The taste world of the Faroe Islands on the plates of Koks
BY CARMELA MELONE
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 4 2018)
Rugged cliffs, a grey sky and the wild sea. The beauty of the Faroe Islands is a pure and rough one. Exposed to the salty wind, dark and wooden dry houses stand all over the islands with fish and pieces of lamb meat hanging at their sides and interiors. In the midst of this impressing, chill nature, the Michelin-starred restaurant “Koks” offers a cosy refuge with all the flavours and the amazing spirit of the islands beautifully arranged on its plates. We spoke to Poul Andrias Ziska, head chef at Koks, about their concept, inspiration, and the unique experience of the Faroese cuisine.
When and why did you decide to become a chef?
I started at the beginning of 2008 after I finished school. I knew that I didn’t want to be sitting in the classroom for long, it was not my thing. So, I started something more active, where I could work with my hands. At that point, I was already working in the kitchen. It was a pizzeria, but still a kitchen, and I kind of liked the whole environment, the late hours and simply the atmosphere. Then I went to Italy where I read an article about a restaurant that had recently opened. Because this restaurant was trying to focus on local products, it really captured my attention. I applied for a traineeship and that was how it all started.
And no regrets so far?
No, no – not at all! This work is not for everyone and I understand that, but I really like it. I had periods when I went to school again, but it was never an option for me. I feel much more comfortable in the kitchen. And now that I have my own restaurant, it is even more fun – to create something culinary but also to build a good workspace. I am happy!
As a chef, there is not much time for leisure. How do you keep your motivation high?
We try to make time for those things as well. We are currently open five days a week and each of my employees gets another day off, so we work four days a week and they are off three days or sometimes even more. I think – and I hope – this is going to be more and more sustainable for the staff working in kitchens. We always talk about sustainable food and products, but I think the focus should also be on the people working today – at least that is what I try to focus more on. Therefore, we try to not only work. If you work five or six days a week, 16 hours every day, by the end of the fourth day your efficiency level is quite low.
What does Koks stand for and how does it relate to your cooking style?
It depends on whom you talk to and what perceptions people have in advance on what cooking is. Some say that it is very creative and maybe it is, but this is not really what we focus on. We want to find out what we have in advance and make it taste good. That is more or less our concept. We keep the set of ingredients simple, because I don’t like to put fifteen different ingredients into the dish. We love to play around with three, four or five products and highlight the quality of the ingredient we are working with.
Given the focus on regional products, are there no limitations that are associated with this?
We work closely with people who provide us with locally grown food, with whom we are in constant interaction. They inform us about what they have in stock and what is coming up in the next months and weeks, and we just work with that. Besides that, we are outdoors picking herbs and seaweeds, especially in summer time. Every year, we learn a little bit more – new ways to cook or new techniques to play around with flavours. For example, we once found a new specific type of seaweed which tasted like truffles after drying. Another type of seaweed had a kind of liquorice flavour. There are always new ways to get various flavours. It is much more interesting and also more fun to work like this. We try to get the best food instead of just offering foie gras and caviar. Although all of these things are tasty, and I really enjoy eating those foods, I don’t think it would be as satisfying for me as it is cooking with these local products. It is more meaningful for me.
The team at Koks is very international – how does this suit the strong regional focus of the Koks?
The techniques are easy to learn but adapting to our kitchen varies from person to person. It is a different way of cooking than in many other places. You always have people who prefer different tastes. But then again, it is also very interesting to have all these international people from different backgrounds that come with various ideas and show how they do things. We take these on and adapt it to our way of cooking or to our philosophy. It is great, I feel very blessed to be working with these people. The team is so young, and it is sometimes really hard to find the staff you need. We get so many applications, but unfortunately, we only have space for a few. I am very happy with the team that we have.
How would you describe the Faroe Islands’ world of taste?
It has strong flavours because we ferment food which produces an intense taste, but it is also because of the natural foods you find here, like sea birds that have a harsh and strong flavour. But then you also have very delicate flavours from the sea, like shellfish and fish. There is not a lot of variety in flavours, but there is variety in the products. Hence, the taste is intense due to the fermenting and delicate due to its freshness. Not a lot of spices are used, in fact, it is not a spicy cuisine.
What are the most important techniques for your cuisine?
The traditional way of fermenting in the Faroe Islands is very simple – we just hang meat and fish out in the natural environment and the natural climate starts the reaction of the fermenting process when the meat is exposed to the bacteria. And this is actually something everyone does here on the islands, not a special thing we are doing. More or less every family is connected to a farmer who ferments for them, or they do it themselves in their own drying houses. There is also a lot of variety and a lot of different opinions on how it should be done and how it should taste. It is similar to wine, basically. Which is very interesting for us, because we buy these products from different islands to retain the different flavours.
How would you describe the change in the taste of meat and fish that has been fermented that way?
It becomes more complex. We usually slaughter the lambs around this time of the year and hang the meat out until Christmas. This meat is really intense, with a deep and full lamb flavour. It is a much deeper flavour than you will find in fresh lamb. It also gets a kind of cheesy note because you have the same bacteria you find in cheese and meat proteins. It burns a little bit on the tongue, like blue cheese, for example. We tend to do this with most of the meat. The legs, which are also wind-dried, receive more nuanced and detailed flavour, not as strong and powerful as the one that has only been hanging for two months, which is a real umami bomb, but you can still taste different flavours in the meat.
And what about the vegetables?
At this time of the year we are more or less 100 per cent self-sustained with vegetables. Our focus is actually less on vegetables, it is more the meat we focus on. But we are now working with some people who are trying to figure out how they can grow different vegetables the best way and expand the season for them. They are working with natural soil and trying to be sustainable. We are also planning to have our own garden at some point. Then we can cultivate all the wild herbs, berries and mushrooms that are on the Faroe Islands ourselves.
Which culinary experience is on your wish list?
Everything! I haven’t been travelling a lot because I have always been working too much for many years. So, there are a lot of places I would like to see! Asia, for instance, especially because of the similarity; they ferment, we ferment. I think there are a lot of things we can learn from them. They are more advanced than we are, including in terms of preserving, such as preserved fish. Their fish sauce, for example, is crazy! Learning new ways of cooking is a never-ending story and we will never learn everything, this is one of the nice things about cooking.
And in what regions other than your homeland could you imagine working as a chef?
Anywhere – I just think it has to make sense. And for me, it doesn’t make sense cooking French or Asian food here. I would really enjoy cooking anywhere in the world with the local products available.
You are currently planning a cooking event in South Korea. Could you tell us a little bit about this event?
I am really looking forward to it, to try out local ingredients and mix them with ours. It is a chef congress in Seoul, where several chefs go on stage, give a demo and present their philosophy. We will have dinners where we will cook together, and we will have solo dinners where we will cook for about fifty people.
This is certainly one of the most interesting things about cooks; that they seem to have a worldwide network and are constantly collaborating and exchanging ideas. What are the places that inspired you most?
The Noma is one of the most inspiring places. What they are doing is stunning and I think they are inspiring the whole world. I remember when their first book came out, I cooked all the dishes from it, which made me feel like I have been working there even though I never actually worked there. Another inspiring place was the Geranium in Copenhagen, where I worked for a couple of months. That experience inspired my way of cooking and running a kitchen. I think those two restaurants have had the greatest influence on me, but I also worked in the Mugaritz in Spain, which was very interesting, too. It was completely different from the other experiences. There are always things to pick up everywhere you go, it doesn’t always have to be fine dining restaurants. If you just keep your eyes open and try to understand what people are doing, then you take bits and pieces from everywhere.
Besides your own restaurant, of course, where did you have your best eating experience?
That is impossible to say. Because you have so many different things that are “the best”, just in different ways. I think eating at Noma is the best in their way, but then again, it was absolutely amazing at De Librije in Zwolle, Holland. The experiences are completely different. It is like two different sports you cannot compare. It is just impossible to answer this question!
In 2016 you were one of the guest chefs at the Ikarus. Tell us about this time, what are the most special memories for you and what was the feedback from the guests?
It was a very interesting experience, we imported a lot of ingredients from the Faroe Islands, such as sea birds and all the fermented foods. But it was also complicated, because our restaurant makes sense on the Faroe Islands. Trying to take our way of cooking to another place is difficult and can easily be misunderstood. And obviously, when you cook with another team, your food will never taste the same. I think it is hard to understand what we are about because it is a complete experience: When you come to the Faroe Islands and you see the mountains, the sea and all the birds, then you will understand where all of this is coming from. Next time, I would maybe try cooking some foods that are a little bit more familiar and then having some other dishes that are completely different. Nevertheless, we had people coming to the Faroe Islands because of their experience at the Ikarus, so I think it was successful.
In 2017, Koks won a Michelin star. What has changed since then, do you feel increased pressure or even more motivation?
We got a lot of bookings, more people applying for internships or jobs and just more attention in general. We are growing every year and we cannot say what part is due to the Michelin star or what would have happened anyway. We are still a small restaurant on the Faroe Islands, the pressure is not as high as it would have been if we were in a bigger city somewhere in Germany, England or France. I don’t feel that people necessarily come to the Koks because of this distinction. Our restaurant is a bit different from what people associate with most Michelin-starred ones. We don’t serve truffles, caviar or other exclusive ingredients and we don’t even have tablecloths. It is much more a casual way of dining and maybe more of an authentic experience and people understand that. You have to walk on the muddy pathway to get to the restaurant. It is a tiny house outside in nature. The ceiling is only 1.80 metres high. It is not too fancy. But we still try to work very professionally, in the kitchen as well as in our service. We have an excellent sommelier from Switzerland, Karin, who is very good at matching wines to the various foods, and she is slowly filling our wine cellar.
What are your goals for the next couple of years? Perhaps a second Michelin star?
Well, if they decide to give us a second Michelin star, I would not complain. We have a very clear vision of what our restaurant should be like and there is still a long way to go. To get this little restaurant that we have right now to the level that we want and to be able to work the way we want, this is what we are focusing on. If people agree on what we do or decide to award us for that with a second Michelin Star, I would be very happy!
POUL ANDRIAS ZISKAV
Poul Andrias is the 28-year-old head chef of the Koks, a Michelin-starred restaurant on the Faroe Islands. Originally from the islands, Poul Andrias returned to the Faroe Islands after having worked in the kitchens of several European restaurants.
Picture credit © Claes Bech-Poulsen