An Evening and Q&A with René Redzepi of NOMA

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In conversation at the Delancey Theater.

Last night, I took a break from my writing to go listen to chef ~RENÉ REDZEPI OF NOMA~ (interviewed by Daniel Patterson) at the Delancey Theater. It takes a lot to get me to leave my usual Monday night prison (my desk) on deadline night, but when the chef of the world’s best restaurant (as voted by The S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants by Restaurant magazine) is in town from Copenhagen, well, I know where I should be. He’s been getting a lot of attention lately, from winning the Best Restaurant award (the restaurant also has two Michelin stars), to this excellent New York Times profile by Frank Bruni, and now his brand-new and second book is out, NOMA: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine.

His food is a beautiful homage to nature, the land, the seasons, Danish food traditions, and place. His process is fascinating—his ingredients are wild, foraged, mysterious, hyper-local, and fleeting, depending on what nature provides week to week. And listening to him at last night’s event was so revealing: his childhood in Macedonia was extremely rural, full of stories of shared meals around family-style platters of food (with no silverware or individual plates), of hand-churned butter, and living off the land (it reminded me very much of the stories my father tells of growing up on a farm in Calabria—such formative memories and experiences). It helps explain Redzepi’s connection to the land, and ease in it, which serves as the inspiration for his soulful and ethereal-yet-rooted cuisine (I write like I’ve eaten his food—sadly, no, but it’s how it strikes me).

It was fascinating listening to him explain—while watching some of his short cooking video clips—how four different dishes were originally conceived, from pairing ingredients on the plate that grow near each other (like the spruce trees next to a field of asparagus), to his discovery of “vintage”’ carrots. During last year’s very brutal winter, they were running out of ingredients and options to serve their guests, and the carrots were a desperate discovery: bordering on a year and a half old, left in the ground by a farmer, they proved to be the most revelatory carrots after a long bath in goat butter. They were so delicious it made him wonder: is this the way carrots are actually supposed to be eaten, and cooked? Have we been eating carrots the wrong way all these years?

He’s an avid historian—in NOMA’s beginning years, he went on a quest to research Nordic cuisine deeply, trying to find the soul of the region’s cuisine and culinary traditions, seeking answers to how Danish people have eaten over the centuries.

Redzepi also said he doesn’t believe there’s a place that has better ingredients than another. For him, it’s about what you grow up with. (He said he found our local ingredients to be too sweet.)

What struck me last night is how he uses technique to showcase the best of ingredients, and often to recreate their natural state on the plate—it’s not about transforming ingredients into another form for the sake of presentation, to entertain the diner. It’s about how to present flavor best, and naturally. Like the roasted asparagus that he then juices—he said it’s such an extraordinary flavor. But he also uses completely primal techniques, like tying spears of white asparagus to spruce branches with twine, then roasting them over a grill slightly to infuse a spruce flavor—very culinary caveman.

He has 25-30 people in his (gorgeous) kitchen, and he said he has his cooks harvest, prep, cook, and serve guests—a full circle of experience. He noted that cooking is one of the last trades that will not be replaced by machines. Amen.

He’s charismatic, smart, handsome, talented, and was totally engaging to listen to—he’s real, and doesn’t hesitate to drop a few F-bombs. (I’m so glad it wasn’t a night of stuffy and precious food geekery—quite the opposite.) Of course, at the end of the event, Redzepi and Daniel Patterson headed to Plum, where Daniel also cooked for Tim Hollingsworth of The French Laundry, Corey Lee of Benu, and David Kinch of Manresa. (Yeah, our local ingredient mafia.)

I was fortunate to have Daniel Patterson extend the opportunity for me to send René some questions prior to his visit (here they are below), and after last night’s presentation, I have so many more questions. I suppose they will have to wait for some magical time when I get to visit his restaurant. And I imagine that’s a big part of his cuisine’s charisma: it has a knack for making people curious.

My Questions for René Redzepi

If you had to sum up your cooking style in three words, what are they?
What weather brings.

What is one of your favorite ingredients to cook with? What dish did you make with it?
I really don’t have a favorite ingredient, my favorite thing is the changing of the seasons.

Tell us a story about one of your favorite ingredients that you discovered through foraging.
Sea arrow grass. I remember it like yesterday, one spring morning looking at this succulent with an appearance like chive, thinking to myself that it looked edible. I tried it and to my great surprise it tasted like coriander/cilantro with a strong salinity to it. A flavor I had always thought only existed in warmer areas of the world.

If there was one ingredient from California that you wish grew in Denmark, what would it be?
Citrus fruit!!!

Who is someone who has really influenced the way you cook?
Several, but my first mentor is my chef back from when I was an apprentice: Phillipe Houdet from restaurant Pierre André in Copenhagen.

How are you managing all your success? Is all the current publicity changing how much you can work in the kitchen?
I’m dealing with it quite well I would say, I keep reminding myself what made the success, which is cooking. So that is what I keep doing and what makes me most happy really!

Is there anything you wish you could take back or change about your career path?
No.

Name three chefs you admire, and why. (They can be from anywhere…)
This is just impossible for me to point out only 3, there are just too many. If I was to mention a few from California, it would have to be David Kinch for his intuition, Thomas Keller for his excellence, Daniel Patterson for his intelligence, and Corey Lee for his talent.

What are you working on right now? What are some of your future goals?
My future plan is to have more children.

Thanks to René for taking the time to answer my questions, and to visit us here in San Francisco. Thanks to Daniel Patterson for his enthusiastic presentation of what makes Redzepi and his restaurant so very unique. And many thanks to Celia Sack of Omnivore Books for organizing a signing at her store and the excellent talk last night. I am confident it was inspiring for many.