Recipe for Success
In one of Northern Europe’s most exclusive hotels, Britannia, World Champion Chef and Bocuse d`Or silver medalist 2017, Christopher Davidsen, welcomes guests to a dining experience unlike any other. We had a chat with him about his signature restaurant, Speilsalen, and had him reveal his secret to making world class food.
Let’s cut straight to the chase, Christopher: How can we, regular folks, cook like an A-league chef? Give us the formula.
– It takes hard work!
Damn, it’s always hard work. We were hoping for a simple tip or two. “Just add an extra teaspoon of nutmeg”, or something. In that case, tell us your thoughts on the raw materials available in Trondheim.
– It’s true that Trondheim has some truly amazing produce to start off with. We’re especially fond of the seafood, here at Speilsalen. But the job is to transform the produce into something of our own. Something you won’t get anywhere else.
Does that start with a grand vision inside your head? Similar to how a musical composer hears the notes, you taste them?
– No! It’s practical and methodical work. An approach I have brought with me from my time with Steffen Engelhard, my old mentor. We usually start with a main ingredient and test different ways of preparing it: Is this ingredient best when raw, grilled, fried, poached or baked? After deciding on that, we move on to see how it can be enhanced even further. Does it suit a vinaigrette? No? OK! Then perhaps it needs more fat. We conclude on a Hollandaise. But something grilled with a fatty sauce is not original. Is there a way to reinvent the Hollandaise? Can we add Sansho pepper? What does that do? And what is a good way of serving this to our guests? In the end, after much trial and error, we have a creation in front us that is often classic, yet playful and unique to us.
Is that how you would describe the food at Speilsalen: Classic, yet playful?
– Yes, it is. And that’s why I feel at home here at Britannia. I remember entering Speilsalen for the very first time, this astonishingly beautiful room, thinking to myself that it was a perfect match. You know, the first time a meal was served here was in 1870. And we find a lot of inspiration in the hotel’s old recipes from the late 19th and early 20th century. Like then, you’ll still find scallops and wild salmon on our menu today. Perhaps even some foie gras and truffle. But my philosophy is taking the classic French cuisine and adding Nordic playfulness to it. It’s important for me to bring out the Norwegian identity in the food.
Perfect! Now we’re getting closer to a formula. Good produce, French culinary classicism (in other words lots of butter) and a dash of New Nordic Cuisine. Got it.
– Well… For me, Nordic and Norwegian food is not about ants, shrub and things like that. Those are parts of a new trend and not the historical Norwegian cuisine. We were a seafaring people who were good at planning ahead; conserving fish, salting, drying and so on. These are the methods I like to build on in my cooking. And I think the reason why the Norwegian kitchen is growing in popularity these days, is that we are both proud of our history and good at finding inspiration elsewhere. We are less bound by the rules than what the French kitchen is.
– And of course, it’s not just about the food. Dining at Speilsalen is so much more. Yes, to some it may feel a bit stiff at first. Dining with us is a somewhat formal experience. But we are good at making our guests feel welcome and relaxed. Ten minutes into the evening, we start to see their shoulders drop and hear laughter spread throughout the room. Our skilled and easy-going waiters are good at making our guests feel at ease, which in turn makes the food taste even better.
Easy-going is perhaps not the first word that springs to mind when thinking of waiters at a classic, high-end restaurant.
– I have to tell you something. When I came to Trondheim and was starting up my first restaurant here, eight years ago, the biggest problem we faced was hiring local waiters. Not because there were none, but because they were simply too satisfied at their current workplace. That is definitely not the case in every city, and I am confident that happy staff is essential in creating happy customers. Again, this is something I’ve brought with me from my old mentor, Engelhard. He taught me the importance of having one’s personal life in order. If you have time off and a hobby, you will both have fun at work and do well at work. I try to pass that on to my own employees.
Is that still the case for you? We wonder because, yes, you’ve been given an incredible opportunity to create a world class restaurant here at Britannia. But we imagine that such an opportunity comes served on a bed of immense expectations? Both from the hotel’s owner and not least the critics. Most people would find a–to use a kitchen term–’mise en place’ like that crippling. How do you live under such heavy pressure?
– To be honest, I thought a lot about that in the beginning. But I believe we have succeeded at distancing ourselves from the outside expectations by expecting even more from ourselves. We constantly debrief and strive to always do better. And yes, Reitan (The owner of Britannia) is a man with high ambitions. But he puts a lot of trust in us and does not hang over my shoulder. For him, what matters most is that his guests are happy. And we have achieved that thus far.
So you are still having fun at work?
– Definitely! I love my job. Furthermore, running a restaurant based on my own philosophy and no one else’s has been a dream for many years. I have a lot of confidence in our concept at Speilsalen, so if the odd guest or critic finds our concept ill-suited for them, I can live with that. You have to listen to your guests, of course, but remain true to yourself.
It sounds easy when you say it. But judging from the reviews, you don’t have many harsh critiques to worry about anyway. With your success in mind, what do you wish for the future? When you’re old and gray, left to your rocking chair, what will you look back on?
– For Trondheim’s benefit, I hope the trend of new, quality restaurants opening up will continue in many years to come. And I hope they are of even greater variety. We can still do better at differentiating ourselves from one another. That is also the case when it comes to who is working in the industry. I would love to see more women in the kitchen, and I hope that young people of all sorts will look towards a career as a chef, waiter, sommelier and so on. It is so much fun working with food, and in Trøndelag in particular, which has the best guests and most friendly locals in all of Norway.
Hang on. Did we just hear a person from Rogaland (Stavanger) referring to the people of Trøndelag as the most friendly in Norway? Can we quote you on that?
– Haha! Yes, I stand behind that 100% percent. They are happy and friendly. And this is probably a part of why I see myself living here the rest of my life.