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The Normal One

By: Reading Time: 3 Minutes

Two-Michelin-starred British chef Paul Cunningham is causing an uproar in Denmark with his explosively flavorful cuisine. Why the self-supporting chef doesn’t get all the hype, and what really matters when it comes to cooking.

Paul Cunningham Chef

Paul Cunningham / Image: Anders Schoennemann | Henne Kirkeby Kro

Undogmatic, authentic, focused on the important stuff. Paul Cunningham isn’t trying to impress people with a bunch of gimmickry. Two-Michelin-starred British chef is here for the food, not the fancy trappings. “I’d like to think that I cook amazing food, and I like my sauces and flavors, but I’m not breaking new ground, I don’t use fermentation techniques or water baths. I cook with a pan, a bit of butter, and a piece of fish or some vegetables.”

Cunningham has a knack for massive understatements like this one, even though the dinner menu at Henne Kirkeby Kro is jam-packed with explosions of flavor that make even the most battle-worn restaurant critics’ mouths water. The British-Danish creative genius garnered his first Michelin star in 2016 and his second just a year later, through signature creations like garden potatoes and leeks with crispy Gillardeau oysters, scallop-and-lobster cannelloni in smoked butter sauce, and pan-seared turbot with oxtail and pearl onions in a red wine reduction.

All that glitters is not gold

The chef is happy about the stars, of course, but he doesn’t consider them the be-all and end-all. “We never went to Michelin-starred restaurants growing up. We could never have afforded anything like that. But we went to a lot of very good fish-and-chips places.”

Paul Cunningham Chef fish chips

Fish and Chips at Henne Kirkeby Kro / Image: Anders Schoennemann | Henne Kirkeby Kro

Cunningham was born in England in 1969, and discovered his love of cooking at (where else?) a pub. After spending time at places like Lords of the Manor in Upper Slaughter under chef Clive Dixon, the up-and-coming culinary talent moved to Denmark for love in the mid-90s. It must have been destiny, because the Frozen North is where Cunningham’s career really started to take off. He started off as a fish cook, working his way around the Danish culinary landscape, and then landed his first head chef job in Copenhagen. At Søllerød Kro, one of the country’s first Michelin-listed restaurants, the unpretentious chef let his talent shine through. Finally, in 2003, Cunningham opened a restaurant of his own in Copenhagen, calling it The Paul. His purist flavor-forward cuisine netted him a Michelin star just a few months later. The Paul became a popular gathering spot for Danish royals, politicians and other celebrities, and for nearly ten years, the restaurant ran like clockwork… but then the recession arrived, and the otherwise food-loving Danes were forced to cut back. To make matters worse, Cunningham was battling health problems, and ultimately he decided to close The Paul.

The self-supporter

Fortunately, it didn’t take him long to find his footing again. In 2012, he landed at his current location, Henne Kirkeby Kro on the Western coast of Denmark. The building is over two hundred years old, with twelve rooms and exactly twelve tables.

The heart of the idyllic property is undoubtedly the 4,000-square-meter farm, where Cunningham and his team keep bees, grow fruit and vegetables, and raise lambs, pigs, chickens, and rabbits. The place also has direct access to Denmark’s largest private island, which supplies Cunningham with wild herbs, mushrooms, and game. Henne Kirkeby Kro has its own production facilities, and processes practically all of its own food.

Image: Anders Schoennemann | Henne Kirkeby Kro

Image: Anders Schoennemann | Henne Kirkeby Kro

Garden

Image: Anders Schoennemann | Henne Kirkeby Kro

Image: Anders Schoennemann | Henne Kirkeby Kro

Garden

Image: Anders Schoennemann | Henne Kirkeby Kro

Image: Anders Schoennemann | Henne Kirkeby Kro

Garden

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Cunningham’s partner, Garrey Dawson, is one of the keys to the restaurant’s meteoric success. The former three-star chef is the restaurant’s general manager, and he shares the chef’s philosophy, which allows Cunningham the creative freedom to express himself in his dishes.

This summer, his flavor-intense creations migrated south as well: he spent June in Salzburg, working as a guest chef at Hangar-7, where he flexed his culinary muscles through dishes like langoustine masala, turbot with leeks and brown butter, and (of course) caviar. As explosive as his food is for the taste buds, you might think that Cunningham has a kitchen personality to match, but nothing could be further from the truth. He’s a feel-good kind of guy, and he’s adamant about keeping mood-killer types away from his working environment. “I hate stressful people and stressful food,” he says. (We assume he doesn’t consider Han Solo a stressful person, given the sourdough bread in his likeness at Henne.) Fittingly, his food places a fairly significant emphasis on sweet components; the grand finale of his menu is a spectacular combination of Danish chocolate and cacao sorbet. It’s the perfect end to an uncomplicated culinary dramaturgy, understated yet exceptional – just like Paul Cunningham himself.

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