The first thing you twig when you meet René Redzepi, chef and co-owner of Noma in Copenhagen, currently voted the number one restaurant in the world, is that he isn’t a diva. Lots of chefs are – most of the ones who end up on tv seem to be, for example, whether their act consists of flirting with the camera or ranting at their juniors. Redzepi, however, is not of that tiresome and self-obsessed kidney.
He came to Toronto last weekend at the behest of Alison Fryer of The Cookbook Store, his lone Canadian stop on a tour for his new (first) cookbook, Noma, Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine (Phaidon Press, $55). Alison booked him into the Elizabeth Bader theatre to deliver a lecture to keen local foodies, chefs and culinary students. Which he did, with Alison as interlocutor, and helped by some illustrative video footage of his dishes. He was impressive, to say the least. For one thing, he’s so young. Born in 1977 to a Danish mother and Macedonian father, he was a troublemaker in high school, dropped out at 15 and signed on at restaurant school for no real reason, discovered his vocation, was turned down by several restaurants then accepted, at 16, to a three-year apprenticeship at Michelin-starred Pierre André, in Copenhagen. In 1998, he got a job at Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier before going on to other renowned destinations such as El Bulli, the French Laundry, Kong Hans… He was obviously a talent, but how does a young chef emerge from the shadow of such very powerful and influential kitchens to define his own aesthetic?
In 2003, back in Copenhagen and now aged 25, he was offered the chance to be chef and co-owner of the restaurant that would become Noma. The setting was a 1767 warehouse once used for the Iceland, Greenland, Faroe Island trade and the two other owners were determined that the cuisine would reflect that heritage. Redzepi had always assumed he would cook French food… What happened next is a kind of Road-to-Damascus revelation as the young chef began to ask himself questions and to look more closely at the environment around him. He travelled to Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes, absorbing Nordic culinary culture, watching and tasting and thinking, figuring out how the sophisticated precepts of the places where he had worked might be applied to his own locus. No, it wouldn’t be seal heart and whale blubber and herring. It would be… And here I have to suggest you nip out and buy a copy of Noma, the book. Seven years since it opened (at first mocked by the Copenhagen culinary establishment but now clenched tightly to its bosom), Noma has two Michelin stars and is currently the number one restaurant in the world, according to the San Pellegrino academy of voters, amongst whose number I have the honour to stand.
No, I haven’t been to Noma. But I almost feel that I have. I have eaten at Dill in Reykjavik where Redzepi’s disciple, chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason, pays homage to a number of Noma’s signature dishes. (Now I know how to make that flower pot of edible “soil” in which raw vegetables were “growing” and which hid a delectable dip…) As we saw and heard during Saturday’s lecture, 95 percent of Noma’s ingredients come from within 100 kilometres of the restaurant. Fresh is best. Local trumps long-distance. Where he would once have insisted on serving Greenland halibut (OMG – imagine how that tasted) he would now seek out a fresh, unfrozen turbot from Gilleleje, 30 kliks north of Copenhagen. Exceptions include the world’s most perfect langoustines, netted 500 metres deep at the base of a sea-cliff in the Faroes, and the super-yogurt called skyr made from the rich milk of small, hardy Icelandic cattle.
But it’s the free-spirited and enormously creative way Redzepi uses these pristine treasures that brings tears of wonder and awe to the eye. The audience stared silent and open-mouthed as the chef’s cinematic hands picked fronds and petals of humble beach and estuary plants, scattered them onto a pulsing oyster in its half-shell, closed the shell and then steamed the oyster in a Dutch oven with beach pebbles, seaweed and sea water. Or how he bound white asparagus to spruce fronds and grilled them together so that the spruce resin flavoured the imperially insipid asparagus. When he mentioned that he used spruce tips as a counterpoint to the dish, every Canadian in the place had an invisible arm upstretched… “Ooh, ooh! Please sir! We do that too! Jonathan Forbes bottles spruce tips! And the First Nations people showed Champlain 400 years ago! Spruce saved our lives from scurvy in the winter!” (Oh yes, our culinary Canada suddenly includes Québec when we’re trying to make a point.)
The thing about Redzepi’s cooking is that it is real – as Michael Stadtländer’s food is real (how I wish I could have brought them together for an afternoon – the way you want to have Mozart meet Ravel). Noma food isn’t theoretical physics, though he’s not afraid to manipulate ingredients, taking sea urchins and drying them then turning them to sand to use as part of an edible seascape. It’s all about expressing the terroir of a place, a region, a Nordic culture, with food as the medium but all the traditional techniques shaken up in a box with a bunch of new ideas. And the way the finished dish is arranged and presented is astonishingly beautiful. I would call it art – absolutely – but Redzepi disdains the word. “I’m not an artist, I’m a chef.”
Watching him last Saturday evening, when a few of us had dinner at Pangaea, he was very much the artisan, chatting with Langdon Hall chef Jonathan Gushue and Nota Bene maestro David Lee not about philosophy but about practical affairs – suppliers and equipment and international organisations like Relais and Chateaux. He has no time for what he calls “the act” in restaurants – those hushed rituals and pretensions that we associate with heavy linen cloths and precisely set cutlery. (Me, I quite enjoy them – sometimes – but that is another story.) At Noma, there is no cloth on the tables and the cooks, not the waiters, serve the food, chatting with casual frivolity about the dishes.
Alison Fryer had dined at Noma last month, which gave a fine immediacy to her questions on stage. The most interesting ask of all was when she enquired what Redzepi might do next. He is, after all, so very young. Could he do another Noma somewhere else, where the local flora and fauna was markedly different, where the gastronomic culture was not so familiar to him? It was the only question that seemed to give him difficulty, as if suggesting a new project might sound disloyal to the work he’s still doing at Noma.
My own new ambition is to visit Noma and experience Redzepi’s imagination in the ostensibly ascetic but discreetly self-indulgent frame he has devised for it. Trouble is, one has to join a waiting list that is months and months long. Failing that we have his beautiful book. The dull grey cover echoes the Lutheran understatement of his restaurant’s décor. The glory is in the 209 consecutive pages of photographs (bravo photographer Ditte Isager) that document his state of mind, the 96 pages of recipes, the continual reinforcement of his anti-pretentious rule. Will anyone attempt to cook from it? That may not be the point. The layout is more like a catalogue of a fine art exhibition with the photographs gathered at the heart of the book, separated from the recipes and the explanatory text.
Nordic food is the new hot cuisine, overtaking northen Spanish this fall, very much because of Noma. But fashion is meaningless. What matters is the way he uses his gifts to enhance the ingredients of his immediate neighbourhood, to make much of foods that have been ignored or disdained since the last Ice Age, to show how the humblest plant can be canonized. And if it isn’t wild, it is grown by dedicated obsessives, farmers and market gardeners who understand the gypsy-grandmother mix of wacky lore and outfield wisdom – the Noma-Roma-oma mindset.
Parts of Canada are similar in bio-regional terms to north-eastern Denmark. But we have so much more, frankly, with our Carolingian forest in Ontario, our British Columbian desert and rain forest, our tundra and prairie and mountain and arctic terrains… a whole great northern continent of possibilities. So why don’t we have the number one restaurant in the world? There must be some other element missing.
Which is why we all stared so hard at Rene Redzepi, up there on the stage in his sport shirt and sneakers. I’m so glad he stopped here between New York and London. So glad he was able to show us that to become world-famous as a chef you don’t have to be a tv lover-boy or a bully.