In profile: Chef Eric Vildgaard
The Danish chef has gone from a life of crime to claim his place among the gastronomy greats at his restaurant outside Copenhagen. He tells Tina Nielsen how he turned his life around
Eric Vildgaard is a man of contradictions. Weighing in at 140 kg (309lb), he is an imposing presence in any room, yet the dishes he cooks at his restaurant Jordnær are whimsical and delicate. His arms are covered in tattoos that speak to a complicated and not so distant past – the word hate inked across the knuckles of his left hand, yet all he talks about is love.
Jordnær is the Danish word for down to earth. It is a word that describes Vildgaard well, grounded and with a healthy self-awareness – the contradiction between him and his cooking is not lost on him. “You see me, and you see my food, it is a great contrast; it’s like Billy Elliot, but in a chef’s life,” he says, in reference to the popular British film about the working-class boy who became a ballet dancer.
Vildgaard says he cooks happy food. “It is very precise, very beautiful and we use high-end products. If I don’t get goosebumps when I taste my creations they won’t make the menu,” he says. “It needs to make me feel joy.”
When he describes his food, he often refers to the emotions a dish evokes. The product is the starting point and central part of any of his delicate and visually pleasing dishes, but beyond that, the plates leaving his kitchen need to spark joy.
As an example, he speaks of a summer on the beach, where, surrounded by his family, he picked raspberries and roses. At home he created a dessert that brought to life this perfect day. Simple and special. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to ensure the wheel is the strongest you’ve ever seen,” he says. “Some chefs try to put as many layers of flavor as possible, but I try to keep it to a minimum, if you have the best ingredients, you should bring them to the front.”
His restaurant at Gentofte Hotel on the outskirts of Copenhagen has enjoyed a rapid ascent to the upper echelons of the gastronomic world. He and his wife opened Jordnær in May 2017 and the first Michelin star came the following February. Two years on he joined a small group of restaurants to hold two stars.
Gastronomy and gangs
A glittering culinary path was far from a given for Vildgaard, as he explained when he took the stage at Spain’s gastronomy congress Madrid Fusión earlier this year. “If anybody had looked at my life five years ago, they would never have thought I’d be where I am today,” he said. “Five years ago, people might have assumed I’d be dead today.”
Vildgaard’s story arc of redemption is a tale of personal growth, drive and determination. Coming from a background of instability and poverty, he spent his life in and out of organized crime and gangs, a youth marked by criminality and drugs.
An unlikely star chef he might be, but it is evident that, despite the choices he has made along the way, cooking was always part of him. “I believe that the talent for cooking is something you are born with. Of course, you can teach people to cook, but you can’t teach them the passion,” he says. “You either have the flair or you don’t.”
Aged 13, he was kicked out of state institutions, an out-of-control child nobody knew what to do with. “They sent me sailing because that is what they did with kids who made trouble,” he says. During his time at sea, he discovered how to make people happy with food – it was a revelation. “I baked a cake and I made everybody’s life more joyful,” he recalls.
Despite this realization, he went back to the same environment when he returned to Denmark, in a pattern that would repeat itself many times as he spent years moving between the criminal underworld and gastronomy. “For a long period of my life I lived off people’s sorrows, I was in the business of making people unhappy through crime, instead of where I am now in the business of making people happy,” he says.
Through dark times, cooking was his safe place. “I always escaped into gastronomy when I needed to escape from myself. This is the place where I belong, I feel at home when I cook, the true me,” he says. Today, he understands that at the core of his dark life was unhappiness and a lack of confidence. “No happy people commit crimes.”
A gentle giant
But then, he points out, being in a criminal gang is not actually so different from working in a professional kitchen. “I fit in very well in the kitchen, there is a hierarchy, a structure and the people share your values – everybody agrees on the purpose of being here and everybody knows their place,” he says. “I think the environment is the same as a gang environment, although kitchens have changed a lot, there used to be more shouting and putting people down.”
Kitchens are definitely different from how they used to be, but he concedes he gets caught up in the emotions at times. “Do I get angry? Yes. Do I like it? No. Do I make an effort not to get angry? Yes, of course and I weigh my words before I open my mouth.”
In previous roles he says he would lose his temper with people, because it was all he knew. “Now I understand that people give more of themselves to the restaurant if they feel acknowledged than if I make them feel scared. I am a big guy and I know if I raise my voice, I can scare people,” he says.
Calling himself a gentle giant, he says this is who he always was, but he operated in environments where he had to put on a façade. Kindness was simply not accepted. “When you run with cattle, you sound like them, you will become part of the culture you are in,” he says. “I am happy I am out of that world, but I wouldn’t want to be without it because it is part of who I am; I think I know more about myself than the average person.”
Love, he says, runs through everything he does in the restaurant, from the way he works with ingredients to the way the team welcomes diners and, of course, how he manages his team who are family to him.“I never had a family. Of course, I had a family, but I never had that pure straightforward love without limits,” he says. This informs everything that happens in the kitchen, and beyond. “Yes, we are professionals and we work hard, but joyful people make joyful food and what we do is a transaction of feelings between people – the guest and us – and it needs to be happy feelings; if not it doesn’t taste good,” he says. “The worst way to add salt to a soup is with tears.”
A double life
His first taste of working in a professional kitchen came 20 years ago and he experienced the highest level of Nordic cuisine shortly after. His brother, Torsten, is a well-known chef in Denmark who took a more direct route and avoided the environments his brother got caught up in. “My brother is a famous chef. Then, he was René [Redzepi’s] right-hand man. We didn’t have much in common besides being brothers, but I saw him being successful as a chef and I wanted to be a chef too,” he says.
In 2005, while his brother was working at Noma, he called Vildgaard to help organize some functions. It was another chance to escape and, after six months, Redzepi asked him if he would take charge of the functions department at Noma. “I said, ‘I’m not the guy for this’, but René had faith in me. He was right and I stayed for three years,” he says. “But after, I was so stupid and went back to my old role models again. Many people would have gone from Noma to open their own projects, but I went to deal drugs. There was something relaxing about being part of that world, I fitted in, and I was good at it.” This time it was another level up in the world of organized crime. “That was a really tough time in my life,” he says.
After living this double life for years, he decided to get help seven years ago. “I felt like I always pushed away every good thing that happened to me, always putting myself down. You might have friends who support you, but they don’t really want you to be a success because then you become more successful than them,” he explains.
He asked his brother for help in securing his chef qualification and went back out to sea, sailing with a group of young people. On his return he went to work at Copenhagen restaurant Almanac, a time that was both fun and educational for him. “It was a restaurant with many covers; it was very stressful and a good education,” he says.
The easiest choice
A relatively happy time ended when both his parents died within a short time of each other and he “jumped into the darkness”. Everything else around him lost significance as he descended into a time of abuse – until a friend made him go and work a shift at a restaurant. Walking into the kitchen that day filled him with peace, he says. It was a return to a comfort zone. “I remember the only thing that mattered was I could hear this frying pan – I didn’t know the chef handling it, but I said to him: ‘Hey your frying pan is too hot.’ It was instinct, it was so reassuring to experience that,” he says.
On that day he met his future wife, Tina, who ran the front of house. He credits her with turning around his life. When they met, he was at his lowest, but they fell in love. “Until I met my wife, my life choices were wrong; I followed a dark path,” he says. “She gave me permission to be who I am, but she also gave me a choice – she said: ‘If we are going to be together you need to choose, do you want us or your other world? You can’t have both.’ I love her so much that it was the easiest choice I have made in my life.”
A year after meeting they decided to open a restaurant together and started to prepare for their own place. The owner of the restaurant where they met declared bankruptcy, closed the restaurants and left all staff with no wages weeks before Christmas. It was a bruising experience.
Put off by high rents on the sites in central Copenhagen, where Vildgaard really wanted to open, they settled on the restaurant of a three-star hotel in Gentofte outside the city center. Jordnær was a new start for Vildgaard and a chance to build something significant alongside his wife.
After the experience with the previous owner, they were determined to stand on their own two feet with no external investors; they didn’t want to answer to anyone. “If we have a third-party investor in the restaurant, we would have to give away part of the ownership and we didn’t want that. We had no money, so we sold everything in order to buy plates, cutlery and glasses. We knew we had to make money to survive so we accepted conferences and receptions.”
Five years in and with two Michelin stars, a full dining room and plaudits from diners and critics, this is a sweet time for Vildgaard. Not that it has been easy. Between them, the couple has six children and a determination to make it all work in balance. It works because they know they work with compromise, as he says: “Ideally, we’d be home every day at 4pm and see the kids, but we work four days. We say that when we are here, we are committed to be at work. I say to the team let’s not waste time, when we’re here we do our very best because if it is a waste of time then what’s it worth?”
At the core, this is about working out what is important at this time. “For us it is to be fulfilled as human beings by doing what we love, and we really do, and we don’t feel we have to compromise what we do because of the kids,” he says. “I think many of my friends might end up grumpy and say they didn’t make it because of the kids, but I say let’s make it because of the kids.”
They live near the restaurant; staff dinners are a family affair and the children can be involved in the day-to-day life at Jordnær. Is the quest now to achieve a third star? “Of course I would like to have a third star hanging on the door from a perspective of personal ambition, and to be acknowledged among the best in the world,” he says, but adds it won’t happen at any cost. “I don’t want to compromise what we have now, to go for the ambition, because it’s not Michelin that pays the rent, it is the guest.”
Spreading the love
In time, he says, he would like to put his own experience to use and help young people coming from similar backgrounds to his own. “My end goal in life is to have a project with young people, that is where I see myself in 20 years, that would be the dream,” he says. “I want people to understand it is OK not to go the straight way, it is OK to be a misfit; in your own way you will arrive where you need to be and if you get the guidance, you will feel peace with yourself.”
And while he was once “the worst leader you can imagine”, he has grown into his role as a mentor in the restaurant and feels a big responsibility for his staff. “I am an alumnus of Noma, and I would like there to be alumni of Jordnær,” he says. “I hope to spread my love for the trade and when people leave here they will take that with them so they can pass it on to the next generation.”
Striking and rapid though it may be, the shift inside him happened quite naturally – all it took, he says, was to be acknowledged as a human being. “I was always searching for a place to belong, that is why I was in and out of gangs and hanging out with the wrong crowd. I needed them, but now I can choose to be a nice person and it is not hard, it’s much harder to pretend to be something that you’re not and for the first time in many years I felt accepted,” he says. “This has been a long journey, but I found peace.