Art on a Plate
Matt Orlando has the best credentials a chef can have. He started cooking at age 15 and has steadily worked his way up the culinary ladder.
In many ways his resume is the definitive list of the best restaurants in the world. He has worked with Eric Rippert (at Le Bernadin), Raymond Blanc (at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons) and Hesten Blumenthal (at Fat Duck). He was Thomas Keller’s sous chef at Per Se and most recently, Rene Redzepi’s head chef at Noma. In today’s world of rockstar chefs it’s hard to buy a better cullinary resume.
And yet Matt is one of the most down-to-earth guys I have met. When I got to his new restaurant, Amass, Matt was at the pass himself, painstakingly grating frozen foie gras over the first set of canapes being served that evening. When I say foie gras I am, of course, making a gross understatement. This was no ordinary pate. Matt’s foie gras is brined for 24 hours, hot smoked, rolled and then frozen solid overnight. The resulting cylinders of frozen pate have to be grated over the poached beetroot crackers and served immediately or else the snowflake thin slivers will melt at room temperature.
Amass has received nothing but good press in a city that is already world famous for its innovative modern cuisine. Despite this, the chef-owner of Amass is remarkably approachable. His kitchen is built open-style and flows seamlessly into the dining area. The kitchen staff are accomodating — nay, welcoming — of guests wandering in and tolerated me walking through the stainless steel cooking areas while they plated up the appetizers.
I was only half serious when I asked Matt if he would let me grate some of his frozen foie gras over the canapes. I could not imagine that any chef of his stature would tolerate a rank amateur getting his grubby hands all over the food. Yet, his immediate and unhesitating response was to call for a fresh roll of foie gras from the freezer and to hand me his microplane.
Which is how I ended up plating the entrees at one of the finest restaurants in Copenhagen.
The defining feature of modern Danish restaurants is the down-to-earth, casual atmosphere of their kitchens. Brought up, as we so unfortunately are, on a diet of expletive ridden top chef shows, the placid, unruffled kitchen at Amass is the antithesis of what we have grown up to expect. The staff are anything but pretentious and they go about the business of making and serving food with almost zen-like calm.
Like most modern Danish restaurants, Amass eschews the frippery and fancy that has come to be associated with fine dining. Dinner is served on bare wooden tables that not only have no tablecloths they don’t even indicate what cutlery is appropriate for the next course. If you want a knife or fork you are welcome to dip into the wooden box at the centre of the table — or just use your hands. The food is designed to be eaten directly from the bowl however you want to. The waiters will explain what the food is but provide no suggestions whatsoever as to how you are expected to eat it.
As the plates begin to arrive the first thing that strikes you is how visually appealing it all is. The first course is a duck confit but all you see is a carpet of delicate nasturtium flowers and leaves, centrally arranged on a stark, unadorned plate with ikebana precision.
It is almost a shame to have to disturb the arrangement to get at the poultry and I pat myself on the back for my foresight to carry a camera.
This is cooking at the highest level, technically brilliant and innovative yet at the same time refined on the palate. The presentation is creative yet precise, the flavour combinations unusual but somehow woven together cohesively. The food feels familiar but even so, every course is an adventure.
Nothing exemplified this more than what was probably the dish of the day — the 63 degree egg yolk served in a flavoured black pepper oil. Now, I already knew the science behind getting egg yolk to the texture of toffee by slowly cooking the egg in a water bath at a precisely controlled temperature. I knew what to expect in terms of mouth-feel and texture. But that was only half the story. What really set this dish apart was the way in which the just-solid yolk was married with a slightly sweet, spicy broth that subtly blunted the heaviness of the yolk.
The meal continued through a monkfish entree (burried under celery and corriander and bathed in a smoked fish broth), a wild duck main course (covered with mustard greens and bitter garlic) and a deceptively simple apple dessert (set off with whiskey and vinegar). Each dish demonstrated the simplicity in preparation but evoked a rich complexity of flavours.
The dining experience at Amas is unhurried without being tedious. The portions encourage us to linger over the food without ever leaving us with the feeling that we are eating too much or that any one portion was too filling. There is never a moment during the meal when you are left waiting for what comes next — even the pauses between courses seem rehearsed and meticulously executed.
The hallmark of a real artist, is the ability to present art in an accessible, deceptively rudimentary form. To make it so simple that you believe all it will take to be able to paint that painting or play that song is a bit of practice. This is what makes the music of the Beatles so enjoyable and why, even before I watched this video, I knew that Bohemian Rhapsody was a masterpiece. True art is so much more than what appears on the surface.
I have eaten at many fine restaurants around the world. I’ve been dazzled by culinary theatrics and the tastes and smells of rare, expensive ingredients. The food at Amass has all of that - with sous vide eggs and other complex techniques. But never once was gimmick and razzmatazz allowed to overwhelm the meal. This was all about the food — what you saw and what you ate. While the dishes appeared simple, it took just a few mouthfuls to realise that food at this level is simply impossible to reproduce.
Thankfully I figured this out soon enough to stop dissecting every morsel and simply enjoy the meal.