Correspondence

Community and Cuisine with Kai Semple

Words By sheila lam

“When I thought about trying to fit in, I realized, you know what, there’s no way to fit in if I’m always gonna stand out.” In a conversation about food, community, and a sense of place, British chef Kai Semple remarks on creating a name for himself and his Caribbean fare in Copenhagen. Renowned for its fine dining, there’s a brewing movement in the Danish capital and demand for a dining experience that is a little more approachable, unpretentious, and frankly, more fun.

After finishing culinary school in London, Semple relocated to Denmark following what he thought were his then aspirations. “At the time, I was very much interested in the whole new Nordic food scene. I think within six months, I fell out of love very quickly,” he remembers. “But that reignited my love for more casual food and Caribbean food in particular.” Listening to his voice above what was generally considered the industry benchmark, Semple returned to the basics of food he’d grown up on. He’d endeavoured to revamp Caribbean classics with a distinct style, while maintaining an homage at its core. “When I go back to Jamaica, I have street food every day, and I can taste what I’m doing alongside it,” he says. “I want to stick to some core ingredients and experiment with other stuff. Inspiration comes from the culture and how they sell food and do things or specific techniques. All these things I take back and remix.”

Nearly five years on, Yam, a modern Caribbean concept by Semple, has garnered a dedicated and respected following in the city. Intimate lunches serving jerk chicken impress at Copenhagen Fashion Week and 3daysofdesign alike, two of Denmark’s most anticipated annual events. Three-course dinner pop-ups featuring signature plantain nuggets with thyme salt, and spiced rum cake, among other crowd favourites, are immediately booked up. And 150-person ticketed music events under the alias, VIM, are instantly sold out. “There’s a niche for it out here,” Semple explains. “Along with the food, I think it’s the atmosphere around it, you know? It’s very social and vibey. So it’s not just ‘here’s courses 1, 2, and 3’ I want people to socialize, have some good tunes, and create an atmosphere.”

Beyond the delicious morsels and entertaining atmosphere, what I think is particularly exceptional about Semple’s events is the diversity it brings together. Denmark is a beautiful nation with a rich history and culture. However, due to its small size and relative geographic remoteness, it is still gaining footing in an international landscape. In recent years, great strides have been made to welcome and celebrate a range of different cuisines, styles, and sorts, and Semple is a leading player in that arena. “Community means a hell of a lot,” he says. “The longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve changed in a way, but I’m still drawn toward people like myself, of different backgrounds, and I’ve seen people really appreciate that. More Danes are coming to dinners now because they’re hearing about it and want to know about it.”

When you move to a new city or country, embodying what it means to be there is essential. Not only to find your place within a community but to contribute to it. To belong, but never lose yourself. With Yam and VIM, Semple has proven time again there’s space for everyone.

Photos from Kai Semple of YAM
yamcph.com

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