Culinary Canvas

The Cycling Chef Who Stands for Luxury

The Lebanese-Danish chef is much more than a cook, he’s an architect of luxury.

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.

Wassim Hallal doesn’t invite you to eat. He invites you to escape. Every detail at his Michelin-starred restaurant Frederikshøj, from the plates and the furniture to the art on the wall, epitomises opulence.

“Luxury isn’t the normal thing you have at home. For me, it will be great if I can upgrade from what I have at home. If you ask me, everything needs to be the best if you are going out to spend money on dinner.”

This emphasis on upmarket elegance might come as a surprise to anyone who assumes Danish cuisine is all foraged food and open sandwiches. While fresh, local produce still lays the foundation for the menu at Frederikshøj, the restaurant’s singularity lies in the technicality of its dishes.

“We try to build techniques with all our dishes. Things that aren’t so easy for normal people, or even many other chefs, to do."

To the untrained eye, the dishes may look simple. This assumption couldn’t be farther from reality. Take the restaurant’s picture-perfect oval creation, easily mistaken for a hard-boiled egg but which is, in actual fact, an entirely edible (shell and all) yellow raspberry and white chocolate dessert. Or the lemon wedge neatly filled with caviar and intended, somewhat surprisingly, as a palette cleanser.

Nothing is quite what it seems at Frederikshøj, but then again, Wassim himself is also full of surprises. Born in Beirut to Lebanese parents, his family relocated to a small village in Denmark before he turned five. His father began working as a chef in a Danish restaurant and wholeheartedly embraced the culture and cuisine, preparing Danish dishes at home for his young family instead of Lebanese food. Because of this, Wassim admits that his own style hasn’t been influenced at all by his Lebanese heritage.

“I think 100% like a Dane. I make Danish food perfectly, but I can’t make Lebanese food!”

Wassim followed in his father’s footsteps, enrolling at culinary school in 1996 before moving to Copenhagen to work. After a stint at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Belgium, he returned to Jutland where he worked in the kitchen of a small restaurant before opening his own place. Today, he employs 25 members of staff and owns premises by the Marselis Forest on the outskirts of Aarhus city centre. It was one of the first Danish restaurants outside of Copenhagen to receive a Michelin Star, a recognition which Wassim says continues to motivate him.

“That was a big day for me. I was proud and every day we try to get the second.”

Cycling is one method Wassim uses to stimulate the creativity he needs to pursue that second Michelin Star. He regularly rides his mountain bike in the forest or takes his road bike out racing. It clears his head, he says, and quite literally steers him towards inspiration.

“When I’m cycling, I think a lot. I find a lot of inspiration in the forest, in the sea. I go into my own bubble where I can just think about food. Sometimes I stop to see what’s in season, then we can order it in and build dishes around it. After I go in the kitchen, get the ingredients in my hands, everything just comes together.”

He adds that he’s not the only person responsible for bringing creativity to the table at Frederikshøj and that the development of new dishes is a collaborative process. Along with Wassim, there are four chefs de partie, a head chef and a sous chef who work together to create new courses. Each imagines their own version of the dish, meeting two or three times before finally deciding what will go on the plate. It’s an example of one of the systems Wassim has in place to harness their collective creativity and maintain an atmosphere of calm in the kitchen.

“I’m a systems guy! When I’m making a new course, I try to build a system around it. When everything goes well, that’s the system working.”

Many would assume that there are few more hectic, stressful jobs than working in the kitchen of a Michelin starred-restaurant. On the contrary, there could be no clearer sign that Wassim’s systems work than his assertion that the kitchen is his calm space.

“I’m not stressed in the kitchen. For me, the kitchen is so relaxing. I’m stressed when I’m not in the kitchen!”

It’s a continual push, he maintains, to achieve greatness - but not one that is entirely down to him and his team. The restaurant’s quality and creativity is dependent on the produce they have to work with. A high standard has to be upheld throughout the supply chain, and Wassim puts pressure on farmers and producers to ensure they deliver.

“We tell them we need a higher quality of this or that. Most importantly, is the fish we use. We have a lot in Denmark but our high class fish is exported because they get more money for it. So we try to have the best quality of fish in Denmark.”

There is one kind of greatness Wassim doesn’t aim for. His focus is on the food he serves, not on the superficial popularity of his restaurant. Rather, he seeks authenticity and to create an exceptional dining experience that leaves guests longing to return.

“I don’t want to be the best restaurant in the world, I don’t care about being big on social media. I just want to have a restaurant that people want to eat at time and time again.”

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.