Meet René Redzepi, Head Chef at Noma (three times voted Best Restaurant in the World). The next dish he cooks for you might involve ants
The day I’m to meet René Redzepi, he cooks a disastrous omelette live on the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen. With remarkable good humour he blames the frying pan for its lack of non-stickiness. No matter. Redzepi can afford to make the odd mistake. For a start, it humanises the Danish superstar chef whose Copenhagen restaurant, Noma (a conflation of “Nordic” and “mad”), was voted Best Restaurant in the World by Restaurant magazine for an astonishing three years from 2010 to 2012.
Redzepi is on this week’s cover of Time magazine alongside American and Brazilian chefs. The headline reads, “The Gods of Food: Meet the people who influence what (and how) you eat.” This is pleasing for Redzepi, who was mocked a decade ago when he opened Noma with the idea of using local, seasonal and foraged food.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Redzepi has encouraged us to see food in a new way. He’s taken us back to basics by sourcing forgotten foraged food on the Danish coastline such as scurvy grass, which the Vikings once used as a vital source of vitamin C. He is also keen on insects, echoing what the UN itself recently said about an inevitable future reliance on bugs (abundant; easy to harvest; nutritious).
Not surprisingly, Noma isn’t cheap — the 20-course tasting menu costs £180 per person without drinks. But as Restaurant magazine says, “there’s always at least one dish that makes you feel glad to be alive”. And, since Copenhagen has become a culinary destination thanks largely to Noma, you have to book at least three months ahead. (Redzepi’s tip: most of the bookings are by couples so you have more chance if there are three or more of you).
In the interim, there’s A Work in Progress, Redzepi’s new three-volume boxset that includes a cook book divided into 12 months, a blisteringly honest year-long journal, and a pocket book of his photos capturing life at Noma. The cook book shows why he’s at the very top of his game, if only because most of us would struggle to create a single dish from it; the journal and the photos show how he’s managed — just — to retain a sense of humour and stay grounded despite his success.
Redzepi, who turns 36 next month, has just arrived from Amsterdam, where after the talk to promote the book, he says, “They got drunk at the reception and started asking for jobs at Noma. I had at least 20 serious applications.”
Now though, relaxing in his suite at Claridge’s, he comes across as a pretty normal, laid back kind of bloke. And yet there is still something of the rock star chef about him — his floppy hair and beard make him look like a Kings of Leon sibling. The way he talks about food, though, is more punk, more DIY. He certainly isn’t one to play by the rules. As American chef Anthony Bourdain writes in his quote for A Work in Progress, “Redzepi is, without doubt, the most influential, provocative and important chef in the world.”
The people asking you for jobs at Noma — what a difference to a decade ago, when members of your staff would occasionally announce they were going to jail for several months…
Yes, and now we have Harvard drop-outs applying to work with us. It’s all changed in the past five years. Not just at Noma, but in cooking in general. I never thought I’d be on the cover of Time with David Chang and Alex Atala. I might not have been surprised to see Gordon Ramsay on the cover because he has 17,000 TV shows and is friends with real celebrities. But I have onejob:Icookina restaurant. I don’t have even have one TV show.
Surely you’ve been offered one, though…
I’ve had plenty of offers and they still trickle in regularly. If I thought I could really learn something, if I could be true to myself and it could help me become a more well- rounded person within food culture, then I’d consider it.
How do you choose chefs and interns at Noma?
The former: personality. Internships are easy because they have to go through a demanding visa process. We don’t take anyone who doesn’t go through the full legal system. Many school and college kids come through Noma. I’m still trying to make sense of how different it is now. When I attended culinary school in Copenhagen there was no way in hell I could ever have imagined myself sitting in a lovely suite at Claridge’s being interviewed for Esquire, let alone being on the cover of Time. My ambition was just to run a restaurant and be able to support myself. I thought I’d get into catering by being a waiter, but as soon as I started the course I wanted to cook.
Did you cook at home when you were growing up?
Never. My household wasn’t super-traditional, but I suppose it was old fashioned. My father was born in Macedonia and came from a Muslim background. Among other jobs, he worked in the fields after moving to Denmark. There were no tractors so it was incredibly tough work. My mother is Danish and she worked all the time, too. Everyone worked all the time.
Was your mother a good cook?
No, but I loved to eat. I have always rejected those traditional, classical French chef stories — “Oh my grandmother showed me how to boil the cream”. It’s too melodramatic for me. My experience was more grass- roots. As kids waiting for the grown-ups to finish their 10-hour shifts, we would find a berry bush and stay there till our bellies were full and our hands stained. We’d pick chestnuts to bring home. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were foraging. Everybody did it — and still does, by the way. So I can see that I was drawn to farms and farmers. When I was training to be a chef, that direct connection from the kitchen to the land had pretty much gone because most restaurants worked with a middle man. Going out and meeting farmers myself has a huge influence on the way I prepare food and consider dishes. Of the 20 courses at Noma, depending on the season and the day of the week, 75-85 per cent of the food is plants and vegetables. Then there’s some fish. Very little meat. As well as the occasional ant (see recipe)…
In which world do we put the ant? Plant or animal kingdom? It’s a new world. Having said that, the food I cook in Noma really does reflect the food I grew up eating. It’s not fine and detailed, nor is there a huge array of ingredients, but perhaps a stew of beans or lentils cooked forever with tomatoes and condiments. Meat was very expensive when I was a kid. If the chicken stopped laying good eggs then maybe chicken soup or chicken with rice would be on the menu. One of the most joyful moments I remember from my childhood was playing around in the old dusty yard with the other kids and watching my uncle arrive on a motorbike with a white bag. We could see he’d been to the butchers to buy sujuk, a spicy sausage made out of lamb meat. It was the best moment. The women would sauté it and serve it with fresh eggs cracked over it. It tasted absolutely amazing.
Food is a great way to win a girl’s heart. Did you woo your wife with your cooking?
Most definitely. Food does magic things. Those of us who live in the Protestant western world tend to view it as functional, but you can see it really does something to people. Now that I have kids, aged two and five, my God, you see what food does to a human being. Especially small ones. I love starting the day with steaming hot bowls full of porridge covered in melted butter and a sprinkle of salt. Within three mouthfuls they stop being sleepy and grumpy and are happy again.
You spend as much time as possible with your family and still work punishing hours from Tuesday to Saturday. How do you manage to keep sight of your original ambition?
I wanted Noma to be a very good restaurant that explored a region. I guess that’s still the seed of what we do. Noma’s success has propelled us into a position of influence, but I don’t think anyone would have opened a restaurant 10 years ago thinking they’d be part of a real change for a region. But it’s not just about us. There’s a big group of cooks in Copenhagen. There’s something in the zeitgeist that made us fit right in. Maybe we were ahead of our time?
A decade ago you were laughed at for being seasonal and local, yet those two buzz words now define the way many of us try to shop
I was laughing to myself yesterday because I got a text message from my old friend Sat Bains [who runs a two star Michelin restaurant in Nottingham] saying: “Hey man, I received my compost machine yesterday. You should really get one.” That tells you how things have changed. What us chefs really want is a place to put waste so that we can turn it into something productive. I don’t think it’s an active, militant NGO response. It happens naturally. The best restaurants are truly a product of their time. It’s no coincidence that Noma’s success exploded in 2010, shortly after the collapse of the economy. There we were, working with farmers, creating a community.
Yes, but you were also written off as “seal fuckers” by the local press at the start. Were there times when you felt like giving the whole thing up?
No, not at all. It’s much more difficult now because we have a Twitter account and when you’re on the cover of Time 15 people tweet that you’re a “fucking cunt”. Back then it wasn’t hatred, it was people making fun. It just made me more angry in a sense. No, not angry. It fuelled me to say, “I’ll show you!”
You’re famous for your foraging skills as well as your direct relationships with farmers. So where is the best place you’ve ever foraged?
An area on the north-west coast of Denmark called Lammefjorden, which means “the fjord of the lambs”. It used to be marshland before dams were built to create more agricultural soil, which happens also to be the most fertile soil in Europe. The first 30cm is sandy with mussels everywhere and then there’s a further 2m of mussels and shellfish and vegetation. It’s the shittiest beach on earth with rotten seaweed flowing in all the time, but the vegetation is incredible. As is the forest. It’s perfect. And best of all? It’s just 45 minutes from Noma. In the winter, 10 to 15 of us might go there on a Sunday on a big foraging trip. It’s astonishingly fertile. Just mind-boggling.
In the past, you’ve described yourself as “a beast, angry as hell”. Can you explain this — it all sounds a bit scary to us
Yeah. I couldn’t handle the bottleneck during service. I was doubtful about all the decisions. I suddenly lost confidence in what we were doing. Back then, in 2010, I kept thinking, “Is this the mountain top? Is this it?” For a moment I lost focus. Then I learned that you have to see the big accolades as a step on the way. In terms of exploring our region and working on our changing food culture, we’re like babies. We have so much more to do.
One of your early supporters was Adam Price, the Danish food critic who went on to create Borgen. Tell us about him
Adam’s a very good friend of mine. He used to be the number one food critic in Denmark. He was one of those really, really good food critics who never wrote to humiliate. Instead, he criticised in a very positive way. He definitely understood what we were doing at Noma. He’s extremely clever and nice. He comes from a family of writers and theatre people.
Denmark has become incredibly cool, thanks to Noma, TV shows like Borgen and The Killing, its interior design and so on. How did this happen? Denmark is a little safe haven up there in the north. It’s egalitarian. In these times there’s a natural admiration for something like that.
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