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Mads Refslund on Acme, New York, and Future Plans

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Photo: Daniel Krieger

Less than a year ago, the team behind Indochine took over the Acme space on Great Jones Street and revamped it as a clubby, bustling brasserie. The hype, interestingly, didn't seem to hit full-speed until after the place opened. Most early visitors admired the space's new energy, with some even likening the scene and setting to Balthazar, but few knew that quietly, in the back, one of the guys who opened the top-ranked restaurant in the world, Noma, was responsible for Acme's surprisingly good food. Word soon got out about Mads Refslund's curious first try at New York, and the reviews that followed were largely very positive. In his two-star review of the restaurant, Times critic Pete Wells accurately summed it all up: "There were no trumpets playing when Mr. Refslund landed, but you can hear them now, and they're going to get louder." In the following interview, Refslund talks about his decision to leave Denmark, how he's adapted his cooking to the city and the Acme space, and his desire to open up a fine dining restaurant on his own.

Why did you decide to leave Copenhagen?
Why I left Denmark is a good question! In 2010, I closed my restaurant MR and did a lot of traveling. I was talking about Nordic cuisine around the world, and then I came here, to New York, and realized I wanted to start a new chapter. I wanted to try something else.

I was very close to opening a new restaurant in Denmark. I had bought a piece of land with a good friend, where we were growing vegetables. I really enjoyed that, but I came here and saw that I had the opportunity to open Acme with these guys.

How did you meet the guys from Indochine?
They found out about my involvement with Noma, the Michelin star I got at my restaurant, and they became interested. They convinced me to be a consultant at this restaurant. Looking back, it's been one year! I know that it's totally different from Copenhagen. That's very exciting, since it's new to me. I needed to learn where to get the vegetables. Everything is new. It's like being in kindergarten. I don't even know the streets yet! I don't know that many people.

After one year, it feels like I've moved up to first grade.

Are you still consulting chef, or has it gotten more involved?
Yeah, I'm consulting chef but also kind of executive chef.

Do you want to dive deeper into Acme or do you want your own place?
I think everyone knows that I will at some point leave, because I need to have my own restaurant. I can see myself being involved with this restaurant for a while, but I think most people that know me know that I want to go back to fine dining.

Has this been a positive experience for you, though?
Yes. I'm enjoying it. It's fun. There's good flavor, and I'm learning a lot. New York is about numbers, about volume, but it's also about having a good time. When you go out, it's not just about the food in a lot of cases. It's more edgy and loose, and I enjoy that. I'm not saying that there are more mistakes or anything, but it's that we can relax a bit more here.

What would you call the food here? Would it be accurate to call it New Nordic, as some have?
It's not New Nordic. It's more family-style and focused on flavor. New Nordic for me is more a way of thinking: let it be simple, let it be clean, don't mess with things too much. Also, be proud of who you are and where you come from, and tell a story about that. That, for me, is Nordic cuisine.

So, in a way, some of that applies to what you're doing here?
I'm not necessarily running from that. I'm learning a lot about ancient traditions here, or at least older traditions, and foraging a lot and finding out about vegetation in this region. That is helping me understand American food.

There's a club downstairs. This is a fairly large, sceney space. Does that bother you? Do you feel limited by it?
In the beginning, it was a bit hard for me to adapt to that and accept it. It was difficult. I can't lie about that. But I've embraced it in a way. I want to make people happy, and I think we've been successful in that. I still want to make people happy in my next venture, but it will be in a more fine dining way.

You know, it would have been silly for me to come to this country and open my own restaurant without knowing anything. Six months in, I'd probably have gotten homesick, not known what to do, and left. I'm very grateful for this opportunity.

You had a nice net.
Yeah, like a jumping off point, though I can see myself being involved for quite some time in the future. I know for sure that I don't want to let this go now and I don't yet know when I will open my own place.

What's your dream for the next restaurant?
I have a lot of dreams! Before I was thirty, I wanted to have my own place and a Michelin star, and I was able to get that. Now, the new dream is to have two Michelin stars and more than one restaurant. Also, I want a comfy life where I can take care of family. My dreams aren't changing too much, I don't think, but they are just progressing as I get older. But I will tell you that I want a place that is foodie, in a way, but also for everyone.

And it would have to be in New York?
Yes, I have to try it.

Do you feel at home?
Not quite yet.

I miss family and I miss friends, and it's been one year. I certainly feel more at home than the beginning.

But you've managed to do well and make a lot of friends in the community of chefs, right?
Yes, but it's not childhood friends. That's a different story. I'm very happy with the people that I've met and I've been lucky to surround myself with. There are people I can count on, and that is wonderful.

I want to finish by asking you about your experience at Noma. How did it feel when you and René opened the place?
We knew at that beginning that we were part of something special. We could feel it. The whole thing was different — it had a different vibe. We were shaping it together. It was great knowing that it was going to grow.

Then why leave?
René and I were just too different. Maybe I was not ready for such a big venture, I don't know.

It sounds like you wanted to have something of your own.
Yeah, in a way. We knew each other for so many years, were very best friends, lived together in my tiny apartment. We shared a lot of things, but when we started to work together, it changed things. We realized that we were different people in the kitchen and different people in real life. That's why we love each other so much. I honestly don't know if Noma could be as big if I had stayed, but I'm confident that everything happens for a reason. I would have never come to New York and I would have never learned and seen all of these things.

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