Mostly overshadowed by Copenhagen’s longstanding bustling cosmopolitan scene, Denmark’s second largest city Aarhus is now coming off the sidelines and making a name for itself in the gastronomical world. Produce Business UK meets the Michelin star chef behind the food revolution, Wassim Hallal, to talk about using only the best ingredients, supplier relationships and striving for that next Michelin star
With wall-to-wall glass facades looking in all directions, Wassim Hallal’s fine dining restaurant Fredierikshoj sits on the seafront of one of Denmark’s most diverse landscapes. Set on top of a slight hill at the foot of a forest and on the periphery of the country’s main farming district Jutland, it is the perfect place to dig into everything this happily placed city can offer.
Determined to stick to his hometown, Aarhus, rather than move to the established foodie haven of the capital city, Hallal achieved Aarhus’s first Michelin star in 2015. Relying upon good-quality, carefully sourced ingredients, the chef’s food is classic and European, with a Nordic feel and a touch of the theatrical. The restaurant serves either a six-, 10- or 14-course tasting menu, and is fully booked for months ahead.
Having owned several restaurants previoulsy, 36-year-old Hallal also runs a smørrebrød casual dining restaurant, F-Høj in Aarhus centre, which concentrates on the art of the famous Danish open sandwich, and has recently taken on the role of ambassador for Aarhus next year as the European Region of Gastronomy 2017. All this, and he still finds time to judge the Danish Gourmet Hotdog Championship at the annual Aarhus Food Festival this year.
Fredierikshoj’s surroundings are endlessly inspiring to Hallal
PHOTO CREDIT: Benjamin Lund Nielsen
PB: What inspires you when it comes to being a chef and the ingredients you use?WH: My surroundings, as well as the changing seasons and ingredients, are endlessly inspiring. In Aarhus, we bring together the sea, the forest and our farmers – and at Fredierikshoj combine all the amazing parts of this area.
Other chefs are really important – you never stop learning. French chefs are the most important people in the industry today and it is their ambition that keeps them going. My culinary education was in kitchens in Belgium and I gathered my art before the Nordic food scene took off, which I am proud of. I am ambitious in everything; in achieving standards constantly high enough to get a Michelin star and now working towards a two-star, to pushing forward my cycling team to work harder, in my spare time. It’s a personality; it’s a frame of mind.
PB: How important is a Michelin star to restaurants in Aarhus?
WH: In 2006, a new food scene started to cross over from Belgium to Denmark and I made a decision to stay in Aarhus and bring fine dining to this area, rather than follow everyone to Copenhagen. The last three years have been crazy in the way the food scene has taken off, and new restaurants and pubs have been opening constantly. Young chefs now stay in the area and we have a really young, vibrant food scene emerging in Aarhus that concentrates on local, fresh and good-quality ingredients, cooked simply. On an everyday level, the star means that we are constantly booked for months ahead – there is no chance of an off-the-street booking now.
PB: What are your key fresh ingredients?
WH: We get some excellent core vegetables, like onions, leeks, carrots and potatoes from a grower, about two hours away from here. We have to have the upmost quality and taste, as well as the same size, so the veg complements our dishes. Freshness, taste and size have to be guaranteed. We have a herb farmer in the north of the city and another in Copenhagen, and from the sea we get exceptional lobster, oysters and seabass. But it’s wild foods gathered from our neighbouring forest that are the most important and inspiring. We are pickling some beautiful porcini, chanterelles and trompettes, and wood sorrel, chestnuts and beech-tree kernels. There are lots of wild herbs in the forest, but wood sorrel has a tangy freshness and a pretty leaf formation, and grows in the woods all year round. We have an abundance of wild garlic in the spring and we have elderflower right now. We do go further for crucial ingredients when they are not right close to home. Our forest does not have truffles, and we have had some tasteless ones from neighbouring countries, so we have to source from Italy.
PB: What are your main challenges when it comes to suppliers?
WH: The big challenge is to find local products in decent quantity. We’ll have people show up with a couple of rare breed pigs, which is great, but what about the other 50 diners? We change the menu according to the suppliers we are using and what they have to sell to us, but it would be good to get more volume at times. We use absolutely everything when it comes to the ingredients we buy, so everything has to be the best quality.
PB: How would you describe your three tasting menus?
WH: Our menus tell a story and are theatrical as well as tasteful. It is a real experience – where we even change rooms at one point. One of the menus starts off with a dish using apples from my own garden at home, and we have to be careful changing anything as when you are Michelin star, people come for the signature dishes that have been recommended. We never change a whole menu at once. We will constantly tweak and change ingredients according to the suppliers and the ingredients, but the dishes are described with one description word only, which offers a lot of freedom in the kitchen. Each dish is explained to the table each time it is served, so there is an element of surprise for the guests every time.
PB: What are the next big culinary trends?
WH: The next big thing will be Japanese-style food – the more I travel, the more I see Japanese influence. You go to New York and green tea and dashi is on the menu. I am not into the fermenting thing – it’s not my taste and I think that if we have fresh ingredients to our fingertips, we should be using them, as they are the best. Freshness is everything. But I think Japanese styles and products will become very common in the next couple of years – fresh, crisp and precise.
Favourite restaurant at the moment: The Blue Hill, New York.
Where: Restaurant Frederikshøj, Oddervej 19-21, DK-8000 Aarhus C, Denmark
When: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday 6pm to 12am
How: Booking two or three months in advance is advised
What: A 14-course menu with Champagne, wine and coffee is around £300.
PHOTO CREDIT: Benjamin Lund Nielsen