Video: Christian Puglisi at MAD3

It’s not easy to accept that a photo of a man flipping the bird can be an important inspiration for a celebrated restaurant. But when chef Christian Puglisi talks about what he and his team had in mind while they were opening Relae in Copenhagen four years ago, it becomes a little easier to process. 

As Puglisi explained in August at MAD3, it was the iconic image of Johnny Cash raising his middle finger during a 1969 performance at San Quentin that gave the chef the fuel to open the restaurant he wanted to open. To make Relae happen, it took the willingness to in some ways say “fuck you” to anyone who felt that a restaurant had to follow certain rules to be considered serious.

Puglisi wanted to develop a place that above all reflected the preferences of the people who worked there. “We wanted to make a restaurant that was like our home,” he says. And so, gone were the tablecloths and the waiters refilling water glasses throughout the evening, as well as most of the conventional cues of gastronomic luxury, like the foie and caviar. Instead, there was Johnny Cash playing loudly out of crappy speakers, two or three waiters serving 85 people throughout the night (with plenty of help from the cooks), and a focused, four-course menu with an emphasis on vegetables. From the start, Relae was about making complex efforts translate into something simple and direct — something that was an unconventional but valid interpretation of the term “high-end.” 

This “small revolution” didn’t result purely from Puglisi’s philosophy. The circumstances surrounding the opening made the approach inevitable: the bank wouldn’t lend the project any money, and Jaegersborggade, the Norrebro Street where Puglisi found the space he could afford, was at the time one of the most violent and drug-infested areas of the city. The only viable option was to open a place where everything but the essential — the food and honest intentions of the staff — was dispensed with. 

As a result, Relae was able to offer ambitious cooking and wine service without having guests break the bank or enter into the experience with unrealistic expectations; the price point gave Puglisi room to take risks. He realized his goal of having a restaurant where a diner might not be thrilled with every single course but can walk out the door at the end of the evening feeling like they’ve been somewhere that is fun and has something to say. 

In the video above, Puglisi shares the full story of opening Relae and explains how one little restaurant can transform a neighborhood. He also describes the recent evolution of the restaurant, and how these days, he’s much more concerned with pushing himself than openly, loudly challenging restaurant traditions he doesn’t agree with. “When you’re a teenager, you’re constantly questioning your parents,” says Puglisi. “When you grow up, you question yourself.”