There’s a quiet revolution taking place in Surfers Paradise. Squeezed between a bottle shop and a tour company, in the tiny café Delikatessen, chef Chris Howard is reinventing Denmark’s most famous dish, the smørrebrød.
Originally from Perth, Howard had begun his work as a chef on the Gold Coast. The youngest Head Chef of Quality Inns in Australia, Howard travelled to Europe, working in London for eight years, including as chef at two Michelin star restaurants Chez Max and Monsieur Max. Twelve years in Copenhagen followed where he immersed himself in Danish culture, language and food before owning his own restaurant, a French brasserie, Chit Chat.
Choosing Australia to raise his children, Howard decided to open a restaurant where his culinary journey had begun, in Surfers Paradise. Rather than open a French-inspired restaurant, as his classical training might predict, he embarked on a different path, introducing Danish cuisine to Australia.
“I wanted to show Australia what I had learned overseas,” he said, “yet do something completely different. There were French restaurants here already, but people knew very little about Danish cuisine.”
The one dish that’s central to Denmark’s cuisine and culture is the open sandwich, or smørrebrød (pronounced smure-brid). Originally a working class lunch taken over by the bourgeoisie and nobility, it drew on the tradition of serving meat and fish on bread instead of plates. But, like many food traditions, the Danish sandwich had fallen out of fashion. Until recently, younger Danes had embraced globalised food culture, leaving smørrebrød for the retirees.
But, in a revolution led by René Redzepi, Danish chef and co-owner of Noma (voted Best Restaurant of the World in the San Pellegrino Awards, 2010, 2011, 2012), Danish cuisine has undergone a reinvention. Following Redzepi’s lead, chef Adam Aamann concentrated on one dish, the smørrebrød, bringing it back into fashion in Denmark. ‘New Nordic’, as this culinary movement is now known, is transforming Danish cuisine, giving a modern lighter take on dishes such as classic Danish open sandwiches.
Just as Aamann was introducing the Danish sandwich to New York, Chef Chris Howard was moving back to Australia from Denmark with the idea of opening a restaurant. Howard decided to concentrate his attention on the Danish version of the sandwich: the smørrebrød, placing it into a modern Australian context, a first for Queensland.
Traditional smørrebrød had a base of rugbrød, a dense rye bread, served thinly sliced, topped with layers of pickled herrings, sliced cheese, boiled eggs, slices of vegetables, pork liver paste, cured and processed meat, mackerel in tomato sauce, and smoked fish. Mayonnaise laden salad, remoulade or other thick sauces often topped the meat.
“The traditional smørrebrød was very heavy with oils and fats, but in Denmark it can be 15 degrees below, so eating heavy food was not a problem. Smørrebrød needed to be adapted to the modern palate using flavours and ingredients common to this country. Nobody else is doing that here, so it’s unique. There are only three restaurants outside Denmark who are reinventing smørrebrød,” Howard says, referring to Aamanns-Copenhagen, which opened in New York in November 2012, and Dansk in Melbourne.
“We use two breads: a Low GI bread as well as a traditional rye. Also, many winter root vegetables used in Danish cuisine, such as Jerusalem artichokes and celeriac, are not really common here, but avocado is. It fits perfectly with the other ingredients and is uniquely Australian. We’ve also made our sandwiches far healthier than the originals. ”
Delikatessen’s sandwiches achieve a balance of earthy and sublime. The Low GI bread is full of grains and seeds, thinly sliced but filling because of its uniquely high protein content. It matches surprisingly well with the subtle smokiness of the gravalax-like cold-smoked salmon which Chris prepares himself. On another sandwich it’s topped by a piece of fish, its crisp aerated batter a playful pink.
Intriguing and delicious, Howard’s dishes are a visual feast. Laid out like a painter’s palate on wooden platters, his creations form a spray of colours and textures unparalleled in Western sandwiches. Sauces duck and weave across the plate, playing with the edges of the sandwich, tempting us to venture past the bread to the tastes beyond.
Not only pleasing to the eye, each ingredient has a purpose, contributing to the balance of sweet and salty, crisp or tender, each mouthful an exciting and unexpected combination of flavours and textures. It’s due homage to the humble sandwich, especially at lunch, a meal to which so many chefs pay little attention.
“We would not feel comfortable serving a product we are not entirely proud of. This is not just a business, this is artwork for us,” Howard tells us as we watch him at work. “Life is boring if you eat bad food!”
With passion and excitement, Howard tells us of his future plans for the restaurant: a new chef arriving from Denmark, and further experimentation with Danish cuisine on the horizon.
We’re amazed at the revolution we’ve experienced at Delikatessen so far, realising that any other sandwich we eat will be boring indeed!
The reinvention of Danish smørrebrød, August 8, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/honest-cooking/danish-smorrebrod_b_916848.html
Danish staple known as smørrebrød comes to New York at Aamanns-Copenhagen, February 24, 2013 http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/eats/smorrebrod-nyc-aamanns-copenhagen-article-1.1267294?pgno=1#ixzz2YIoPocy6
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