Permeating the bonds of tradition
Chef Kai Semple calls his cooking wabi sabi, tapping into the beauty of simplicity and transience, be that of time, place or style. His practice is grounded in a genuine curiosity about the ways in which we eat, live and make food — heightened through learning about other culinary traditions and their inherent flavours and techniques or tapping into his own British-Caribbean heritage.
In just five years, Kai Semple and his cooking has become an indispensable presence in Copenhagen, a focal point to which the city’s creative community gravitates towards. While amassing experience at ubiquitous restaurants, he hatched a plan to introduce people to something it was missing — his take on Caribbean food, traditional in one sense but marked by his eclectic, contemporary approach to cooking. “Growing up with Caribbean food in London, it always tasted good, but becoming a chef, I felt it could be refined in terms of aesthetics. This paradox has given me a challenge — making food that looks delicious, yet never compromising on flavour for looks,” explains Semple. Regularly putting on dinners and events under the moniker of YAM, he stands out as not only a gifted chef, but also a master at creating an encompassing atmosphere around his cooking.
“My perspective is showing this food in a different light and setting. I missed this cooking in Copenhagen. In London Caribbean food is ever-present, yet the food often stays within our community. There is something interesting in shaking up this dynamic, opening this atlas of flavour to a broader audience”, says Semple.
Standing on the shoulders of Jamaican and Trinidadian cooking traditions of his family he weaves his own knowledge of modernist techniques and other cuisines into the foundational building blocks of the two kitchens. The layers of complexity of flavour, method and texture spurs an awakening of senses and curiosity in guests. He admits that it is hard to answer their questions about what Caribbean cuisine is and embodies as it is composed of so many different people, a multifaceted culinary tradition composed of influences from across African, Indian, Chinese and European food landscapes.
“There are so many different elements to Caribbean cooking. Pickles, grilling, roasting, curries, cooking methods that are quite new to the European way of cooking. It all depends on which island you are on. I explore the ingredients that are innate to the region through my optic of material, technique, history, permeation,” says Semple.
Not (yet) having a space of his own allows him to start over again each time, tailoring to the occasion or guests, equally at ease cooking a multi-course dinner for brands such as Frama or Stine Goya as a day-party with jerk chicken and best mates playing records. His food is delicious, layered with history and meaning, refined, but full of hearth. It births an atmosphere one wants to linger in.
Experimentation is a vein that runs through his cooking and work, bringing about the most delectable outcomes. Semple explains how Carribean food is not big on desserts, and that is one area where he can get more imaginative, leaning on his experience as a chef to put these flavours in a dish that is usually made with apples, feeling distinctly rooted in a different cuisine when made with papaya.
He often collaborates with other creatives in his community, people who understand the essence of what he has set out to do, and vice versa. “My community has given me the push to pursue my own cooking outside of the kitchens I’ve worked in. And this intimate community has led me to dabble in all kinds of fields. I never thought I would be doing Caribbean food at a fashion or design event, but people have found my work on their own, wanting to bring some of that atmosphere into their own work. I am happy it gives that creative fuel to not only myself, but also others,” he explains.
“One of the reasons the creative community and I feel so comfortable in the same space is that what I do is a bit like designing, making all these elements work together. In a space where people are like that too, I feel at ease being more experimental”, says Semple.