he hired simply because he liked her enthusiasm. But these aspects have always been part of a chef’s job. What is different now, what adds to the pressure–and the potential payoff–is the knowledge that the whole food world is watching.

Orlando got a reminder of that on opening night. After a couple of trial runs for friends and family, he had tweaked his original menu so that dishes I thought were already accomplished became ineffably better. The pea puree in the wort leaves had been replaced with a pea-infused crème fraîche. A flavorful lamb breast glazed in lavender had been added to the tasting menu to flesh it out. And the roe-flavored oat chips that he had planned to have waiting on the table when diners sat down? “Gone,” Orlando said, in a tone that suggested he would rather not talk about it. They reappeared, minus the fish eggs, on a beet dish, artfully providing a layer of crunch beneath a shower of shaved foie gras.

It’s a cliché to refer to a restaurant as theater, but never will one more resemble a stage than on opening night. At 6 p.m. on July 17, the Nordic sunlight streaming through Amass’s windows was still strong and glowed across the floor as a server led the first couple to their table. In the kitchen, the frantic prep work stopped for a moment, and everyone fell quiet to watch. “Guys,” Orlando said. “We’ve got a restaurant.”

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