Words by Olivia Lennox
Photos by Alberto Blasetti for Cook_inc 23
Update: On the 13th of May Christian Puglisi announced his decision on who would be the first to take over the Relæ space. Kristian Baumann, alongside his team, will be continuing his project Koan – a combination of Nordic and Korean cuisine which launched as a pop-up at the latter end of 2020. The chef was the notable kitchen lead of Restaurant 108 before it’s pandemic induced closure, and is alumni of Noma as well as Puglisi’s Relæ and Manfred’s.
Koan’s pop-up in Relæ launched on the 19th of May and bookings are open until the 10th of July.
On the 13th of April the gastronomic world awoke to the statement from Christian F. Puglisi that he was taking applicants to run the infamous Relæ for a three-month period. We had a brief conversation with the esteemed Chef and restauranteur who shared his thoughts on the upcoming project.
This has been a year of big decisions within your restaurant community. Considering your emphasis on the importance of having freedom to choose how you spend your time, how did you arrive at this decision after closing Relæ and Manfreds?
It was based on a couple of conclusions. One I made some time ago that I didn’t want to continue with Relæ myself – I wanted to spend my time doing something else. I’ve outlived the chase for success and for the Michelin stars. When I announced Relæ’s closure I didn’t have any plans, it was just “this is what I want to do”, and so maybe we’ll see if someone wants to buy it and we can take it from there. Now time has passed and I’ve reflected on it, and it’s obviously not the best time to sell a restaurant, because it’s more of a burden than it is a benefit, given the Covid situation. The second conclusion is that the Relæ format with its limitations is clearly something that might still be useful and relevant to other people moving forward. And why? Because I think the tendency is that whenever someone ambitiously wants to go out and rule the world of gastronomy, they want to go big. But Relæ was organically shaped into a high standard restaurant by starting small with its many limitations – I always wanted to keep within them because I think they helped create its character. What makes you unique is your limitations – it’s where you fall short and how you grow out beyond that, and I think that is something Relæ has been doing and can teach other people.
Ethos has been imperative in the making of Relæ, and in A Book of Ideas you say you chose “overall ingredient quality over having bragging rights.” Do you think it’s important that the chosen project will mirror the same sentiment, and what then do you see your involvement being in the candidate’s project?
There needs to be a chemistry with whoever will end up doing this, and I think that chemistry is very often based on values. If you feel that connection then it’s right, and to me it’s very important not to define what goes on in there. For me the most important thing about it is that there’s someone’s heart and soul in there. But I don’t want to go back to running Relæ. I know by experience I cannot do something halfway and I cannot take half responsibility for something. If I can spark a vision I’m happy to do that, and it can be very rewarding. But I’m not going to be there to solve issues. I can talk and mentor to some extent but there’ a big difference between helping and being the boss. I am there to give support and to ask questions, but not to give the answers. I know that for good or bad I take up some space, so for someone to be able to do something they need to be able to take some chances, to take some risks, and maybe to make some mistakes. Having me in there will just shape it differently and I’m not interested in that because then it’s not going to be authentic.
You speak of this project as a ‘relay’, as the passing of a baton which clearly holds a powerful legacy. Your call for applicants seems deliberately vague – how do you plan to make a decision on the chosen application?
We have a lot of applicants but I don’t think this process is going to be easy. We need people that are resourceful in getting things done on their own and are very independent, and I know there are some out there. A talent in setting up a menu and combining ingredients is one thing, but a talent in making this work is much more rare so I hope I find someone who is capable. There’s a lot of good people out there but this is a complex challenge.
This pandemic has meant a lot of skilled people with brilliant plans being stunted and stopped in their tracks – the opportunity you’re offering could really provide a lifeline. Do you believe this is an example that other chefs could follow?
I have a particular situation which creates a unique possibility both for me and whoever would want to get involved, so I think it’s a very special thing. I’ve gone my own way now for ten years, and I keep finding my own way of doing things and I don’t think it’s for everybody. I know I’m very privileged because I have a strange situation that allows for this, but there are many particular things I have lined up for this to be a possibility. But this idea of giving young people opportunity is important because in all the industry problems right now, you really need to think outside of the box. People have a tendency do what they know, but I think it’s really important that you give that space to create.
Do you have an idea of what will deem these three months successful by your terms?
The pop-up system has its flaws because it involves a lot of planning but so little time to operate it, sometimes costing you more than you’re able to learn from. But this is more like a residency than a pop up. You get some time to get settled, to express yourself, and then hopefully this expression can bring forward a future for this person. Maybe it helps someone find investors, or maybe it goes so well that I say why don’t you keep running this you’re doing so well. I’m very loose about it because I literally have a space which is up for grabs for whatever great idea is out there. For me three months is very well adapted to the time we’re in, because in the volatile nature of today’s restaurant industry it is very difficult to understand what can happen this year. Having something which isn’t so fixed I think is beneficial for everybody. If I have a sports car in my garage, do I just want to keep it covered, or do I want some people to have a run at it and see what happens? The second option is a bit more fun isn’t it?
This opportunity you are providing shows an admirable lack of preciousness about what Relæ is. You could have stopped it and concreted its legacy and instead you’re letting it evolve. It feels like the removal of ego from the equation…
In the end it’s like a name and there’s tables etc, but it’s just things, it doesn’t matter. As head of Relæ I know more than anyone, what it has meant to me and to the people around me. Of course, that has to be treated with respect, but we have to remember that it’s just things, it’s just a physical space. I saw a potential in that place and I hope other people can see a potential in it, and to open that up makes a lot of sense for me.
Applications are received until April 23rd on firstname.lastname@example.org