Martin Klein meets Søren Selin

Fusion from Denmark: Fermented asparagus meets French scallops

Before meeting Søren Selin for the first time, I take a brief stroll along Copenhagen’s harbour, from where I can see the refreshingly modern and elegant opera house on the opposite side of the river. A few steps to the west is Restaurant AOC, located in a vaulted cellar below the Baroque Moltke’s Palace. Amalienborg Palace, home of the Danish royal family, is a couple of blocks further down, opposite Frederik’s Church and its giant marble dome. Søren is just locking up his bike when we meet. The chef comes across as very laid-back and friendly. He is slim and blond and almost 40, but he doesn’t look his age at all. The AOC is bright and “hyggelig”, which means something like calm cosiness in Danish. The room is divided by arches, and the waiters’ passages have been planned very cleverly to ensure that the guests can relax without being disturbed. But not too much, for Søren likes to involve his guests in adding the finishing touches to his dishes. This makes the menu more fun and memorable, and it probably even tastes a bit better, explains the top chef.

As the first example, we prepare Søren’s tartar, which we will serve as an amuse-bouche in his Guest Chef menu at Restaurant Ikarus back in Salzburg. Thinly sliced beef, pickled onion flowers, garden cress, sour cream, beetroot powder and a green tomato salsa are prepared individually on a large plate and served with small crêpes. With a wooden knife, each guest can then enjoy their crêpes with their preferred spread, whether rolled up, folded or open.  This small dish is typical of the two-star chef’s cuisine. The “tartar” concept may seem familiar, but the elements of Nordic Cuisine – such as the pickled onion flowers, beetroot and sour cream – give the dish an extra touch of lightness and freshness. The meat for Søren’s tartar originates from cattle bred in the Copenhagen region. For his Guest Chef menu, the beef will come from the Salzburg countryside, as Søren always prefers to use regional produce if possible.

Of course, Søren also addresses aspects that many of his Scandinavian colleagues are fascinated by. Dried heart plays an important part in one of the dishes. The flowers and herbs are pickled, and Søren’s famous dessert consists of hazelnuts with one vegetable, Jerusalem artichoke. But for Søren, success means seeing lots of happy guests in his restaurant. This is more important to him than following the strict rules of the New Nordic Food Manifesto. Among his colleagues in Copenhagen, Søren is seen as a big fan of French produce. The blue lobster comes from Brittany, as do the scallops, the lemon sole and the flounder. That’s no coincidence: Søren spent several years working in Paris. His most recent stints were at Jules Verne, the Ducasse restaurant inside the Eiffel Tower and, before that, at Louis XIII, another grand Paris gourmet restaurant. Even though Søren – like myself – appreciates traditional French produce very much, he still prepares it very differently than his former mentors.

For example, he fillets the flounder with such skill that the back fillets remain on the bone without skin. When they contract slightly on the Kamado grill, the back bones protrude, making the fish look like a rack of lamb with its cutlet bones. This visual trick also enhances the flavour of the flounder steaks. And cooked on the bone, they stay particularly succulent. Earlier on, we’d cooked up a super-tasty BBQ varnish from smoked cod heads. Søren brushes the flounder with it on the grill before preparing the fish with wild garlic shoots, thyme and onion flowers – as fingerfood on a piece of paper, just like the simple smoked fish that is sold at the harbour.  Søren also combines his French scallops in a very unusual way: He cuts a wafer-thin sashami, before layering the clam strips into a kind of lasagne with thinly sliced fermented asparagus. The sweet flavours of the tender clams complement the bitter flavours of the asparagus slices perfectly.

The following day, we visit Danish asparagus king Søren Wiuff at his plant nursery around an hour west of Copenhagen. Wiuff doesn’t just grow asparagus but everything the heart of a Danish chef could desire, from fennel pollen to baby celeriac. He started fermenting asparagus by chance when saving some leftovers from spoiling. Wiuff takes us on a tour through his kingdom. Whereas the farms of the dedicated vegetable gardeners in Austria or Germany are usually very small, Wiuff runs a large-scale operation. The gardener would have no problems supplying us with Søren’s favourite vegetables from Denmark for the whole of December – but that wouldn’t exactly reflect Søren’s idea of regional cuisine. Wiuff gives us a crate of Jerusalem artichoke tubers to take away with us.

Back in the catacombs of the AOC, we use them to prepare a very unusual dessert. We put some Jerusalem artichoke foam into a deep dish together with caramel ice cream, raw and marinated Jerusalem artichoke cubes, hazelnut brittle and crumble, and freshly ground, roasted hazelnuts. The showstopper here is the lid of the dessert, which takes the form of a Jerusalem artichoke wafer: the vegetable purée is cooked with sugar, spread into the required shape and then dried. We place the wafer loosely onto the edge of the dish, so that it hovers just above the other ingredients. This is important, as the wafer is subsequently caramelised with a blowtorch. The air pocket stops the ice cream from melting. On its way to the table, the wafer then cools down into an ethereal crunchy cloud. Fantastic!

Recorded by Hans Gerlach

"RESTAURANT AOC"

Dronningens Tværgade 2
1302 Copenhagen
Denmark

Tel: +45-3311-1145

Email: mail@restaurantaoc.dk
Web: www.restaurantaoc.dk

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