Connecting farmers, chefs and guests - an interview with chef student Emilie Qvist Kjærgaard

Talented chef student Emilie Qvist Kjærgaard is certainly one to keep an eye out for. Only 26 years old, she's already worked the in the kitchen of well-respected places like Amass and Relæ in Copenhagen and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York. She's receiving multiple praises in the industry for her talent and ability to bridge the gap between farm and table - something she'll continusly work towards from her newly opened restaurant 'Medvind' in a small fisher town in the nothern part of Jutland. 

We had the pleasure of experiencing Emilie in action as she took up the challenge to create and cook a menu for the 'Truly Ugly Easter Table' with us at Eat Grim. After a long day at of foraging wild items, cooking delicious dishes in the kitchen, and of course feasting on it all at Birkemosegaard - we sat down for a chat about seasonality, restoring connection between farm and table, and how she likes to cook grim. 

Hi Emilie, thank you so much for a truly stunning Easter feast. 

"Haha, you are very welcome. Hopefully, I’ve inspired you to put some ugliness and Spring on the plate?"

Oh, you definitely have! And we’re sure that a lot of our Grimlings will enjoy your take on an Easter menu as well, pimping up these sturdy winter veggies. Please tell us, where did you find inspiration for a menu like that? 

"Well, all of these dishes were actually a product of this idea, that you’re getting the last out of winter. For these heavy and deep vegetables, we need to bring in all sorts of spring items from nature. The fresh sprouts, spruce shoots, and blooming flowers. Everything that’s awake in nature right now. Stuff that’s plenty off but often overlooked. Nature is so full of potential, we can harvest ourselves, especially now when our fridge is a bit limited." 

Yes, truly a tricky season. And on that note, thank you for also taking us on treasure hunt earlier today in the spring sun. Such a 

"You’re very welcome. Though I’m such a cabbage-girl and love the winter months, there’s always something really exciting and motivating about watching those first new shoots in nature. That’s why I started foraging. You get this really one-on-one experience of what time of the year it is. And just around March / April is where you start seeing all these beautiful small signs of Spring. Then all of a sudden you can easily go through another month of kale, carrots and potatoes." 

Watch how to forage wild ramsons for your menu

We sure can. Also you seemed so natural navigating around the landscape of Sjællands Odde, harvesting seaweed on the beach, picking ramsons on the hill, and around Birkemosegaard farm. You grew up on a farm yourself, right? 

“I did yes. I’m sure that my whole interest in the connection between farmers, chefs and food come from my upbringing on an organic farm, like Birkemosegaard, on the small island of Livø. I really got it under my skin, how much time and work it takes to cultivate the produce, that we as chefs are refining into something tasty and delicious. I really love the ability to take something that has been shown a lot of respect in the field, and then show it the stage of respect in the kitchen, and then serve it to a guest who will hopefully show it the last respect and enjoyment while eating it."   

"It is simple economics: What do the farmers offer? That’s what I’ll demand from them."

That makes so much sense. Any other specific things you do in order to bridge the gap between the farm and table? 

"Well, everytime I’m hosting a dish, a dinner party or now with my upcoming restaurant, it’s always driven by the farmers. They are the ones to decide what I should be making. So, I’m not gonna go out just ordering what I need. Of course I can have my wishes for what I would like them to sow, which I then will buy, when it’s ready. But it’s 100 percent them who decide on the seasonal produce. When the leaks are done, the leaks are done - and I need to be ready then to welcome them in the kitchen. It is simple economics: What do the farmers offer? That’s what I’ll demand from them. Kind of opposite of how it works now for the most part, where consumers decide on the commercial season."

Well said. That’s our experience too. Seasonality is key. 

"Yes. And I do firmly believe that we as consumers can actually make a difference with our money and choices. And the easy way is seasonality. So in the winter we’ll go shop those root veggies from local producers. And then forget about the strawberries og asparagus or small pointed cabbages. Wait until they are actually here, and get the full exciting experience from buying the first strawberries, asparagus or fresh new potatoes."

Speaking of making a difference. The produce you’ve cooked so nicely are all ugly or surplus veggies and fruits that would have otherwise been wasted. We can only imagine that your close relation with farmers has given you a perspective on their struggle to meet industry standards? What’s your view on food waste like that? 

"Well, food waste is terrible. But I’m of the opinion that if you know the history of the produce, and how much energy the farmer used to tend it, the more respect you’ll have in the kitchen - and will automatically let less go to waste. So a close connection between farmer and chef will reduce food waste. And of course becoming conscious about the fact that there’s no “right” way for a vegetable or fruit to look. It doesn’t matter if the carrot is wonky, it will taste just as well, if not better. We shouldn’t be spoiled like that. Embrace the weird looking and imperfect. That’s the natural way."   

You shouldn't follow my recipes way too literally. It should be fun, and not mathematics."  

You said it! Thank you so much Emilie. Anything you wanna let our Grimlings know before they start cooking for the ‘Truly Ugly Easter Tavle’? 

"Well my best advice for those who wanna cook some of my recipes would be not to follow them. Cook whatever you feel like, follow your instincts, and let whatever you find and forage guide you. Not to sound like a total hippie, but seriously - cook the food you like. These dishes are super easy, and if you don’t like parsnips, jerusalem artichokes or kale, then swap them with something you like. That'll taste just as good. It’s the first time I've over cooked these dishes and of course I learn a lot on the way; stuff I might change next time or something that ends up looking far from what I imagined. That’s how I like to cook. A feeling of flow and actually “making” food. Not following a recipe way too literally. It should be fun, and not mathematics."  

Thank you so much Emilie.  

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