A true fairy tale

A true fairy tale

A true fairy tale

“My wife is the superhero in this fairy tale.” These words flow naturally from the giant figure on the stage, as if murmuring to himself, as he places dainty minuscule flowers onto a shiny gel of umami flavors. The stage is the auditorium at the Madrid Fusión 2022, and the giant is Eric Vildgaard, the founding chef of the two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Jordnær in Copenhagen. He is referring to his wife Tina with gratitude when telling his story.

Eric is a huge man with a gentle soul. He tells his story calmly, but passionately, while tweezing the petals of tiny flowers like a garland fit for a fairy on the plate. Listening to him, I cannot help but remember the gentle giant Albrecht in the 1998 movie “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” There, the big boy was refusing the call of the Baron to fight (against the Turks), but rather serve tea in fine porcelain, saying “Oh no, I couldn’t do that, No. Not since I found myself… I never wanted to be ‘big’ and ‘strong.’ Now I know, I want to be dainty and sensitive.” Eric Vildgaard is like the Viking version of Albrecht, and his story of shifting from a fighting gang to a fine-dining chef is as unbelievable as the stories of Baron Munchausen. But it is all true, a fairy tale that became real, one that is too good to be true.

From darkness to light

The story is touching. His teenage years were tough, raised in a troubled neighborhood in Copenhagen, he gets involved in gangs ending in detention centers. He discovers the passion that will help him change his life in one of the training sessions for reintegrating young criminals into society. At the age of 16, he is tasked with cooking for the crew on a sailing voyage for troubled youth. And for the first time in his life, he realizes that his mind is completely free in the kitchen, where he can spend a long time feeling more comfortable than ever before. The first thing he wants to do when he returns from his trip is to enroll in a cooking school. But when he returns to his neighborhood, he is once again drawn to the dark side with the appeal of drugs and alcohol and fell under the shadow of gangs again. Meanwhile, his brother, who is a chef at Noma, works as René Redzepi’s right-hand man, the years Noma received its first Michelin star, and he takes Eric into the kitchen. Everything seems to be back on track, but when both parents die in the course of a few months, he hits the bottom again. One day, one of his close friends takes him to the restaurant where he works to help. “Everything made sense once again when I put on the chef’s shirt,” he explains of those days, adding as if there was a magic touch in the chef’s shirt.

But the real magic happens when Eric meets Tina, his muse, his fairy, his future wife. Tina soon becomes pregnant. This is the crossroads moment in their lives. Tina offers Eric two options: Either his old habits or a totally new path they will walk together. The rest comes quick. In 2017, when Tina was pregnant with their second baby, the couple opens Jordnær inside an old hotel in the northern suburb of the city with limited finances, only around 10,000 euros in cash, a Rolex watch and a diamond ring that Tina sold. They could not even afford enough glasses or plates and had to wash them immediately for the next serving, taking care not to break any. Nine months later, they receive their first Michelin star, attracting the attention of gastronomy circles.

Tina tells about those early days: “Our biggest ambition has always been to give the guest the best experience we can. If better is possible, good is not good enough.” Tina is still at the head of the service team, with her fairy-like existence, dressed in a pure white boyish suit, her reddish hair tightly gathered, wearing only a bright red lipstick and a big smile.

Pure poetry

I had the opportunity to experience Jordnær thanks to Kristian Brask Thomsen, otherwise known as Ambassador Bonvivant. From the moment we stepped into the dining room hidden in the modest suburbia hotel, we were in heaven. We had a marvelous time; we savored every moment. From the food to the service, it must have been the most impressive tasting menus I’ve ever tasted. And I say this as a non-fish eater, where 12 out of 18 dishes were seafood, and to my surprise I enjoyed almost all, to admit sometimes passing my caviar to Kristian, but not the signature one, a thin crunchy rosette with a hidden volute behind stuffed with shrimp paté, topped with caviar as the disk of the daisy. The plates reflect Danish minimalistic design, pure and fresh, cool yet a warm touch of Hygge, the world-famous Danish concept of warmth and coziness, a term difficult to translate. Sometimes it is the shadow of the skewered scallops that reflect on the pure white linen tablecloth. Sometimes it is the taste of butter you shamelessly smear on the butter-drenched mini loaf of bread. Raw shrimps appear like swimming on a wasabi-dotted ponzu sauce, and you feel like getting lost in an abstract painting while sipping your favorite wine. All plates resonate the power of “less is more,” and the tastes truly follow the same path, the pure taste of the finest and freshest ingredients of the season. The wine pairing must be one of the best I’ve ever had. It was truly a memorable dining experience, pure perfection indeed, or in better words, pure poetry that only stems from pure love. Eric says of his story, “If it’s dark enough, you can see the stars.” Thanks to him, Tina and his team, we have seen the stars on their smiling faces and shining plates.

Sweet conquer

To our delight, we found out that Eric Vildgaard loves baklava and Turkish delight. He even once considered serving dainty minuscule baklava lozenges like mini diamonds in the dessert course. He believes that a sweet must be truly sweet, and baklava has this sweetness combined with fine mastery of sweet-making. We’ll soon invite him to Turkey with his fairy queen and make our best efforts for him to discover everything about baklava and beyond. The mission of the gentle giant visiting Turkey will not be like the order of the Baron to Albrecht to fight the Turks. He will hopefully conquer the hearts of the Turks with the daintiest sweets he will put on his menu inspired by Turkish sweets!

Fork of the week:

If you want to witness the amazing cooking of another big chef with a similar fairy story, emerging as a shining star from darkness, you have to book a table (if you can) in Maça Kızı in Bodrum. Brazilian chef Alex Atala will be the guest star chef of Maça Kızı, the first in a series of celebrity chefs who will be visiting the celebrated boutique hotel, the hidden gem of Bodrum. Save the date April 16-17, and wait to read his magical tale from the Amazonia to the big tables, from the jungle to the hearts of people, another magical story of another gentle soul that had a path from hard times to a celebrated life dedicated to improving the lives of others.