Kenneth Toft-Hansen: meet the Danish finalist in the Bocuse d'Or

Today, 11th of June, the European finals are taking place in Torino. Here’s an interview with the Danish finalist

Kenneth Toft-Hansen, in the middle, with the two c

Kenneth Toft-Hansen, in the middle, with the two collaborators helping him in the European finals of the Bocuse d'Or. The Danish chef is supported by captain Rasmus Kofoed, chef at Geranium in Copenhagen and winner of the competition in 2011

Since we were in Denmark for a gastronomic trip, a few days ago, we took the opportunity to meet the Danish participant in the European finals of the Bocuse d’Or 2018, taking place today, 11th of June, and tomorrow, 12th, in Torino. We visited him at his “training centre”.

The competition, which Paul Bocusecreated in 1987, is thus structured: the world finals take place every two years. The next will be in Lyon (as usual) at the end of January, in 2019. During the previous year, that is to say now, the three continental selections take place (in Europe – Americas – and Asia Pacific). These result in a list of the 24 best chefs to participate in the final contest.

Denmark has a remarkable record in this international contest for young chefs: indeed, the current chef at Geranium in Copenhagen (the only 3 Michelin starred restaurant in town, at number 19 in the 2017 S.Pellegrino World’s 50 BestRasmus Kofoed is the only chef in the world to have reached the third, second and first place. 

Kenneth Toft-Hansen, to the left, and Rasmus Kofoed, to the right. In the middle, Toft-Hansen’s assistant, Christian Wellendorf

Kenneth Toft-Hansen, to the left, and Rasmus Kofoed, to the right. In the middle, Toft-Hansen’s assistant, Christian Wellendorf

The Bocuse d’Or super champion is coaching the 2018 Danish finalist, Kenneth Toft-Hansen. This is not a debut, however. Toft-Hansen has also participated more than once, and already got to the world finals in Lyon in 2014/15. On that occasion, he came second in the European finals and sixth in the international ones.

When we met him at the university campus in Copenhagen where he was training with his collaborators, he was happy and relaxed. He was having a good time. He’s a friendly and laidback guy. He doesn’t like wearing a chef’s uniform and loves cooking above all, ever since his first experience, which happened almost by chance.

«I first walked inside a restaurant kitchen – he says – for the simple reason that I needed to support myself, I needed a job. So I got a job as kitchen hand. I was 14 and thought it would be dead boring. Instead, after a few weeks I couldn’t wait to go to work, because I found watching cooks at work was extremely fascinating. At one point, they allowed me to chop onions. I thought it was a great accomplishment. Everything else, came as a consequence. And then I fell in love with team work».

Kenneth Toft-Hansen at work

Kenneth Toft-Hansen at work

What do you mean?
I believe what’s really unique in this career is the strong cohesion that you must create in the kitchen. Be it large or small, this group of people joins forces to reach an important goal. Everyone does his best for the team. Of course, the love for food is always giving you the direction. 

When did you understand you’d become a professional chef?
To be honest, even know I’m not sure I’ve stopped growing professionally. I don’t know if I’ve “become” something or someone. This is another aspect I love of this job: every day offers a chance to learn something new. This is especially true in a country like Denmark.

Why so?
Our seasons are difficult to interpret. Especially the cold months. During the winter, you must really understand our products, particularly vegetables. Each winter is different and you must know how temperatures and climate change raw materials. Of course, cooking is very important, and it’s what I do. But products are the real stars in my opinion. One should always remember this at a time when chefs are treated like rock stars.

Svinkløv Badehotel before the fire 

Svinkløv Badehotel before the fire 

What kind of chef are you? How would you describe your style? How close are you to the New Nordic Cuisine?
I think that name is really just a label that suits the media. It serves to express a concept which we’ve taken from the Italians, rather than the French. To put it simply: use the products offered by your land, and try to give them as much value as you can. As I said earlier, the only important thing is respecting raw materials and their original flavours. It’s more important that a dish is good, instead of beautiful or spectacular. And every ingredient must be recognisable. It must belong to that season and represent the place where you are eating it. For me, the most beautiful thing of all, having a restaurant on the beach, by the sea, is serving the fish caught in that very sea in front of the windows. 

If I’m not mistaken, your restaurant is currently closed for renovations, correct?
Yes, unfortunately I’ve been facing the hardest battle in my life since September 26th 2016. That day, my hotel burnt down completely after a terrible fire. I lost everything. It’s called Svinkløv Badehotel and it’s in north Jutland: we had bought the hotel a couple of years earlier with my company, which I created with my wife. We are currently rebuilding it: I’m very happy with the works and the collaboration with architecture firm Praksis Arkitekter. They’ll show the project at the Venice Biennale. The idea is to give new life to a historic building, the largest wood building in all of Denmark. We should be able to open in the first half of 2019.

Kenneth Toft-Hansen, with wife Louise, and their hotel in the background 

Kenneth Toft-Hansen, with wife Louise, and their hotel in the background 

So did this accident lead to your decision to participate once again in the Bocuse d’Or?
Yes, of course. I needed to continue to work on my cuisine, and after working in some pop up restaurants around Denmark, I decided to take part in this experience once again as I had enjoyed it a lot. For me, it really is a game. I’m a competitive guy, I love the idea of a competition, but my approach is as cheerful as possible. So I tried again and won the Danish finals. Now it’s time for the finals in Torino.

How are you training? What do you expect from the competition? 
To be honest, we must face a very difficult task. The raw materials I’ve been given are Fassona fillet, sweetbreads and rice. And we must add some Danish elements to these ingredients: given the season, we’ll use asparagus, spring peas and baby potatoes. Fassona has very little fat. It’s not easy to cook. Yet the most difficult element for us is rice. I think it would be very daring to make a risotto in Italy. I must confess I have never made great use of rice in my cuisine, so it’s my weak point. But we’re training so as to do our best. Wish me luck in Torino!

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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