“If I think about some of the best moments of my life, they usually involve sitting around a large table with friends and family, enjoying wonderful food and a nice glass of wine or beer and talking of something important.” – Chef Trina Hahnemann
I am very excited about this interview with Trina Hahnemann, a very popular food writer and celebrity chef in her native Denmark. My mom is Danish so I grew up eating Danish meals like frikadeller, flaeskested, biksemad, pan fried flounder with new potatoes and parsley (in her new cookbook – The Scandinavian Cookbook), agurkesalat, red cabbage and when my mor mor (mother’s mother) was visiting, she would make a huge variety of smorrebrod. Just writing this brings back some great memories. I could go on and on but this interview is about Trina so let me introduce her to you.
Trina Hahnemann, as you will learn in this interview, is self taught. She did not go to formal culinary school but instead trained in literature so she could write novels some day. I read in her bio sent to me by her publisher she started as a caterer to rock stars including Elton John, the Rolling Stones and one of my personal favorite performers, Brue Springsteen. I’m guessing that was an interesting time in her life.
Trina has recently published a stunning cookbook called The Scandinavian Cookbook where she wants to “show the world that Scandinavian cooking has moved on from the old fashioned cookbooks that once represented her native cuisine.”
I have the book and it is beautiful. Not only are Trina’s recipes and stories incredible, the photography by Lars Ranek, one of Scandinavia’s leading food photographers, is breathtaking. Together, this is a cookbook worth adding to your collection.
Here’s my interview with Chef Hahnemann:
I read somewhere you studied literature to become a novelist but decided to get into the culinary industry and start your own catering company. So, what influenced you to make such a dramatic change in career choices?
First of all, lack of finances for continuing my studies, and I had fun while studying cooking at a small cafe. I never thought it was going to be my career, it was always my passion to cook. I collected cookbooks and cooked for my family and friends and for parties.
I am very happy and proud that it has evolved into this, where writing and food melted together for a life long passion. I still want to write a novel one day, hopefully while sitting in Tuscany enjoying the view.
Was there any one person, event or experience that gave you an “ah-ha” moment?
I have loved food all my life, my grandmother influenced me a lot. But I would say I went to boarding school for 1 year when I was 15 and cooked for 100 people everyday, and I more or less took over the kitchen on my teachers recommendation. I loved it, but at that time it never occurred to me that this should be my profession! I am from an academic family, and everybody goes to university. So did I.
Some chefs tell me they were interested in food from a very early age. Was this true for you?
Absolutely, food has always been the highlight of my life. I am always looking forward to the next meal.
In one of our emails, you told me you are a self-taught cook. I think it is amazing that you have had so much success in this industry without attending culinary school. You will be an inspiration to many of my readers. Can you explain some of the ways you taught yourself how to cook?
I grew up in the 60s and 70s…and my parents were hippies/liberals, it was a very free childhood and I was allowed to experiment in the kitchen, even when I cooked the most dreadful meals or cakes, I was encouraged to keep going.
I was taught to cook in boarding school for 100 people, and I learned a lot, because we were on a tight budget. I cooked vegetables and learned Italian recipes from books, and in magazines I looked for cakes. Baked bread was made as much as possible, and was homemade.
After I was married, for 5 years I was a diplomats wife, which meant a lot of dinner parties, which taught me a whole other dimension, but also living abroad gave me access to a greater variety of cooking.
So when I started as a professional, I just started learning as I got along, but of course I have a talent as well as the logistics and the timing. These are important mixed with a great palate and creativity.
I love the atmosphere in the kitchen, I love the busyness, the timing and the teamwork! I do not believe you to have to shout or go crazy to run a smooth kitchen with service on time.
Did you read a lot of cookbooks? If so, which ones would you recommend to someone just starting out cooking?
I used to read cookbooks all the time, now I collect them, but don’t read them as rigorously.
- Frøken Jensen Cookbook
- Joy of Cooking
- The New Basics – Rosso and Lukins
- Mastering Art of French Cooking – Julia Child
- Any of Alice Walter´s books
- Any of Nigel Slater´s books
- Gourmet magazine cookbooks are also excellent all around cookbooks to learn from.
A lot of other books over the years 0307718271
Do you think your career would have been different if you had gone to culinary school?
Yes, I would not have learned so much about world cuisine and spices, and you learn so much from your mistakes as you go along, I do not think that mistakes are seen as part of the creative process in culinary school.
What advice would you offer a young person interested in getting into the culinary industry?
There are two ways, either you start in a kitchen or at culinary school. But the most important thing to becoming a good chef, is traveling, curiosity, never thinking you know the truth, trying to work with a lot of different chefs, learning many ways of cooking, then finding your own style, but still being open. You will never be done experiencing new ways of cooking..
Eat, eat, eat and use your senses..
There are so many culinary schools popping up everywhere in the United States. Is this a trend you find in Denmark as well?
In Denmark becoming a chef is a state run education. It is a 4 year apprenticeship in a restaurant or catering company, etc…where you get paid, not a huge salary, but student pay. Then you attend school for 10 weeks every year, after 4 years you take an exam.
If so, is there one culinary school that stands out more than the others?
No, because the system is so different, it depends on the restaurant, the better the restaurant, the better career you will have. So getting into Noma or another Michelin restaurant will turn you into a high profile chef. So we look for where people are educated and where they have worked.
So many of my readers, including myself, would like to be better home cooks. I’ve read you are the person who is teaching the Danes how to cook and eat better so I was hoping you could share some of your cooking philosophy with my readers.
Spending time in the kitchen is important, go to farmers markets and get inspired, always have a well stocked pantry with basic ingredients, so you get inspired when you open it.
Be creative and curious and never give up and do not be afraid of mistakes, that’s what you learn from. You might invent new and better recipes.
Until you get really good at the basics, read cookbooks, but read the whole recipe before starting. Try as many different world cuisines, that will give knowledge of different ingredients and spices. Attend cooking class and learn all the tricks and tips.
Do you ever hear your readers complain about feeling stuck in the kitchen and how they fall back on the same 4 or 5 “safe” recipes they feel comfortable with? What advice do you give to them?
Planning is important. Make a 2 weeks list of recipes you want to do, and then another 2 weeks, after a couple of weeks you have been around lots of new ideas and some of them will stick and become part of your repertoire.
You can also look at what you eat most, like minced meat, chicken, pork, and start making variations, adding new vegetables, spices and cooking methods. But planning is crucial because otherwise you end up in the same place every time. Take time doing it, new recipes can add 10 to 15 minutes more.
Let’s talk about your new cookbook, The Scandinavian Cookbook. I’m sure you are asked this a lot, but what was the inspiration behind it?
I wanted to show the world that Scandinavian food is so much more than smoked salmon and herring. A modern version of the way we eat. With beautiful produce, lots of healthy bread and vegetables and then all the wonderful traditions in a new light. A cookbook from my landscape.
I love the way you divided the book up by the months of the year. Can you talk a little about what it is like to be a home cook during the winter months when there is hardly any sunlight?
Seasons are short here in Scandinavia and therefore month by month made more sense to me. I love winter and in Denmark we have sunlight between 8-9 am to 3-4 pm, the higher up North you get, the more the light disappears.
I love this time of year. It means layer of clothes, lit candles and time to be cozy, lots of soup, roast, stews and home baked cakes. We have a saying in Danish: It is very “Hyggeligt” which what it is. I also entertain more in the winter time, somehow.
How does the cuisine change?
It changes with what is available. I mean winter time is about root vegetables, kale and lots of grain and potatoes in 100 different ways. In the morning, porridge to get you going and lots of coffee and other hot drinks.
You say in your introduction, “If I think about some of the best moments of my life, they usually involve sitting around a large table with friends and family, enjoying wonderful food and a nice glass of wine or beer and talking of something important.”
I remember as a young boy my grandmother making us Aebleskiver. In fact, I think the first time I had them was when we were visiting her in Denmark and we went to this amusement park called Bakken. There was a stand selling them and my mom showed us how to dip them in powdered sugar and then a little strawberry jam.
My wife bought me an Aebleskiver pan for Christmas a few years ago and it is now a standard Sunday morning breakfast treat for our kids. I bring this up because your new cookbook is filled with your memories growing up eating Danish foods.
I have only been to Denmark twice but some of my fondest and most distinct memories are from meals we shared there, and I’m talking about from the age of 10: eating Smørrebrød with my mormor in Tivoli gardens, freshly killed chickens with my great aunt and uncle in Odense where Hans Christian Andersen was born, and Polser (Danish hot dogs) on the streets of Copenhagen. When I went back as a college student, I remember long meals with plenty of Danish beer and Akvavit (a strong liquor popular in Scandinavia) and then some singing and lots of laughs.
So, how important is the food culture to Danes today and are they still handing down traditional recipes to the younger generations?
I think it is a lovely story you’re telling and so very Danish. Yes, sitting around the table and sharing meals are still a very big part of the Danish culture.
I would say that right now there is a food revolution, where a lot of produce are coming out from small farms and we see lots of new cheese, “Pølser”, beer and lots of other things so it is very exciting!
The traditional recipes are popular still, I mean Pan fried pork belly with parsley sauce and potatoes can still make a young man happy. I think also, the young generation are understanding the new more modern style, which is healthy, with less gravy and more vegetables.
By the way, in America, there seems to be more stay-at-home dads like myself who are doing more and more of the cooking. Is this happening in Denmark as well?
I think sharing the family chores and the upbringing of children is 50/50 here, but we have state run nurseries and kindergarten, where you have a spot for your child after they turn 1 year. So both parents work here, taxes are really high so to live on 1 income is more or less impossible.
Both parents work and share the family duties and joy of course. Maternity leave is 1 year and are often shared, but women tend to get most out of it………
It says on the inside front cover jacket, The Scandinavian Cookbook is a “modern version of Scandinavian home cooking” and that begs the question, what is modern Scandinavian cooking and how does to differ from traditional Scandinavian cooking?
It has more influence from outside, more spices , olive oil and more vegetables and less gravy, because all food cultures evolve from being influenced by people from the outside.
Is there much difference between traditional Danish cooking when compared to Swedish and Norwegian cuisine? If so, can you explain some of the differences?
Yes, there are regional differences and then there are differences between city and country. There are differences between generations. We eat different rye bread, they eat more “knækkebrød” in Sweden. We have similar dishes but then they are twisted according to local tradition.
I think Norway still have the most traditional food. Sweden has quite a sweet taste, but all countries also have the top restaurant food that can compete with best in the world.
Are some ingredients more common with one country’s cuisine than the others?
The more north you get it changes, Sweden has more blueberries, cloudberries and chanterelles. Norway makes the most cheese, “Muse” cheese and brown goat milk cheese. There are lots of things I could mention. There is general tendencies that come from the landscape and then regional differences, but we all eat herrings, salmon, cod, pork and berries and we mix fruit and berries with savory dishes, to mention some the things we have in common.
I remember as a young boy picking fresh strawberries from my grandmother’s garden. She would wash them and then cut them in half and serve them in a bowl of fresh cream with a little sugar on top. I can still taste them today when I think about them. What are some of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why?
Those are the best strawberries in world, therefore I never eat out of season….
List will be long but I love: cured salmon, asparagus, kale, beets, celery, tarragon, chive and thyme, mackerel, new potatoes in the summer, the smoked Danish cheese, marzipan, rye bread(I can´t live without it).
I can not choose…… I love food, I cook soup, fish, lamb and lots of kale and root vegetables at the moment, it change all the time. I eat rye bread everyday for lunch with herring at the moment and hard boiled eggs, then I get tired of that and change.
Winter mornings I eat porridge with apples and nuts and drink black tea.
On the weekend, I cooked a spice lamb stew with a lot of root vegetables in it, we have a kale salad and rye foccacia with it.
I love fish cakes and seafood is one of my favorite, but that is also very seasonal! I also love Indian, Thai and Italian food, so I can never answer those questions, because I love food and it is my life.
Thank you Trina for doing this interview. I am so excited to start preparing some of your recipes from The Scandinavian Cookbook.
In fact, I would like to post your recipe for Pan-fried Flounder with Potatoes in Parsley on my blog. This is one of the meals I remember as a child my mom would make on Fridays. I’m sure everyone will enjoy it too