Less than a week ago, chef Daniel Burns, 38, and noted brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, 37, opened the doors to Tørst, an ambitious Nordic-influenced beer destination in Greenpoint. At the moment, the space serves as a craft beer bar with 21 temperature-controlled taps. The draught system they've put in place uses a "flux capacitor" that lets the bartenders adjust the nitrogen and carbon dioxide mixes of specific beers. Each tap handle is painted the color of the beer it serves. Come May, the second part of the concept, a 26-seat restaurant, will open in the back of the space. There, Burns will finally have his own kitchen after years spent working in some of the world's most influential restaurants. In the following interview, Burns and Jarnit-Bjergsø talk about how they met, how they view the Nordic craze, and their plans for the bar and restaurant.
How did you guys meet?
Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø: I was in Denmark a year ago, doing my thing with beer and also helping Noma put together their beer menu. When I got my visa and told the Noma team I was leaving, they said that if I should ever run into Daniel Burns, I should say hello.
Daniel Burns: Yeah, that's never gonna happen!
JJ-B: Exactly. But it didn't take long until we ran into each other and got to talking. It was three weeks in and I was doing a beer tasting for which Daniel did the snacks and food. We ended up working on a project for Momofuku in Toronto, and it was through that that we became good friends.
JJ-B: I had been looking for a project for a long time in New York City. Originally I just wanted to do a beer bar, no kitchen, and then we found that space in Greenpoint with a full kitchen and decided I could consult on Daniel's project.
DB: It's where I live. It's maybe slightly off the beaten path, but I love it. We talked about going into a neighborhood that was already really developed or going into a new location that really can make an impact in the neighborhood.
Daniel, let's go back a bit and talk about your cooking career beyond the simple fact that you've been associated with places like Noma and The Fat Duck.
DB: Basically, I grew up in Halifax and did university. I did math and philosophy and realized I wasn't going to be a professor or teach high school math. Maybe I could have been one of those guys scraping by, getting a math PhD. At the end of that, I thought about cooking and moved to Vancouver to pursue it.
So, I did my apprenticeship there, went to Toronto after, and then moved to Europe. I did one-week stages at Le Manoir Aux Quatre Saisons, St. John, and Fat Duck, and then ended up getting a job at Fat Duck. I actually was the first person to ever get a work permit set up by that restaurant. The job was in the pastry section, which was amazing.
DB: It's way different from any normal pastry station, and applying a savory palate to that work is interesting. People say the Fat Duck doesn't change much, but the pastry chef James "Jocky" Petrie really pushed the envelope. Under him, the pastry section went from three to 12 people and it made about four additions to the menu in a period when the savory didn't change. After Fat Duck, I shifted and worked super savory at St. John, cooking chitterlings and stuff like that. Then, it was Noma, where I worked as pastry chef. They didn't really have a dedicated pastry section, and that was starting to change.
I got to see the big changes there, so it was incredible. When I started it was still just three or four courses, empty tables at lunch, and then there was the transformation. I saw it go from number 33 to number three on the World's 50 Best List.
And then Momofuku?
DB: Yeah, I met Dave when they did the first Cook It Raw in Copenhagen.
It's funny that working at some of those restaurants can actually occasionally have a bad connotation, since so many people seem to exaggerate the amount of work they put in there. But you were at these places for a while.
DB: The best part about having worked at those places is the idea that I've been around people that want to make food at a very high level. That base level of quality and consistency is hopefully ingrained in me.
Has every single one of those experiences had an impact?
DB: Yes, definitely. You'll even see it in the way you cook at home. If you spend enough time, you really get affected.
So, give me the pitch on Tørst. And how do you pronounce it?
JJ-B: It sounds like "Thirst." So, we're opening the bar initially with some small snacks. The restaurant will be a second phase, opening at some point in May.
Do you see the bar as being more important?
JJ-B: I think it's going to end up being focused equally on both.
Daniel, what do you have in mind for the restaurant in the back? Is it fair to call it Nordic in style?
DB: The restaurant is going to be 26 seats. There'll be one tasting menu with five courses. We're keeping Scandinavian aspects of the project — that'll shine through in the food, since I want to play off of my experiences in Europe.
JJ-B: Even though we didn't meet in Denmark, it's in many ways Denmark that brought me and Daniel together. We're quite proud and fond of it. It's not just to ride the Nordic wave.
DB: At the same time, I don't want the food to be totally Nordic and say that it's going to be that full throttle.
How do you feel about that whole Scandinavian phenomenon?
JJ-B: I like to say, and this is just my personal opinion, that I'm proud of Noma's impact and of my time there, but you can see how some people have taken the influence too much.
DB: Yeah, I'm not doing that! [laughs]
Elaborate on that.
DB: Working there and staging there — it's just such a unique way to plate food. You really have to learn that and get used to it, and I in many ways will have to unlearn it here. I don't want to plate in that style. A lot of people just go straight into doing that. Even in Copenhagen, you'll find two or three other restaurants that do the potted plant dish from Noma. Is it possible that you could go to those places and then go to Noma and think they copied everyone else?!
Do you have a price point or reservation policy already in mind?
DB: We've yet to determine it, but the five-course menu will be between $55 and $60, with a beer pairing around $35. The reservations will be done by phone and through our website.
And you will only offer beer?
JJ-B: Yes, we're going to do only beer pairings. No wine. It is going to be a high-end beer restaurant. We see, more and more, that restaurants in the U.S. are trying to emphasize beer. But no one has taken the leap and decided to do only beer. We love wine, but we want to try to tell people that beer can pair with food just as well.
DB: Of course, I won't be making food with beer and stuff like that.
JJ-B: We actually get that question a lot, which shows that the relationship between beer and food is a little behind. But we aren't going to let the beer dictate what the food is. Daniel will make something, and then we will figure out what goes with it. And every time we add dishes or change the menu, we want to bring in friends and experts to make sure we are making the right choices as far as the food and the pairings.
Do you want it to be bustling or mellow?
DB: I would say more on the mellow side. No crazy loud music.
JJ-B: It's gonna be rare music! I'm dead serious. We are very detail-oriented. The guy who did our draught system says this is the most complex one he has ever done. We flew in a guy from California who has a couple of bars and he does his own draught system called the Flux Capacitor.
It's crazy. We can do many different temperatures, which is unique in the U.S. You can mix gases on each line so that you can adapt to each beer and serve them perfectly. There are twenty-one taps and like 200 bottles. That's a good starting point, I think.
How do you think you'll distinguish yourself from other beer bars, like Spuyten Duyvil?
JJ-B: This is going to be a different customer base. I think we are going to cater more to beer geeks from all over the world. There are already people who are coming in from Denmark to try it. I hope this becomes a destination for that kind of thing. We're going to have beer that I brew, that our friends make — things you cannot get anywhere else.
I see a lot of hardcore beer geeks coming in, and we have to have the kind of staff that can have conversations and really know what they are talking about.
But what about people who don't know that much about beer? Do you think they'll be intimidated?
JJ-B: Not at all. No, no, no. We want to talk to them and work through it so they get something that's to their liking, and also to introduce some interesting, fun things to them.
In the time that I've been doing this, I've realized that you can pretty much always find a beer that someone likes. Everyone is welcome. I don't want to come off wrong saying this, but we'd also like some bit of education to be a byproduct of what we do. We want to show people everything that's available.
Finally, what are the challenges to working together. You both probably have strong opinions and goals for the place, and they might not always go together.
DB: Not always, but it's been pretty smooth. Maybe that'll change down the road! [laughs]
JJ-B: I think the key is that we both believe in what each other is doing. I know what Daniel does and I believe in that, and I hope he feels the same with regards to me.