From a shameless offer on a small take away-joint to a restaurant certified organic to the highest standards. Much has happened in Manfreds’ 10 years. Founder Christian F. Puglisi reflects on how to stay relevant in an industry where new attracts attention, and where consumers don’t judge the restaurants to the same standards as they judge the produce, they buy in the supermarket.
Posted on 24 January, 2020
You just need to look in through the window from the stone cobbled street of Jægersborggade, into the bustling atmosphere of the restaurant to notice how much things have changed. A small patched up hole in the window frame serves as a candid memory of a time that has passed, way faster than I ever would have imagined.
In the summer of 2009, I could watch the news to see how a rivalling gang had tried to take out some drug dealers on the corner where I was forging my dream to come true – Relæ.
At the time a small, and rather unsuccessful takeaway shop, was facing my future restaurant and the owner was finishing up the day as he heard the shots. During the night the police carved out one of the 23 bullets fired from the window he was looking out from…
A few months later he was on his way out and for some reason we were on our way in.
The rumors of a Noma sous-chef scooping popcorn at the local cinema could have attracted a crowd.
We presented a shameless offer that was accepted without a blink of an eye and Manfreds was suddenly a reality. Out of restlessness (waiting for a building permit doesn’t suit an aspiring restaurateur), someone’s misfortune and as a desperate measure to keep some momentum in transforming a street, in its most delicate time of potential change. But really, at the time, only just a potential change.
We started where the previous owner left off. A little hole-in-the-wall, take away, dish of the day kind of place suited to warm up to what was waiting to happen across the street. We just wanted some cooking to go on and it served as a sort of base where we could test out some of the dishes that we were still just dreaming of for Relæ. We roasted carrots and served them with söl – The sweetness from the carrots accentuated by the slow and butter-basted roasting and brought out further from the Icelandics seaweeds umami touch.
Clientele came fast – these were the days when the Copenhagen scene wasn’t really a scene, it was more of a one-man show, and the rumours of a Noma sous-chef scooping popcorn at the local cinema could have attracted a crowd.
The tiny spot became more of an eatery despite we did our best to make it as uncomfortable as possible. An offering of just two dishes ordered at the counter, a few bottles of wine you had to get up and grab in the fridge and open without assistance, a small toilet that was reached by walking through the make-shift office (0,8 m3) underneath a staircase. The music was supplied by a record player that we rarely had time to flip the records on. If you booked a table we would have written your name with a white marker on the actual table and you could graze around trying to find it yourself. The room was definitely not big, about ten tiny tables seated about twenty guests uncomfortably.
Some called it charming, some called it arrogant – it was probably a bit of both but the low price point and a veggie-curious cuisine filled it up beyond our imagination.
Some called it charming, some called it arrogant – it was probably a bit of both but the low price point and a veggie-curious cuisine filled it up beyond our imagination. As soon as Relæ started to get going the plans of expanding Manfreds came naturally. Soon we would turn it into an (almost) serious restaurant with both a bar, 40 seats and even waiters willing to open up a bottle of wine for you.
Wine your father-in-law wouldn’t like
The driver behind the expansion was really the wine. We had launched Relæ with plenty of constraints and limitations which on the wine side meant going for a list that would be short and sweet. We had to find a focus and our small team of talented young wine-guns had no doubt about what directions to go for in 2010. Inspired by visits to France where the natural wine movement was starting to make people talk, it had picked up the interest of a few outlying local somms and importers. At the time the lightness of many of those wines seemed to be able to fit in perfectly alongside the Nordic wave that was picking up momentum. For Relæ everything that would be contrasting the establishment, whether it would be wine or gastronomy was warmly welcomed. Limited financial investment and an adventurous path towards simple, natural and personal made the Relæ winelist small, sweet and natural from the first opening day of August 2010. With the feeling of having set foot on essentially unchartered territory, we almost immediately started scouting for more winemakers and thus importing wines directly from France. With a small but growing portfolio our deeper connection into the wine world also swiftly presented a new opportunity.
At the time you could have had legendary somm Pontus Elufsson pour you a glass of Riffault at Noma, but to enjoy that glass on an everyday night was a pleasure exclusive to who could find their way directly to the importer – Rosforth and Rosforth.
The expansion of Manfreds was happening on many levels for us. I wanted to build synergy between two kitchens with different outlooks but similar approaches. This would happen on a culinary level as well as on a managing and staff level. Now it was clear that our wine profile and staff-training would benefit immensely from another and more focused platform. The natural wine bar became a reality in Copenhagen.
The main ideas that defined natural wine just seemed to fall perfectly in place with my thoughts on food and cooking.
Between the two spots, we could create a rotation between sommeliers that would work at Relæ a few days a week and at Manfreds a few more. The expansion of the team created a vibrant discourse and a community of very talented sommeliers grew from it. The work at Relæ was very much targeted towards the tasting menu, with a wine menu offering a direct wine-pairing for every dish. A challenging but extremely rewarding process for the sommeliers and kitchen alike. We would dissect and taste dishes up against wines balancing the acidity of a sauce to accommodate a particular crisp white, whose aroma of elderflower would complement the sauce and so on. As the leather-aproned sommeliers work on Relæ was of the hyper-focused type, at Manfreds it was more holistic and casual. We would have exciting new vintages from hyped winemakers poured into small tasting glasses at a reasonable price point. Passionate somms were advocating and explaining the qualities of this “so-called” natural wine. I learned a lot myself in those years. My wine interest was pretty limited since I had spent most of my career in the type of kitchens that seemed to be very far from connected to the front of house, or the pleasures of wining and dining for that sake. But with my wish for creating a coherent experience, it was clear to me that we had to be opinionated on the wine-side – exactly as we were on the cooking side. There was no way we were just gonna take the conformed choice and try and please the market.
The main ideas that defined natural wine just seemed to fall perfectly in place with my thoughts on food and cooking.
I wanted to connect to small farmers, I didn’t want to abide to the globalized market. I wanted authentic “small people” with character that we could support by sourcing our produce with them. This approach earned us the organic certification years later but at the time it was less structured and thought out, it was more rooted in a feeling of wanting to be rebellious. I often smirk at how adolescent we were in our approach back then. But as a teenager trying to define yourself you want to rebel towards your roots, your surroundings. So did we – let’s say, professionally- Both Relæ and Manfreds were acting up as naughty teenagers making a lot of noise – and having a whole lot of fun. When it came to what to pour in a glass, natural wine had all the criteria checked off to become a part of our teenage rebellion. It was young, it was naughty, it was a little bit dirty and your father-in-law wouldn’t like it one bit.
It was young, it was naughty, it was a little bit dirty and your father-in-law wouldn’t like it one bit.
The DYI pour-your-wine, find-your-table approach made sense in the tiny setting that Manfreds took its baby steps in, but the expansion into a full-blown restaurant and natural wine bar asked for more structure and a bit of (reluctant) service. We even went as far as adopting a booking system and printing out actual menus!
Inventing a signature dish
The food until that point was very focused on the one-dish wonders that might be accompanied by a single glass of wine or a beer. But when you want to run a wine bar your job is to have people drink more glasses of wine and more glasses means more, and smaller, dishes. While still holding on to the takeaway and dish of the day, we changed the focus of the menu to about 10-12 small dishes intended to be shared at the table. It was all about being casual and rather than focusing on pairing one glass to one dish here you could mix and match, sip and taste and have a good time. Dishes were created as a sort of spin-off of the creative work at Relæ.
We had a tartare dish on at Relæ a few months prior to opening Manfreds. It was coarsely cut beef with bergamot and mussels. It was getting split reviews but I loved the sea-like salinity and the fresh and fragrant bergamot that I hadn’t tasted or worked with fresh before. Myself, like far most of our guests could only connect it to the occasional cup of Earl Grey.
For the very first menu, it was a no-brainer to grab that beef tartare. Simple, tasty, casual and soon to be the signature dish for the following 10 years.
The texture of the meat was what was getting me the most excited. I was finding an interest in charcuterie at the time and I was experimenting with curing a few different types of salami in the back of the wine room at Relæ. I was fascinated with how the meat looked when salted and semi-frozen prior to grinding, as you often do for those kinds of preparations. I thought of trying it with beef and I found the texture of it extremely pleasant to eat raw. It was exactly the kind of technique that I was looking to base the dishes at Relæ on because the thought process behind it had allowed for an interesting but not at all time-consuming process to give a particular, unique and flavorful result. While the Relæ approach would be to go very much into the flavour profiles and fiddle with balances that would make otherwise unusual combinations work, I wanted Manfreds to be less challenging and even more straight forward.
For the very first menu, it was a no-brainer to grab that beef tartare, toss it with some pungent watercress to cut through the soft umami of the meat, add lemon and olive oil, sprinkle a bit of toasted ryebread crumbs (that were to Copenhagen in 2010 what olive spheres were in Barcelona in the 00’s) and rest it on a creamy sauce of some sort. With the leftover poached eggs and bread I made an emulsion with added mustard to enhance the watercress and there we had it. The Manfreds tartare was born. Simple, tasty, casual and soon to be the signature dish for the following 10 years.
We launched the menu with more options, a great tartare and a bunch of fresh new dishes and it was a…….total disaster.
The idea of sharing dishes was new to the city; how many? how so? which ones? And the often timid danish approach had most opt for what they normally would do and just grab one or two and take it from there. As soon as our rather substantial sourdough bread hit the table that would take the top of the appetite and a few dishes remained just a few dishes and the revenue remained staggering low. We had to do something to steer people towards the kind of festive, feast-like family dinner that we were dreaming of, and apparently no one understood.
Keeping quality high and pricepoint low
The experience from Relæ at this point had made me very confident that “pre-setting” the table with cutlery (in Relæ’s case with a drawer filled with utensils) was the single most time and cost reductive thing we could do to the service. At Relæ the set menu’s tempo was dictated by the kitchen – if the waiter doesn’t need to set the table and the kitchen staff clears the dishes on the way back from serving a course, with a bit of communication you can just go ahead and start plating whatever is up next. With Manfreds going for an even lower price point it was crucial to leave the initiative to the kitchen and not create the usual bottleneck. Having the dishes intended to be shared one didn’t have to be cleared before the next would get served, and the flow would be up to us entirely. Considering the small minority courageous enough to try out a lot of the dishes and compose a menu for themselves, we just had to take the lead and compose it for them instead. We reduced the a la carte to a few small bites and instead created the 7 courses to share, for everyone at the table – served at the flow of the kitchen that really defined the following many years of our restaurant. The veggies were in focus because to do something this casual we had to keep the prices really low. We kept the already popular tartare out of the seven and composed a menu to the price of 195,- kr./25 euros. We called it “Sjæfen bestemmer” – the chefs choice, or rather the “bosses choice” with a little wordplay in Danish-
The adjusted trajectory really made Manfreds take off as a real restaurant and the wine supported the menu style brilliantly. We added a Sommelier’s choice: a couple of glasses served casually as an introduction to natural wines rather than as a direct match with that plethora of dishes hitting the table at a high tempo.
Relæ couldn’t be the restaurant it had become, gaining awards and Michelin stars without its zealous, albeit more rustic, younger brother.
Viewed as a smaller sibling to Relæ Manfreds was really challenging its big brother position in those years. The connection between the kitchens made the creativity and focus on consolidating staff, time, knowledge and waste to a minimum to a joint venture between the restaurants and it was clear that Relæ couldn’t be the restaurant it had become, gaining awards and Michelin stars without its zealous, albeit more rustic, younger brother.
More than ever that came to play when we decided to raise the bar on ourselves and commit to certifying both restaurants to the organic gold standard – Relæ as the first-ever Michelin starred restaurant to do so. And again a few years later when we added a farm to our community to start producing our own vegetables and offer our guests the most direct link to the source of their produce we possibly could.
It baffled me that the same consumer that any day would pick up the organic carrot or cucumber in a supermarket, really wasn’t that interested in whether their restaurant of choice had the same certification or not.
The organic certification required that we turned our outlook on sourcing produce upside down. Doubling up, if not tripling, the price of the meat you source has a great impact on the economy of a restaurant, and the prices on the menu – even more so if you have an ambition of keeping your prices approachable. But combining the two kitchens and deepening their synergy around a common task proved to be successful. The meat we sourced from then on was more or less limited to whole beast butchery and Manfreds had the laborious task to pick up produce on the rebound. If Relæ would want to focus on the lamb shoulder or the pork neck – Manfreds had put everything else to use. We learned how flexibility required skills and we honed those skills. To the point where we had learned enough to establish Bæst – a far more meat-focused restaurant. I might have been naive but I did believe that having a proper certification would change the world. It was intended to be a challenge set out to our colleagues, saying if we could do this at the price point we were at, then everyone else had to do it too.
This proved to be another great learning for myself and the team. Because no one picked up the challenge and the industry showed very little interest in it. It baffled me that the same consumer that any day would pick up the organic carrot or cucumber in a supermarket, really wasn’t that interested in whether their restaurant of choice had the same certification or not. Luckily we were busy anyhow: our business model was not to make an organic restaurant – it was to make a great restaurant that actually wanted to support local, organic agriculture. By actually doing it, and proving it with a certification.
Staying relevant after 10 years
Today, looking back at 10 years of Manfreds with its thousands and thousands of small dishes served and natural wines poured I am glad to see what impact we have had on the local and international scene. When I see a new restaurant opening up with that same attitude we wanted to conquer the world with, it makes me look back with a smile. It makes me understand how far we have come and how proud we should be for what we have accomplished. I always jokingly compare restaurant-years with dogs-years and that is more relevant than ever now that we are considering that 10 years then must mean 70? – That Manfreds was an established restaurant around its 5th birthday as a sturdy and experienced 35 years old grown-up makes a lot of sense to me. But what do we do once we break the threshold of 70? Are we to look at retiring this beast of a restaurant now? How can we age with grace and not making the mistake of covering up your age and try to look younger than you are patching up this and that? Is there a place for a beautiful and confident old Manfreds? I do believe that a restaurant should have the courage to stand the toll of time and age, even in a world like ours. Where all new news are better than old news and every kind of new restaurant opening will attract more attention than anything that took a long time to build. Longevity does not have much sex appeal these days.
I have the feeling that most consumers are happily unaware of what kind of produce that restaurants have access to, and that they more often than not just assume that a “good” restaurant serves them “good” produce. I know by experience that that is not the case
Copenhagen is a small city and maybe we simply don’t have the density of population to sustain well-established restaurants with regulars coming back for what they know they can get. We are talking about a city that completely threw itself in the arms and novelty of the Nordic wave and never looked back. But does that mean that we need to keep re-inventing ourselves or make up some magic tricks to keep getting people’s attention? I will admit that it will be more and more of a challenge but I do hope for something else.
Because I am proud to say that when it comes to sourcing responsibly and organic by certification, shortening the link between fork and farm and cooking simple, delicious and vegetable-driven food there is no restaurant out there that is capable of giving you the same bang for your buck that Manfreds can. And that is what we will continue to gracefully and confidently focus on for the next 10 years. We wanna try and get better as we go, of course, I believe we have been every single year. But as I believe that there was a need of a place like Manfreds in 2010 I do still see the need for uncompromising cooking of simple, local ingredients in 2020 as well as 2030. I am a believer that good produce simply put will never go out of fashion. This industry lives on storytelling and that we have failed to make an organic certification a must for every modern restaurant out there renews our mission. I have the feeling that most consumers are happily unaware of what kind of produce that restaurants have access to, and that they more often than not just assume that a “good” restaurant serves them “good” produce. I know by experience that that is not the case and we have in the Relæ Community made it our most important mission to live up to the ideals and values that we share with our guests. As long as we still have to repeat this message Manfreds will stay relevant, and dare I say, necessary.
Christian F. Puglisi
We’re celebrating 10 years of Manfreds from 10 till 16 February and everybody’s invited!