Head chef and owner of Amass restaurant in Copenhagen

In 2019 I spent a month working at Amass. It was a special moment for me. I’d been working in many kitchens around the world, puzzling down the idea of a “smart” and conscious restaurant. The one that cares for both staff, customers and the environments without sacrifices to the standards of the dishes. Being at Amass showed me that these “dream places” do exist. Please enjoy my interview with head chef in the kitchen and behind the concept, Matt Orlando.

Q: You worked at amazing restaurants: The Fat Duck, Per Se, and Noma to name a few. Right now you are the owner of a great restaurant Amass. Can you tell me how did you become a chef in the first place?
A: I’ve been working in kitchens since I was 14. And I started working there to fund my addiction to snowboarding. I worked in kitchens all through high school to save money and go snowboarding. At the age of around 21, I started working for Francis Perrot. I work for him in a place called Fairbanks Ranch. That was when I first truly felt real love of food and how food is so intertwined in life, how it is something really special. That’s where it first clicked in my head. Before that, I’d been doing something along the way and gaining the skill set not really knowing about it. 

And then the desire to learn and experience more through cooking, and experience life via the lens of cooking and food was just all-encompassing. I became obsessed with it. Working for Francis was amazing because he was so classic in his cooking. Then I had the opportunity to move to New York. That sent me in the right direction. Fast forward, 20 years later, I’m here.

Q: What brought you to Denmark? 
A: I was actually working at The Fat Duck in Berkshire when I met Rene Redzepi from Noma. In 2005 Noma wasn’t really even on the radar. I ended up coming up here for a week to check it out. I was supposed to be coming for a week-long staige but then I stayed for two years.

Q: What are the highest values for you as the restaurant owner?
A: Having a restaurant is a really special thing. To be able to create experiences for people that can make them happy is something very beautiful. Of course, there are lots of ways to create experiences that give people joy. But I think it’s easy just to do that without really thinking about the repercussions around you.

Restaurants are very materialistic things. Most materialistic things in life that give people joy have a negative impact on the surrounding environment. And restaurants are no different than that. The biggest value I really try to instill to the staff here is that we do something with a backside that we need to be aware of – the impact that we could potentially have on the environment around us and further out. We can make choices moving forward to mitigate that impact. But how do you achieve that without compromising the experience for the guest? There’s a fine line to that. Here, at Amass, we are really trying to go through this process to enhance the experience of the guests, and not compromise it. You would never know that by coming in here and eating. It’s something that happens in the back. But it’s so important to me. And it’s so important to most people that work here. It’s a thought process that we go through daily. 

So just being constantly aware of that, for me, that’s the biggest value.

Q: Do you translate this approach backward to your supply chain and the producers?
A: Absolutely. They know what we’re trying to do. We’re focusing on hyper-local ingredients. That means not allowing ourselves to really expand outside the borders of Denmark, occasionally the south of Sweden. There are only two things that we get from outside of Denmark, and that’s lemons and almonds. But we fully exploit those, we get four uses out of each of them. Adhering to that, if local products are not in season, we don’t use them. We don’t get them from Italy or France. This way we are trying to mitigate that impact as well.

Q: How do you incorporate this mindset into your team?
A: We talk about it all the time. But it’s not only the talking part. It’s about the bigger picture. We actually show them hard data. For example, if you save maybe only 500 grams of something a day, then over one year, you’ve just saved 2500 kilos. Giving them the data so they can see, what a longer-term picture looks like, how many kilos are we avoiding from going in to be wasted. It’s important to be transparent in the processes that we’re using.

Q: At Amass, you’ve incorporated a sustainable model of the operations. Can you give some examples of good daily practices?
A: We start with the lowest-lying fruits. For example, every guest gets a bottle of water on the table. And maybe at the end of the meal, there’s some of it left. We save all this water. We save all the water from cooking eggs, ice baths, all this stuff. It’s 90 liters a day that we don’t have to pay for by turning on the tap. That’s a lot of money by the end of the year. Then we can use this water for cleaning the kitchen. We are also able to divert 500 kilos of egg whites a year from potentially going into the bin. We save all of the stems from herbs over the week. At the end of the week, we lactic ferment them and dry them. At that point, we can use them to cure fish or paste and dry it and make something that tastes like nori seaweed. All this stuff. There are points during the summer where Jackie, our gardener, comes in, and says <You guys HAVE TO put stuff into compost. Because the compost is dying, I need to feed it!> That’s a great point to be at. And those are just a few of the things that we’re doing. 

We don’t like to think of ourselves as “using waste”. Because waste is something that has no value. We just avoid making waste. That’s what our goal is. You can’t really say that these products are trash, they just have a lesser value. If you have carrots come in that weighs a certain amount, that you’re paying for – those skins and tops cost something that you’re just throwing away. There’s value in those things and people forget about it.

Q: What is the part of educational institutions in the big picture?
A: It’s huge, it’s massive. We collaborate with the University of Copenhagen because we use their environmental studies students to helping us understand our CO2 footprint. That gives us the data to make decisions moving forward in a more responsible direction. We also collaborate a lot regarding fermentation and understanding fermentation. We do microbial testing on our products just to make sure they’re safe. One thing about fermentation is that we are sort of “messing” with the building blocks of life. And that is something to have a deep respect for. Because when you put one molecule or a microbe in the wrong place, it can create poison. So there has to be a deep respect for fermentation because we are making things that could potentially hurt if we’re not careful.

Q: How much do you rely on fermentation? 
A: If I had to put a guesstimate answer on how much, if we took all of our products that we upcycle back into the menu, I would say fermentation accounts for 50%. of that.

Q: That’s massive. And that passes on to the sustainable approach…
A: Exactly! Because the thing is that, in nature, all these microbes that we’re using, actually take stuff and break it down to simpler compounds, that then can be absorbed as nutrients by plants and animals. So it’s already happening. It’s a natural process. Why can’t we use those microbes to create flavor? Those nutrients can go back into the food system.

Q: If we look at it from the other side of the spectrum, at people living in Denmark – how do they perceive fermentation as part of daily cooking practices? How visible is it in the restaurant’s menus?
A: Fermentation isn’t a big part of Western culture in general. And I don’t think it’s become a bigger part of the diet. I don’t really see my friends that are involved in restaurants having jars of kimchi and other fermented stuff in the house. That’s just not a thing. Fermentation is almost like an upscale restaurants’ thing for the general public here.

I think that talking about things being fermented to our guests, we also have to be careful how to communicate it. Most of the menu here involves at least one tiny component that might be fermented in a dish, like garum to season something. But we don’t always talk about that. Fermentation for us is flavor. And when I say flavor, I mean a flavor enhancer. We use it to harness particular flavors. I don’t think you should ever taste fermentation unless you’re eating kimchi or something like that. If you tasted fermentation through our menu, your stomach would really hurt by the end of the menu. It’s almost too much. We are very conscious of how we inject it into the menu. Because we use it really subtly, especially this time of year when the ingredients are at the peak when they shine. In the winter we actually lean on fermentation a bit more to create deeper flavors. I don’t think that fermentation as a flavor should be present throughout your menu.

Q: What is the future of fermentation? 
A: The whole interest within the food world seems like we were just scratching the surface right now. Everything anybody does regarding fermentation – that’s not new. We’re all just reexploring ideas that are thousands of years old. The difference now is that we have the technology to understand what’s happening in those processes. And through this understanding, we’re able to manipulate that process in a way that might become more efficient.

I think the future of fermentation is really us having a greater understanding of these processes. And the entities or microbes that are involved. Being able to use those to create better flavors allows us to work more sustainably. The future of fermentation is going to allow us to give a higher value to the things that by the general public are perceivable of having no value.

Q: Local scene of restaurants or food companies have started to collaborate and work together for the greater good. How do you perceive the movement happening here compared to other places in the world?
A: One of my investors always says that, when it comes to Copenhagen, he feels like it’s the Silicon Valley of the food world. There are a lot of really cool food startups. When two entities collide, one that understands the process, and the other that understands the flavor, you have the potential to create something really powerful. The problem with these food startups is that sometimes they’re not started by chefs or people who understand flavors. These people have great ideas moving forward, but they don’t understand the processes involved. 

I think these small food startups are starting to see the value of those collaborations. For us, people who understand flavor, we are starting to be exposed to new processes and products that are quite interesting regarding kitchen and a restaurant.

Sometimes I get asked, what’s the next evolution of Nordic cuisine? For me, this is the next evolution – chefs engaging in larger food productions and getting knowledge from those processes. It’s also helping these projects move forward in a more responsible way. Because if you’re doing something for the right reasons, and you’re making something out of byproducts, but you create something disgusting – you’re actually working against this agenda. You’re actually selling something that deters people from making the choice of consuming this product over a regular one. So unless delicious things are being created, I would prefer you not to create that product, because it’s not helping anyone. The same thing goes with products like kombucha. Every time I see a new kombucha come out, I buy it. 99% of the time it tastes like sugar water with a little bit of sourness. I like to drink kombucha because it’s actually healthy for your gut. But if you add some sugar to it, then you’re kind of counteracting the whole idea of it.

Q: I have one last question. Kind of a fun one. What’s your favorite ferment or a dish with fermented food?
A: Off the top of my head, right now one of my favorite things is a grilled cheese sandwich with kimchi. It’s so good. Miso soup is something I really enjoy and make at home quite often. Just some nice vegetable stock, seasoning, after it’s cooled down a little bit of miso, and just a piece of tofu. It’s one of my favorite things to eat.

Q: That was really inspiring. Thank you so much for the talk. 
A: You’re welcome.

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