"We are a restaurant that has a pact with nature." I met René Redzepi - chef and co-owner of Noma, recently crowned "Best Restaurant In The World" - on location in Copenhagen with the Lovefood team a couple of weeks ago for a bit of eating, bit of drinking, bit of filming, bit of chat. It's what we do. Lucky us.
René is the world’s prime advocate of a movement called “The Nordic Kitchen” a principally Danish enterprise to get the country back on track gastronomically (for years they have eaten nothing but crap: the best produce – bacon, butter – all went to Britain, and they forgot what Danish food was) by focusing on the glories of Scandinavian local produce and its great old recipes, modernised. It also happens to have captivated the high-class foodie world.
To illustrate his passion and to stock up for dinner, René took us foraging in the countryside outside the capital, and down by the sea, where we chomped on weeds, berries, things gone to seed, bark, sea buckthorn, scurvy grass, cardoons, wild turnip, flyblown, bolted bits-and-pieces and sharp, unripe things.
He plucked a pink-flowered green plant out of the sand and put it in my mouth.
“It’s good, no?” he said. No. Not especially. But it was mad in the mouth, with a high, spiky, vaporous scent, like very strong glue. I wouldn’t have known it was there, to try it. And if I’d tried it alone, I wouldn’t have done so twice.
“This is beach mustard,” he said. “What do you call it in English?” I told him I didn’t know what we called it in English. Although I doubt we’ve bothered to give it a name at all. “What will you do with it?” I asked. “Well, we have a dish of crab,” he said. “You could blend the beach mustard into the crab bouillon and then lightly jellify it. I think that would work.” If you say so, pal, I thought. You’re the best chef in the world. You ought to know.
Redzepi opened Noma in 2003, at the age of 25, after ten years working at such stellar restaurants as El Bulli in Spain and The French Laundry in California, as the showcase for a way of cooking that took the notion of local and seasonal integrity to the far north, and made almost a religion of it.
In Redzepi’s kitchen there are no tomatoes. No foie gras. No olive oil. He will buy from Sweden, Finland, Norway. He will go to Greenland via Iceland and the Faroe Islands. But there is nothing from France, Italy, or Spain. To go from foraging in a land which spends a lot of the year frozen and dark to his current position on top of the world is an incredible leap.
“Yes, well. I’m not sure that we are exactly the best restaurant in the world,” he said, pulling a rose of some sort off a hedge and chewing it. “My mother thinks Noma is the best restaurant in the world. But my ex-girlfriend probably doesn’t. It is subjective. But I understand that we are looked at as quite an important place at the moment. With knowledge and patience we have made high gastronomy in a place not known for it. If it can happen here in Denmark it can happen anywhere.”
At the farm of local producer Soren Wiuff, we tried more strange weeds and seeds, and Rene explained his philosophy. “It is crucial to taste food in its natural environment,” he said, “As we can here, only an hour from the restaurant. This will influence how you cook it. Because once you’ve tasted it in the field you start to notice that a day later, once it’s been refrigerated perhaps, it just starts to taste of less. So this becomes your reference point on how this product tastes. “We are a restaurant that has a pact with nature. Our food has to have a sense of time and place. ‘Where are we? What time of the year are we in?’ It is important for the diner to feel the link from nature to plate.”
I understood properly what he was talking about only later, at his restaurant, where I ate his famous “radish and carrot, soil and herbs”: a flowerpot full of ‘earth’ (made from hazelnut flour, malt flour, butter, dark beer and wheat flour) in which a carrot and a radish are ‘planted’. And also when I ate a live shrimp, tentacles twitching and all – an incredible moment of natural eating and, since it involved a death in my own mouth, a taste permanently fixed in a single moment in time.
The first course was the bunch of flowers in the middle of the table: nasturtium leaves and Jerusalem artichoke flowers, with snails on them. Real snails. Not living this time. But real snails on real leaves. Delicious.
And then there was the dish of pebbles (foraged from the beach on which I was standing earlier), frozen in ice, on which an amber ‘snow’ of sea urchin rolled down to a green sea’s edge of dill and cream, where lean, raw, prawns bask in the shallows. An amazing dish. Unheard of.
People occasionally say of a nice plate of food, “it looks as pretty as a picture”. And of a really posh plateful in some overpriced Mayfair celebrity clip-joint that, “It is a work of art.” But this dish, and one or two others of René’s, was more than that. It had the atmosphere of a freeze-framed image from a longer movie. Of a single High Definition blink in a continuum. The shrimp and the sea and the dill and the cream and the ice and the pebbles and the urchin had a visible past and a knowable future, either side of that moment. A bigger pebble came later, a huge, beautiful stone, with a single, fatter langoustine beached upon it, half-shelled with powdered seaweed. A simultaneity of food and context. There was a musk ox tatar made entirely by hand – a reaction to the electric mechanization of so much molecular gastronomy – and served to be eaten with ones fingers. And a venison dish served under leaf-shaped beetroot shards, with seeds and berries from that morning’s forest floor and a short Finnish hunting knife.
Obviously, his fellow chefs thought he was mad. So did the Danes. But they flock to him now, from all over the world.
I asked him what he planned to do with his position on top of the world. He had already admitted to me that he makes no money at all (the margins at this level of cooking are practically non-existent), riding a bicycle because he cannot afford a car and living with his wife and baby in a 90sq metre apartment.
“Do with it?” he said. “What can I do except to remain true to what I am doing?”
Well, if not make money, in that case did he want to “do a Jamie”? Did he want to bring his philosophy out of the restaurant and change the way people eat? “Oh come on,” he said. “I am a chef. I have been working in restaurant kitchens as I am now since I was 15. I’d love people to eat seasonal and local and connected but I don’t know how to make them do that. I am completely detached from society. How can I possibly know what normal people should eat?”
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