In an interview conducted pre-pandemic, the US chef tells Chloe Scott-Moncrieff the story behind Amass, his sustainable restaurant in Copenhagen
World-class restaurant Amass has the gravitas of a cathedral. In a shipyard warehouse in Copenhagen with swirling iconic graffiti on the walls and a 600 sq m garden, people congregate for chef patron Matt Orlando’s sustainable menu.
It’s lauded for numerous reasons: Orlando’s mission is to push responsible dining like few others, from reducing water usage to drastically reducing his restaurant’s carbon footprint. Additionally, his recently opened brewery and research space, focussing on by-products from the kitchen, is changing the way we eat through new culinary techniques and flavours.
Today is a Monday, which means the 65-seater Danish institution is closed and the chef-legend has a sliver of time for an interview. Before commencing on the story behind his ventures, he has a quick clarification: “We’re not completely zero waste, we nearly are, but I don’t believe it’s achievable; as soon as you turn your lights on, you’re producing a carbon footprint.”
He continues: “So many people are talking about sustainability but the amount of people actually doing it is minimal. It’s becoming a catchphrase; we refrain from using it now as sadly it doesn’t mean anything.”
When contemplating Orlando’s success – he’s currently number 85 on the World’s Best Restaurant awards list but more significant perhaps, he’s admired by chefs globally alongside a legion of committed diners – much boils down to this sort of integrity.
Not only does the restaurant thrill with dishes such as “Yesterday’s Bread, Roasted Potato Skin Emulsion, Smoked Leek and Dried Yogurt,” and “Lobster, Fermented Tomato and Herb Tea, Dried Shellfish with Bergamot Skin”, but punters frequently champion the welcoming, unfussy atmosphere. Recalling growing up in San Diego, Orlando credits his parents’ open house for the down-to-earth ambience.
“I didn’t realise this until recently, but my Mum cooked dinner every night. We hardly went out. My parents had this revolving door of all me and my brother’s friends, it was a major impact,” he says. “Amass is extremely open. My friends sit at the bar, hang out, even people who don’t work here. It’s how we do service, how we interact with guests.”
Considering this, it comes as no surprise when he reveals he tinkered with front of house in his formative years. “I grew up in San Diego and I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 14. As I turned 17 the manager said, ‘If you want to leave the kitchen and work in the dining room and make more money, you can do it now. I wanted to make more money so I worked in the dining room,” he laughs. “After three weeks I went back to the kitchen. There was something about the camaraderie that drew me.”
Yet unlike other chef visionaries, many who knew cooking was their vocation, Orlando didn’t. As a teen in California, his career path as a fearless adrenaline-junkie athlete meant he was pipe dreaming of becoming a snowboarder. “I moved to Tahoe after graduating from high school to snowboard. We were into the contest scene, although I was cooking the whole time.”
The pivotal moment to go professional happened on his return home, working under French chef Francis Perrot at San Diego’s Fairbanks Ranch. There, Orlando attributes his mentor with two vital lessons: “He made me excited about produce, I went to my first farmer’s market, being a chef was suddenly more than just working with the boys. And when I told him I was moving to New York, he said, ‘You’re about to become part of an incredible culinary culture, but remember one thing, you’ll never be rich cooking in a fine-dining restaurant. If you want to be rich, go cook pizza.’”
These parting words didn’t deter him. His CV is quite something. First there were stints at Charlie Palmer’s Auerole for two years in NYC, before landing a position at Eric Ripert’s three-starred Michelin restaurant, Le Bernardin. In Britain, he ran the pass at Raymond Blanc’s two-starred Michelin restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and Heston Blumenthal’s triple-gonged Michelin restaurant, The Fat Duck, before ending up at Denmark’s Noma as sous chef in 2005.
After three years at Thomas Keller’s three-starred Per Se back in his homeland, Orlando was invited back to Denmark to take the helm as Noma’s chef de cuisine. It was an impactful move. “Rene would set goals so extreme and we’d all think, how is this possible? Now, looking back, I see he was a genius in the way he set those goals, maybe knowing we wouldn’t achieve them, but we would get so much farther. I respect that.”
Equally, he met his Danish wife, Julie Bergstrom Orlando who runs Amass with him, while working at Noma.
With this culmination of stellar experiences, the couple kicked off Amass in 2013 to unsurprising success. Choosing Denmark as a location, rather than the US or Britain, was a no brainer. “I felt the food scene was bubbling in Denmark,” he says. “It hadn’t quite exploded in the way it has today. That is exciting. To be a part of something I saw had the potential to be great.” The team is a “big international community of chefs. If you look at our service team, we’ve two Danes and everyone else has worked all over the world.”
Of lessons learned in the early years, he opines: “People often ask how we got started. My answer is: You need to make a list of the issues you want to tackle and don’t do more than one at a time. Often you go into something thinking it’s going to be much easier than it is. Patience is key. Master one thing.”
Although he didn’t have an architect or designer, “we had our friend over with a sketch pad” he recalls, design was integral. “I said, ‘that wall screams graffiti.’ My wife questioned: ‘Can you do that in a restaurant like this?’” The rest is history. Henrik Soten, a friend he met through skateboarding, was given the keys and comes in once a year with fellow street artist to spray paint this seminal fine-dining establishment. “When we started, he asked what do you want me to paint. I said what do you paint outside? He was incredulous and said, ‘you want us to paint our tags on the wall?’ The first piece here was really street, really hard.”
Street maybe, but what’s beguiling about Amass is how comfortable it is not conforming. The restaurant is an extension of his personality. “At the best restaurants, you feel there is some soul from the owner and I don’t think I could put any more of my soul into Amass. I make all the playlists, I grew up listening to hip hop, [making] graffiti with friends and it’s all here.”
Playing with data
Orlando is not only a restless culinary agitator but is keen to share ideas. “For us, the biggest challenge right now is how do you quantify all we’ve learnt, how can you apply this knowledge to new situations? We’re in the process of building a platform of data we can share with people,” he says. “We made a lot of mistakes when we opened, we didn’t have a consulting company. We’re often approached about how to do this, what people forget is it has taken us six and a half years to get here.”
One wonders though, why the eco slant? He replies: “I had a desire to run a restaurant that had a deeper meaning behind it. A restaurant is a very materialistic thing.” He felt a need to, “have a positive impact, not only within the restaurant industry, but the world as well.”
Considering this, it’s no surprise his brewery-cum-laboratory alongside a second restaurant – the enterprise is appropriately called Broaden & Build – is as pioneering as Amass. “I grew up in brewing in San Diego. I’ve always been someone who really appreciates beer,” he says. “For me, beer has been something interesting to go with food. How do you take the profits of making a beer and working alongside a chef to come up with new ideas and flavours within beers? The lab is dedicated to processes and techniques for addressing by-products. We wanted to explore so many things, we needed our own facility.”
Not only can he focus on fermentation, he says clearly excited, but he gets to delve into the world of yeast to create flavour. There are 22 beers rotating on tap at the brewery and restaurant all of which are symbiotic with the food. “We do a Koji Saison, really food focussed, Sea Buckthorn Sour Ale and we have a Lemon skin Kolsch. In a lot of beers we use a byproduct, the lemon skins are from the restaurant.” Dishes like beer grain crisps and ferments jostle next to beers.
He sums this up as a “circular economy,” where the waste from the restaurant goes into making beers by way of the lab and vice versa. One such technique they’ve developed includes a “Brownie Loop”. “We make a brownie at Amass out of beer grains. To make it nice and neat, we produce a lot of trim. We save up to 40 kilos of these. We then take those brownie trims and brew an Imperial Stout. Then we take the grains from that beer and bring them back over to Amass. And make more brownies with them, so it’s a loop of the ingredients. We do that with a lot of things.”
While a restaurateur might expect an initiative like this to be costly in high-tech equipment, Orlando rejects this notion. “We don’t have crazy centrifuges or bioreactors, our work is based on standard tools,” he assures me. “It’s about looking at historical forms and applying it with modern techniques. We do a lot of fermentation to make new flavours, we take PH readings, send samples to colleges to study.”
Internally, the biggest challenge is addressing single use plastics. “The entire industry, and beyond restaurants, across the world, everyone is using single-use plastics for distribution,” he says.
What people don’t realise is there is legislation in effect that controls what companies deliver food in. “We still constantly struggle. If we order in fish, they take the boxes back, but every single one of those boxes is lined with a plastic bag. Why does that have to be? It’s the law. The food and drug administration in our country requires us to do that.”
Would he consider taking on the government? “At this point in time we don’t have the physical and mental capacity to be able to take on that fight. That’s the catch 22. We run such small profit margins, if any. It’s going to take a non-profit organisation to get everyone together.” There’s a pause as he cogitates. “Maybe our research space in five years can take on that battle. Now that would be brilliant.”
Pictures: Amass; Chris Tonnesen