In Conversation with Award-Winning Writer, Chef and Consultant Carsten Kyster
Carsten Kyster is a person of rich experiences, great taste, and incredible passion for food and everything related to it.
He also happens to have won the Danish Gastronomic Academy's Honorary Award for his writing, and happens to work at the helm of successful, globally-acclaimed fine-dining restaurants such as The House by Ginger in Thailand and Shades of Green at Soneva Fushi, Maldives.
"It is like painting," said the Copenhagen-based writer, stylist, chef and consultant Carsten Kyster, while sitting with his morning cup of coffee after a bike ride. "You really start tasting a meal with your eyes. Then you experience it on a new level in your mind because, let's say, the food reminds you of the taste of a cucumber from your grandmother's garden."
"Imagine that you have four different, wet colors, and then you suddenly discover some orange hidden behind what you just saw, and then again, to your surprise, you see some green. And when you start tasting it, it surprises you."
"Food styling is about creating those layers of experience," described Kyster.
I asked him: is it challenging to describe textures and flavors as someone who is regularly working on creating new ones?
"Not at all," he responded. "In my mind, I know how I want the dish to taste before making it. Sometimes it doesn't turn out right, but most of the time it conforms with what I had intended."
What about communicating with other chefs about he has in mind, I asked.
"That, too, is doable. When it comes to food styling, it is often easiest to show and tell. But in terms of describing flavors or cooking instructions...imagine a nice piece of ravioli. And let's say we want to fry it for crispiness, instead of only boiling it. We want the middle to be fresh and the ricotta to have the taste of salted anchovies to bring out the flavor. Did you follow along?" he asked.
"I did," I said. While he spoke, I was amazed at the effortless ease and enthusiasm with which he spoke about food; making his words sound like a poem.
Carsten Kyster hails from a family of butchers in Denmark. Visiting the butcher shop of his grandparents and watching people doing a range of activities from frying, smoking, sausaging, and drinking port wine are some of his many memories while growing up; memories and experiences that he says really made him.
As it happens, one of Kyster's core specialities is plant-based, vegan foods.
"I didn’t decide to specialize in plant-based cooking, but I can feel it in my system."
"But it is also more exciting for me. For example, I like the idea of taking commonly available, ordinary ingredients, like a potato or a cauliflower, and elevating it to something much more. It is fun for me."
I decided to ask about the trendiness of umami, which is considered to be the fifth category of taste after sweet, sour, salty and bitter. What is the logic behind the current trendiness of using this flavor; is it that umami is particularly flavorful or beneficial, or is it a way to get meat-eaters to switch to vegetarian diets without compromising on taste?
"It is more of the latter," responded Kyster. "But it is also about combining different flavors to bring a good balance and to fully satisfy your tastebuds."
"Umami can bring back memories of your childhood. The taste can be found in meat, of course, but it can be found in so many things if you look for it."
"For instance, you can find the taste of umami in a very ripe tomato, freshly picked and eaten in the sun. It can be found in mushrooms. Umami tickles your tongue and gives a nice woody flavor. When you find the flavor in vegetables, it is more refined and has more levels than the umami found in meat."
"Umami is not new and is used a lot. Green umami is new. It is something that has always existed but something that people didn't think too much about before."
Being from Denmark, Kyster says that Nordic cooking techniques are pretty much "ingrained in his DNA." So, what is the essence of Nordic cooking?
"Nordic is whatever feels excellent, and very natural. We emphasize on simple ingredients and local products. Fermenting, pickling, drying... these techniques form the backbone."
"We might take a roasted vegetable and add a bit of lemon juice, olive oil and pepper. And that could be it."
One of the many things that Carsten Kyster is proficient in is developing successful restaurant concepts. What does it take?
"It needs to be a simple idea. The focus must first be on taste, then on presentation. Quality must be supreme, even if one cannot go organic or green."
"Success is a tricky word, because success in which sense? Seeking commercial success can look different from seeking to make your customers happy, which in turn can be different from making yourself happy."
"So much of what a restaurant concept needs to be also depends on the type of business that we are talking about. For example, is it a café? A shop? A restaurant or a takeaway? A lot of factors come into play."
In 2018, Carsten Kyster visited Soneva Fushi, Maldives, as a food journalist.
"I visited their vegetable garden and saw so much potential. I decided to write a proposal about a green, plant-based restaurant that involved a garden tour as a pre-meal experience; to involve the guests and to develop the garden further."
"It was nine pages long, and I submitted it to the owners. It is probably one of the bigger professional projects that I have initiated till date. The owner and I had a few meetings in the Maldives and in Copenhagen. He accepted the proposal, and then a lot of planning had to go through. From working with the designers, the architects and the chefs, I was involved in every aspect of it."
"Vegan seemed too difficult a concept at the time. In 2018, I took lots of fermented ramsons (wild garlic), mushrooms, elderberries, and all sorts of other Nordic ingredients. Thirty kilograms of them, in fact. We developed three menus, and they really worked. We brought on two great chefs, Chef Jenefer Espero and Chef Ganesh Kalai, and we completely did away with dairy products. It was a lot of work because it meant making our own cheeses and yogurt, but it was more fulfilling and even better. Really, it is a real joy," finished Kyster.
Since its inception, Shades of Green, the restaurant that Kyster proposed, has already counted as one of the finest restaurants to visit in the Maldives by CNN Travel, and other prominent travel, luxury and food watchers.
(Top: Carsten Kyster at the garden at Shades of Green. Middle: Carsten Kyster with Chefs Jenefer Espero and Ganesh Kalai at Shades of Green. Bottom: A bird-eye view of the garden at Shades of Green, Soneva Fushi, Maldives. Photos by Julia Neeson.)
On visiting Carsten Kyster's profile, and even while speaking with Chef Jenefer Espero at Lakshmi Art Press last week, the expertise and mutual love for foraging by people associated with Shades of Green became apparent.
What is special about foraging in Denmark?
"Foraging is an adventure in itself," said Kyster, with great joy in his voice.
"I have been picking mushrooms since I was 20 years old," he continued. "Usually someone who knows it teaches it to you, and it was the same with me. I got introduced to it early, then would go out into the forest and see hundreds of mushrooms. I started buying books. I took a course; we call it night school at Denmark. I learnt a lot in the process."
"I started harvesting, and eventually I had so much that I started selling them as a side business."
"You will find that all high-end and middle-end Scandinavian restaurants use foraged products. The advantage is that these are super-fine ingredients to use in the kitchen. They provide wonderful new flavors to play with."
"It is like you are a hunter, picking your own mushrooms."
"Of course, people also find it trendy nowadays to put it on Instagram, and tell stories about what they found."
Carsten Kyster is also the sole author of 10 cookbooks, and the co-author of an additional 10 cookbooks. His book "The Hunt for the Good Taste" notably won the highly prestigious Danish Gastronomic Academy's Honorary Award.
I asked him about what drives food trends. For instance, it can sometimes appear as if everyone is suddenly being told that brown rice or gluten-free foods are the healthiest foods to eat. How do such mass perceptions come about each year?
"Well, if we talk about brown rice; we have known it for years. But there are always trendsetters out there who need to create trends as part of what they do."
"At the end, we all want to be healthy. Eating clean, green and healthy is definitely a trend right now and I think it is here to stay due to covid-19."
How does he go about developing new recipes? Does he always know in advance what to make, or does he rely on experiments?
"Of course, there is a lot of experimentation. But due to my travels, training and experiences, I have gathered a lot of knowledge about flavors and textures. So usually even if someone names one ingredient, my mind goes: ok, so we could either have it salted, sour, or sweet, or we could this or that with it. A lot of choices enter my mind immediately; a whole range of possibilities about where to take it. I guess we could say that it is also a gift; to be like that."
How does he feel that the pandemic will affect food trends or the food industry in general?
"Food trends are very difficult to predict, and even more so given a pandemic. It is also difficult to predict it since I am in Copenhagen, which is a very trendy food city. People always look to us to see what we are doing. Our climate definitely has a lot to do with our foods and how we make them; we go for weeks without sun. It becomes foggy and wet. It is pitch dark from 4 pm to 9 am. Christmas, of course, can do a lot for us, but winter consists of some fairly depressing months."
"But globally, I think that plant-based food is definitely here to stay. I think there is likely to be a greater push towards making your own food, more pickling and more fermenting. We will want to do away with processed foods."
"The pandemic will definitely affect our lifestyles (globally) for a while, but some part of me also feels that right after we have a vaccine, people will go back to running on the hamster wheel again." He laughed.
"I sought adventure from the start. Just to get out in the world."
"In fact, I wanted to be a Ship Cook, and I definitely learnt a lot about basic techniques as an apprentice. I worked very hard, and it really opened up opportunities for me, besides making me realize what I wanted to do."
Carsten Kyster says that his journey, food-wise, started at a very early age. "I was 16 when I first became a Chef." At 12, he knew that he wanted to become one. While growing up, he remembers cooking for the family and preparing meals during Christmas and other occasions. He frequently visited the butcher shop of his grandparents, and eventually joined a cruise ship in which he worked as a Chef for five years.
After his stint as a Chef on cruise ships, he joined a restaurant in Denmark, and then in London at Savoy, a 5 star hotel.
He spent another eight months at a Michelin starred restaurant, before coming back to Denmark to work at one of the first organic cafés in the country for five years.
He decided to leave for Australia where he worked in many different kinds of restaurants; mostly exploring Asian street foods: Thai, Chinese and Southeast Asian.
"It was in Australia where I really became passionate about Asian cooking."
He then decided to become a backpacker, and left for Thailand to learn and write about Thai food culture, while focusing on street foods.
He then started a fish-monger shop in Denmark, eventually leaving it to a friend to run it. He went to London to work at River Café, where he cooked alongside Chef Jamie Oliver while he was still a young, upcoming chef.
He then switched to a trendy restaurant called Sugar Club, which was being run by celebrity Chef Peter Gordon.
Later, he was back again in Denmark to work at a few more cafés and restaurants, including at Norlax, before starting his own company known as Spisevognen. "My experiences for the last 20-30 years have really laid the foundation for what I do now," added Kyster.
Now, Kyster divides his time between writing, food styling, and consulting for companies, restaurants and individuals on everything from helping to frame new restaurant ideas to developing menus and imparting his rich, culinary training and wisdom.
"Everything in my life has had to do with food."
What's next for Carsten Kyster?
"Well, in the last year, I've worked on a lot of private dining, with about 80% of it being plant-based cuisine. I'm currently working on developing 24 vegan street food recipes for Nestlé. I was actually writing recipes in my Summerhouse north of Copenhagen until a few days ago," said Kyster.
"Also, is it time for me to push the green button, personally? The other day I was having fried eggs for breakfast, and I wondered, do I have to give this up too?" He laughed.
"My future might not be 100% green, but I know that I have a choice to make. I can feel it in my veins."
Carsten Kyster's life has been filled with interesting and diverse multicultural experiences; indeed, he went out to specifically seek those rich experiences, and all the while, he has also remained rooted to Denmark, and Nordic cooking techniques.
No matter where he goes, he carries his sophisticated palate and marries it with his strong understanding of timeless culinary techniques. He often produces distinct new flavors that astound, spellbind and enchant eaters all around the globe.
In the midst of weaving culinary magic with seemingly ordinary, and widely available ingredients, he constantly strives for health, balance and sustainability, both personally and professionally. And he does this for whoever comes in contact with his pioneering food and far-reaching ideas.
Just like Danish author Hans Christian Andersen gave the world poignant, classic stories and enchanting fairytales to hold onto for life, Chef Carsten Kyster is reminding us of our homes, childhood and dreams through the colorful, fresh flavors that he beautifully paints on each of our plates; usually by a fragrant, green garden; creating long-lasting memories of his own.
That, I feel, makes Carsten Kyster all the more extraordinary in the global, culinary world.
For an original recipe by the award-winning writer, Chef, food stylist, and consultant Carsten Kyster, please see here.
Interview by Lakshmi Art Press.