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3: Foreign talent, the staffing shortage, and Copenhagen's open secret
Welcome to Bord, a weekly newsletter devoted to the stories and personalities behind Copenhagen's food scene. In this issue, we explore the staffing shortage and what it reveals about the city’s dependency on foreign talent.
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Another Perfect Storm
By Lars Bjerregaard and Lisa Abend
It was 4 or 5 years ago in a wine bar on a side street close to my home in Nørrebro in Copenhagen where it first hit me. The place was – is - very popular and it was packed inside and out even though summer was long gone. I had ordered a glass of wine at the bar from a waiter who was clearly Australian and had just sat down with my friend - an American- when I started to pay attention to the conversations at the other tables. I excused myself and when I walked through the bar towards the bathroom it became very clear to me that I was probably the only native Danish speaker in the room that night. Staff included.
The experience was so sobering that I wrote a column about it in the paper that I worked for back then with the very subtle headline: “Do one really have to be fluent in multiple languages to order a glass of wine in this city?” You didn’t, of course, but a column being what it is—which is to say, only judged by the amounts of clicks it generates – it did the trick. I was called all sorts of things for that headline. But what the column was actually about was how reliant this city’s hospitality industry had become on its foreign workforce.
Having spent a fair share of time in and around this city’s top kitchens throughout the past 15 years I have seen that most paradoxical situation evolve with incredible speed. That the thing we in the culinary world see as the very essence of being Danish and Nordic – the new Nordic cuisine on which this city’s modern restaurant scene is founded—is not only heavily reliant on but also in many respects run by a large, super-talented foreign workforce. It’s the secret we haven’t wanted to recognize. Until the pandemic forced us to.
—by Lars Bjerregaard
Tarek Alameddine left his home in the mountains of Lebanon to move to Copenhagen in 2015. He was just 23 at the time, and as a young cook, he felt extraordinarily lucky to have been chosen for an internship at Noma. But the luck turned out to be mutual--both for the restaurant and for the city that is its home. Not only did Alameddine end up spending five years at Noma, where he rose through the ranks to become one of its sous chefs, he also began working on plans to open an ambitious Lebanese restaurant in Copenhagen.
But that was before coronavirus. “Food and beverage investment just dried up,” he says of the collapse of his plans. “And I wanted to be home, in my comfort zone, with family and people I love.” He left Copenhagen for good in December 2020.
Around the world, the pandemic pushed chefs, servers, managers, and somms from their restaurants, either because they were laid off or furloughed, or because, like Alameddine, they reconsidered their place in the profession. Yet now that the virus is receding, a new crisis has emerged within the industry: massive staffing shortages. The reasons are complex and vary from place to place, but in most countries they result, at least in part, from the industry’s less-than-ideal working conditions. Yet in Denmark, the pandemic and its subsequent shortages have forced another reckoning. They have exposed just how deeply this country, so very proud of a gastronomic reputation built on the local, relies on foreign workers. “I don’t think most people here realize how dependent the restaurant industry is,” says Matt Orlando, chef and owner of Amass. “If you were to remove all the foreigners from this country, a large majority of restaurants would simply cease to exist. No one wants to talk about it, but it’s just a fact.”
In its broad contours, the staffing shortage is an international phenomenon: restaurants across the US, the UK, France, Italy, and Australia are all finding it difficult—if not impossible—to return to their pre-pandemic levels. That this shortage is occurring with ironic precision exactly when the dining public, newly released from lockdown, is rushing to eat out has only made it more painful. It’s also caused more work for staff, less-than-perfect service for guests, and—for everyone—has imposed yet another obstacle to that longed-for state known as “normal.”
In Denmark, it’s no different. At Barr, there are currently only 14 staff members besides chef Thorsten Schmidt and manager Lau Richter; last year there were 31. Fiskebaren, in Kødbyen, had 61 employees in 2020; now it has 40. And although some places, like Noma and Alouette are back running at full capacity, others are still scrambling. “We’re missing some FOH hands in both restaurants,” says Nicolai Nørregaard of his Kadeau restaurants in Copenhagen and Bornholm, which, he says, means “more hours and more busy prep during the day. It will probably also mean that we have to cap some services here and there.” Orlando is experiencing the same thing at Amass. “I don’t know of one place in the city that’s fully staffed,” he says. “We’re all working more hours, and everyone is stressed.”
Feline Hansen has seen the situation’s impact firsthand. She works as a server at Noma, but because that restaurant didn’t open until June, she found herself in a position to relieve some of the pressure that her colleagues elsewhere were feeling. “I couldn’t just sit around on my couch watching while my friends in the industry ran themselves silly,” she says. “I felt an obligation to help where I could, not only towards my friends but towards the industry as a whole.” She ended up working full time at Hos Fischer for over a month, and picked up other shifts in other places when she could—as have several of her colleagues. “Even though it is slowly getting a bit better, the problem is still massive,” she adds. “Every week I get texts from people in the industry asking if I can help out on my day off. And it’s the same in the kitchen.”
Yet although the contours are similar, each country’s shortage has its own national peculiarities. In the US, for example, wages are low enough that for many restaurant workers, it makes more sense to stay on the government’s pandemic aid than return to the kitchen. In the UK, Brexit has meant that many of the Europeans who once filled the industry’s payrolls are no longer eligible to work there. And in Denmark, with its corona pass requirements, a lot of young workers who might otherwise take jobs as waiters or barbacks have discovered that swabbing noses pays better.
There’s another aspect that is even more specific to Copenhagen: the shortage has laid bare the dominant role that foreigners play in its much-lauded restaurant culture. This is not to say that non-natives don’t play an outsized role in many cities’ hospitality industry; they are the critical link often filling the lowest-paid and most physically demanding jobs. And in recent years, Paris has witnessed its own unique phenomenon, as Japanese chefs take over or open the kitchens of some of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants. But what makes the situation different in the Danish capital—and what the pandemic has highlighted—is just how critical foreign chefs, servers, somms, and managers are to the middle and upper echelons of the restaurants upon which Copenhagen’s culinary reputation rests.
“As a dining destination, there is no Copenhagen without foreign workers,” says Kristian Nørgaard, head political advisor for the hospitality organization Horesta. “They are an extremely important part of how the city became a culinary hub.”
That is not a negative reflection on the city. “It’s the opposite, actually,” says Matt Orlando. “You have people from all over the world because they aspire to work here.”
Like so many aspects of the local food culture, the phenomenon owes a tremendous debt to Noma. After Claus Meyer hired René Redzepi and Mads Refslund to helm his new showcase for Nordic food, the two initially staffed their kitchen and dining room with employees who were as local as the wood sorrel and sea buckthorn they were putting on the plates. But it wasn’t long before that began to change. “I think I was the second non-Dane to work at Noma,” Orlando, who started as sous chef in 2005, says. “And when I left after two years, there were maybe five of us, total. But when I came back three years later as head chef, the proportion had totally flipped. There were 35 foreigners and only, like, two Danes.”
What had changed? Noma’s reputation, for one: by 2009, it ranked at #3 on the World’s 50 Best List, and by 2010, it was #1. The accolades would bring it to the attention not just of diners but of ambitious cooks and servers as well, who started applying in large numbers for internships and jobs. But the transformation was not just an accident of all that attention--it was also intentional. “I think Rene was looking for that outside influence,” Orlando explains. “He didn’t want Noma to become too introverted. By bringing in people from outside you get you a wealth of knowledge and that pushes you.”
Since Orlando’s time, Noma has had three more head chefs, and none of them have been Danish. The great majority of its sous chefs have also come from outside. (That is not the case for a place like elBulli, where all the chefs de cuisine and sous chefs, and nearly all the chefs de partie, were Spanish.)
As Nordic cuisine gripped the world’s imagination, other Copenhagen restaurants like Geranium, Relæ, Kadeau, Fiskebaren, Geist, and Studio also began getting international attention. By 2010, The Guardian was telling its readers about the Danish capital’s culinary pleasures and the Los Angeles Times was gushing that “Copenhagen is blowing past all the expected milestones of a burgeoning food scene: artisanal food products, winemaking, bread baking, coffee roasting.” The following year, Eater published its first Copenhagen “heatmap” and restaurants were well on their way to becoming a major tourist attraction. By 2013, 1 in 3 visitors traveled to Copenhagen, according to Horesta, expressly to dine in a specific restaurant and VisitDenmark was marketing cuisine very heavily . “You don’t come here for the climate,” said the tourism organization’s CEO at the time. “You come here for the people and the food.”
And yet that food--that local Nordic food that had the world so excited—was being cooked and served, in large measure, by chefs, bartenders, waiters, and bakers streaming in from Sweden and Italy and Argentina and Australia and the US and Japan and India and Mexico. They were not, by and large, economic migrants seeking a better life, nor were they refugees fleeing conflict or political oppression. They were young and ambitious and in many cases extraordinarily talented, and they were drawn by the sense that something exciting was happening in Copenhagen.
That was certainly the case for Will King-Smith. After two years working at what was considered Melbourne’s top restaurant, the Australian wanted to spend some time in Europe. “I contemplated multiple locations that were considered culinary destinations at the time--England, Spain and France were obvious choices,” he says. “But there was a trickle of information about Copenhagen that interested me a lot. There seemed to be an exciting and new style of cooking here, something that I had never seen before.”
He landed a job at Mielcke & Hurtigkarl, and then, after roughly a year, moved on to Geranium, where at the time, he was the only foreigner in the kitchen. When he left five years later, it was, he says, echoing Orlando’s experience at Noma, “an entirely foreign team, with at most one Dane at a time.”
When Jessica Natali moved to Copenhagen to begin interning at Noma in 2014, there weren’t, she says, many Italians here yet. But that had changed dramatically by the time she and her partner José, who had also arrived at Noma from another country (Guatemala), left in 2018 to help launch Inua, the Tokyo project of another non-Danish Noma alum, Thomas Frebel (Germany). “I think many Danes wouldn’t accept the conditions, especially in high-end restaurants,” she explains. “But for us, it’s not so much about the salary. We are happy to work hard because we love what we do.”
That’s the thing that Danes don’t realize, says Mark Emil Hermansen, who happens to be one himself. “People in hospitality aren’t in it for the money. It’s pure devotion. They don’t realize that when they come, they sell their house and car, and move their lives to a place where they don’t speak the language and aren’t being paid very much, and they do it because of their devotion to craft.”
For Hermansen, that devotion was a big part of what kept him in Denmark. After working as the head of development for the chefs’ symposium MAD, he would go on, with the American Lars Williams, to co-found the groundbreaking distillery Empirical Spirits (which counts only 3 Danes among its 28-person Copenhagen-based staff). “I returned to Denmark after studying abroad because of that,” he says. “It felt like you were standing at the apex of something, something that would leave behind a legacy.”
As that sensation grew, spurring new restaurants and bars to open, Danes themselves withdrew from their staff ranks, mostly, as several chefs put it, because the working conditions of restaurants, especially high-end ones, didn’t fit with expectations regarding labor in this well-protected welfare state. “They’re flabbergasted when they hear about the hours, and they’re shocked by the pay,” says Hermansen. “A Dane isn’t going to understand that it takes more than 37.5 hours a week to get the job done.”
Orlando has observed that the opportunities available to young Danish chefs even before they have much experience also add to the imbalance. “Young kids right out of culinary school are given the chance to open their own restaurants,” he says. “So, a local who has ambition will get snatched up by a restaurant developer rather than putting in time in a more established place. That can be good for short-term gratification, but it doesn’t give you the base you need to have longevity.”
There is one more factor that helps explain why the staff at so many of the city’s key restaurants skews non-native: an ethos that not merely allows for experimentation and growth, but thrives on it. “Of course there are local creators and entrepreneurs showing extraordinary leadership,” says Hermansen. “But they also gave others room to come here and explore.” That was the case for Karishma Sanghi, who arrived from Mumbai in 2018 to intern at 108. While she was there, she met Richard Hart, a Brit who had come to Copenhagen by way of San Francisco to open a bakery with Noma. She was so impressed with what he was doing that she decided to take up baking, and went to work for his newly opened Hart. “I consider myself extremely fortunate to be here, working among some of the talented individuals in our industry,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
That second generation of talent--the people who came initially to work in Noma or Geranium or Relae--and then stayed to open their own place would take the city’s fledgling reputation not just as culinary destination but a place where there was room to experiment, and help consolidate it.
“Matt Orlando deciding to stay was a huge moment,” says Hermansen of Amass, which opened in 2013. “Here was someone who had cooked in the best restaurants in the world and could literally go anywhere to open his own place. And he chose Copenhagen.”
Others followed suit: Bror, Sanchez, Taller, Iluka, Barabba, Tigermom, Slurp, Alouette, Rufino, Brace, Balderdash, Hart, Juno. Not all of them survived, but a surprising number did, lasting at least long enough to put their own mark on the city. Today, many of them have themselves become magnets for foreign talent, their networks criss-crossing in an ever-expanding, hard-to-keep-up with web of new places. Rosio Sanchez moved from Chicago to work at Noma, then stayed on to open a series of places, the most recent of which, called Sanchez Cantina, is helmed by Mexican Donaldo Delgadillo. Austrian Philipp Inreiter left his stint at Noma to open Slurp, and followed it up with another Japanese place called Kona that is part izakaya, and part omakase. For the latter, he hired as head chef none other than Jessica Natali, newly returned from Tokyo.
The pandemic weakened some of the strands of that web, as many non-native staffers left the country. In some cases, they were laid off, but in others, the crisis provoked a personal reassessment. Fejsal Demiraj, for example, had been long been considering moving on from his position as sous chef at Noma to launch a culinary project in his family’s homeland of Albania but the pandemic focused his decision. “There’s a good portion of emptiness in cooking for people who work for these lists and guides,” he says. “When I saw during the pandemic how obsolete they were, I really questioned myself and my choices. I decided I wanted to focus my energy in an area that truly needs me.” He now lives in Tirana.
But whether voluntary or not, the disappearance of a significant portion of foreign workers is hampering the industry’s ability to spring back from the pandemic. At Horesta, Kristian Nielsen says the organization has been busy lobbying the government to enact its plan for creating job centers in southern Europe to attract workers. Thus far, it’s been slow going. “In the past 15 months, we had major losses in this industry and had to say goodbye to really good staff,” he says. “Now we are asking for the opposite, we need more people to come into the industry. It is a really big shift.”
The visa situation has also complicated things. “In the past three or four months, it’s gotten much harder to get the specialized chefs’ visa,” says Matt Orlando. In January, he submitted an application for an American chef to work at Amass, but has yet to receive approval for it. “They keep saying, ‘in process, in process,’” he says. And indeed, SIRI, the agency that handles visas, itself admits that its normal processing time of a month for those visas, has extended, on average, to 103 days because of the pandemic. But after Kiin Kiin, an upscale Thai restaurant in Nørrebro, was accused of abusing that same specialized chef visa, the government reportedly began scrutinizing applicants more closely.
But for all the economic impacts, there’s something even bigger at stake: the whole food culture that the city has built, and of which it is so justifiably proud. “There’s a lot of national pride in it, and the hospitality industry is a big driver of business, tourism, and media attention,” says Hermansen. “But we’ve taken it for granted that the flow of talent will keep coming. I think we realized during corona that we can’t do that. I’m worried that we’re going to lose the next Matt Orlando, because he’s not going to come in the first place.”
Tarek Alameddine is one of the people who came precisely because of the city’s culinary reputation.“Copenhagen is one of the most interesting food cities in the world,” he says. “It attracts the best caliber you can find, literally, from every corner of the world.” He was proud to be offered a job at Noma, and prouder still to rise through its ranks to become sous chef. But as it did for so many others, the pandemic made him question his choices. “I started having doubts about fine dining,” he says. “The sacrifices you have to make at a professional and personal level, for a very small group of people. What is the value of that? What are we doing it for? The pandemic helped everyone see how fragile it all is, with restaurants collapsing, but especially fine dining because of its small profit margins.”
When his own plans collapsed, he left for good. He now lives in Cairo, where he is culinary director for a restaurant group that specializes in casual restaurants, and is happy with his decision. But there’s a part of him that still regrets he didn’t get the chance to open that Lebanese restaurant in Copenhagen. “I’m really grateful to the city and its people,” he says. “It would have been nice to give something back.”
—-With eternal gratitude to Lars Hinnerskov Eriksen for his consummate editing skills