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INTERVIEW

The Long Talk

Frederik Bille Brahe

Frederik Bille Brahe has helped transform the Danish culinary scene with his laid-back, arts-inflected, contemporary vision. Now he's bringing that vision to the German capital with Slow's newly opened bakery Sofi, the first of several collaborations with the chef and restaurateur. We caught up with Frederik for a far-reaching conversation on art, cooking, nightlife, masculinity, youth and how he finally learned to start asking the right questions.

  • PHOTOGRAPHY Jose Cuevas

Frederik Bille Brahe has helped transform the Danish culinary scene with his laid-back, arts-inflected, contemporary vision. Now he's bringing that vision to the German capital with Slow's newly opened bakery Sofi, the first of several collaborations with the chef and restaurateur. We caught up with Frederik for a far-reaching conversation on art, cooking, nightlife, masculinity, youth and how he finally learned to start asking the right questions.

  • PHOTOGRAPHY Jose Cuevas

A lot has changed for Frederik Bille Brahe in the eight years since he opened his first restaurant, the unassumingly captivating Atelier September in central Copenhagen. Then best known (if at all) for running a tiny record label and throwing a series of very rowdy raves, Frederik is now one of the most recognizable and influential figures on the Danish culinary scene, opening Apollo Kantine & Bar in 2017 in the historic art space Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Nyhavn and, a year later, Kafeteria in the National Gallery of Denmark, which he designed in collaboration with the artist Danh Vō.

His projects are different, but they have a few things in common: good, unfussy food, a lived-in feel for aesthetics and a vibrant, good-humored social mix where artists, matriarchs, club kids and diplomats might all feel equally at ease. Most recently, Frederik teamed up with Slow to create Sofi bakery in Berlin’s Mitte district and a multi-tiered culinary concept for Marina Marina. Descending from one of Denmark’s oldest, quirkiest families, his most momentous change might be to start a family of his own with his wife, the model Caroline Brasch Nielsen. We caught up with Frederik on a winter morning in Berlin for the first installment of our Long Talk series.

Slowness You’ve had great success with your Copenhagen restaurants but other than a few pop-ups, Sofi is your first place outside of Denmark. Can you tell us a bit about the bakery and what you're trying to achieve?
Frederik Bille Brahe Our concept is based on craft, as in the traditional craft of baking, making bread like it always has been done, not adding things, not adding yeast. Yeast is fairly new. Before we knew how to control yeast, we used sourdough. Sourdough is natural yeast. We’re going back to just using water, flour and salt to make bread. And with this traditional craft, we also said, how can we make this super delicious? To this craft we apply a contemporary approach.
SN How would you describe this contemporary approach?
FBB We use our knowledge, and we push the craft. We have higher hydration. Our selection of grains and flour we use, that is another thing. We add rye biga to the croissant dough, which adds more flavor, more complexity. And that is the tipping point, where it becomes exciting. And then eventually you start seeing small creations pop up. Right now, we are developing a typical Danish pastry called a tebirke and then we applied a miso remonce, so we’re slowly developing and challenging what we do to make it more delicious and more interesting. And of course, related to the slow food movement, we know that everything takes time, and you cannot make something good with bad products.
SN Has this been a challenge?
FBB We were looking for flour for a long time. In Brandenburg there was no good flour, so we found a very small mill in Denmark. And the bread is better. It's more spontaneous, more freshly milled. In the long run, if we could grow our own flour in Brandenburg, it would be an amazing development for the bread culture. Because in Munich you have beautiful mills, but they don't exist here. When you look at the infrastructure of the city, it was divided for many years. And if you go to the countryside, all the farming has been formed by cooperation and governmental considerations of needing to feed people. This tradition of making things delicious and beautiful, it didn't really apply. There are a lot of good bakeries, but I also think that in general, Berlin is in for a really big development.
SN Can you elaborate?
FBB Berlin has been through a lot of development over the last 10 years. It‘s slowly starting to look a little bit more gentrified. But when you look into Denmark, how has the gentrification been going? It looks I guess a little bit like Munich, with fancy shops everywhere, more and more chains and less and less exciting stuff, less and less craft. And I think that's the most boring thing in the world. For a city that was growing, I felt that it was relevant to make something that was not growing in the wrong way but growing in the right way, making something that hopefully Berliners will be happy about. And also maybe we can participate in growing a bakery scene.
SN You talk about the concept of “ancient grains.” What do you mean by that?
FBB If you look at farming and how it has developed over the last centuries, we're optimizing the crops to be safer and to produce more. And by doing that, we make less interesting crops and less interesting grains. I think that what is interesting about these ancient grains is that they are developed by nature, and they are just simply more delicious. In these grains, you'll find more flavor, in rye, in purple wheat, in kamut. And of course, it's not the same type of bread as the super white wheat cooking flour. It's very different. Some of these grains, they don't have enough gluten and starch to hold a proper loaf, so we have to work around it all the time.
Frederik Bille Brahe "The bacterial culture that’s in sourdough, it's older than human beings. It’s some of the first life that occurred on earth, so it is as natural as can be."
SN Gluten has been a big nutritional topic in the last years. Is there a health benefit when you go back to these older craft methods of baking?
FBB But of course. There's nothing bad inside it. It's only good stuff. There's absolutely nothing wrong with gluten or wheat. I think this whole anti-gluten movement, it's a good movement, but it doesn't apply to what we do, because it's a movement against terribly produced wheat, this white bleached flour without any nutritional or health properties. It’s what a lot of us grew up with. The bacterial culture that’s in sourdough, it's older than human beings. It’s some of the first life that occurred on earth, so it is as natural as can be.
SN Taking a step back, what is your earliest food-related memory?
FBB It’s me in the garden with my father. We had a small crop of fennel, and I remember eating fennel in the garden with him. I think I was around two or three years old. Food was always connected to fun in my family. A big thing for us was preserving. We had a lot of berry bushes and apples, red currents, strawberries, blackberries, we’d make jams. And we would preserve tomatoes at the end of the season. There's this thing that when you pick green tomatoes, you wrap them in newspaper, and you leave them in a cabinet, and they will slowly mature. So we would have tomatoes in cabinets all around the house.
  • Rugbrød and Sesame Loaf
SN Who was your first mentor in the kitchen?
FBB The sister of my grandmother moved to Rome just after the Second World War. She married an Italian duke. After a year, they divorced and she moved into the center of Rome. And she was one of the beacons for me in terms of cooking. We would go there every summer. Every morning we’d go out looking at all these Caravaggios in the churches, and then I would go shopping with her. She would always have a butcher. She would have a place for dry stuff. And then she would also go to the market at Campo de’ Fiori. And you're walking with this lady, she became older and older, like a little raisin with all these bags, and she would have this very critical Italian approach. And then I remember she and I going home from the market and we were walking the streets and we would be smelling, you know how it is in Rome that you look up towards a window, like a small little window and it's totally closed. Something is up there and we could smell it. And we would be like, “Sage. White wine. Veal.”
SN And then you would cook together?
FBB She would cook trippa a la romana, cow belly in tomato sauce, these Roman dishes. And there's something that I realized is very important to me in terms of cooking. You have two brains. You have the one in your head, but you also have one in your belly, the one that makes you hungry when you smell sage and white wine and minced veal. And that’s the brain that drives me in terms of food and cooking. Recently I had COVID and I lost my taste, and then I realized how strong it was. Because when you don’t smell or taste, you don't even feel like eating.
SN This idea of the "second brain" seems linked to the simplicity of your culinary approach.
FBB Well yes. What is the best dessert you can have in the world? We can have something fancy in a restaurant, but come on, perfectly mature fruit in season! Let's say you're sitting on a terrace in Portugal and you had a beautiful meal. And then you just get a peach. The flesh, just biting in it, it's soft and it's firm. Then there’s this explosion of juices filled with sweetness and acidity. And the skin, slightly fuzzy, it's challenging because having furry things in your mouth is not what you think you want, but then it’s perfect. I think nature has this beauty.
SN Was cooking something you knew you wanted to do from an early age?
FBB There are many different types of intelligences, and in our world there's a very big focus, certainly in Scandinavia, on academic learning. And I always had this more cognitive approach to learning. It was difficult to focus my energy on reading a book or writing an essay, because I'm more about telling stories, acting, putting things into action. I didn't fit into the system. And then at a very early stage I felt like I should be cooking. I started working as a dishwasher and I was confronted with this type of life in the late 1990s of drunk chefs, and it just made me feel so uncomfortable and insecure. The driving force for me has been culture, you know, looking at the Caravaggios and marveling at the pyramids. I didn't fit into this framework of just being a chef. I tried to succeed in school, and it was a disaster. And then I broke up with the idea of being an intellectual. I simply couldn't do it. But I also felt like a failure in life. I felt like such a loser, like what am I going to do about life?
SN How did you eventually resolve this?
FBB I had a friend who lived on the same street and we played football and he was absolutely not the best one, but he kept on doing it. And then all of a sudden, he was the goalkeeper at Manchester United. I thought, if he can do that, then if I just continue doing something, eventually I’ll get good at it. I decided that I wanted to be the best chef in the world. I would just put all my feelings aside. I'm going to work hard and I'm going to do whatever it takes. And that was my start with haute cuisine. I went starching in France and also in Copenhagen, at all the Michelin restaurants. And I was working, working and I didn't really pay attention to what a fucked-up culture it was. There are stories you wouldn't believe.
Frederik Bille Brahe "I like food, but I don't like the discipline of fine dining. I never did."
SL Did you leave the culinary world at that point?
FBB No, I moved to London and I started working in restaurants. I worked at Nobu. I worked with Pierre Garnier, and it was good. I learned a lot. But when I look back on that time, I totally lost respect for the craft. I just had absolutely no trust in this type of industry. I felt like I was way too fragile and what I represented was not accepted at all. It was more like being in the army. And if there's one thing I never wanted, it was to go into the army. And then while I was in London, I became really inspired by this generation of new ravers. Back then it was absolutely super freakish, post-Boy George. I was questioning, what is my sexuality? Can I wear woman's clothes? Can I wear leggings as a man and all these things? I just thought it was so exciting because it was kind of a rebellion against normality.
SL That's when you started throwing raves yourself, right?
FBB I was always really amazed by parties. My friends and I did raves on trains and stuff like that. I returned to Copenhagen, and at that time there were some very interesting players there, a female DJ called Djuna Barnes who recently passed away. She was a feminist lesbian from the squatter community. I started going to these parties and she was playing and I would join her. She taught me to DJ and eventually we did an underground club that would move around to different locations. And all of the sudden, I was creating something.
SL And then you eventually began touring as a DJ and started the record label Tartelet.
FBB Yeah, at that time, there was more money and it was fun, but it was also super unhealthy. I slowly got more and more worn out at a point where it became simply too unhealthy, and I just snapped. I was playing at Sonar with a couple of friends, and we did acid and I was completely gone. This type of trip like "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." And I woke up two days later and I was like, "What happened to me?" There was someone lying next to me. There was someone banging on the door. I was being thrown out of my hotel, and I was super ill. I had been playing the night before in Berlin at Bar 25, and I think I caught some kind of infection there in the caravan. I got really, really sick. I don’t know what it’s called in English but in Danish it’s called "sheep’s disease." You get it as a child, but when you get it as an adult, it's terrible.
SL Yeah, sounds like time to pivot! Where did you end up?
FBB Eventually I came back to the core of getting healthy and feeling better and wanting to become something. I started working, and the only thing I knew other than partying was how to cook, but I didn't have any self-esteem when it came to this. So I started in a pizzeria making pizzas, and not a good pizzeria. And then eventually I got a job at a Park Inn near the airport. We only got busy when a flight was canceled, and then we were cooking for 400 Chinese businessmen. But I realized I actually like cooking. And I started doing small dinners, making food to sell in jars. I would drive around doing this, slowly getting an identity within food.
SL Did you just work on your own from that point?
FBB Actually I took a job with a chef I always loved, Erwin Lauterbach. If you asked René Redzepi, he would call him the most important chef in Denmark. I started working with him and actually, he is a master, very intellectual with all these artistic people around him. While I worked with him, I realized something that actually made a big difference for me: I should not try to escape. I realized, maybe I should not run from my craft and what I am. Maybe life is not about becoming something else, but about accepting what you are and inviting it into yourself. And I think that was a groundbreaking experience for me, because I started to see food as art.
SL Can you elaborate?
FBB I started thinking in terms of relational aesthetics and getting inspired by Rirkrit Tiravanija, making platforms, design, art, fashion… everything that is in this platform can be activity that manifests what the art is and also what society is. I started seeing food like this and building up my own point of view on food. I remember once looking at a Mark Rothko, and I don't know anything about Mark Rothko, but I was like, what a beautiful color. It was the orange squares. And I was like oh, it’s yellow beets and peaches. I started to think about food as the driving force of a expression, using food as an art piece.
SN How did this affect how you cook?
FBB I like food, but I don't like the discipline of fine dining. I never did. I slowly shifted my focus to food as my alphabet and my values as part of this alphabet—in terms of simplicity, in terms of tasting the fennel in the garden. But I also started considering the restaurant as the platform, and that's also why I think I was so eager to build a restaurant—kind of like when I did the parties. I always wanted to do more. I wanted to have a rave. I wanted to see things happening. I wanted to see people dancing.
SN So this was when you opened Atelier September?
FBB Yes, I opened my first restaurant eight years ago. And I remember I wanted to do arpège [egg], because I think that's the most beautiful and poetic food in the world. I wanted to do a dish with beetroot, and I just wanted to do that. And then at the same time, it was a shop and I was only allowed to be open from seven to seven. I was not allowed to have alcohol. But I was like, it doesn’t matter. I'll become a breakfast and lunch restaurant. I can’t have wine, so I’ll have the best Japanese tea. I'm going to do my own infusions. So I changed out all the values from fine dining into everyday dining. I was lucky, because at that time everyone wanted to do a Michelin restaurant. And I had this hippie mentality.
SN And then the culture kind of caught up with you. Now no one really wants a Michelin restaurant.
FBB No! I opened up, and I never expected any big-picture success. I never expected any collaborations with fine dining. But then one of my regulars was René Redzepi. And then came Rasmus Kofoed, and it became this spot that people were hanging out at, having delicious, healthy food. I think where I was lucky and where I was successful was, first of all, focusing on the daytime, making the morning something to celebrate.
Sofi, Berlin
Apollo Bar & Kantina, Copenhagen
Apollo Bar & Kantina, Copenhagen
Kafeteria, Copenhagen
Atelier September, Copenhagen
Sofi, Berlin
Apollo Bar & Kantina, Copenhagen
Apollo Bar & Kantina, Copenhagen
Kafeteria, Copenhagen
Atelier September, Copenhagen
Frederik Bille Brahe "I understand what bread has done in Denmark. We had one good bakery, and then all of a sudden it was like throwing gasoline on a fire."
SN And you eventually opened the Apollo Bar & Kantine at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, the Academy of Fine Arts.
FBB It's a fun place. I designed it myself together with a friend [designer Rune Bruun Johansen]. We had this idea that the art world is super introverted, and especially the Academy of Fine Arts, but within the art world, there is something interesting for the broader public. So I said, we’re going to make a place in the back for the students. They're going to have cheap, organic, healthy food, really good food. In the courtyard, we're going to make a fancy bar, very well-crafted things where people can go and hang out. I wanted to create this place where people meet each other. My favorite restaurants are places like Paris Bar, Lucien in New York, where you have rich and poor, all these fun places. And it happened. It became fun.
SN And then came Kafeteria in the National Gallery, which you did with the artist Danh Vō. What was the idea there?
FBB We wanted to make a room that was inspiring and that took the language of art in terms of design. Working with Enzo Mari’s do-it-yourself furniture, Noguchi light sculptures, this Danish designer Nanna Ditzel, marinating design in art. And then what do you eat? Food that people understand, organic food, everything local but not in a boring way. If you load the restaurant with a political orientation but also ambitions to embrace the public, then you can reactivate the space.
SN What do you mean by load a space with political orientation?
FBB All my choices within a space have political dimension. We are organic. We are local. We have ambitions. Usually, the food you would get in a museum is a buffet where you have meat, you have all these options, you have everything. And people like it, but I just feel it has no guts. I'm going to use this position to show people that in the national gallery, we have healthy food, lean, local but still fun, accessible. Everyone needs to be involved, kids, very old people, everyone.
SN How did Sofi and the collaboration with Slow come about?
FBB What happened was Claus came to Copenhagen. I didn't know anything about him. But you know, sometimes you fall in love with people immediately. I started telling him all my weird stories and about my ambitions to create diverse spaces, and I think it reflected really well towards what Claus was working on. There was a common vision. So we met in Berlin. It almost didn’t happen. He came from Lisbon, and I was driving all night. And then I saw Marina, and it was just such a nice meeting. That's what I love about Claus. Basically you leave and you feel like you took ecstasy, but you didn't. Your brain is bubbling with new energy. And then we started discussing the Marina project. But it all seemed so far away. We thought it would be sooner, but even then…
SN You wanted to do something here before the Marina project?
FBB I’ve done so many pop-ups, and it’s so hard to figure out the place, so I was like, "We need to do something." And I don't like doing things that aren’t permanent. I thought that what would be interesting was to find something that Berlin would benefit from. I have been working with bread for so long, and I understand what bread has done in Denmark. We had one good bakery, and then all of a sudden it was like throwing gasoline on a fire. People would be lining up. We said let’s make a really good bakery that would add value to the scene and not compete with other restaurants. The idea for the bakery is to be a gift to the neighborhood and also to the neighborhood restaurants.
SN A gift in what sense?
FBB If you take into consideration what a sprouting, creative hospitality business needs, they need good bread. Because the process of baking bread is just so much more complicated than the process of making food. To be able to supply restaurants with a fairly cheap and super good bread would actually help give them time to focus on making the food. And maybe we could share some knowledge on how to make a great Danish sourdough.
  • Berliner Loaf
  • Kornby Loaf
  • Berliner Loaf
  • Baguette
SN Can you share a bit about your plans, your hopes, for the restaurants at Marina Marina?
FBB My dream is to make a restaurant that works locally and is driven by local products. The space is this old bathhouse on the river. And I see it as a restaurant in three layers, where the basement is the production facility. And if everything works out, we will work with local farms and local hunters and local fishermen, local foragers, gatherers and local producers of all kinds. And then everything would be brought down into this kind of machine room of the restaurant.
SN What do you mean by machine room?
FBB I see this basement as a place where, when it's game season, you would have deer and wild boar coming down and going into our butchery room. And we would cut it up and store it in the right way. And the same thing would apply for fish and vegetables, mushrooms. Everything would go down into this machine that would cut it into units, or letters, as I like to call them. And then from these letters, we will slowly start to form an alphabet, which will be our platform for expressing ourselves.
SN And the restaurants themselves?
FBB On the ground floor, there would be one type of restaurant, which will be this cheap, fun, cool, accessible dining room, where it's always busy and the food here would be cooked from the parts of the produce that are less expensive or rougher. And then upstairs, it would be the same philosophy. We would just use the other parts of the produce that are more valuable. I see it as a very dynamic place. The upstairs restaurant would maybe have hand-blown glasses. The tableware would be a bit nicer, and they would put more working hours into the product, both front of house and back of house. So it’s the same food concept with two expressions.
SN It reminds me of something very old, like in the Grünewald and the German countryside where you have these old hunting castles, these royal hunting lodges, where it worked somehow in a similar way. I can see how, as with Sofi and most of what you do, it’s referential of something that has very deep roots but has been industrialized away.
FB But exactly. It is also about giving people a source of inspiration and kind of building a knowledge center on how we can use these things. The forests and lakes and the whole nature around Berlin, there's so many mushrooms, so much game, and it's actually something that is not really considered as anything special. So I think it's also really interesting to use it. When you have game, you can make sausages. You can make terrines. And it's so nice to eat. I think a lot of us enjoy eating meat and fish. We will not all go only vegetarian. I think it's also to inspire people that come and eat with us. And if we could change people's habits to eat game instead of beef or farm-produced meat, it's a big thing.
SN It’s also so nice to do this in Rummelsburg, where you have all these artist studios and cultural areas arising and inhabiting these lands and post-industrial structures that had been kind of just abandoned and left to seed. So it’s an exciting time to try out these concepts that reference the past but bring us into the future.
FBB Yes but we’re not trying to make a culinary destination like Noma. We’re making a cultural destination where you will feel at home and feel good about what you're eating. The idea is to create a relatable gastronomy for the people.

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