Sicilian native Christian Puglisi is recognized as a groundbreaking influence in Nordic cuisine. The Michelin star winning chef and restauranteur grew up in Messina, with an early appreciation for natural ingredients that he took with him moving to Denmark, as he notes, from “one gastronomic country to another”. Copenhagen’s dynamic social climate inspired Puglisi to champion a “self-sufficient” culinary experience linked to the production and farming of ingredients - with an influence that continues to inspire people around the world to consider the connection with the food on their plate. We spoke to Christian about his experiences of creative life in Copenhagen, connecting cultures and some favorite places to find inspiration.
On your earliest food memories in Sicily
I was born in Messina, a harbour city in north eastern Sicily, then I grew up in a commune called Roccalumera. My earliest memory involving food was making tomato sauce with my family. This was really my first bond with tomatoes. I can still smell the tomatoes boiling. We had a pretty traditional family cooking environment in that my mother and my aunties were in the kitchen very often, and I would observe them closely. I understood the respect they had for the simple raw ingredients they used.
On your first experience with agriculture
My uncle used to have this farmlet in the mountains near Roccalumera where we would often go as kids. That was a big factor that led to me being infatuated by farming, and the idea of growing your own things. My uncle was very active in that type of work.
On the relationship between place and taste
I think the connection is strongest in my mind when something becomes a memory. I think taste is as much to do with smell as it is with ‘taste’. The olfactive system is what makes things so easy for us to recall. You have this biological way of smelling something, and it immediately just takes you somewhere. This must explain why food memories are so strong for us in so many ways, especially childhood memories.
I was just in Sicily over the summer, and although I have been visiting less often, the smells are just as I left them. Everything from the rain on a hot summer day, to the mountains when you can smell the wild oregano, everything is very clear. It just brings me back there in an instant. To be in Sicily without those smells would not be the same.
On migrating to Denmark and connecting with local culture
There were a few reasons my family relocated here. My father was a wholesaler of citrus – mostly lemons – his business was not doing so well so he decided we would leave Sicily. My mum is Norwegian. Denmark was a very attractive place to live at the time, so we moved up here. Maybe you could say they were looking for a better fortune. I was eight years old when we got here, so I would say just having a football underneath my arm when I went down to the playground was enough to connect me with the place and the people around me. The kids were very simple to approach and very welcoming.
On starting your professional career in Copenhagen
I started in the hotel and restaurant business at the age of 17, so that was quite young. I was motivated by my wish to search out the gastronomic side of myself and my roots. I felt this very tight bond with Italy food-wise. That clearly defined my identity as an immigrant coming to Denmark. I often say, I came from one gastronomic country to another gastronomic country.
In the early 90s in Denmark you couldn’t find Parmesan cheese in the supermarket. Everything we came with was exotic; the tomatoes, the pizza, the pasta. My father was in the restaurant industry, and he represented that Italian side of me in the best possible way. That’s how I got lured into thinking cooking and restaurants was my path.
I was motivated by my wish to search out the gastronomic side of myself and my roots. I felt this very tight bond with Italy food-wise. That clearly defined my identity as an immigrant coming to Denmark.
On how life in Copenhagen has influenced your creative approach to gastronomy
I think it has in many ways, probably some that I haven’t even considered yet. When I decided to open my own restaurant, I certainly felt that there was a need for it. This is something you become aware of after the experience of living in a city for a certain amount of time. I was 27 at that point, and I had an idea in my head of what I wanted to create. I wanted to create a space that was gastronomically exciting, but casual and laid back. I must have felt that was lacking in Copenhagen. I felt there was a space I could fill out.
On what you have learnt from living and working across different cultures
I feel that the contrast between the Danish culture and the Italian culture (particularly in the gastronomic field) very much informed the way I thought about food. Italian culture can be extremely conservative and really not willing to move; everyone thinks their way is the right way. It’s impossible to make ten people agree on how to make a Carbonara. That’s just how it is in Italy. As a kid, I was totally buying in on that.
As I matured in my mid 20s I started to realise that culture and traditions are important, but the way of approaching them should be by questioning them, and trying to understand them in a way that makes sense to you. You need to use your own palette to seek out what you like, and not necessarily keep things the same way they have always been. It doesn’t make any sense to resist change.
This outlook come from working in Copenhagen, but also from working in Spain and France, and experiencing gastronomic thinking in different ways. Copenhagen in particular was ready to be disrupted in terms of its food culture when I started out in the restaurant business. I think this was based on the city not having such a strong and protected food culture. People are just open to whatever comes, and whatever is the next new thing. I think this really motivated me to go out and do my own thing.
I could release myself from the Italian traditions because I had arrived at a point of understanding that it didn’t matter to me if people thought I was Italian or not.
On your evolving sense of cultural identity
Being a teenager is difficult enough already. So you can imagine the experience of being a teenager and an immigrant in a new city. Every teenager is trying to find out who the hell they are, and when you have a split background it becomes so much more complicated. Sometimes I was asking myself: Am I Danish? Am I Italian? Am I Norwegian? How much does it matter anyway?
In my teenage years I was really seeking out the Italian side. But when I reached my mid-20s I started to change my views, and I think cooking helped me question things. When I was trying to formulate my own ideas of cooking, I realised that having a mixed background was to my advantage. I could see things with a perspective of both countries. I could release myself from the Italian traditions because I had arrived at a point of understanding that it didn’t matter to me if people thought I was Italian or not. I felt I should use my knowledge about Italian food and tradition to make it relevant for what I was doing.
In Copenhagen I didn’t want to have a label of a restaurant that was Italian, or French, or Nordic. I wasn’t interested in the ‘New Nordic’ craze at all. I was an immigrant, I didn’t feel like I was a part of it. It didn’t make any sense for me to say ‘I can’t use lemons or olive oil’, as this was the stuff that informed my heritage. I needed to have that as a part of who I was and what I did.
Even though I’m not a ‘traditionalist’ per say, I think with age I’m returning to tradition a little bit, and have less of a need to put myself forward. I can appreciate the particularity of something special coming from somewhere special.
On the relationship between gastronomy and geography
On a high-end gastronomic level – for those who go deep into food, and are interested in all sorts of cooking – it would be beneficial to have a more open minded approach to gastronomy and geography, because you can have some incredible gastronomic experiences from a variety of cultures and locations.
On a broader, more mainstream level, I think it’s clear that we are getting more and more monochromatic with everything. Fast food is just making everyone eat the same shit all over the world. That is a problem. A part of the solution to this could be to fight a little bit harder for local, traditional food in different places, to keep up diversity. In this time we live when everything is moving so fast on a digital and communications level, I think there are very few things that can connect us to a place and time in a sensory capacity as food can.
Copenhagen never really feels like a city, it feels like a big town.. I love the density and energy of London or New York, but after a few days I need to get out of there. Copenhagen offers something special because there’s a cultural intersection with people coming from all sorts of places.
On the significance of using local produce in your culinary repertoire
It comes from a wish to connect gastronomy and agriculture. In my professional world, cooking is a craft. There are two ways to approach it. You can either buy your raw materials on the market, or you can pursue a way of cooking directly linked to production and agriculture, which is more from a self-sufficient style. This way of cooking accepts that there are times of scarcity and there are times of plenty. I think this way of cooking is more exciting, it’s more cut to the bone, we have a stronger connection to what is put on the plate, and therefore provide a higher quality experience in my belief.
I think a simpler approach is beneficial for the food. There is an embedded level of humility in cooking dishes where you really respect the produce. People make the mistake of asking ‘Can you taste the difference?’ with local and organic produce. But I don’t think that’s really the point. Reducing an eating experience to just an olfactory experience at a technical level I think makes some sense, but you can’t just boil it down to that.
It might be that the person being served the tomato that has been harvested on the day and served on the day might not fully understand the difference in flavour. But there’s a big chance the person in the kitchen cutting it and serving it is informed about these things, and therefore they may serve it with a bit more of a spark in the eye. This is what creates the experience.
On your favourite places to travel and get inspired
I’d have to say Sicily. I think I’m in my fourth or fifth phase of my immigrant life. In my first phase I was just so nostalgic. Then at one point I sort of became a little bit more detached to it. Then I feel like I even turned my back on it because I was a little bit tired of the social situation there. Now I can really recognise my roots there. I find it important to somehow acknowledge that, even though the inspiration I get from it is very different to when I was a teenager.
Caffè Sicilia in Noto is the best pastry place. In my area you must eat Granita with coffee and a brioche. Salina is a beautiful island in the north, and Hotel Signum is a fantastic hotel and restaurant there. I also suggest taking a trip to see Le Gole Alcantara, which is a beautiful river.
On a recent project or initiative you are most proud of
Establishing the Farm of Ideas in 2016 and connecting with that has been the major step in defining the way we run the restaurants, and how we connect with the produce. I’m extremely proud of this. The idea of having certified organic restaurants is also something that I’m very proud of. We received a Michelin star and still chose to be uncompromising about our organic philosophy.
On an important piece of advice you tell your team
In terms of cooking, I try and have people understand it’s actually more about eating. You need to have people understand how to eat, and to eat well. I think a lot of people end up taking a superficial approach to food; seeing what a dish looks like, or trying to make it fit in with some idea they aren’t completely into. It’s important to cook what you want to eat.
On places you would recommend visiting when in Copenhagen
Assistens Cemetery is a beautiful stroll. It’s also a park, and I think it really shows the Copenhagen way and how liberal it is. There are people sunbathing yet it’s also a cemetery at the same time. Hans Christian Andersen and Niels Bohr are buried there.
I also suggest to people to get down to the water in Copenhagen and use the harbour. The harbour has really cleaned up in the last five or six years. All the way around the water there’s restaurants, bars, and places to hang out. Refshaleøen and Islands Brygge are my favourite parts. The harbour is something I find very particular to Copenhagen. It felt like it didn’t exist ten years ago.
On how Copenhagen strikes the senses in a way that is unique to other cities
I think the most defining thing about Copenhagen is that it never really feels like a city, it feels like a big town. You have everything here, and you can bike everywhere in 15 minutes without a problem. You never feel suffocated, which is something I feel in almost every other city. I mean I love the density and energy of London or New York, but after a few days I need to get out of there. Copenhagen really offers something special because there’s a cultural intersection with people coming in from all sorts of places, but you can also experience a bit of Danish tranquillity with clean air and not too much traffic.
On a documentary, film or book that inspires you
I’m really interested in Stoicism at the moment; Marcus Aurelius and other authors who have written about it. I can relate to those ideas and life philosophy. I’d say 90% of the stuff I’ve been reading I was already thinking about or considering without realising. Just before Corona hit I started going deep into Stoicism, so I’ve had time to consider it carefully.
When you think of creativity it’s important to have this sense of guidance about where you want to go, and what you want from life. Living this ambitious lifestyle in the restaurant business is good, but I needed to ask myself why. Why is it that I do what I do? It’s really useful to have that extra dimension.
I think Stoicism also teaches us that we have to take responsibility for everything in our lives, which I really appreciate because I’ve been an entrepreneur and a leader for years. It’s really nice to be able to read something that says you should take responsibility for what is in front of you. It helps me not question things that don’t need to be questioned, and just go on with what I feel like I should do.
On window seat or aisle
Window. I sleep as soon as the plane takes off.
On your last meal on earth
As a gastronomic person my answer should be something really special. But I really like the simplicity of things. For the last five or six months I’ve been experimenting with fasting, which is kind of strange for someone in my profession. But then again it makes a lot of sense because we, more than anybody, can be overexposed to food experiences. If you don’t eat for two or three days, whatever is brought your way is going to taste like the best thing ever.
If I’m fasting I drink sparkling water with salt and lemon juice because it really keeps you hydrated, it’s so satisfying to have. So much of our hunger and our desire to eat is so easily satisfied by minerals. So when it’s summer, and the sparkling water is really cold, and its salty and lemony, I feel like it’s the best thing you can have.
On Sicily in one word
On Copenhagen in a word
food and drink