Jonas Bak – Executive Chef from Denmark
Jonas Bak, Executive Chef from Denmark, about actual trends, pressure at the chef job and the Nordic Cuisine.
You are a passionate chef with lots of different experiences. When did this chef journey start for you/ what drove you to become a chef?
It started in 1998 when I startet my training, but long before this I loved food. It was not in the cards that I should be a chef, but I joined a Danish college where you could try different educations, I tried carpenter, baker, waiter but I tried chef there was no doubt, I found my call. The atmosphere in the kitchen, lovely products, smells and flavors. I loved it instantly.
The passion for the chef job: did it develop over the years, or have you been passionate right at the beginning?
It grew on me and I slowly realized how far I could take it. No boarders, no limites if you where a good artisan and worked hard, cooking could take me anywhere.
Back to your roots as chef; which cooking school did you visit and what was the greates personal learning out of this time?
I went to different food colleges in Denmark, we are classic Danish/French trained in Denmark. We have many great chefs in Denmark, Rene Redzepi at Noma, Rasmus Kofoed at Geranium who won gold,silver and Bronze at Bocuse d or as the only one.
But it all started in the 1970’s with Søren Gerricke who came home to Denmark from France and started a food revolution which is peaking these years. The Scandinavian food scene is stronger than ever.
Today we face the problem, that we have not enough young people which want to become a chef. Do you have any idea how this great job can be more attractive for young people?
It will become harder and harder to recruit enough young people, the problem is growing rapidly and you have to take unqualified associates in to survive but it affects the end product.
We have to treat people better, salary and working hours firstly. But we really need to nurse young people and make it interesting. Give the proper tools and knowledge. But first of all just treat them with dignity. We have to make it fun not just hard, playing is so important. We have to be honest from the beginning. But working hours and salary has to change. A commis chef in London earns 1200 pounds a month its horrendous, no wonder young people stay away. Put on working evenings, weekends, long stressful shifts.
You worked as Executive Head Chef for Hilton London and as Executive Chef for the Marriott Hotels. Was this a career path you worked on by “plan” or did this positions “found” you?
I moved to London without any job, started applying, I said no till I got the right offer, Hilton came and there was no doubt, with Marriott I was contacted by an agency. When you come from little Denmark it was a milestone for me to work with both Hilton and Marriott, I felt when I got a job with Hilton I had made it to the big league.
In Norefjell, Norway you worked as Executive Chef at the Norefjell Ski&Spa. What is the typical Norwegian alpine culinary set up?
I worked in a massive property 1200 beds, banqueting facilities for up to 1200, restaurant with 400 seats 2 seatings pr. Night, and a busy bar and pizzaria. We served breakfast and lunch from a daily changing buffet and 3-4-5 course menus in the evening.
Bbq’s On the slopes, very busy times in the skiing season.
For the Fjord Line AS, you worked as well. The cruise chef job is tough. What was a positive learning for you out of this time?
At the sea you simply need to be prepared for anything, bad weather specifically. You need to take things as they come and be able to make quick decisions and change quickly.
How would you describe your own culinary line today?
Seasonal, sustainable, short travled or local, organic, no waste(use the whole animal or vegetable), must be the key words.
My cooking is Scandinavian but with the whole world as an inspiration. I’m really inspirered by caribian food, nothing beats a Jerk chicken or pork.
The Nordic Cuisine is fresh, honest and simple. Over the last years it became very popular and even kind of fashion. What is the “secrete” behind the Nordic Cuisine?
First of all highly qualified chefs and great products. I think nature is closer to us. We always had to use what we had, this creates creativity. Climate played an important role in our food heritage, we had to preserve our foods in season by smoking, curing, dehydration, pickling etc. this creates big flavors and this is trending worldwide at the moment. Nothing taste better than Nordic products, because of the cold climate everything grows slower and becomes more flavorful and intense. We have the very best fish, shellfish, vegetables etc.
The description Nordic Cuisine does not distinguish between the kitchen of Denmark , Sweden, Island, Norway… . Is this correct/ is there really a common sense for the Nordic Cuisine?
Yes we have the same principles with our cuisine. But there is a great variety in products available from each region.
Within the gastronomic industry the requirements for chefs change a lot of the last years. Cost pressure, organisational requirement and bureaucracy. Does chefs today become more manager and less passionate craftsmen/ artists?
If you are executive chef at a big corporate hotel, first of all you need to be a manager. There’s no or little space for passion, you will always be measured on results not how great a chef you are. You simply have to make a choice early in your career. If you want to create choose the independent restaurant way, if to want to lead or manage choose the corporate way, both things is rarely possible.
The pressure/ stress on chefs is not really discussed and often considered as the “price” of this job. As the pressure increased and less people want to become a chef; do you thing is topic should be more thematised openly?
I do believe things has to change in the industry. Working 15-16 hours 90 hours a week is not sustainable. We need to focus on treating hardworking qualified people a lot better, or they burnout. The pressure today is immense. There is a trend that chefs become younger and younger before they retire and do something else, this is a shame. In the end it all always comes down to money. Understaffing is the big issue, here the demands becomes higher but you have fewer hands to do the job. I often had GM’s or FnB mangers over me, with no or little knowledge or skills to manage or understand kitchens, I always wondered why FnB mangers often has a waiter background, I think chefs would be perfect as FnB managers,this need to change as well.
The big hotel/ restaurant.. houses/ chains struggle with good stuff and soul of their kitchens. Have you ever thought about to open your own small and specialised restaurant, and if so, what culinary line would you offer?
I always dreamed of openning a small independent guesthouse with focus on great organic and sustainable quality local food and drinks in a relaxed unpretentious atmosphere, daily changing small menu after what’s in season and available. Danish food with inspiration from our early colonies in West India, Danish/Caribbean food would be new.