Copenhagen Fashion Week regulars still remember the jerk chicken served at an intimate lunch Stine Goya hosted at her office a few seasons ago.
It was filling (a rarity during fashion week), rich in flavor, just the right amount of spicy, and completely unpretentious.
That’s the kind of food chef Kai Semple likes to cook as part of Yam, his modern Caribbean food concept that has been growing in popularity within Copenhagen’s creative circles.
“I had to go back to basics and discover what my purpose really is when it comes to cooking. I wanted to cook food that could look good, but also taste good and feel satisfying,” says Semple, who cut his teeth at London’s Westminster Kingsway chef school and the city’s renowned Ledbury restaurant. “I just sent out emails to every restaurant out there when I was around 15, and the Ledbury were the only ones who responded and let me come down after school to work and start learning the ropes.”
Post-college, like many of his peers, Semple took the traditional route and started working in the fine dining restaurant scene — yet quickly realized that it wasn’t for him.
“When you start working for a restaurant, you evolve around them, it’s just about getting the job done without much flair going into it. I had to rethink why I was cooking and putting in over 60 hours a week working. I was loving it but something was missing,” he says.
He felt the same way when he decided to move to Copenhagen and explore its thriving new Nordic food scene.
Connecting with his Caribbean routes, asking his aunts and grandmothers for recipes and reimagining them with his own twist came as the antidote.
“I might not have done it if I was in London, but coming to Copenhagen pushed me to find a niche, perfect it, and pay homage to my heritage at the same time,” says Semple. “I figured someone had to do it; there was nothing like it here.”
The city’s food scene has been traditionally divided between fine dining and street food, so Semple set out to fill the space in between with his well-priced, hearty Caribbean dishes.
So far it’s been working well: The locals are curious to discover a cuisine they never had access to in the past, while the expat community is thrilled to rediscover dishes they’ve been feeling nostalgic about.
“It’s about introducing a whole community of people to ingredients they hadn’t even heard of in the past. So far it’s working well because there’s been a need for change in the local food scene: You need something in between a shwarma on the street and the new Nordic fine dining scene. This is just good food served right,” says Semple, referring to his signature jerk chicken, served with rice and peas, as a firm favorite. His Trinidadian fish curry dish, containing mussels, yam and cassava, is another standout.
“We’re slowly getting there, the food scene is shifting, especially after lockdown. People want someone who specializes in a cuisine. They are looking for more casual yet good food; a good price, and they want to be full.”
As his laid-back concept rises in popularity, the city’s fashion brands have been taking notice, too, and enlisting Semple to cater their events.
After his success with Goya, he worked with buzzy Danish accessories labels like Pilgrim Jewelry and eyewear label Flatlist.
“Five years ago I couldn’t see myself catering for fashion events because of what brands would want — usually a cold salad, without even any dressing. The norm would be making fancy choices. But that’s shifting and brands are more open to bringing new people in and trying out new cuisines. Having more diverse teams within helped change this,” says Semple.
There’s still some push from fashion companies in particular to keep the catering more plain or avoid spices, but Semple says he is trying to stay true to his integrity and his niche, and always incorporate Caribbean touches into his dishes.
“Caribbean cuisine is so varied, we can tailor anything and adapt it to Western standards,” he adds, pointing to his renewed focus on introducing vegan and vegetarian dishes to his menus.
“My approach is that if I’m going to do a vegan dish, it has to be as good as a meat dish — you can’t serve cod and then have your vegan option be gem lettuce, that’s boring. We do a vegan minced meat, which is seasoned and cooked just like our jerk chicken and has a texture similar to falafel. The Caribbean has a massive pescetarian community who’ve never eaten meat in their lives, so there’s a lot to play with. At the end, you have to move with the times and ensure everyone can enjoy your food.”
The plan for Semple is to continue to cater for brands’ events and liven up the food offer during the city’s fashion week. He’s also planning a trip to Jamaica later this year to get up close and personal with local produce; a pop-up in Ghana, and a permanent space in his adopted home of Copenhagen.
True to the spirit of Yam, it’s going to be relaxed and everyone will be welcome. “We’ll definitely keep things quick and easy, with a few dishes to choose from and the right atmosphere. If you have the drinks, good tunes, and waiters you can chat to, it makes all the difference.”