By Jrm

February 06,2017

Meet the chef: Kasper Christensen

Kasper has worked in some of Sydney’s best kitchens and has recently taken on the role as Group Executive Chef for hospitality and consultancy group, AppleJack.
Throughout his career, Kasper has worked in a range of different kitchens in Denmark, France and Australia. He comes across as humble and easy going guy and is someone that values the importance of training and educating young chefs. Kasper also believes that creating a healthy work environment for yourself and your staff is crucial when running a successful business.I met up with Kasper to find out what brought him to Australia all those years ago, and what made him dedicate his time to training and teaching at the Cordon Bleu culinary school. Kasper grew up in a small fishing village in the very north of Denmark. His father, a fisherman, could not understand his son’s desire to cook and travel the world. But Kasper knew from a very early age that this was what he was destined to do and felt the heat of the kitchen calling him. As an eager 15-year-old, waiting for his “life to begin” Kasper got kicked out of high school and was advised to focus on his passion, as he was unable to concentrate on anything else. Following that advice, he managed to get a job at the local butcher shop, which gave him a great introduction into the industry and kept him busy until starting catering college. Kasper loved catering school and soaked up as much information as possible. Nordic Dining catering Upon completing his degree, he joined the national military service as a chef.Here he was stationed on the Royal Yacht and left in charge cooking for the Royal family whenever they attended the grand ship.Kasper speaks fondly of this unique experience, and it was during this time that he was introduced to classical French cuisine. As the Yacht would travel around Europe, Kasper would visit the local markets to buy his produce, and the Prince himself would sometimes accompany him. Prince Henry grew up in France and was eager to show Kasper around the French kitchen. During this time Kasper didn’t only get the freedom to experiment and refine his techniques, but he also had to learn at a very young age to trust in the ingredients and the skills he had picked up during college. After the military service, he enjoyed his early 20’s, working his way up through the ranks in several different restaurants in Denmark. But being a young chef is challenging, and he found himself working very long hours and partying a bit too much, so he decided it was time to leave Denmark and see what else the culinary world had to offer. This was a time before the big Danish/Nordic food revolution, and although Denmark still had great restaurants and hotels, it hadn’t yet made its mark on the culinary map. Kasper wanted to find a place to focus and develop his skills, so he set sail for France. Upon arriving in Monaco, he soon discovered that his high school French wasn’t as good as he had imagined and he struggled to make himself understood. Despite his difficulties, he managed to get a job at a local burger bar, where he worked for a couple of months before the owners recommended him for a position at a Michelin star restaurant in Hermitage. Kasper tells us how he could never have prepared himself for what was about to come. “It was a massive shock. The other chefs were not very friendly and tried to stitch me up all the time, waiting for me to fail. But I put my head down, I didn’t talk much and just worked hard. Luckily the senior chefs could see something in me, and that was my saviour. I excelled in the kitchen, but I was always butting heads with my peers who were just constantly giving me shit.” When asked whether that structure is necessary for a kitchen of that calibre, Kasper’s response is clear. “Had you asked me a couple of years ago I probably would have said yes. But since working in some great kitchens here in Australia, I have changed my mindset. France was so regimented; Denmark was not quite as bad but still similar in structure. My first job here in Australia was at Bathers Pavilion, which was fairly hard-core back then as well. It wasn’t until I started at Quay that I began to see things differently. One of the first things Peter Gilmore told me was, ‘This is not about egos; this is about the food. If I have a problem with you, I will tell you in private, and if you have an issue with me, we can talk about it after service. Cooking is not about driving people apart; we need to focus on the food.’ “I liked the sound of that; although I’m not going to lie it was hard to get used to and for some chefs coming from overseas they struggle to work that way. I guess some people need that structure and hierarchy that’s often seen in European kitchens. It was a very brave thing for Peter to implement in that kitchen at that time and I like to think that I have adopted similar management techniques today.” After a couple of years in the Michelin star kitchen, Kasper wanted to move on. His intention was to cook his way around the world, and he set his eyes on Japan. But after the intense years in France, he was looking for some down time and decided he would take a junior position without too much responsibility in a warm and sunny land down under. A friend in France put him in contact with Serge Dansereau, and Kasper soon got a job at Bathers Pavilion in Sydney. As many industry professionals have experienced, it’s hard to slow down in this industry, passion and devotion will often suck you back into the job and the long hours. “It was still hard work, and I still got yelled at quite a bit, but Serge took a liking to me. I was very lucky as I had applied for a couple of roles, but as it was low season, no one was hiring. That only goes to show how important it is to network and get to know people.” Kasper noticed straight away how different things were in Sydney compared to the tough, and elite world of French Michelin cuisine. “It was very different. I was the black sheep in France and here I was invited in and we were like a family. I worked with some great chefs in that kitchen; chefs that have all moved on to do great things.” Nordic Dining Catering After a couple of years at Bathers Pavilion, Kasper moved on to Quay, and as he briefly mentioned earlier, it was a very different kitchen environment; with a lot of discipline but also patience. Kasper admits that it was a hard to get used to and that he didn’t always see eye to eye with the other chefs. However, he found Peter Gilmore, a very considerate man, and he soon learned to love the Quay kitchen. Up until then, meat and protein had been Kasper’s “thing” and what he enjoyed working with the most. But when the pastry chef walked out one day, Kasper was quick to fill the role. He was fascinated by the challenges and precision required when working with pastry, dough and chocolate and soon found a new calling. During his time at Quay, Kasper was part of what I like to call the ‘4-day revolution’. Kasper had become a father, and he felt the need to cut down his workload. He went to Peter and asked if he could cut down his hours; this would be the start of the discussions and negotiations that led to the four days on and three days off rotating roster that they still have today in the Quay kitchen. This new rostering regime has proven a great way of maintaining their chef’s well-being, focus, and consistency. Working in this industry is challenging in many different ways, and I think we have all felt the strain that it has on our social and family lives. It’s easy to get carried away in our passion and determination to succeed. Our personal life often becomes second to our life in the kitchen; this is something that Kasper also has experienced. After five years at Quay, he felt the need to take some time off, and he took his family home to Denmark for a couple of months. Once he was back in Sydney and ready to start work again, he connected with chef Martin Boetz. Martin (The man behind Longrain) had paired up with the Keystone group and was opening a restaurant and deli in Rushcutters, that would be a direct outlet for Martin’s farm in the Hawkesbury region; Cooks Co-op. “It was a great project, and I loved working with the amazing produce from Cooks Co-op.” But it didn’t take long until Kasper found himself back working long hours, 6-7 days a week, which was not the balanced family life he had hoped for. He felt it was time to re-prioritise his life once again and took the tough decision to step away from the restaurant kitchen. I admire that Kasper speaks so openly about his need to walk away. I’ve met a lot of chefs that are in the same boat, and want to cut down on the ever so demanding workload. I find that this subject still attracts some controversy. Cooking is still very much a “macho” profession, and you are not meant to show any “weakness”. Very often, people that initially have the desire to be a chef are put off once they face the real kitchen environment; something that I think our industry is working hard to change. Kasper had a couple of friends who were teaching at different cooking schools and thoroughly enjoyed it. As he had very fond memories from his own time at catering school, he felt that this could be a good way to give back to the industry. Once completing his teaching certificate, he got a job at Cordon Bleu cooking school here in Sydney. A job that was more challenging that he could have ever expected. “Imagine trying to teach 16 teenagers to make a béarnaise sauce at the same time, where only 25% cared about what they were doing.” Working closely with the next generation of chefs opened Kasper eyes to what false preconceptions people have about the industry. Last year, the Turnbull government stopped funding for TAFE, which consequently has made it very expensive and unattractive to study to become a chef. “Kids nowadays are choosing the alternative courses that promise qualifications in 6 months to a year. No one can qualify as a chef in such a short time. The fact that there isn’t even a course for front-of-house staff is just shocking. In Denmark, it takes four years to become a professional waiter. “Young chefs today don’t want to work in high-pressure environments anymore. I think Australia is more laid back and they don’t see cooking as life and death. Back in Europe, it’s still very much about honour, and it can be very intense.”
the tap room, applejack
The Endeavour Tap Rooms
So what can we do to make the profession more honourable? “I don’t know how we can make it more attractive. It’s so hard to find chefs, and the Sydney restaurant scene is rapidly growing. If they take the chef-sponsorship off of the skilled visa list, how are we going to fill the kitchens? There aren’t many Australian apprentices coming through anymore. If we can’t produce our own labour force and we can’t sponsor them from overseas, where are they going to come from?” During his past couple of years working as a teacher, Kasper has gained a new respect for the profession and for the young guns that are coming through, even though they might be few and far between. “It’s a great feeling when you can see how you might have changed a young chef’s attitude or fuelled their passion with knowledge.” In recent years, Kasper has made sure that he has remained in touch with, and at the forefront of current restaurant trends, and last year he was part of the Noma Australia team. “Working with Rene was such an inspiration. Every service was like a Master class; he would talk to us about the produce and tell us his philosophy. He was so patient and caring and showed so much respect to everyone in his team.” This is an excellent example of how the industry is changing. We all know that Rene’s reputation hasn’t always been the patient and calm type. However, Kasper thinks that like many other chefs, Rene has had to adapt his behaviour and management style for the well being of himself, his team and the restaurant. It’s great to see such an influential chef lead the industry by example. More recently, Kasper has been running his own catering company “Nordic Dining’, where he summons inspiration from the Nordic food philosophy of quality, seasonality, healthy and sustainability. It was soon after getting ‘Nordic Dining’ up and running that Applejack Hospitality approached him about the Group Executive Chef role. “At first, I wasn’t thinking about change as I liked the setup I had going for me. But after meeting with the guys at Applejack, I felt that the group was a good fit for me and that the role offered me the freedom to be part of the kitchen without letting it dissolve me.” Endeavour vintage beer co In his new role, Kasper has recently successfully opened “The Tap Rooms” in the Rocks, which is a partnership between Applejack Hospitality and the Endeavour Vintage Beer Co. Both brands share the philosophies of using all-Australian, seasonally harvested ingredients with no preservatives. Kasper tells me how they have worked on bringing out the old traditions of the place. For example, they found out that there used to be a butcher and a smokehouse in this former Sydney hospital, and decided to embrace that part of history and restore the smokehouse, which is now being used generously by the Tap Rooms kitchen staff. The menu offers a range of smoked produce from land and sea, served feast-style, accompanied with fresh salads and home-made sauces. In addition to beers, The Endeavour Tap Rooms’ pours seasonal cocktails and NSW wines from the keg as supplied by their favourite winemakers. Applejack has made sure to steer away from a dark and gloomy pub atmosphere and is using its recognisable brand of a fresh and leafy interior, making this a must try destination for the summer. Check out: The Endeavour Tap Rooms 39-43 Argyle St, The Rocks NSW 2000