Food fit for a Viking
Rene Redzepi is head chef at Noma in Copenhagen, perhaps the world's greatest restaurant. Oliver Thring learns it's not easy at the top
A late night and an early start mean that by the time Rene Redzepi arrives, half an hour late for our interview, I’ve drunk so much cold-brew coffee -- bitter and creepingly strong -- I’m twitching when we sit down.
The chef looks good, a lot better than he has for a while, with bright, brown hedgehoggy eyes, a trim beard, floppy fringe and a leather jacket. Ignoring my frazzled demeanour, he semi-apologises for halving our allotted time. “If you do me on Saturday, my kids hold me up,” he says in his slightly Americanised, self-effacing Danish drawl. “I cook them Danish pancakes with rye flour and bacon. That’s my jahb.”
Well, at least he’s seeing them. Redzepi, who may be the world’s best living chef, has just published a book about the self-inflicted pressure of success -- its emotional cost, its tendency to stifle invention, its impact on his family (understanding, barely ever seen) and his staff (harried, sore, stumbling from triumph to disaster).
In 10 years, almost single-handedly, Redzepi invented a new way to eat. Nordic cuisine sourced obscure foraged ingredients -- sea grasses, mosses, wild berries -- and the deep-dredged creatures of rime-cold seas from a vast area including Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland. It sought to bring back flavours that had been forgotten for generations, combining them in invigorating new forms.
In 2003, when Noma opened, Redzepi says the locals asked him: “What are you, seal f***ers? They didn’t understand what type of restaurant we were.” The venue had no precedent: smart restaurants in Denmark were French or Italian. People soon realised that not only could Nordic cuisine exist, but that the region had a culinary variety and wealth to rival almost anywhere. What it lacked was the tradition and confidence to show them off.
Within five years, Noma had been awarded two Michelin stars; its lack of a third highlights the staid uselessness of the Red Guide. In 2010 it leapt to No 1 on the influential World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. “I took the whole staff,” says Redzepi, “and we huddled in a circle like a soccer team and said, ‘Let’s just f****** enjoy this, because there’s only one way now.’ ” They stayed there for three years before falling to second place this year. How did that feel? “I knew it would happen. You could feel the momentum changing.” Weren’t you disappointed? “No, not at all. I’d had a vacation and because of writing the journal I didn’t feel the pressure.”
Ah, the journal. Redzepi’s new book, A Work in Progress, is really three books: a cookbook, a brief Instagrammy volume of photographs and the chef’s own diary of a year, 2011, at the restaurant. The journal seeks to understand where creativity comes from, what forges it, and it explains with a hot, angry honesty the punishing brutality of success. “When I started out, we were young and my dream was: can I just have my own little place where I cook my food, make guests and survive,” he says. “And then life and success happened. The irony of success is that it limits you.”
Dishes, which can take months to create, ossified on the menu. Brainwaves -- let’s dehydrate everything, let’s ferment whatever we can get our hands on -- led to countless failures and setbacks in the test kitchen. Relationships suffered. “We’d lost the fun. And every second day I could have a tantrum like a little f****** child -- like a stupid, spoilt, arrogant gnome.” (Later, I speak privately to a member of the restaurant’s staff. They tell me Redzepi can still “get pretty physical” but that he has calmed down.)
Of course, creativity counts for nothing if you lack the resources to pay for it. The book shows how Noma, despite being one of the world’s most famous restaurants, full every night and booked out months in advance, was losing money. “We could have paid [customers] to stay away,” sniffs one of the chefs in the book.
Redzepi had two choices: raise prices or fire people. A drinks company -- he admits to me it was Coca-Cola -- offered him money to cook with its recipes. Imagine it: surgically sourced ingredients, prepared with great care and skill, and then sloshed in fizzy syrup famous for tasting the same across the planet. He tells me privately how much Coke wanted to pay him -- an astonishing sum.
“There was one day when I’d decided we were going to do it,” he says. “It would have done everything: made us money that year, with more for next year. But then I thought: people here are on minimum wage working their asses off for the opposite of that.”
Eventually, and it may be brave of him to put this in the book, he raised prices and reduced the number of dishes. The tasting menu now costs about £180 per person before wine, for which you get 20 courses instead of 30 or 35. Noma was never meant to be a bargain, and today it’s a long way from cheap, but it’s still one of the world’s most exciting places to eat.
A less expensive way to taste its food is at home. We’ve adapted three of the cookbook’s dishes that suit the current season and could be prepared in a domestic kitchen. It’s in keeping with Redzepi’s philosophy to say that the ingredients are not absolutes. Gloster apples have bright red skin and a tart flavour: any similar variety would do. If you try the celeriac dish, your truffle need not be from Gotland. If you baulk at skinning a live prawn, then top-quality fresh ones will be almost as good -- the dish of fresh seafood braced with horseradish would make a stunning, surprisingly easy starter on Christmas Day.
The caravan of food faddism may have trooped on -- largely to South America -- but the movement Redzepi founded will outlast him and his restaurant. Noma remains a masterclass in the importance of terroir and the surprises of the earth. Amid the increasingly homogenised landscape of the global food system, it teaches us that some of the best and most exciting flavours lie not far from our own doorstep.
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