The meatpacking district of Copenhagen is tucked away just south of the Tivoli Gardens. It used to operate as its intended use during the day before giving way to an underworld of illegal drug use and prostitution once the sun had set.
In the very practical way that Danish society seems to operate, the area has been rejuvenated, or gentrified, depending on how you look at it, into a teeming area of nightlife. Restaurants cater for those who want to eat with music blaring in their ears and for those in possession of a bit more money. Bars are open until late and tables spread out onto the concrete where lorries previously made their way between collections and deliveries.
Hidden away behind the main square of eateries and drinking establishments is the kitchen of Morten Kryger, who is better known as the Cykelkokken, or bicycle chef.
20 years ago Morten was in a Copenhagen park with his friends. They placed a grill on the floor and started barbecuing. Just as the food was nearly done a police officer came over and demanded they moved. “But the food?” Morten and his friends protested.
The police officer didn’t care. They had to move. So Morten and a friend carefully lifted the barbecue with its accompanying hot coals onto one of their cargo bikes. They made their way through the city while their food was still cooking and they marvelled at the novelty of such a thing. Meals on wheels had taken on a new meaning.
That was the spark of the idea. Why not combine food and the bike? In a city such as Copenhagen it just made sense.
To explain exactly what Cykelkokken does, it’s one part Copenhagen city tour by bike, one part Copenhagen city tour by cuisine. Morten loads up his modified cargo bike equipped with a fully functioning kitchen and serves up delicacy after delicacy to his customers. The aim is for them to leave with a sense of what it means a Copenhagen-ite.
People live well in Denmark. The prep kitchen where I’m speaking with Morten is full of delicious ingredients, shelf upon shelf of meticulously organised equipment, and a young kitchen assistant beginning to prepare dishes for the evening’s booking. The week’s guests and appointments are perilously scrawled in different colours of felt-tip pen above the sink.
A few yards away from Morten’s kitchen is a soup kitchen that still serves the city’s homeless that pass through these parts. Opposite that is a very fashionable upstart restaurant, typical of the area’s rejuvenation. But for Morten, it seems to be more important that his space business is situated next to those who have very little rather than another Copenhagen gastronomic trendsetter. He wants what he does to feel a part of the whole city, to combine the streets as well as fine wine and dining and the high standard of living a lot of Danish people are afforded.
“We bring a lot of people together from all parts of society,” Morten explains. “We have some people with a lot of money who come and I’m very happy to bring them to the meatpacking district because they never come here.”
Now, about the bike. Away from Morten’s kitchen, in the next shed over, is his storeroom. When we enter there is music blaring on a hi-fi, more storage racks reaching up to the rafters and a floor littered with different models of cargo bike. It’s effectively a museum to the machine and Morten is a self-confessed collector. In the corner, by the heavy wooden doors that alcoholics on the other side urinate against (and which Morten hopes to eradicate before turning this room into a cargo bike display for customers) is the first model of the bike kitchen.
On the bike is a four-burner hob, with heavy wooden storage cupboards underneath. Towed behind is a sink and more storage space.
20 years later and through constant tinkering (meticulous problem-solving seems to be a habit of the Danish people) Morten has now arrived at a model of bike that is much more efficient and inspires even more curiosity than his original model.
For Covid, it became much simpler to give everyone their own glass and cutlery. Morten pulls down a heavy container with countless metal tins in them. Excitedly, he shows me how he’s produced individual sets for each person on a tour. When he comes up with a new solution to a problem it re-ignites the passion he felt when he first thought of the idea.
The gas-cooker is a lot more stable now and can be covered. Wooden tables flip up on either side upon which plates can sit. Utensils are secured via rubber bands. Open a drawer at his grandmother’s house, Morten says, and the first thing you’ll find is rubber bands. That served as inspiration for his bike kitchen where they’re a “fix-all”.
Two wooden chopping boards fit smoothly in front of the handlebars and can be removed for wherever they need to be used. Napkins, a bike pump and a bottle of hand sanitiser slot neatly in front of the fork. When Morten demonstrates how he can cover food and keep it cooking while riding, he slips the metal lid out succinctly from a rack next to the seatpost. You can hear how correctly it fits in its intended position. The sort of satisfaction and completeness only ever achieved from a neatness where things go in the exact place they’re meant to be.
How heavy is the bike?
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Morten replies. “It’s like the saying, a bumblebee doesn’t know how big it is otherwise it would never fly.”
If the bikes were on three or four wheels rather than two they’d be less flexible but anyone would be able to ride them. It would also not be in keeping with the tradition of cargo bike culture, which isn’t something Morten appears willing to compromise on.
“I cannot have you riding one tomorrow,” Morten says. “You need a full season with me and then I feel comfortable sending you out.”
Morten admits he quite likes that it’s such a difficult skill to learn, seemingly so only the most dedicated and passionate, as he is, will join him in his endeavour.
What’s almost as difficult as riding the bike, he says, is learning to be a good host. The bike tours last for around four and a half hours for between 8-25 people (for larger groups two kitchen bikes accompany the tour) and take in 4.5km of riding.
Five courses are served around the city. A welcome drink, a starter, three further courses along the way and then dessert and coffee. It costs around £100 for lunch and a little bit more for dinner. You can hire it for just two people, Morten whispers, but it will cost you a hell of a lot more than that. As mentioned already, the tour starts in the meatpacking district and ends in the Svajerbar, a shipping container converted into a dining space that can also be used earlier in the tour if the Copenhagen weather doesn’t play ball (which can happen fairly regularly) and Morten reckons there’s not a part of Copenhagen their tours haven’t touched.
“It’s not street food but we like to cook in the street,” Morten says, having pre-dated the street food boom by quite a few years.
“We like to be amongst everything and come with the positivity that a bicycle brings. We cannot be angry with a bicycle. The bicycle in of itself is a positivity-creating instrument. And a happy guy on top doing some cooking? I mean what’s not to like?”
Could it work elsewhere?
“Yes and I think it would be an eye-opener to other cities,” he says. Yes. Bring this concept elsewhere. We have.”
“We have done it in Paris. It was a pre-launch of the Tour de France.”
They packed a couple of kitchen bikes into a van and drove them west to the French capital, like they did when the Tour arrived in Copenhagen and Morten’s was booked for events after every stage of the Danish Grand Départ.
“In Paris, we cooked at the embassy and then we had one day off where we took the kitchens and drove around Paris together with some guests and found some super nice locations.”
And did you know where you were going in advance?
“No, no, no.”
For Morten it’s about the adventure. Whether that’s on a bike, through food or from meeting new people. As I leave we shake hands and the also hi-five.
“One thing,” he says. “Those photos you took of the bike kitchen frames in the storage? Could you delete them?”
After 20 years of labour and love, he has created something beautiful, the continued integrity of which is as important now as it ever has been.