Mette Helbæk

APIECE APART WOMAN
We’re constantly working to connect the dots in our lives — how do we chase inspiration while rooted in daily responsibility? How do we merge what we “do” with who we “are,” or at least try to be less of multiple selves at different moments? These questions are ones Danish restauranteur Mette Helbæk realized were important to ask as she found herself working in nearly every aspect of the food world—from fine dining to editing restaurant guides, owning Copenhagen vegetable stands to styling food photography—yet not feeling like the fit was quite right. In 2015, she figured out how to merge the disparate pieces with Stedsans, the greenhouse restaurant she now co-owns with her husband. Located above Denmark's rooftop farm OsterGRO, Stedsans is intended to be an experience as much as it is a meal, ingredients combined with story and a sense of place. We visited with Mette at home in Copenhagen to learn more.

How did you first get started working in and around food?
I started getting sucked into the world of fine dining restaurants when I was in my early twenties and needed money for going skiing and traveling the world. I was immediately blown away by the very special life of chefs and waiters at these restaurants that I worked at. It was all so different and exciting for me, a girl from the countryside who had literally never been to a restaurant before. In the beginning my main interest was wine and other front-of-house issues. I met Flemming, my husband and business partner, when I was working as a waitress at his restaurant. It was a place that was very different from the one we run together today, with white tablecloths, a long wine list, and an á la carte menu with foie gras and beuf béarnaise. But the raw materials we used in the kitchen were amazing and came straight from local farmers. My passion for vegetables started with weekly deliveries from a guy called Søren Wiuff, who went on to become one of the main vegetable suppliers at Noma. This led to writing my first cookbook, a guide to local vegetables.
 
After we sold the restaurant some years later I continued writing, and worked as an editor at a restaurant guide. But I missed the fresh produce straight from the farmers, and opened a vegetable shop, Din Baghave. Two years later, I had four shops and things where going way too fast. Long story short, I closed my vegetable shops and started working as a food stylist and recipe developer because I felt like using my creativity more.
 
With Stedsans, the puzzle pieces fell into place: I found a place where my passion for plants could be expressed, where I could use my creativity, and where I could work with my husband again.
 
How do you define wellbeing?
When I am able to feel myself and my own needs – and act upon them.
 

 
What are some of the most unusual sources of inspiration for you?
I let weeds and vegetables grow wild in my garden, because I like looking at all the different stages of each plant’s life. I learned at a plant medicine course in Guatemala that the plants that grow around you are the ones you need for staying healthy, because Mother Earth always seeks balance. So now I’m trying to find out what to do with all those thistles and stinging nettles all over my garden …
 
What have been some of the biggest turning points in your life or career?
For sure the breakdown from stress and depression that made me close down my vegetable shops. It came after too many years of working too hard with the wrong things; I was broke and unable to work, and it’s a cliché but it is the best that ever happened to me because it forced me to look at myself in a new way.
 
I learned to focus on the process instead of the goal, and that being successful is nothing without being happy. So I went on an inner journey to find out what truly makes me happy, large and small, and build up my life from scratch around that goal.
 
What are you serious about?
All things natural: I’m a horrible cook when I don’t have good ingredients at hand, because my food is so simple.
 
What will you never take seriously?
Cupcakes, cronuts, vegan burger patties full of soy and artificial ingredients.
 
 

 
What is the best advice you have been given?
I love the American writer Elizabeth Gilbert, and especially this quote: “The world is like a dropped pie most of the time. Don’t kill yourself trying to put it back together. Just grab a fork and eat some of it off the floor. Then carry on.
 
I think the search for a perfectly-balanced life is a pipe dream. At least, I’ve never found it, though for sure I have looked, and have had lots of little moments where I think I’ve nailed it.
 
How do you bring moments of meaning into your daily life?
I try to give little things my full attention. Like when I hang up the laundry, when I watch my kids play, or when I sit down at the dinner table to eat. Being present is important for my happiness, and minutes add up in a whole life.
 
I focus on really feeling gratefulness, not just registering it with my brain. Feeling and thinking are in no way the same things.
 
What are some of your favorite ingredients this time of year?
One of my favorite ingredients during late summer is the stem of the leek. When you let leeks grow until they starts blooming, it gets solid instead of flaky. It still has the juiciness of the leek, but with a different texture.
 
I also like making a ginger/nettle infusion from my overgrown “weeds.” I serve it with different herbs from the garden.
 

 
Ginger nettle-infusion

For the infusion
30 g fresh ginger, chopped finely
2 liters water
1 lemon
1 tbsp. dried nettle
1 tbsp. dried spearmint
1 tbsp. honey  
 
For serving
2 rose buds
1 sprig lemon verbena
1 sprig thyme
1 tsp. lavender flowers  
 
Infusion: In a large pot, bring ginger and water to a boil. Boil for 20 minutes. Cut lemon in 4 pieces and press the juice into the ginger liquid. Add nettle + spearmint and put a lid on the pot. Let steep for 20 min. or longer.  
 
Serving: In a glass, place remaining ingredients and pour over hot ginger tea. Allow to steep for 3 to 5 minutes.
 

 
Photography by GEMMA & ANDREW INGALLS | Styling by CAROLINE FEIFFER | Interview by LEIGH PATTERSON