In Part 1 of our interview with chef Sean Ehland, we learned his thoughts on the ever-present culinary school debate, as well as how he pestered his way into a stage at Noma via the restaurant's reservations email. In Part 2, we learn what working in such a sophisticated kitchen is like, as well as how he feels when he takes a meal quite literally from the farm to the table, all on his own. We also discuss just how much he'd love to get into the Wolvesden.
When we left off, Ehland was telling us he spent three months emailing Noma, hoping for a chance to work there.
SI: How many emails did you send to them?
SE: I don't know exactly. Definitely over 10 within three months I think.
SI: When you finally got there, what was your experience like? What did you do in that kitchen?
SE: I was one of the stagiers [people who stage, or work for free for a time to learn a new cuisine or technique]. People like me just working for free trade experience. It was a machine. I think that's the best word to describe it. There were just so many people, it had to be completely perfect. You can definitely tell they're striving to maintain the number one spot, and for their third Michelin star. It's seems prevalent that everyone there has the same mindset that everything must be absolutely perfect and of the best quality. An eye for detail, definitely. I definitely gained from that, as well as from moving extraordinarily fast, and being very precise.
SI: Do you feel like it changed you as a chef?
SE: It changed the way I think about food, and I had to definitely change…at least in Pittsburgh, it's always a line kitchen setup–one cook works the sauté station, one cook does the grill station, one does the vegetables and starches, and everyone slides the plate and puts their own step on. But there, it's a brigade system. I'd read about it, I was familiar from just knowing about it, but I'd never worked in it. To have five or six cooks working on the same plate at the same time, it was amazing to watch.
SI: Can you explain the difference between a line and a brigade system?
SE: The line system, from my experience, I guess it varies with every kitchen but if I worked the sauté station, I had five or six appetizers and five or six entrees, and I'm responsible for every protein such, or really like the whole plate. I was responsible for every bit of mise en place for it, as well as plating it and saucing it.
But [at Noma] it was just a complete team effort. Stagiers didn't get to see much service there, which I understand. I was a little saddened by it ,I guess. But still, to be a part of all the little projects I was doing all day–to see something that I was working on all day go onto a plate was really neat.
SI: Did you get a chance to taste dishes at NOMA?
SE: Oh yeah.
SI: What were some of the best things you ate there?
SE: There were a few times when there were parties in the upstairs production kitchen, and while we were still finishing up what we were doing for the day, we'd find out they plated one too many or something broke and they couldn't serve it. One of the things that was really awesome was a langoustine, a whole tail of langoustine. It was just served on a rock with an emulsion with some…I'm not even really…the kitchen was sprawling huge. There were things going on that I didn't even get to see, it was so big. But you just picked the tail up with your fingers and swiped it through the sauce. There was a crumble on top of it, that was it. The simplicity of it was amazing. It was a gigantic ocean rock, so just the feeling of eating a langoustine off an ocean rock.
SI: How long were you at Noma?
SE: I was at Noma for three weeks.
SI: What the story with the trip you took afterwards?
SE: After that, we went foraging. We went to this castle on the other coast from Copenhagen, about an hour's drive, and we went foraging for ramson. It's a plant similar to a ramp, but it goes to a flowering stage and produces a berry that when you salt them for about two months and cover them with vinegar, they're local capers.
So we went foraging for that in this area called Lammefjord. It's a region of the area. There's a town called Horve with a castle called Dragsholm Slot, which is the oldest castle in Denmark that's now a hotel with two restaurants in it. The chef that takes care of foraging at Noma is really good friends with the chef, Claus Henriksen, who runs the kitchen there. He'd done time at Noma. He was a sous chef in the early days.
So I met him, and I got the opportunity to go out [to the castle] for a week. I took that because they would house me for free as well. It was so isolated that they had to house their employees. That was really amazing. It's in the heart of farmland–the entire castle was surrounded by farms, and we could go and pick all the produce for the night's menu at 2 p.m., eat staff meal, and then prepare the vegetables there one hour out of the soil to serve to guests. That was probably the most life-changing experience ever.
SI: In what way?
SE: I just feel that's how I want to cook; how I can achieve that here in the States, to be surrounded by farms. To have farmers just be ok with us going to their fields and taking 40 petite carrots for service and not being upset about it. If that could happen here, at some location, serving produce that you pulled out of the ground two hours ago to a guest is…I can't explain how it feels. It's the ultimate dream.
SI: As you look for a job post-Noma, does it change your ideas about where you want to cook? Meaning, usually the ultimate dream for a chef in the States is to have a restaurant in Manhattan, where, of course, you can get exceptional ingredients, but does it make you want to perhaps go the more rural route?
SE: Absolutely. I'm a small town guy. Pittsburgh's large but it's nothing near the size of New York City or L.A. But the one thing is does have is a lot of farms nearby, and a lot of things can be seasonably obtained very fast at a high quality. There are a lot of relationships that you can develop with farmers. So I probably need to be somewhere like this, be it here or somewhere else, for the next venture.
I'm going to Charleston to work for Husk, Sean Brock's restaurant, for about two weeks, and their mission, from what I understand, is to only source ingredients from the South. That really appealed to me, especially coming from Denmark, where they're really forward with using indigenous ingredients. A place that's striving to do that–to use only what's around you–I was really attracted to that, so I'm going to try my luck down there.
SI: It seems like you could go rogue and never really open a restaurant. At least out here in L.A., we have lots of chefs and restaurants that take alternative routes, such as Ludo Lefebvre of LudoBites, who does pop-up restaurants, and Test Kitchen, which featured a rotating door of chefs. Not to mention the myriad of food trucks on the streets everyday. There are certainly ways to be a traveling chef these days.
SE: Yeah, the industry has definitely changed in such a way that you can pretty much do what you want and say 'fuck you' to everybody else. Especially with the food cart phenomenon and all the pop-up dinners. Like Wolvesmouth, I believe he's called?
SI: Yes, definitely. We haven't been able to get in yet.
SE: I'm on their email list and every time I see one I laugh because there's no way I can just up and leave and go to dinner there, like, tomorrow, but I always follow what he's doing. I really like his approach–that he does it all himself. He doesn't want a professional kitchen. He found his niche and it's working very well for him. It's something I would like to eat in the future. Or just meet the guy and talk about food.
SI: Does doing something like that appeal to you at all?
SE: Uh, [pauses] not so much. I have the kitchen in my blood too much, I suppose. I really thrive on the chaos and the stress of it all. I just really like that. It's incredibly difficult work, I'm sure anyone can tell you that. To feel rewarded at the end of the day is great. Especially after you pump out 200 covers on a busy Saturday night with three line cooks, and you know, the dishwasher called of that night, but somehow it all came together and worked. You kind of sit back and say, 'Fuck. I did that. I did that. Let's go get beers now.' That's what I really enjoy about it the most.
Keep an eye out for a recipe from Sean Ehland tomorrow, and follow him as he travels via Twitter @SwEhland.
Follow Ali Trachta on Twitter @MySo_CalLife.