René RedzepiInterview by James Casey. Photograph by John Short.
Nature boy. Copenhagen’s shining star, restaurant noma showcases the dramatic and natural brilliance of the North.
When listening to noma’s chef, René Redzepi, talk about a pear, it becomes apparent that produce might be more than an occupational preoccupation. “We have a pear that is perfectly soft and brown on the skin, and inside it is yellow and there are small grains—perfectly mature. When you have it at that point, it lasts four days and then the moisture evaporates. They’re from a small island with apple and pear trees that are between 30 and 60 years old—it’s low production, low yield. It’s so small that the salt water has a constant influence on everything that grows there.” Rather sheepishly he concludes with the understatement of the year: “It’s a good pear.”
Having worked in several of the world’s most influential kitchens, including a period at the French Laundry and a season alongside the molecular mastermind Ferran Adrià at El Bulli (who, coincidentally, declared Scandinavia the new Spain), Redzepi’s cooking is a world away from his former taskmasters. All hyperbole aside, this chef’s devotion to the products and provenance of Nordic countries has solidified noma as one of the world’s gastronomic wonders. Dedicated to sourcing ingredients entirely from the North Atlantic, Redzepi has singularly built up a network of suppliers, hunters, farmers, fishermen and foragers from Finland to the Faeroes, Greenland, Lapland and beyond.
While the products might be “local,” obtaining them has proven difficult, as many of Europe’s food trade routes originate in the south. “The existing distribution lines are from big markets in Paris and Italy. It’s much, much easier [to get something from there] than it is to get something from two hours away. It sounds funny to say local products are special products, because they’re everywhere. But today, as it is, they are exotic products.” As the restaurant’s reputation grows, Redzepi admits that the process has gotten easier, but still has a way to go. “I would love, and we need, 10 other restaurants in Copenhagen doing their version of this. Then we’d be really strong.”
The cooking at noma is a modern European experience with what Redzepi defines as “international techniques.” He explains, “It is a modern kitchen—technique-wise and philosophically—it’s simple and clean-cut through most things. The Nordic kitchen starts first of all by working with the seasons, and trying to tell yourself, ‘We’re going to work with what we have.” To some, the idea of restricting your ingredients to those from a somewhat unforgiving climate would be seen as a limitation; Redzepi figures otherwise. “It was a liberation. I know it sounds a little philosophical and I don’t even like to say it, but it’s true. You know what you have in a season; you really have to explore the season much more than I’ve ever done.”
According to Redzepi, our winter visit to noma couldn’t have come at a worse time. “This is definitely by far our poorest season. Coming back in the summer is like pornography—in the summer you have everything—more than you could ever eat or gather. Everything will be lush and booming with mushrooms, berries and wild herbs. It starts in late March and slowly you see some of the young fresh herbs come out; the fish lay their eggs. Now you see all the plates are in deep bowls. Food is more compact, so you know it’s winter. In the summer it’s more subtle, salads and fresh. But that’s also the beauty of the Nordic kitchen. The seasons are so extreme, they change so drastically, so there has to be a difference.”
Noma’s adherence to nature is far more than just a selling point—it’s part of Redzepi’s personal philosophy. ”I feel 100 percent sure that after a meal, a month or a lifetime, by eating products that are natural you will feel better.” While this draw to the natural is something he thinks is very Nordic, Redzepi acknowledges that Denmark hasn’t been a great ambassador for the current movement. “We have 65 million pigs here,” he explains. “Danish pork is now another half metre long because they want to stretch the bacon—it’s like watching a magician!” He pauses for a second, sits forward and continues: “It’s the worst crap you can get. They pump it with the salt liquid and whoop, it fills up 30 percent more. They put liquid smoke or powdered smoke on it and then… bacon! It hasn’t been salted for a week in brine and then cold-smoked for two days, none of that.”
In November 2004, noma hosted the New Nordic Symposium, a gathering of chefs and captains of industry from throughout the region. They established a “Manifesto for the New Nordic Cuisine,” with guidelines for a new Nordic kitchen and how it can evolve. Since then, the scene has moved at lightning pace—especially in Copenhagen, where eleven restaurants now have Michelin stars (noma being the sole recipient of two stars). “If we can keep up the pace and keep up the energy and help each other, not work against each other, within 5 years we could easily have three two-stars and in 10 years maybe one three-star.” Redzepi concludes that the currency of Copenhagen’s current success is its unbridled energy, stating with a hint of caution, “If the energy stops, then everything stops.”