Having dinner at Stedsans in Copenhagen is an adventure from the very beginning. After a 20-minute bicycle ride from the city’s center to Østerbro, you’ll find yourself in front a fitness center. Then you’ll climb up a steep spiral fire escape at the side of the building and suddenly, you arrive at a green oasis with a view over the city, Scandinavia’s first rooftop farm and urban garden ØsterGRO. After a short walk through the garden, you’ll find Stedsans, a unique restaurant on a roof located in a greenhouse.
Owned by food writer Mette Helbæk and chef Flemming Schiøtt Hansen, their mission is to serve food that is “clean, simple and local”. Stedsans, which refers to the idea of ‘a sense of place’ in Danish, has a menu that focuses on plants and vegetables from organic farmers in the region. While the menu changes every week, the five courses are always served ‘family-style’ at a large communal table. Guests sit quite close to each other to share both food and stories in a cozy setting the Danes call ‘hyggelig’. Not only that, the restaurant also makes sustainability a priority. There is a bee farm, chicken coop and a self-built wooden kitchen.
The restaurant only opened early this summer and already has a long waiting list. We accompanied Helbæk to see what it’s like to prepare dinner at the whimsical rooftop restaurant and chatted about the restaurant’s sudden success as well as how appreciating good food can bring people closer to nature.
How did you come up with the idea for Stedsans?
Mette Helbæk: The garden started as community-supported agriculture, where members pay for the food being produced, and was founded one year ago by Kristian Skaarup and Liva Haaland. At the beginning of the season, locals pay the farmers to plant and buy seeds as well as the gardeners to take care of this place. Then people come here to pick up the boxes full of vegetables and took them home to make something nice out of it in their own kitchens – that’s what the farmers called ‘ØsterGRO’. We rented this space and use it as our restaurant ‘Stedsans’ from Thursday to Sunday every week during the season, which is from May to October. And we just started out this year, so the farm is one year older than the restaurant.
Back then, we had another place where we were having big parties and also had a small restaurant, which was only open once a week but is now closed. But we already knew these people and we had been talking about a place like this forever. Flemming wanted to have his own urban garden, I wanted to have a restaurant in a greenhouse ever since I first saw and heard about Petersham Nurseries near London. As a food writer, I’m always working with vegetables, writing cookbooks and magazine articles about everything Nordic and that has to do with vegetables. I like life, I like plants and I like what nature does when it works its magic. I like noticing it and presenting it to people and I like when people become aware of what’s happening in the soil.
So the people from ØsterGRO asked us to do the opening reception and we did some dinners up here in 2014. Then suddenly, we lost the contract for the place we had before and had no restaurant anymore. We had nowhere to work our magic. So we were like, ‘What now?’ We went to talk to the people here and they were like, ‘Yeah, sure, let’s open up a restaurant!’ and a few months later, we opened. Since day three, we’ve been completely booked.
Did you expect this huge success from the beginning?
Mette Helbæk: Yes, I did expect it, but I didn’t expect it to be this crazy, because people fly in here from all over the world to eat. They go to Noma for lunch and then they go here for dinner and it’s really simple food that we serve. But I did expect it to draw some attention, because I have been noticing how everything ‘alive‘ is very trendy at the moment. You see a lot of whole plants on the plates in restaurants like at Noma, Geranium and those high-end places. You also see a lot of references to nature, for example, fermented food, which is basically still alive. Also in interior decoration, you see a lot of hanging plants, gardens and porches. So yes, I knew this place was going get some attention, but we’re quite surprised, humbled and just overwhelmed that people are so interested in what we do.
Did you grow up in an area surrounded by local food?
Mette Helbæk: I grew up 100 kilometers out west on the coast of Denmark. It’s an hour by car from here, but it’s a different world. Back then, it was normal to grow a garden, it wasn’t trendy. It was just what people did because they didn’t have any money. So of course you would grow your own potatoes, because otherwise you would have to buy it in a store – it was really a money-issue back then. Now, it’s a luxury to spend time in a garden, because we don’t have so much time anymore with all our tablets and iPhones and Instagram accounts to take care of. The little time we have left is really valuable, that’s why it’s becoming something extraordinary when you’re in a garden like this where you can see that you put so much time into making this garden. Everyone who has a garden knows that this is really a project that has taken a lot of hard work to create.
Speaking of Instagram, you also have a account for the restaurant. Would you say that social media has helped to spread the word?
Mette Helbæk: Instagram has been amazing for this place. I started working in the restaurant business as a chef when I was quite young, but in the meantime, I also did a Master’s degree in communications (laughs). So I’ve been using this knowledge a lot for this project and I knew from the beginning it was going to be something that Instagrammers would like. I have been using our Instagram account a lot to draw attention to the place and it has been our main marketing tool. People have come here by themselves, but right at the beginning, in the first few weeks after our opening, I was inviting Instagram users, which is of course one of the reasons why everybody now knows about it, because it’s just very photogenic.
Marketing aside, when people come here, I think they feel this very special atmosphere. Some people even say it changed their life to come here – they say that they were feeling so calm up here that they wanted that feeling to never end and thought, ‘Maybe I should change my life, so I can have more of this.’ When you go up those stairs and enter this space, I think it’s the plants that are doing it. They’re creating some special energy that makes people feel good. A lot of people today have a very strong urge to get closer to nature, because we’ve gone too far away from it. And then, when you see things like that on Instagram, for example, a lot of people can feel that it touches something inside of them. When they come here, they get this special feeling of being connected to something bigger than themselves. I think that’s one part of our success.
What’s the inspiration behind your dishes?
Mette Helbæk: I’ve been working as a food writer for five years and my style is to do simple things. I’m inspired by the Italian kitchen, where you take few, but very good ingredients. That’s basically what I do. We use things that just came out of the soil, we get it from local farmers as close to the harvest time as we can. We don’t want to spoil these amazing ingredients by doing too much with them and we don’t want to add too much. Most of the work happens in the soil. We want to enhance it by adding the right amount of heat, salt and pepper and stuff like that. The ingredients have to stand for themselves, there shouldn’t be too much us. Our kitchen is almost like the ones you see in China or India, just really basic. We don’t use any equipment, we don’t even have a blender – a little fire, an oven, chopping board, knives and spoons for tasting, whether the food is nice.
In general, what does food mean to you?
Mette Helbæk: Food is about life. When we eat, we take life, but we also create more life. It’s just a natural cycle of how things work. In the world, we have a certain amount of molecules to distribute between people, plants, soil, but also objects, and we have to do it with respect. We have to take good care of ourselves and our bodies as well as the people and living beings that surround us. For me, food is not just about pleasure, it’s a lot more than that. That said, pleasure is an extremely important part of eating. You can’t have sustainability without happiness and pleasure, it goes hand in hand. That’s also what we want to show here – it’s possible to serve food that’s good for you, makes people feel good and doesn’t harm the soil or the environment…
Is it also your goal to educate people?
Mette Helbæk: It is. When people come up here, they get reminded that food is actually something that grows. Sometimes, it’s just hard to remember this when you go to the supermarket. That’s where so much of the lack of respect towards food comes from. That’s why we throw out so much and don’t cook meals anymore, because it doesn’t have anything to do with our lives anymore. We want people to be in an environment where they can see that it does matter what they eat and that they’re part of a bigger thing.
BABA GHANOUSH RECIPE
Ingredients (serves 4):
1-2 cloves garlic
peel of 1 lemon
to serve: boiled potatoes, red currant, cilantro
Grill the eggplants over open fire until they are soft. Yes, they will be all black and charred, that’s where the smokey taste comes from. Remove skin and stems. Put the ‘meat’ of the eggplants in a strainer for a couple of hours. Add lots of olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, lemon peel and tear the eggplant apart using your hands or two forks. Leave to marinate for 1-2 hours. Serve with toppings.
Stedsans på ØsterGRO
Æbeløgade 4, 2100 Copenhagen Ø
Thu-Sun 17.30 and 20.15
May – October