You can compare the atmosphere in a busy kitchen to the mood before an important bike race. Everyone is focused, working at their peak, in the knowledge that soon their efforts will be put to the test. Attention to detail is essential, everything must be 100 per cent in order.
This kitchen is indeed busy. Restaurant Frederikshøj just reopened after months in lockdown and for the launch, guests will be presented with 16 unique dishes and an accompanying wine menu. A meal worthy of a Michelin star.
The opening, however, is nine hours away and we are not here to taste the food, but to ride with the boss, Wassim Hallal. He has found us a couple of hours in his tightly-packed schedule as chef and owner of his Michelin starred restaurant to talk about his great passion for cycling, his cycling team, his training and how he fits all this into his life.
Restaurant Frederikshøj is beautifully located on the outskirts of Aarhus, just opposite the Marselis forest with a spectacular view over the bay of Aarhus. Frederikshøj received its first Michelin star in 2015, and has held it ever since.
As we pull into the parking lot, Wassim is standing outside waiting for us. It is the hottest day of summer, the sun already high in the azure sky. When we get out of the car, the heat takes our breath away.
It is cooler inside. We are ushered through a spotless kitchen, polished aluminum, chrome and stainless steel throughout and everywhere a mouth watering aroma of dishes in preparation, flavours from around the world being expertly brought together. To the rear of the kitchen, propped carefully against a worktop, is a jet-black S-Works bike, the latest model, gleaming like its surroundings, light bouncing off the disc brakes. It sits alone, isolés-style in the half-light like an animal waiting to be ridden.
Wassim’s office is on the first floor and when you enter you are left in no doubt about his other passion. Light from the glass doors that lead onto the roof terrace fills the room along with the scent of gourmet, success and fresh Danish summer morning. A second S-Works hangs like a piece of art alongside a giant painting, and Eddie Merckx’s massive anniversary book takes pride of place on the marble table.
"I got it for my 40th birthday present," Wassim beams as he flips through the oversized pages. "Cycling was a completely different sport when Merckx was riding," he notes, before asking if we would mind if he “just drop in for a quick briefing,” and slipping back down to the kitchen to ensure the staff have matters in hand.
This allows us the opportunity to take in the uninterrupted view from the terrace, a full panorama of the bay of Aarhus from a vantage point on high, that lends the scene total serenity.
Wassim breezes back into the room and the conversation moves to the subject of the restaurant cycling team, Team Frederikshøj, which now numbers 17 riders and has become an evolving project for Wassim.
"It really all began as a friendly rivalry, teasing two similar restaurant teams in Aarhus. We wanted to create some competition and show that we could easily outrun them."
"Today we are the only team still together, and over the years we have tried a little bit of everything," he continues, referring to the team's participation in the Grand Prix Herning and the UCI races in North Jutland a couple of years ago. The team has since geared down a bit and is no longer racing in the elite classes, but still gets the miles in and takes its training very seriously. Early each Saturday morning, the entire team meets at the restaurant and puts in a few hours, with no distinction made between star chef or water carrier.
Most often the training takes place on local roads around Aarhus. “I'm on the road five times a week,” says Wassim, “So I have to have it all put into a programme, otherwise I simply won't get off. I know exactly what intervals to run and how hard I should run them ”
It’s easy to make comparisons between Wassim’s training regime on the bike and the precision with which he operates as a chef, adhering to strict times, temperatures and schedules. But Wassim also finds a release in cycling, when on the bike he lets off steam, as would a pressure cooker.
"Cycling is a form of freedom, the place where I completely de-stress. It is just amazing to come back after a good training trip, very high on endorphins. For me, the day only starts when I've been out on the bike - it gives me energy to get going."
"I get lots of ideas for dishes while sitting on the bike, it's a great place to think creatively," he adds, before showing us a picture of one of his latest dishes on his mobile phone.
The restaurant changes its menu every two months. This ensures a visit to Frederikshøj always promises a fresh experience. This continual innovation requires lots of bike rides and lots of development days. Tuesday is earmarked as a day of development, when new ideas and dishes are tested. Everything must be approved before it goes anywhere near the menu. Nothing is left to chance.
With time ticking, Wassim jumps into his cycling kit and heads for his bike. He wants to show us one of the highlights of his training loop. This viewpoint, high above Aarhus, is only five kilometers from the restaurant and allows a vista of the entire old market town, which is quietly developing - both in a cultural and culinary sense.
We are to follow Wassim up to this spot by car, but as we get ready to pull out of the packing space, Wassim is already gone, off up the road on his S-Works. The Danish summer is offering its best side, without so much as a breeze. We manage to catch him before he veers off the main road onto a twisting side road that winds up through the trees.
Up here the sheer beauty of the countryside is breathtaking, with open woods and green fields and no traffic. It’s a sharp contrast to the bustling city that Aarhus has gradually become. As we approach the top a panorama opens over the city, just as Wassim described it.
"Exactly two minutes - I always run my two minute intervals here," Wassim smiles. He has this hill timed to perfection and while we have no doubt that he enjoys the freedom and time on the bike, he adheres meticulously to his training programme. He commits totally - and we sense a man who, despite an incredibly stressful everyday life, is in really good shape. This is also a man who has found his freedom from the stress of everyday life. Freedom for new energy.
The roll back to Aarhus and the restaurant is downhill most of the way, but Wassim is already off his bike and resting it against the restaurant as we pull into the car park. He has gone strong on the way back, squeezing the most out of his training ride even in 30 degree heat. He is standing under a stylish new ‘F’ which pops out from the historic dark gray of the building.
“We have got a new logo,” he explains. “We have spent our time in lockdown changing it all out."
Later, with Wassim back in his chef’s whites, we enjoy a Coke on the terrace. The view is no less attractive than this morning. Downstairs, the restaurant is buzzing - tables are covered and the staff are polishing glasses and adding the final flourishes to ensure everything is razor-sharp for the arrival of the evening’s diners.
"We have a full house tonight," says Wassim. "Tomorrow, too."
The restaurant has just been through its hardest ever period. Along with the entire hospitality industry, Frederikshøj has been closed while COVID19 was at its peak. Wassim is without doubt proud that customers will be back - and proud to be able to fill his restaurant.
“We have a good reputation, we have many customers who come again and again - and speak well after Frederikshøj after their visit. That is why we already have a full house again - and that helps ensure our success.
"We just do our best to make something unique, something that is impossible to do at home. We have to - we need to create a unique evening, something you cannot experience elsewhere."
“I have a lot of ambitions and I am never finished or satisfied, I would be lying if I said I did not go after getting the two Michelin stars. But while we must experiment, never be satisfied and constantly chase the new, we must also be proud to attract a full house night after night. It makes me proud and is certain to get us through the recent crisis,” he adds.
Then he is off to join his staff in their preparations for the evening meal.
Wassim Hallal is a star chef and a businessman with an incredible drive to achieve perfection in every area of his life. That much is evident from his approach to his other passion, cycling. He attacks his training with an inspirational determinatio. In return, cycling provides him with freedom to think, to create, and to realise his ambitions.
It has proven to be an essential ingredient in his recipe for success.