Bord: Issue 2
On Bankruptcy, Recovery, and Oysters that are not Snails
Welcome to Bord, a weekly newsletter devoted to the stories and personalities behind Copenhagen's food scene. In this issue, we have our first post-pandemic interview. Kamilla Seidler Trebbien, chef and co-owner of Lola, talks to us about the restaurant’s worst days, and how they’ve moved forward from there. And we get the story behind the grilled oysters at Brasserie Sài Gòn.
Right now, all our stories are free (though you’re welcome to go ahead and support us financially), but some of them will be behind a paywall in the future. So if you like what you read, please consider subscribing.
(Bord’s logo was designed by gentleman-scholar Nick Garner)
The Post-Pandemic Interview
By Lisa Abend
On the first day of Denmark’s first lockdown, I went to the grocery store. It was early in the morning, so there wouldn’t have been a lot of people out anyway, but there was something about the empty streets and the prime minister’s announcement the night before that made my little corner of Frederiksberg feel like it had just succumbed to the Zombie apocalypse.
Or maybe that was just my own sense of foreboding. Because I remember very distinctly feeling a kind of dread I had never experienced before. It was the feeling of knowing it was going to be bad, but not knowing how bad. Or, more to the point, what kind of bad.
A degree in European history and a weakness for viral outbreak movies made it easy for me to imagine all kinds of terrible outcomes. People were already hoarding toilet paper and yeast. Would there be food shortages? Social unrest? Widespread death? And there were all the smaller, personal disasters to consider: would people I know get sick? Would I still be able to earn a living? Would I accidentally kill my sourdough starter?
I don’t imagine I was alone in that dread; Covid brought a lot of people’s fears to the surface. Some of us got off relatively easy (my starter is still alive, thank you for asking). But for others, the things feared actually came to pass. Kamilla Seidler Trebbien, chef and co-owner of Lola in Christianshavn, had to face one of hers: her restaurant declared bankruptcy in January.
And then she, and Lola, emerged on the other side. That’s the thing about fears: you never know what you’re capable of until you go through them.
The Post-Pandemic Interview will be a recurring feature in Bord. As the pandemic itself recedes further in the rearview mirror, we imagine that the interviews will become more optimistic and forward-looking. But in speaking with people in the industry now, we’ve noticed that a lot of them want to talk through what it was like, what they went through. By providing this forum, we hope to help a bit with the processing, and maybe even provide some kind of archive to look back on one day and gauge how much we’ve all learned .
Kamilla Seidler Trebbien: “It’s been a showcase for how fragile the industry is”
Q: When you look at the pandemic in its entirety, what was the worst moment for you? Was there any point when you felt like throwing in the towel altogether?
A: I was shocked by the second lockdown. Before that, it had been nine months of almost suffocating and then finally we got a chance to make some money and to survive, and the second lockdown came. We were closed, but I ended up working at least as much as I would have had the restaurant been open. It was just all spent doing damage control and becoming basically a law professor in order to deal with compensation packages that didn’t come.
We had applied for the first compensation package when it opened, but there was a lot of back and forth about numbers because we’re a new business, and our application was declined twice. We sent the third one in July or August, but by January, we still hadn’t heard back. I was calling every day to hear where they were with it because I could see that even with the salary compensation, we didn’t have enough liquidity for payroll that month.
Then, on January 22 we finally got an answer: of the 850,000 kroner we applied for, they gave us 163,000. But half of that would be taken away because we’re new, so we didn't have any numbers to compare with, and then half of what remained was being taken away, because we were also registered as a catering company, and that hadn't been forced shut. So when we got that answer, it became clear. Because if you can’t pay salary, you don’t have the right to [the rest of] the compensation package, and we had no liquidity and had just been told we could get 163,000 of maybe 3 million total in expenses. We simply couldn't see a way out of filing for bankruptcy.
Q: Are you angry about all this?
A: It was more the constant not knowing that really bothered me. If they had just told us from the beginning, ‘you're not getting any help,’ then we would have acted completely differently. We would have let go of people, we would have cut down opening hours, we would have done absolutely everything to keep liquidity tight. Instead, because we were expecting the help, we continued business, not as usual, but as best we could under the circumstances. We kept the whole staff on because we didn’t want to fire anyone. But that meant we’ve got 52 employees that get at least 10-15% of their salary covered by us, for five months, and no income. How does that possible work?
Q: What did it feel like to decide to declare bankruptcy?
A: We didn’t decide, we had to do it. Look, declaring bankruptcy is horrible. It’s logistically horrible, it’s financially horrible. If it had happened at any other time, I would have felt like I had failed. But this was a circumstantial issue: it was more the result of things out of our control. I felt more like, goddamn it. It was annoyance more than anything.
Q: How did the re-opening go?
A; After the bankruptcy, we restarted the company. Registering for a new CVR number, borrowing money, doing everything that goes into starting a new company. We had to do it immediately, because we have two wonderful chefs one from Bolivia and one from India. They are a fundamental part of the business and they’re here on special skills visas. So if we hadn't restarted the business immediately, the Danish government would have put them on a plane within a week of the bankruptcy.
During the first lockdown, we had started Indian takeaway, and we continued that with the new company as a way simply to make a little bit of turnover, and keep [the chefs] in the business. The plan was to add outdoor service as soon as we could. As long, of course, as it didn’t rain, which is a ridiculous plan because: Copenhagen on the 21st of April. But as stupid as it was, we were doing it, because on the one day that the sun shines, you could potentially have 40 people sitting there. We put something right on our website: if the weather is nice, we're open. If it's not, we're not, and it’s just takeaway.
Q: How’s business now?
A: It’s amazing. We’re very happy and very busy. Of course, we’re understaffed like everybody else in this city. But we opened a place at Broens Gadekøkken, and the response has been overwhelming. And we just started a new menu at Lola. The guests are happy, we’re happy. And once we get rid of those disgusting masks on Monday, it’ll be almost like we’re back to normal.
Q: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from all this?
A: That our industry needs to stand stronger together. Not in a union, red-banner kind of way, but in a colleague kind of way. We're very separated and very unorganized. It’s also taught me that we need to mix our closed little world with people who see it from the outside. Normal people will ask, ‘Oh, isn’t it great you can do takeaway? Now you can make a little bit of money.” Of course they mean itt in the best possible way, but you want to explain that two weeks worth of takeaway is half of what you make on a good Friday night. So I’ve learned the need to have all these conversations, and not just close ranks around ourselves.
It’s also been a showcase for how fragile the industry is. We’re not those big restaurateurs in big black Mercedes smoking big cigars and hiding black money in our mattresses. We are a super fragile business, led by very passionate people. This isn’t just our job, it's our whole life. That maybe sounds stupid to people who aren’t in it, and who go to an office Monday to Friday and hate their jobs and just look forward to Friday afternoon. But for us, this is a passion. What [the pandemic’s] shown is that most of the people in this industry really love what they're doing.
Q: How is Lola different now than it was in, say, February 2020?
A: We’re fewer partners now, and the team is a little tighter. It’s a lot of the same kitchen team, but front of house is an almost new team, which makes it interesting--it’s good to shake things up a bit. And besides that, I’d say I think we’re finding that we’re getting closer to the truth, to use a good Bo Bech quote.
Q: Last question: If your experience of the pandemic had a theme song, what would it be?
A: I would have to go with something I really dislike: Norwegian metal. On constant repeat.
In this recurring column, Bord gets the story behind the dishes that make Copenhagen such an exciting place to eat. This week’s installment:
Brasserie Sài Gòn’s Grilled Oysters with Quail Egg and Spring Onion Oil
There are a lot of oysters in this town, and almost all of them are raw.
But Anh Lê thought Copenhageners were ready for something a little different. After her family came as boat people to Denmark when Lê was just five years old, she went on to found LêLê, where she played an outsized role in introducing Vietnamese cuisine to Copenhagen. After that company went bankrupt in late 2019, however, she became the consulting chef at Brasserie Sài Gòn, which opened in Vesterbro in October. As she set about developing the menu there, Lê felt that the city was open to something a bit more sophisticated. “Before, it was all just bao and banh mi,” she says. “But Vietnamese is the French cuisine of Asia--it’s really delicate. I wanted to show that side, because I think Danes are ready for it now.”
Mostly. In the actual city of Saigon, what gets grilled most commonly in street kitchens are snails, but that, Lê thought, would be a mollusk too far for Denmark. Instead, she chose oysters, which became popular in both countries only relatively recently. “Twenty years ago, you could only get oysters in Denmark if you went to a French restaurant. And in Vietnam, they only started eating them about ten years ago, as people got wealthier thanks to all the economic growth.”
The oysters served at Brasserie Sài Gòn come from The Limfjord, and are of the invasive Pacific variety that are driving out the indigenous Ostrea Edulis, or Limfjord Oyster, so by serving them, the restaurant is doing its small part to restore biodiversity in the area. Lê also likes that they are so massive—the size of an adult hand— because they stand up better to grilling that way. “You want the big ones because they get really meaty, and release their juice,” Lê says. “And the shells are like a bowl to hold it all.”
Vietnamese cuisine emphasizes the balance of textures and flavors, so “if you have something soft like an oyster, you want to top it with something crunchy,” Lê says. After the opened oyster goes onto the grill, she dusts it with chili and drizzles a little spring onion oil —garlic would be too overpowering—over it. For added richness, she cracks a quail egg into the shell, where it gently poaches in the oyster’s liquid. Right before she takes the bivalve off the heat, she tops it with peanuts and fried shallots--the crunch—and a bit of cilantro for freshness.
The oysters are already one of the most popular items on Sài Gòn’s menu, but Lê doesn’t rule out one day going even further. “It’ll take some time,” she says. “But maybe we can get people to eat snails too.”