According to Eric Vildgaard, criminal gangs, ships and kitchens operate on the same principle. “There are strict hierarchies, a structured division of tasks and a common objective.” The 38-year-old Dane knows what he’s talking about. Before he earned his first two Michelin stars, he was a notorious thug and drug dealer. “I was already incredibly frustrated and prone to violence as a child. I was an aggressive asshole and faced death more than once.”
When facing this 6’1 ex-gangster for the first time, you feel small. “His appearance is a cross between a Norse bear and a Viking who was burning his way through England in the 8th century,” you can read on the Internet about the heavily tattooed chef. His gentle voice is all the more astonishing – and so is the patience with which his powerful hands guide the tweezers and precisely drape petals next to petals. “In the kitchen, I found my peace and quiet, my balance.”
At 13, Eric had ended up at a reform school for minor offenders – and was even thrown out because of his unpredictable outbursts of violence. But the teenager, long since kicked out onto the streets by his parents, found a mentor who ran a visionary rehabilitation program in his home. “To put all my anger behind me and start a new life, I should have sailed around the Caribbean for six months with some other guys.” But then another one of those “stupid situations” came up and the dream was shattered.
But instead of heading off to prison, Eric was punished on a commercial ship off the Danish coast. “I felt a sense of freedom out there. But I was incredibly bored, I had nothing to do. To this day I don’t know why, but I went out and found some ingredients and made a cake for the crew. And they were impressed!” Eric, in turn, was overwhelmed by the praise. “It was the first time in my life that I had received appreciation.”
However, this magic moment did little to change the underlying problems in the short term. “Today I know that I suffered from ADHS, in other words, attention deficit disorder. From smoking so much weed, I also experienced psychosis and the doctors wanted to pump me full of pills on top of that. I tell my story so openly today because I want to show young people that they are not alone with their difficulties and that they also have a future.”
Between gangs and Noma
His six-year-old brother Torsten plays an important role in Eric Vildgaard’s hollywood-ready story (“If my life is filmed, only Arnold Schwarzenegger would be considered for the starring role!”). After all, he was René Redzepi’s right-hand man and the one who brought the unruly streetfighter, who had tried his luck in various kitchens to no avail, to Noma on the spur of the moment. It was there, at the best restaurant in the world, that Eric learned to work in a disciplined and structured way. “I lived two totally different lives for three years. And both were incredibly fascinating for me: on the one hand, the roughness of the streets, where I wanted to make other people as unhappy as possible. And on the other hand, one where the exact opposite was true. I was a different person in the kitchen. I saw that with the same strength and will, I can also make people happy.”
The fact that assistants and young cooks are not always handled with kid gloves did not bother the usually violent brute. “I accepted this in the kitchen. But if someone on the street would have treated me as disrespectfully as some of my older colleagues in the kitchen – believe me, things would have not gone well for him…”
Trade in a Rolex for plates
The final transformation came when Eric met and fell in love with his now-wife, Tina, at one of his short-term jobs after Noma. He brought a daughter into the relationship, and the restaurant manager another three. The family has now grown by two more children the couple had together – and this is probably the main reason for Eric’s inner peace and balance.
In 2017, the Vildgaards finally fulfilled their dream of opening their own restaurant. For lack of affordable alternatives, however, this was not in the gourmet stronghold of Copenhagen, as they had originally hoped it would be. Instead, it was in Gentofte, five and half miles north of the Danish capital. This helps put their financial situation at the time in perspective: To pay for the plates, glasses, silverware and basic initial ingredients, they first had to sell a diamond ring and a Rolex.
Actions, not terror
At first, Eric Vildgaard didn’t waste any thought on international awards. “I am ambitious and seek perfection, knowing full well I will never achieve it. And if I do achieve perfection, then that’s the moment I close the restaurant,” he said. Of course, he’s pleased that Jordnær, with its two Michelin stars, is now one of the seven best restaurants in Denmark. “On the one hand, this award means everything to me, but on the other hand, it means nothing at all. Because I don’t cook for stars, but rather for my guests. And while we’re at it, let me just say: We chefs are not rock stars. Let’s not fool ourselves. Our task is to satisfy one of the fundamental human needs.”
Different than all the others
And he does things his own way. “As a father, I want to raise my kids differently than my parents raised me and my brother. And as a chef, I want to do things differently than all the chefs in the past who could only gain respect by screaming their heads off.” In principle, therefore, he is the first to come and the last to leave. “Every day I work at a station myself. I lead my colleagues through action, not terror. Perhaps it’s also because of the past, which of course is not a secret that I no longer have to get loud. Today I am a gentle giant.”
Nevertheless, he is not a man who is willing to compromise – especially when it comes to quality. Respect for the ingredients is key in his philosophy. “I kill 30 to 35 crayfish per day with a knife. This may sound strange, but I owe it to the animal to make sure it is handled and presented as beautifully as possible after its death.”
And what does this have to do with Japan?
In his recipes, Eric Vildgaard combines Nordic cuisine with Japanese highlights. “I cook Nordic because I was trained to do so. And Japanese, because I love this cuisine for its precision and passion for individual ingredients,” says the unusual chef. Among his most famous creations are turbot with truffles, chopped crayfish and yuzo kosho, a Japanese chili paste. But even this dish is constantly evolving. “When it comes to preparation, where the exact combination of taste and texture is crucial, there are only two seconds between ingenuity and disaster. I work best under pressure, but I am always looking for ways to make things better. And I know that I have by no means exhausted my abilities.”
“There are only two seconds between ingenuity and disaster in the kitchen. Fortunately, I work best under pressure.” Eric Vildgaard on his pursuit of perfection
Eric is as relaxed as he is confident about the future. However, one thing is always clear to him and those around him: The hunger for success is far from over – curiosity and ambition are still burning in his heart and soul. That’s why he clearly states, “Of course I want a third Michelin star! I want to push my career to the limit. I want to show that people like me, a former gang member, a former drug dealer, are also able to create great things!”
If someone on the street would have treated me as disrespectfully as some of my older colleagues in the kitchen – believe me, things would have not gone well for him.
Eric Vildgaard on his life between gang and kitchen.
What if the drugs lure you back?
Eric Vildgaard is not afraid of a relapse, by the way; the dark side of his history is still too present and visible for him. “Whenever everything seems like it’s getting to be too much for me, I just look at my left hand. The letters H-A-T-E are spelled out across my fingers. I see the tattoo and know: I never want to go back to that life.”