Chef Bo Bech: A career of honesty and alchemy

Bo Bech was dubbed 'the Alchemist' for his wildly creative cooking.
Bo Bech was dubbed 'the Alchemist' for his wildly creative cooking. 

Before you interview Bo Bech, he interviews you.

"Can I ask you a question? And it's not a trick question," says the Danish chef as we settle into his favoured banquette with a 180-degree view of the comings and goings in his Copenhagen restaurant, Geist. A large man with a penchant for the long-form version of story telling, Bech occupies more than his share of the confined space.

Because I'm from Sydney and he's about to make his first trip to Australia, he asks: "What do you miss the most? How is the light different? What age do people leave the nest?" On it goes until 28 minutes in: "One more then I will let you ask the questions. If you were to boil me down to three words, what's the first word?" I've interviewed him before, so I'm prepared.

"It's big – big-hearted, big appetites, big personality, there's nothing grey about you."

"Thank you, that's very kind."

"Restless. You seem to be searching for something."

I wanted to go to Tokyo but I didn't think I would be accepted, Paris was more like my mistress, so I thought New York.

"Yes, totally. Whether it's restlessness or curiosity, I'm surprised by it. And the third?"

"Incredibly accomplished."

"That sounds like you're writing my obituary. Do you know what I wrote on the back of my book? 'The truth is easier than the lie.' When they see that, everyone says, 'Of course', but to try and live by it is not that easy. Honesty, that's my third word. OK, I'm warmed up now."

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Meet Bo Bech, 46, one-time enfant terrible and fiery TV chef, who made his mark and a Michelin star with the avant-garde Restaurant Paustian in the early 2000s, and, for the past seven years, has helmed Geist, a big buzzy restaurant borne of his desire to run a place where he wanted to eat regularly and indeed does.

"Ask me how many times I ate at Paustian – zero and that's stupid. After Paustian I tried to build a restaurant that would be my favourite place." Geist means enthusiasm or good spirits in Danish. Although the food comforts more than confronts he likens opening it in 2011 to introducing the letter B. At the time Rene Redzepi's Noma had just been declared the world's best restaurant two years in a row, hyper-local New Nordic cuisine was all the rage and critics were declaring Copenhagen one of the hottest food cities on the planet.

But, says Bech: "The alphabet wasn't complete in Denmark. I know it sounds pretentious but I wanted to give Copenhagen a gift, to create a classic." He still plays the soundtrack to the epic Ali/Foreman boxing match Rumble in the Jungle in Geist's bathrooms to remind him of his "ultimate fight", opening a huge restaurant with a big emphasis on vegetables and no standard crowd-pleasers. Think Rockpool Bar and Grill without the steak, the fries or the burgers.

If not yet an institution, Geist has become part of the life of the Danish capital, more local haunt than tick on the gastro-tourists' must-eat list.

He built the kitchen for performance and exposure, placing an L-shaped bar seating 40 diners around it. Like his almost single product dishes, there's nothing to hide. Or as he says: "The truth is easier than the lie." Sumptuously dark, its walls are clad in brown fossil marble and the cabinetry is lacquered brown oak. It looks like it's been styled for Architectural Digest with a huge ceramic urn of lemons on one bench and no plastic in sight, but it's a hard working kitchen where that Friday night seven chefs pumped out meals for 193 guests.

Bech set up it so that he would stand centre stage on the pass but in recent times he's withdrawn from service to allow his chefs more room to develop.

"You can see that you are making other people stand in the shadow. What I saw as a business owner was that my restaurant could evolve if I stepped back a bit, maybe was in charge of creativity and evolution but let them manage it." Sometimes he dons an apron for a few hours and it's instructive to watch his intense focus, precision, and how he exerts authority without being overbearing. Like his peers, he's been an angry head chef slamming underlings with the proverbial baseball bat but he's mellowed.

What's harder to tame is his restlessness. Two years ago he wanted to try something crazy, live somewhere else and open another restaurant. "I wanted to go to Tokyo but I didn't think I would be accepted, Paris was more like my mistress, so I thought New York." As a precursor to opening his own place he decided to run guerrilla pop-up dinners in various unexpected locations for which guests would buy tickets blind.

When Redzepi opened the second iteration of Noma earlier this year he talked about how his father's recent death had re-ignited the anger that had driven him early on – never fitting in because your dad's a Muslim, going to bed hungry at the end of the month.

By contrast, Bech's upbringing was perfectly ordinary. An only child, he grew up in middle-class Amager, with doting parents who expected him to be home at 5.30pm every night for a wholesome Danish dinner. "Basically everything that's minced 2000 ways." He didn't start cooking for a living until he was 24, having had his defining food moment while part of a peacekeeping force with the Danish Royal Guards on the border of Croatia and Serbia. Seeking something other than John Grisham to read he picked up Froken Jensens Kogebog, a Danish Mrs Beeton's Cookery Book. It opened up a world of culinary possibilities, starting with making the most of their rations, but it wasn't an epiphany. Nevertheless it set him on a path that took him to London and Paris working for Michel Roux, Marco Pierre White, Alain Senderens and Alain Passard, to Lund in Sweden, and then four years as head chef in a highly regarded restaurant in northern Zealand, Denmark's largest island.

In 2004 he opened Bo Bech Restaurant Paustian, in a furniture store designed by Sydney Opera House architect Jorn Utzon in Nordhavn, Copenhagen's north harbour. The restaurant was self-financed – Bech had persuaded the suburban bank manager to give him a loan by presenting her with a leek he'd roasted on a barbecue set up on the footpath outside.

He was wild and wildly creative, nicknamed "the Alchemist" after his surprise menu, and way ahead of his time. Redzepi, who opened Noma the year before, says that at the time Paustian was the most interesting place in Europe to eat, period. Bech inspired him. "If Paustian were still here with Bo at the helm he would be one of the greatest chefs in the world," says Redzepi in the Paustian tribute book that Bech self-published last year.

In the book, Redzepi says he misses the young and wild Paustian-Bo; his friend has become avuncular. Bech prefers grown-up or, "I like foremost to be me". Ridiculous rents and various other reasons precluded him from opening a restaurant in New York so he's back living in Copenhagen. "For now."

But he'd love to be challenged again. "I don't think I have been built to have just one restaurant for 30 years. I feel like I'm producing music and I have done my albums and now I want a different inspiration and that's both the tough and the beautiful thing. It's so difficult to set up a restaurant and you don't just leave it, you work with it, it's really a relationship."

Quickfire corner

Kitchen weapon? They are tools not weapons and my favourite is a spoon, nothing in particular, just one that fits my mouth.

After-midnight snack I love them especially after a long night around town, going back to someone's apartment and making cacio e pepe (pasta with cheese).

Formative food moment Every professional chef will have a moment with bread because it's so banal, flour, water, salt … and hands. When I set up a bread shop I thought what's the other side of the scale to fine dining? It's bread, it's the best and cheapest fine dining experience you can have.

Signature dish Wafers of avocado with lightly salted caviar. Two perfect ingredients and then a third one, almond oil, like a bridge. It's my best dish ever, a perfect circle of life and marriage.

Paying homage to Jorn Utzon

I think Jorn Utzon probably had more than 100 lunches at my restaurant. Then one time he said, "Why have you never created a dish for me?" So we did. (Cheese ravioli lined up on top of two fillets of turbot like the sails of the Sydney Opera House.) But when Utzon next came for lunch he'd had eye surgery so he was blindfolded. I went down to serve him and said, "This is my homage to you", and it was the last time I saw him. He never saw the dish.

Bo Bech will be in Australia in June for Melbourne's Good Food Month. See goodfoodmonth.com for details.