Bord: Issue 1

The Re-opening, and that lasagnetta

Welcome to Bord, a weekly newsletter devoted to the stories and personalities behind Copenhagen's food scene. In this first issue, we go deep into the process of re-opening the city's restaurants and bars, and get the story of Barabba’s already iconic lasagnetta.

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(Bord’s logo was designed by gentleman-scholar Nick Garner)

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A Mad Dash in the Dark

The scramble to re-open Copenhagen’s restaurants

by Lars Bjerregaard and Lisa Abend

When the news finally came, the first thing Lisa Lov did was check the calendar. Like every other chef in Copenhagen, she was anxious to get back to work; the long months of lockdown had strained the finances of her Nørrebro restaurant, Tigermom, and she was growing antsy from all the time at home. But when the Danish government finally announced in late March that restaurants could open for outdoor service in a month’s time, another concern weighed more heavily than either money or boredom. “Given the timing, I was like, ‘Oh please,” says Lov, who was nearly seven months pregnant at the time. “Please let this happen before I give birth.’” 

Trying to navigate a global crisis while hauling around in her belly a creature roughly the size of a butternut squash certainly made the pressure Lov was under more intense than that of her colleagues. But many in the industry might have described it as a difference of degree, not kind. As coronavirus restrictions have eased in many parts of the world, the relief and elation with which chefs and restaurateurs have met the re-opening of their restaurants has been mixed with a sometimes stomach-turning anxiety about what the future holds. 

In the ongoing exercise in relativity that is the pandemic, Danes like to remind themselves that, with its comparatively low infection rates, comparatively generous compensation packages, and comparatively high levels of social trust, their country has come out better than most. Yet when it comes to Copenhagen’s restaurant industry, the lockdowns and restrictions, insufficient government aid, and disappearance of international tourism have landed the same bruising blows as elsewhere. If anything, the experience here in Denmark has functioned as a powerful reminder of just how much unites this industry globally, as fêted restaurants from Nørrebro to Brooklyn to Shibuya were suddenly hung out to dry.  

That shared experience of disregard continued once the re-opening began. Coming out of the dark period of lockdown should have been, if not a leap, then at least a stumble into the light. Instead, the re-opening was negotiated in obscurity, seemingly at the last minute, and in a way that undermined the government’s own insistence that it was guided primarily by science. The result,  if you leave aside a bunch of very unhappy mink farmers, is that no sector here has felt more slapped around by political machinations than the hospitality industry. And it’s reminded everyone that, even in transparent, consensus-minded, comparatively better-off Denmark, politics has a way of mucking things up. 

*

After four long months,  it finally arrived. On March 22, the Danish government released its framework agreement for the country’s re-opening, bringing into sight an end to the long second lockdown that began on December 9. In addition to phasing in reopenings for schools and shopping centers, the plan set two key dates for restaurants and bars: on April 21, they could open for outdoor dining, and on May 6 for indoor. In both cases, guests would need to show a corona pass—proof that the bearer had recently tested negative for the virus— and the restaurant would have to adhere to other restrictions that would be outlined later. 

For Torben Hoffmann Rosenstock, CEO of Danish Restaurants and Cafés, Denmark’s largest industry organization, it couldn’t happen soon enough. The second lockdown was  “fundamentally different from the first one, because money was gone in a business whose margins are slim from the outset.” For a lot of restaurants, he says, “It had become a desperate situation.”

DRC was one of the industry representatives that the Commerce Ministry invited to join a ‘sector partnership’ to advise it on operations compensation. “We were supposed to direct the government’s attention towards the problems.” Hoffmann Rosenstock explains. But that’s not entirely what happened. The sector partners had expected to  be invited regularly to meetings, and to see their concerns and recommendations incorporated into the final guidelines.  “But what we experienced,” Hoffmann Rosenstock says, “is that more and more got settled in internal political deals, while the window for us to exert real influence got smaller and smaller.” 

In other words, the clock was ticking and the real business, negotiated by the leaders and health spokespeople of each party, was taking place behind closed doors. The situation was more fluid—and more democratic— than it had been the previous year, when the government didn’t need to consult with the parties; now, if the majority was united against a particular measure, it wouldn’t pass.  But it wasn’t necessarily more transparent. 

By the end of the month, there were still no details, and DRC and other industry organizations were fielding dozens of calls daily from anxious restaurant owners. Why did they need a corona pass for outdoor dining when indoor shopping didn’t require it? Would they themselves be responsible for enforcing the rules regarding testing? Were masks required? What happened when outdoor diners wanted to use the toilet? Was there a limit on how many could gather? Was it true that the new distance requirement between tables was a bankruptcy-inducing 7.5 meters? 

It wasn’t until April 7 that industry representatives finally met with government officials. By then, many restaurants--the union Horesta put it at 60%— had decided to wait to open until May 6. Thomas Gaarde, restaurateur of Krogs Fiskerestaurant, summed up much of the industry’s misgivings, in an interview with DR. “It’s great that we’re finally allowed to open, but we’ve lost a ton of money, so we need to make sure that there’s enough business if we open. And one thing you can never be sure of in Denmark is the weather. We sell good experiences, and having a six-course meal al fresco in single digits is nobody’s idea of a good experience. So it’s not enough for us to open outdoors.”

*

If she hadn’t been pregnant, Lisa Lov might have felt the same way. 

When Denmark shut down the first time in March 2020, Lov panicked and—freaked out by the abrupt loss of revenue and unconvinced the government would step in to help— immediately sacked her entire team. She had acted precipitously: within a couple of weeks compensation packages were announced that would cover a significant portion of salaries and operating costs. Lov hired some staff back and opened Tigermom for what turned out to be a successful takeout business, but the whole experience chastened her. “It was very humbling to reach out and ask everyone to come back,” she says. “I had to admit that I had made a mistake and that I was sorry. Some of them were understanding, but some of them were really angry. There was a lot of emotion.” 

The second lockdown was an altogether calmer experience; Lov was confident that government aid would cover salaries, and she decided against doing takeout, since the revenues the restaurant earned the first time turned out to be roughly equal with what it would get through the aid package. Initially, it had been nice to spend the time at home, but after a month or so of that, she was eager to get back to work. Some of that was just plain boredom, but the pregnancy made her more acutely aware of her impending deadline. She wanted to be there to lead her team back to work, and be there as well to launch Tigermom’s newest chapter. But the time after which that would be impossible was fast approaching. 

Still, starting up again was a calculated risk: although the reopening agreement allowed staff to remain on government compensation during the week before as they prepared the restaurant, once they were doing business again, those salaries would no longer be covered. And it was anyone’s guess what kind of business they would do. After the first lockdown, restaurants rebounded quickly, but no one was required to get tested back then. Would people be willing— would they remember?— to get a swab stuck up their nose in order to eat out?  Would the weather co-operate? Was it worth it to buy heaters or a 21,000-kroner marquee? Should they just stick to takeout again?  

In the end, they chose to plan for the worst-case scenario. “We decided we would make a new Tigermom menu, and instead of making it a takeaway menu, we’ll decide if we have to which items can be packed up,” Lov says. “At least it gave us a goal to work toward.” 

It was a joy to finally get everyone back in the kitchen. With her newly appointed head chef Max, Lov started working on the new menu: a bao stuffed with ramson and lumpfish roe; a Cambodian fish curry that she’s especially excited about. But the doubts never went away. In fact, with just a week to go, Lov nearly called the whole thing off. By now she had realized that few of her colleagues were planning to open on the 21st.  And the weather, predictably, had turned terrible. What if this turned out to be a huge mistake?

She wouldn’t have time to find out. Because in the first minutes of April 16, just five days before outdoor dining was to open, things changed again. 

*

For a country that routinely ranks near the top of international rankings for transparency in government, what happened on the night of April 15 remains remarkably opaque. No reports on what went on in the negotiating room--or even who was there--have appeared in Danish media, and even sector partners like Hoffmann Rosenstock don’t have insider information. 

What is clear, is that as the first phase of the re-opening neared, many parties were pushing hard to speed up the process; on April 10, they sent a letter to the prime minister noting that infection rates were stable and that by the government’s own logic it was time to open more aspects of society more broadly. Among their goals was an earlier opening for indoor dining, even though it wasn’t clear that this was the restaurants’ own preference. Katja Østergaard, the director of Horesta, pointed out that while she would welcome that change, the industry would rather have some clarity on the overall guidelines first. 

That was the message Christian Nedegaard was getting as well. In 2020, the owner of Ved Stranden 10 and Admiralgade 26 had helped launch an organization, called Bowline, that created a platform for people within the industry. Bowline, he hoped, would not merely aid his industry as it dealt with the pandemic but inspire change as well. “This is such a huge thing that it’s beyond any comparison whatsoever,” he explains. “It’s our Second World War. If we don’t learn from it, if we don't use it for positive change, then we will have failed miserably.”

Nedergaard heard the rumors about opening earlier, and started asking his colleagues if that’s what they wanted.  “Everyone said the same thing,” he recalls. “It was ‘we finally have a set date. Please don’t fuck with that now.’” 

And yet, fuck is exactly what they did. Forty-five minutes after midnight on April 16, a new agreement was announced: restaurants could now open for indoor as well as outdoor dining on April 21. 

You could almost hear the shockwaves rippling out across the city. Even the sector partners hadn’t seen it coming. “I was as surprised as everyone else,” says Hoffmann Rosenstock, who found out from the news.

What had happened?  “We can look at the political shenanigans and ask, ‘what happened there?’” says Nedegaard. “But that’s not really interesting because it came from something else: people being so fatigued that decisions got made very quickly. They’re fatigued and it’s 2am, so they just agree to something that should have been decided months ago, in a bloody war room, where you make proper plans and give fair warning to people so they know what to do.”  

They weren’t too tired, however, to get in one final surprise. Later on the 16th, the government clarified its bookings requirement: they were mandatory  for all kinds of establishments— from fine dining restaurants to fast food joints to bars—and they had to be made at least thirty minutes in advance. The measure, said health minister Magnus Heunicke, was a necessary ‘speed bump’ that would impede transmission. 

The excitement that many had felt quickly dissipated. “Initially I was really happy about it,” says Hoffmann Rosenstock of the agreement. “You could feel the enthusiasm and optimism from the industry right away. That lasted until we found out about the 30-minute rule.”

For restaurants of all stripes, the rule essentially banned walk-ins. It meant that huge swathes of the hospitality business were effectively excluded from the re-opening, since fast food restaurants and coffeeshops—unaccustomed to taking reservations and —had no systems in place to keep track of them and no way to judge how long a party would hold on to a table. Some quickly figured out ways around the measure; others pointed to how nonsensical it was: guests could show up at an empty restaurant only to be told they would have to come back in half an hour. Even a relatively low-maintenance operation like Pompette, the Nørrebro winebar, was in the words of co-owner Martin Ho, “ready to kill ourselves” over the rule since, without a booking system, they were forced to keep track of  reservations via email and Instagram DMs.  

With a couple of exceptions, the parties were fiercely opposed. Stinus Lindgreen, health spokesperson for Radikale, is blunt. “We thought it was a silly rule, and we didn’t agree with it at all. Of course we don’t want crowds of people bar hopping or getting drunk and getting out of control. But that’s something we all want--all of society wants to make sure we don’t lose control of the infection. We would have preferred to show trust in bartenders and restaurants and people at large--if they saw someone was drunk they could just ask them to leave.” 

The majority found the measure similarly nonsensical, but apparently someone--even Lindgreen isn’t entirely sure who though he suspects it came from inside the Commerce ministry--did not. But time was not on their side. Lindgreen asked the health authorities for justification for the new rule. “I told them this sounds so silly, we need to know the basis for it. But they dragged their heels and the whole process was delayed so long that in the end, since [the measure] was going to expire in two weeks anyway, it didn’t make sense to repeal it.” 

Yet not even all the health authorities thought it was a good idea. Within Statens Serum Institut, one of the public health organizations overseeing the country’s pandemic response, there was support for requiring reservations for bars, since, with a milling clientele that was often rapidly on its way to becoming less inhibited by hygiene regulations, they were viewed as a significant vector for infection. Sit-down restaurants, however, weren’t seen as a problem, and treating the two as a single entity ran the risk of undermining public confidence in the scientific rationale for policy. 

“A measure like this, if you can’t explain it, if it doesn’t fit with common sense, it risks losing people’s trust,” says Lindgreen. “If it’s perceived as not making sense, it can make it harder for everyone to trust the government further down the line.” 

Negotiators who suggested imposing the requirement only on bars were told it was impossible to separate the two, since they belonged to a single legal category (distinct from nightclubs). But that, says Nedegaard, doesn’t make sense either. “We know they could do it, because they did it before. “I was able to open my wine bar last summer because I serve food, but the brown bars couldn’t.” 

Were the people in charge too exhausted to do the work it would have required to create separate jurisdictions? Had they simply run out of time? Or was the government, having been forced to concede on a staggered re-opening, now digging in its heels, even if the thing it was digging in on was less than sensical?  Commenting on the first re-opening, in which the government’s insistence of holding the line ran up against fierce resistance from the other parties, Hans Redder, TV2’s political editor described the prime minister’s efforts as a show of muscle. “Mette Frederiksen was worried that a rapid reopening would cause the spread of infection to flare up again, and that would not happen on her watch. There she simply puts hard against hard.” Was this too a power struggle that ended as a show of force?  

There was more political manoeuvring to come, including an effort by Venstre to repeal the 30-minute rule by doing an end run around the negotiating committee. But by then, there were only about three days left until the re-opening. “All these decisions were being made so rapidly that it left the restaurateurs with very little time—sometimes as few as 36 hours— to react,” says Hoffmannn Rosenstock. “Three days to get everything ready, to  get their people  in, buy food. It left people with very little space to make the right decisions for their company. It was very, very stressful.”

Many couldn’t pivot in time. Some  were in the middle of renovations they hadn’t planned on finishing until early May. Some were wary of bringing back staff before they had revenue; the agreement allowed restaurants to bring back employees seven days before the opening while keeping them on compensation, but the industry had lobbied for 14 days, and many ended up either secretly bringing their teams back earlier, or giving up on the prospect of the 21st. Others no longer had enough staff to bring back even if they wanted to. Many of the non-Danish cooks and servers who populated the city’s restaurants had returned to their countries of origin during the pandemic, and many young Danes had opted to take better-paying jobs swabbing nostrils in the new testing centers than go back to working front or back of house. Pompette was still able to open only because its food service is fairly limited and their staff is small. “But having worked in restaurants, I know it was a logical nightmare for them,” Ho says. 

Indeed, for many, it was all just too much with too little time. “I didn’t feel I had the capacity with such short notice,” says Anika Vinson, the owner of Heaps Good Café in Nørrebro. “If I had opened on the 21st I would have worked myself to death.” And yet, even so, the decision plagued her. “I chose to wait, and I felt super guilty about it, hitting myself in the head, like I’m such an idiot for not opening when possible. But then I heard about more and more places who made the same decision, and now I’m superglad that I waited until I was ready.” 

Because for those who decided to go for it, the long-awaited re-opening became a mad dash to an uncertain finish line.

*

Like almost everyone else, Lisa Lov learned about the new date when she saw it online. It was nearly 1am, but she texted her managers immediately, and they called a hasty meeting for later that day. Everyone was on board with the idea of opening entirely on the coming Wednesday, not least because their preparations to open outdoors had given them a head start.  But there was still so much to figure out. Tigermom wasn’t suffering from the same exodus of foreign staff that affected many other restaurants, but Lov wondered if she was going to have to hire another person just to check corona passes. The restaurant had already placed orders with suppliers in preparation for outdoor, so it didn’t need to do much more than increase the quantities. But some items on the full menu needed to be sourced; at one point, Lov herself was cycling all over the city in a desperate search for banana leaves.

More difficult to resolve were the anxiety and doubt about whether guests would come back, and whether it would be in numbers sufficient to sustain Tigermom over the long run. After the last lockdown, Lov had been pleasantly surprised to see her business rebound. But the rebound was stronger at the beginning than the end, and that was before corona passes, reservation requirements, and curfews. 

Happily, her concerns dissipated once the bookings started coming in. “At first it was kind of gradual, but after a while it was, ‘hold on a minute. This is a lot busier than usual.’” By the 20th, the restaurant was fully booked, except for one half hour slot. “We had originally agreed to open at 17.00, and that was the only slot that didn’t book out. So I said, please close five o’clock--we’re going to need the extra half hour. Otherwise we’re going to be meeting at the break of dawn.”

On opening day, the restaurant had broken its record for reservations and waitlist, and Lov, realizing she was going to need extra hands, called in some friends to come help. It was a sprint to the start of service, and the place was slammed from the moment they opened their doors. “It was difficult because it felt like everybody had been a bit out of practice, like it took a little bit of extra time to get your head around how to do things. It felt like a fight to get through service.”

Lov herself was checking corona passes  (“I felt like a bouncer,” she says), and the friends who had come in to help occasionally got in the way. “Even with a very, very strong core team, having a few extra people around who don’t really know what they’re doing can make it complicated.” she says. “It was very very hectic.” 

Things would go more smoothly in the coming days, and the Asian brunch popup she launched on the weekends was a huge success--everything that she had dreamed it would be. By the start of May, Tigermom would be breaking not only its own reservations records, but its revenue records as well. But Lov still felt some anger about how the whole thing had played out. “It’s crazy that we didn’t know until a few days before,” she says. “We can’t just turn on a dime. We’re not just throwing food on a plate. We’re providing a whole experience, and that takes time and preparation.”

Many in the industry have come out of this experience with the uncomfortable sense that the government doesn’t necessarily understand their business—or care to learn. Lindgreen thinks their complaints are valid. “The communication has been too slow, and too unclear. If the message isn’t fleshed out or it’s managed in some kind of awkward way, it can make it seem like the people in charge have no idea about how things work in the real world.”

One thing Lov learned on opening night was that she had miscalculated on how much the pregnancy would affect her physically. Even with the 10pm cut off for orders, the rest of her staff would end up working until after 1. But hours before that, Lov discovered she could barely walk.  She left early and went home, and soaked her feet. And then, the next morning, she got up and, like so many other chefs and cooks and servers and somms in this city, started again. 

PS Melvin Lov Mejer was born on May 22. Like the re-opening itself, he arrived unexpectedly early.

— With eternal gratitude to Lars Hinnerskov Eriksen for editing

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MISE

In this recurring column, Bord gets the story behind the dishes that make Copenhagen such an exciting place to eat. This week’s installment:

Lasagnetta ai frutti di mare: Barabba’s tribute to the era of the paninari 

The late 80s and early  90s were a magnificent time for Italy. Receding were the bleak anni di piombo— or years of lead—of the 70s, with their political turmoil, Red Brigades terrorism, and widespread financial collapse. In their place came a booming economy, commercial television and Il Cavaliere himself, Silvio Berlusconi. Italians bought themselves second cars and spent holidays at their summerhouses by the sea. Good times.  

It was also the era of the paninari, a youth subculture of sorts that started in the 1980s as kids rejected the gloomy seriousness of the preceding decades and instead embraced America in all its superficial, consumerist, Reagan-era glory.  The paninari didn’t care about politics or morality; they cared about hanging out and looking good. The Beatles, the Stones, punk, heavy metal--these meant nothing to them; they loved MTV and—god bless ‘em— Duran Duran. Commercial television helped the culture spread from its base in Milan until kids throughout Italy had adopted the paninaro dress code. Out went the dark suits and classic leather jackets, in came the candy-colored puffer jackets, the stone-washed jeans, the multi-coloured caps and the Timberland boots. 

When they weren’t cruising the Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle, the paninari were hanging out in fast food joints, scarfing the burgers that were starting to pop up in Milan, but just as happy with porchetta sandwiches. Although they embraced hedonism in all its forms, they were hardly great gastronomes. Still, it’s not hard to find traces of their impact even in cuisine. 

 As Italy became economically prosperous, some of its culinary habits changed. The opulence of the times and the focus on luxury brought new ingredients like salmon and cream—which only a few years before would have been unthinkable in rigidly traditional Italy—into the home kitchen and, for the first time, Michelin three-star rankings into the professional one. One of the trends popping up in restaurant kitchens of the 1980s was pasta tinted in the same exuberant colors favored by the paninari.

How does the seafood lasagnetta from Barabba fit into that story, you may ask? Venetian-born owner Riccardo Marcon was born too late to be a paninaro himself, but he harbors a powerful passion for the 1980s—and its cooking. “It was all about coloured pasta,” he say. ” It’s a bit tacky, but I love it so much. I’ve been trying to persuade the guys in the kitchen to do it for years.” 

Finally his head chef Marco Cappelletti surrendered: “Since we miss a lot of colour in this country I gave in and decided to do something that I knew Riccardo would really love. We were six guys in the basement over a weekend playing like kindergarten kids with multicoloured playdough and trying to come up with a new dish and a different way of making pasta.” 

All that messing around in Barabba’s  basement turned out to be productive: Cappelletti eventually came up with sheets of pasta that are speckled in pinks, greens, and blacks so that they resemble Venetian terrazzo tiles.  

To make them, Marco takes beetroot, nettle, and squid ink tagliatelle (often rolled out from the trim leftover from other pasta dishes), cuts the strips up like confetti, and presses the pieces into regular pasta dough. He then rolls the mixture through the pasta machine until he has a homogenous texture and cuts out the large circles that will form the base and top of lasagnetta. Any nods to  Marchesi’s raviolo aperto, another star of the 80s, are purely intentional.  “It was kind of the point about this dish – it should be fun and playful,” Riccardo says. “It should balance a fine line between tribute and taking the piss.”

For the filling, Marco steams cockles, blue mussels, razor clams, and crab, then makes a dashi from the leftover cooking water and kombu,  the edible dried and roasted kelp. That dashi then serves as the base for a bechamel made with olive oil and without dairy, which gives a much lighter and much more fragrant and deeply flavored sauce.

While the pasta sheets cook,  Marco gently reheats the shellfish in a pan, and seasons it  a bit of chili oil, lemon zest, garlic and olive oil. The dish is plated with a bit of bechamel on the bottom of the plate, topped with a multicoloured round of pasta, a generous heap of the seafood, roasted sweet tomatoes and another sheet of the pasta on top. Presto: a tasty, beautiful and wonderfully balanced tribute even The Pet Shop Boys would love.

Ingredients, Seafood Lasagnetta, by Marco Cappelleti and Riccardo Marcon

Pasta “Mosaico”

Razor clams

Blue Mussels

Cockles

Crab

Dairy-free bechamel, made from olive oil and  kombu-shellfish  cooking water.

Chili oil

Garlic oil

Lemon zest

Roasted sweet tomatoei