On the night in 2009 when his restaurant reached No 3 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, René Redzepi’s thoughts turned to aviation. “It was a great moment,” he recalls. “But it also felt like that moment when you’re on a plane after it takes off, and you’re at 10,000 feet, and you’re wondering, is this where we level off? Or are we going to start climbing again?”
As it turned out, the climb for Noma had hardly begun: in the coming years, the restaurant would top the list four times, and Redzepi would launch several projects that would, in important ways, change the very nature of being a chef. But seven years, three international pop-ups, and one momentous decision later, the question remains as relevant to him as ever. René Redzepi is still wondering about the climb.
In February, Noma will serve its last meal. A little over a month later, the restaurant’s entire staff will move to the Mexican resort town of Tulum to open an outdoor restaurant – temporarily – deep in the jungle. For seven weeks they will serve Noma’s interpretation of tacos and mole to the hundreds of patrons who snatched up every ticket within a day of them going on sale. Then, in June, they will return to Copenhagen, and if all goes as planned, they will open a new, cutting-edge restaurant called Noma.
It would be easy to mistake as raw ambition the impulses that lead Redzepi to these kind of outsized exercises, much as it is easy to mistake the $600 a head (before tax and tip) tab for dinner at the Mexico pop-up as greed. But to a degree remarkable among those with access to such opportunities, he is not driven by a desire for fame or money. It is more like restlessness – a deep, nearly primal desire to keep moving forward, evolving, improving. It’s as if he is anaphylactically allergic to stasis.
On a rare sunny November morning in Copenhagen, Redzepi is, however, momentarily seated. He is drinking tea at 108, the new Noma-owned restaurant run by chef Kristian Baumann. Earlier in the week, he had learned that the city had finally granted all the building permits for the new Noma – so long as they agreed to shift the location by two metres. He had also learned that a potential sponsor for the Mexico pop-up was having second thoughts, which meant the restaurant was going to have to fund the endeavour, including the cost of flying and housing its staff, by itself.
“It’s so stressful,” Redzepi admits. “I want to abort once a month. But then I remember: we can’t. We’re six months pregnant.”
He means that metaphorically: the thing he will be giving birth to is not a child (though he would like to add another to the three he and his wife Nadine have) but a reinvented restaurant. And he has faced intense pressure in the past, and managed to harness his restlessness like some kind of renewable energy in order to power through it. But though the stakes were high before, they were nothing like this. If the comparison to giving birth makes sense, it’s because this time, Noma’s reinvention is about legacy.
Legacy is an unlikely thing for a 39-year-old to be thinking about. But you could say that Redzepi has been at it his entire career, ever since culinary entrepreneur Claus Meyer went looking for a chef to head his new restaurant. At the time, fine dining in Denmark meant French cuisine, but Meyer’s vision was to show Danes that a restaurant could cook deliciously with ingredients from their own backyard. He found the 23-year-old Redzepi, recently graduated from apprenticeships at the French Laundry in California and elBulli in Spain, who signed on for what was supposed to be a simple restaurant, without Michelin-level ambition. Redzepi’s recollection of opening night reveals its modest aims. “I wasn’t nervous,” he says, “because I didn’t think we were doing anything new. We were just opening a restaurant.”
A tour of the region taught him about its possibilities. Redzepi learned he could substitute vinegar for citrus, seaweed for leafy greens. Soon it became an ambition, this quest for new ingredients and flavours. When a Swedish forager in wellies showed up at his kitchen with a sack of beach herbs, Redzepi saw the runway before him.
Instead of simply bringing in Nordic ingredients for French ones, he began rethinking what an ingredient was. He and his brigade learned to forage, bringing back wild plants and, eventually, insects that augmented the arsenal of flavours available to a kitchen devoted like none before it to understanding its terroir. Gradually, the kitchen also turned to older techniques like smoking, pickling and fermenting that were indigenous to the region.
The immediate response was sceptical, to put it mildly. Locally, Noma was either dismissed or mocked (as Redzepi still loves to recount, they were accused of doing unprintable things to seals). But it made them see themselves as scrappy underdogs. When Noma began to receive positive attention abroad, they weren’t sure they could trust it, and kept working.
Their reputation grew. The style of cooking Noma was developing – a naturalistic expression of time and place that became known as “new Nordic” – seemed the antithesis of the Spanish pyrotechnics that then dominated the gastronomic scene. “Before that, the world’s most notable restaurants all began with El and Le and La,” recalls Kate Krader, food and drinks editor of Bloomberg Pursuits. “Noma almost singlehandedly took the spotlight and shone it on northern Europe. It’s not that Noma discovered nature – Ferran and Albert [Adrià] had highlighted it at elBulli – but René sort of emerged from the Nordic woods with a clutch of mushrooms and a duck-hunting knife and put Copenhagen and Nordic cooking on the map.”
As Noma picked up accolades (two Michelin stars in 2008; the top slot on the World’s 50 Best list a couple of years later), its success inspired others in the region to pay attention to their landscape. Maintaining to varying degrees the geographic limitations that Redzepi had imposed on himself, restaurants like Frantzén/Lindeberg in Stockholm, Dill in Reykjavik and Maaemo in Oslo also became identified with the Nordic trend. “They put the spotlight on the fact that there could be great restaurants in a region that was previously uncharted, gastronomically speaking. And that led to more,” says Magnus Nilsson, chef of the highly acclaimed Fäviken in northern Sweden. “I can’t definitely say that I wouldn’t have opened Fäviken without Noma, but it would have been harder. I wouldn’t have made the decision when and how I did.”
Noma’s kitchen became a magnet for young chefs from around the world eager to learn the new style. Isaac McHale, head chef of the Clove Club, can still tick off the impressive names in the kitchen when he did his apprenticeship at Noma in 2007: Christian Puglisi, Torsten Vildgaard, Daniel Burns, Ben Greeno, Jon Tam, Sam Miller, Brad McDonald. “The team when I was there was like the Harlem Globetrotters,” McHale recalls. “They’ve all gone on to do great things.”
“New Nordic” even moved outside the restaurant. It wasn’t long after Noma began using Icelandic cultured milk in its kitchen, for example, that skyr began showing up in Danish supermarkets. These days, sea buckthorn can be found in everything from ice-cream to shampoo.
In Copenhagen especially, the effect was profound. The city’s restaurant scene expanded as Noma alumni graduated, opening ambitious places including Puglisi’s Relae and Matt Orlando’s Amass, quirky ones – Victor Wagman and Sam Nutter’s offal-friendly Bror, and casual spots such as Rosio Sanchez’s taco stand Hija de Sanchez. Though a mere decade earlier the city was seen as a culinary Siberia, Copenhagen became a foodie destination nearly as alluring as Barcelona or Paris. “That’s something I’m really proud of,” Redzepi says. “That we created a community.”
He was creating more than that. A New York Times op-ed here, an invitation to Davos there and, slowly, Redzepi began – like other well-known chefs in our food-obsessed age – to wield greater public influence. He was still in the kitchen, overseeing service and approving the recipes that flowed from Noma’s test kitchen and fermentation lab. And he remained sceptical of fame: “I say to my staff that it’s a loan, and one day you have to give it back.” But he also began speaking publicly about his desire to leave the profession better than he found it.
In 2011, he and his team launched Mad [Danish for food], a symposium that brought chefs together to talk about how they might make their industry and, not incidentally, the world better places. Every aspect of the conference, down to the soundboard, was run by Noma staff, and their palpable commitment was as important to the symposium’s success as it was at the restaurant. “Every single time I was at Noma I felt it,” says Nilsson. “There was a sense of momentum, the energy of everyone together, going forward.”
Until there wasn’t. Four years after the aeroplane metaphor came to Redzepi, he faced the real possibility of levelling off, or worse, of falling – 2013 was Noma’s annus horribilis. In February, norovirus sickened 63 Noma diners and set off spasms of media schadenfreude around the globe. In April, the restaurant fell to second place on the World’s 50 Best list. It had only recently recovered from a bout with near-bankruptcy, and Redzepi’s relationship with Meyer, which had been difficult for some time, was becoming untenable. “That’s the fear,” he says. “That you’re going to lose it all.”
So much of Redzepi’s drive is born of it: the fear that – whether abruptly in the form of a terrible review, or agonisingly, as the food world’s attention turns to the next big thing – it could all disappear. It is there, palpable, when he chews out a stagiaire for being anything less than perfect, and there too when he squirms over a blogger’s negative comment. In 2013, the fear almost, in his mind, became reality. So he did the only thing he could do: he unleashed his restlessness.
In June, Redzepi became majority owner of Noma with the help of new investor Marc Blazer (Meyer retained a minority stake). Together, they came up with a project that Redzepi hoped would restore his staff’s morale and ignite their creativity. They would hold a pop-up at the Tokyo Mandarin Oriental hotel, where they could explore a new culture, investigate a new range of ingredients, and do a little bonding in the process.
Held in January 2015, the project proved so successful that last year, Noma did it again. This time, they went to Sydney, where the team used Australian indigenous ingredients – grainy wattle seeds that could be cooked into porridge; tart wild plums called gubinge; and, of course, crocodile – to create dishes that startled with their newness and intensity. Once again, the pop-up had an invigorating impact, and not only for the staff. “Noma Australia arrived at a moment when the leading restaurants here were engaging anew with native ingredients,” says Pat Nourse, restaurant editor of Australian Gourmet Traveller. “But even so, René Redzepi’s knack for reaching just beyond the attainable put a lot of places on notice: here’s this Danish guy showing us things we’ve never seen before – things from Australia.”
And so, Noma sprang back from its brush with decline. Now, seated with his tea and only a few months to go before Noma moves again, he recognises the same urges in play. “There’s a need to always be on the edge,” he says. “That’s what challenges me. Otherwise, I can’t find the drive to go to work. What’s the point of working so much if it becomes robotic?”
Mexico promises to be anything but. Redzepi has long been enamoured of the country’s food culture, and the chance to explore it in depth is deeply satisfying to him. He’s also looking forward to creating the restaurant’s atmosphere; surrounded by jungle, the outdoor dining room will feature open fires and waiters in flip-flops. But the process has proven more complicated than anything Noma has undertaken before, and a lot of the logistics – from completing construction on time, to procuring the right equipment, to overcoming the negative publicity generated by the price tag – are challenging.
Still, it will be good preparation for what comes after. Right now, the only sign of that is the billboard stating, “We’re building the New Noma here,” that recently went up in front of a burned-out, graffiti-coated shell on an island two kilometres from the current restaurant. But the new structure, designed by star Danish architecture firm BIG, promises to dazzle – eventually. Though not a single hole has been dug yet, Noma has already been forced by city codes to amend or abandon some of its more ambitious plans for the new space. A floating garden, for example, fell victim to environmental restrictions.
But when it is complete, the new Noma will feel closer to nature. “There are birds there, and wildlife,” Redzepi sighs, and the cooking will reflect this proximity. The kitchen will not just adapt to the seasons but be defined by them; Redzepi envisions menus – three of them to more accurately reflect the real number of seasons in this part of the world – that focus solely on vegetables in the harvesting months, for example, or game in the hunting ones.
Noma 2.0 will also be an experimental farm, with the emphasis on the experimental. “It’s the dream of any chef to be able to go out in the morning and cut fresh parsley,” Redzepi says. “But the reality is that not many people who grow food for a living have the freedom to experiment with varieties. What if you had the time to try all variations of parsley that grow in the northern seabank, and then share what you learn with the people who do grow food?” The new Noma, in other words, won’t be growing carrots and onions, it’ll be trying to recapture and in some cases introduce biodiversity into the region.
Needless to say, none of this comes cheap. “We’re taking a mega-risk,” Redzepi says. “It’ll take us 25 years just to pay it all back.” There are other worries too: about whether the new Noma will be different enough from the old to satisfy the novelty seekers, about whether it will be good enough to satisfy the critics. “Who knows if we can be as good as we were?” he asks. “If all that doesn’t fall into place, it could all be over.”
There it is again, that fear. By now he’s learned that the only antidote for it is action. “I still feel it,” he admits. “I know it could all disappear. But now I also know that if it all crashes, I can start again. That’s the difference. You have to be willing to start again.”
Asked how he saw Noma’s impact, Albert Adrià called it, “the beacon that has shown us all that in cooking there are many truths, the breath of fresh air that reminds us we have the freedom to choose a path.” Now that breath of fresh air has finished the last of his tea, and pulled on his jacket.
“People always ask why I keep pushing, what I have left to accomplish,” Redzepi says. “But that’s because they think it’s about the accolades – that once you have those, you’re done.” He got ready to climb on his bike. “But how can you ever say the work is done?”
This article was taken from Observer Food Monthly on 15 January 2017. Click here to get the Observer for half price.
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