Mette Helbæk: ‘We have a basic human need to connect’

Minimalism permeates Nordic culture, from design to small talk to food. But what is it about such simple cuisine that keeps Nordic restaurants fully booked? Star Danish chef Mette Helbæk tells The Local about simplicity, sustainability, and the beauty of scarcity.

Mette Helbæk: ‘We have a basic human need to connect'
Mette Helbæk. Photo: Line Thit Klein

Stedsans ØsterGro is one of the trendiest restaurants in Copenhagen, with seats sold out months in advance.

But Mette Helbæk, who founded the restaurant along with her husband, also likes to think of it as a “social experiment”.

“All of the guests sit together at one long table, and I tell them it’s their responsibility to give back more than they take,” Mette says. “They pour the wine themselves, and food is served family-style, on trays. So even though they don’t know each other, they have to interact and help each other.”

Sharing and “giving back” are concepts which are deeply embedded in every aspect of her restaurant. It shares a location with Østergro, a 600-square metre urban rooftop garden where organic produce grows right in the middle of Copenhagen.

“The rooftop farm gives square metres back to nature, metres we took when we built our cities,” she explains. “We don’t actually use the crops from this garden, but we do use only ingredients from farmers who care about building up top soil and giving back more to the earth than they take. And the guests have to share food and wine and tell strangers their names – and that’s not very Nordic!”

Mette and her husband Flemming have been running Stedsans for about five years now, in various locations.

Mette and Fleming at work. Photo: Sharon Radish

Mette studied sociology and communications at university, but she was always drawn to food.

“I got my degree, but I loved cooking way more than sitting in front of a computer,” she says.

'I'm a very impatient person'

Her journey has made her a jack of all food trades, and she has run restaurants, had a famous little vegetable shop which was the first in Europe to sell only produce straight from local farmers, has written cookbooks, and worked as a food critic.

She confesses it’s less ambition and more restlessness that keeps her on the move.

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“I’m always on the run for something better,” she says. “I’m a very impatient person and it’s hard for me to slow down and stay somewhere too long.”

Her goal is to find somewhere she really wants to stay. Somewhere peaceful and nurturing.

Perhaps someplace like Østergro, where the couple found “home” for their sustainable restaurant concept in 2014.  

“I always wanted to have a restaurant at a place that really reflected the way I cook. So when we heard about the rooftop farm – the first in Scandinavia – I told Flemming, ‘This is it. This is where I want to show my food to the world. Here in these fields, with people sitting in this greenhouse in the middle of the city.’”

Photo: Irina Boersma

So that’s exactly what they did. The couple asked the rooftop farmers if they could build a small restaurant in the greenhouse.

“And luckily they said yes! We opened a tiny little kitchen with tiny gas burners and one tiny little oven the first season,” Mette recalls. “And people started coming from all around the world.”

A night to remember

The restaurant is only open four days a week, and seats at the single, long table are limited.

But for those who secure a spot, it’s a night to remember.

“We start preparing around 2pm and the first guests come around 5,” Mette says.

“We start early because we want the ingredients to stay as vital and fresh as possible. Then I welcome the guests, tell them about the farm, how we work, and other things they should know. And we share and have a great time.”

Photo: Irina Boersma

Most nights she doesn’t go home until midnight, but by the end, all of the guests have left with happy, healthy bellies and plenty of new friends.

“It’s beautiful,” Mette says. “The setting really creates magic. You’re surrounded by plants, which make you release dopamine, and we get to share with each other. We have this basic human need for connecting with others, and it makes us happy. And sharing makes us happy.”

Photo: Charlotte Dupont

And while the social part of it may not be very typically Nordic, the food certainly is.

“Every week we sit down and make a new menu based on what’s available and what’s in season,” Mette says. “We call the farmers, we go to the beach, we walk outside and see what’s around. And we write all these amazing ingredients on a bucket list of sorts – we think, ‘Which of these can we simply not leave out?’”

The key to Nordic cooking

It’s more a process of selection than a process of elimination, as they try to keep each dish remarkably simple.

“The menu is basically just a list of the ingredients. Sometimes a dish only has four ingredients. It’s a minimalist way of cooking, like our furniture and clothing. My food is about showcasing the beauty in everything Mother Nature has to offer us,” she says. “We have six courses of very simple food and everyone gets the same thing.”

Photo: Irina Boersma

That type of minimalism, placing the highest value on the ingredients themselves rather than fancy recipes and glitzy restaurant interiors, is the heart of Nordic cuisine.

“I think that Nordic cooking is very much about the ingredients, and about looking outside, feeling, thinking, and creating a dish that makes you feel good,” Mette muses.

And the lack of options for much of the year is a critical part of that.

“Scarcity is always a very present part of the way we cook – and the way we live,” she explains. “We try not to use it all at once.”

She says that long, dark winters and short, bright summers teach people in the Nordic not to waste things all at once, but to find the truly important things and focus on those.

“It affects our lives, our food, our furniture, our clothing. We don’t give too much of ourselves as human beings. And you see this at many Nordic restaurants: They might have very little, but they’re good at showing it. We have something, small but wonderful, and we’re proud of it and we want to share it with you.”

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This article was produced by The Local and sponsored by the Nordic Council of Ministers.



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The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager’s dream

Although parts of Sweden are still under snow at this time of year, spring is in full swing here in Skåne in the south of Sweden. Here are The Local's top tips for what you can forage in the great outdoors this season.

The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager's dream

You might already have your go-to svampställe where you forage mushrooms in autumn, but mushrooms aren’t the only thing you can forage in Sweden. The season for fruits and berries hasn’t quite started yet, but there is a wide range of produce on offer if you know where to look.

Obviously, all of these plants grow in the wild, meaning it’s a good idea to wash them thoroughly before you use them. You should also be respectful of nature and of other would-be foragers when you’re out foraging, and make sure not to take more than your fair share to ensure there’s enough for everyone.

As with all foraged foods, only pick and eat what you know. The plants in this guide do not look similar to any poisonous plants, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry – or ask someone who knows for help.

Additionally, avoid foraging plants close to the roadside or in other areas which could be more polluted. If you haven’t tried any of these plants before, start in small doses to make sure you don’t react negatively to them.

Wild garlic plants in a park in Alnarpsparken, Skåne. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Wild garlic

These pungent green leaves are just starting to pop up in shady wooded areas, and may even hang around as late as June in some areas. Wild garlic or ramsons, known as ramslök in Swedish, smell strongly of garlic and have wide, flat, pointed leaves which grow low to the ground.

The whole plant is edible: leaves, flowers and the bulbs underground – although try not to harvest too many bulbs or the plants won’t grow back next year.

The leaves have a very strong garlic taste which gets weaker once cooked. Common recipes for wild garlic include pesto and herb butter or herbed oil, but it can generally be used instead of traditional garlic in most recipes. If you’re cooking wild garlic, add it to the dish at the last possible moment so it still retains some flavour.

You can also preserve the flower buds and seed capsules as wild garlic capers, known as ramslökskapris in Swedish, which will then keep for up to a year.

Stinging nettles. Wear gloves when harvesting these to protect yourself from their needles. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Stinging nettles

Brännässlor or stinging nettles need to be cooked before eating to remove their sting, although blanching them for a couple of seconds in boiling water should do the trick. For the same reason, make sure you wear good gardening gloves when you pick them so you don’t get stung.

Nettles often grow in the same conditions as wild garlic – shady woodlands, and are often regarded as weeds.

The younger leaves are best – they can get stringy and tough as they get older.

A very traditional use for brännässlor in Sweden is nässelsoppa, a bright green soup made from blanched nettles, often topped with a boiled or poached egg.

Some Swedes may also remember eating stuvade nässlor with salmon around Easter, where the nettles are cooked with cream, butter and milk. If you can’t get hold of nettles, they can be replaced with spinach for a similar result.

You can also dry nettles and use them to make tea, or use blanched nettles to make nettle pesto.

Kirskål or ground elder, another popular foraged green for this time of year.
Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Ground elder

Ground elder is known as kirskål in Swedish, and can be used much in the same way as spinach. It also grows in shady areas, and is an invasive species, meaning that you shouldn’t be too worried about foraging too much of it (you might even find some in your garden!).

It is quite common in parks and old gardens, but can also be found in wooded areas. The stems and older leaves can be bitter, so try to focus on foraging the tender, younger leaves.

Ground elder has been cultivated in Sweden since at least 500BC, and has been historically used as a medicinal herb and as a vegetable. This is one of the reasons it can be found in old gardens near Swedish castles or country homes, as it was grown for use in cooking.

Kirskål is available from March to September, although it is best eaten earlier in the season.

As mentioned, ground elder can replace spinach in many recipes – you could also use it for pesto, in a quiche or salad, or to make ground elder soup.