Big opportunities in life rarely come just at the right time. Some chefs wait years for their big break; working the circuit of the world’s top restaurants, putting in the hours, grafting hard while they wait for the moment to make it on their own.
For Poul Andrias Ziska it was the opposite. He’d hardly had time to experience the world of top gastronomy after graduating from culinary school, when he was offered the chance to take a job as executive chef of restaurant Koks in his home country The Faroe Islands.
The ambitious 23-year-old chef was clear that his home country was going to be the ultimate destination of his cooking career; the dream was always to one day return. But, for this acolyte of New Nordic gastronomy who was two shifts into his trial in the kitchens at Noma, the birthplace of the cooking style, the moment felt too soon.
It may have been the wrong time but he was not in doubt that it was the right opportunity. “I didn’t really plan on it, but I knew from the very beginning that it was where I was heading all along and if I didn’t do it, someone else would,” he says. “Of course, I had ambitions to work in some of the other best restaurants in the world before returning, but I knew this was my shot and I couldn’t say no.”
The premature opportunity to head up the kitchen was in 2014; in the years since Ziska has converted Koks to one of the best restaurants in the world, gaining two Michelin stars along the way and putting the culinary traditions of his country on the world gastronomy map.
Koks, meaning somebody who fusses over something in search of perfection in Faroese, soon started appearing in press around the world,in 2018 becoming known as the most remote restaurant in the world when it moved to an isolated location, 30 minutes from the capital city Torshavn, accessible only in an off-road vehicle.
The restaurant had been launched by a prolific local restaurateur in 2011 inside a hotel in central Tórshavn, and has since found a home in several places, from an idyllic lakeside residential building in the village of Kirkjubøur to the current location in Greenland where it has been operating as a pop-up for the past 18 months. There have also been pop-ups in Copenhagen and Singapore. Ziska and his team are searching for a new next permanent location in the Faroe Islands. “The way things stand now we expect to have a new permanent restaurant to welcome diners to in 2025,” he says.
Defined by location
The location may have changed over time and the concept too – it wasn’t always the case that diners enjoyed a 17-20 course tasting menu – but the philosophy has been the same from the start. “We are a restaurant that is defined by its location. We want our guests to experience as much of the Faroe Islands, or Greenland, as possible,” he explains. “So, we try to use local produce and implement some of the more historical traditional foods or cooking methods.”
On the Faroe Islands that means fermented meat, which is commonly eaten in a location where extending the season for produce and preserving food is paramount. And it means lots of food from the sea.
“When we operate in the Faroe Islands 80% of the menu is seafood because of the diverse and high-quality produce available to us, but we always also include fermented lamb and some seabirds,” says Ziska.
If local is one of the watchwords, seasonal is another. “We forage for herbs and flowers in the summer and in the autumn and winter it is more seabirds, lamb and muskox, for example. But of course, the whole point of fermentation is to extend the season.”
His journey to becoming a chef ignited in his teens when he worked in a friend’s fathers’ pizza restaurant. “I always knew my path was not going to be sitting in school for many years and I liked the atmosphere in the pizza place; it was nothing to do with the food, but I liked the energy in the kitchen,” he says.
He went to culinary school in Denmark before working in a progressive restaurant in Tórshavn, which failed. “It was interesting, but unfortunately it was before its time,” he says.
Instead, he returned to Denmark where he spent three months working at Geranium – today the world’s best restaurant – and also travelled to the avant-garde restaurant Mugaritz in the Basque Country.
Geranium was an important experience in his career. “I was so impressed by the food and the way the kitchen was organized. I like when things are clear – when you are told, ‘that is the way they are’; for me it was a simple way of receiving. I really picked up on that in Geranium,” he says. “There was no shouting in the kitchen; of course, it was intense, there was pressure and a lot of ambition, and you feel that. But I think that is how it is supposed to be, if you take that out of the kitchen you may as well be in an office.”
When the call came to return home to take on Koks in 2014, he’d only just started the trial process at Noma, which has been such an inspiration in his career. “I think Noma is the greatest restaurant ever and I really wanted to experience working there,” he says. All the same, he left the Noma kitchens.
After a spell operating Koks at the hotel a decision was made to leave. It was unsuitable for an ambitious fine-dining restaurant, sharing the space with the hotel’s lunch service made it challenging to run a smooth operation.
While they worked out a plan they moved Koks to Copenhagen for a 10-week pop-up during which an opportunity came up in the small village of Kirkjubør. “We knew a woman who lived in a very beautiful house that was the perfect combination of modern and traditional and it was very suitable for a restaurant,” he says. The woman was persuaded to move into her daughter’s house while the restaurant was located in her home – a period of two years. “We were there in 2016 and 2017 and when the woman wanted her home back; we didn’t have the heart to ask to stay longer.”
Next came the move to the location that made Koks famous as the most remote restaurant in the world. Located in a farmhouse dating back to 1741 on the edge of Lake Leynar, half an hour from the capital, it was totally isolated. “We thought this authentic old house with low ceilings was a very cool place to have a restaurant, so we moved there in 2018 and stayed until 2021,” explains Ziska.
The restaurant really took flight during this time; in 2019 Koks was awarded the second Michelin star and cemented its culinary reputation – while bringing the Faroe Islands to the world’s attention. The picturesque and stark location was brilliant for marketing purposes, but ultimately it was a very challenging place to run a restaurant.
“The people who built the house in 1741 would not have expected it to one day become a restaurant. The ceiling was 180cm high and the waiters kept bumping their heads and walked around with crooked backs,” says Ziska. “The kitchen was outside the restaurant, so we had to run between kitchen and dining room with plates and cutlery – and in the Faroe Islands it rains 250 days of the year.”
Just like in 2016, the team left without a plan; then the Greenland opportunity came up. During the past two years Koks has operated as a seasonal restaurant in the months of June, July and August.
Ziska acknowledges that this freedom to reinvent the restaurant in different locations can be exhilarating, but “there are times where I wish I just had a permanent restaurant and could focus on cooking,” he says.
Cooking with purpose
Having worked in Copenhagen in the mid-noughties during which time it was sparkling with creativity and new ideas of what was possible in gastronomy, what was it about returning to the Faroes that so appealed? With a population of fewer than 60,000 people, a tourism sector in its infancy and next to no restaurant culture, it was a challenging proposition.
“What really interested me was this close connection to the nature around us and we wanted to explore our islands,” he says. “I don’t know if the right word is pride but being able to show people the Faroe Islands through the food really appealed to me. It made greater sense than just cooking somewhere, so there was another layer of purpose.”
He may have only worked in the Noma kitchen momentarily, but the Danish restaurant has been a significant inspiration in the development of Koks. The New Nordic movement pioneered foraging and cooking with produce found in the Nordic countries, while seemingly removing the boundaries of innovation in the kitchen.
“It completely changed the way we look at things and the way we cook, but sometimes we were maybe too inspired. I’d see the dishes they made with produce that I didn’t have here in the Faroes and feel sad I couldn’t cook it,” he says. It taught him an important lesson early on. “I learned that we just needed to do what we were doing and not constantly look at the trends others follow – we had to find our own version of their innovation.”
Today with beautiful photography and foodie fans around the world having traveled the long distance to eat at Koks, it is easy to forget that Ziska took on the project at a time when there were few international visitors to the Faroe Islands and no gastronomic profile internationally.
How did he persuade people to travel all that way to eat in his restaurant? The answer is that he didn’t. “There were days when we just sat and waited until 8pm and nobody came; then we went home,” he says. “But gradually tourism has got better, and we did gain recognition from several guides. During the summer months we were fully booked.”
Being in a location that forces a lasered focus on what is being consumed and what is being discarded. Ziska has experimented with composting, keeping chickens, behaving in an environmentally responsible manner and it is something he wants to accelerate in the next permanent location.
“In the past we didn’t get so far with the project, but we learned from it, and we also learned how time consuming these things are,” he says. For this reason, in the next Koks, he will employ people “who actually know what they are doing” to focus on implementing these processes.
With few things to distract from the elements, climate change is ever-present in restaurants and the communities around Koks. “I wouldn’t say it is something that I think about every day, but of course we are very aware of climate change,” says Ziska. “We are a fishing nation and if you can’t go out to fish today you don’t get any money so if the changes result in warmer waters and different behavior of fish, that is something much greater than our restaurant. Then it is a problem for the total economy. We try to work with fish that are maybe not the typical ones that we eat all the time, so we do our best to affect positive change.”
He may not have got his first break at the time of his own choosing, but Ziska is making sure that he orchestrates his next big move, and the timing is of his own choosing. The next Koks promises to be a move away from making do with the facilities available, managed by the chef and his team, something he anticipates with relish.
“I look forward to starting to cook again with all the beautiful produce we have here and just running a service,” he says. “It will be fantastic to design our kitchen and work in a brand new kitchen where we have designed every detail; that is just wonderful.”