Zen. That’s the word that came to mind when we entered the second, larger kitchen upstairs at Noma and noticed six chefs and cooks around a table, silently but determined cleaning micro-greens and herbs. It’s a picture that beautifully showcases Noma’s approach to food and cooking.
You may have seen yesterday’s feature on NOWNESS, an edited excerpt of our interview with René Redzepi. The overall time we got to spend in the kitchens, try ingredients we haven’t heard of before, talk to the chefs and get insight into the operations was only topped by our talk with René. It provides a fair glimpse into his thoughts and take on the concept of eating local and sustainability and how the food industry latched onto it in its own way.
This is René, 100%, unfiltered.
Your biography reflects a multi cultural background, how has your growing up influenced your culinary history?
Well, I’m born to a Danish mother and Macedonian father, back then of course it was Yugoslavia. My father is of Albanian decent, but the family has been living for generations in Macedonia, they are Muslims.
But you are not?
I’m not – we always had the freedom to choose to do whatever came naturally to us. And my mother is not a Muslim, she’s a Danish protestant. My wife is Jewish. As a child I remember the late 70’ies & 80’ies here in Denmark as a period where everybody had to save and save, nobody had any money, it was just a period of grey. Food was bad, everything was just bad, the 80ies have been horrible. I don’t remember Denmark as a particularly nice spot in that period.
I remember my childhood mostly in Macedonia where I spent every year a minimum of 7 weeks, until ’92, when the war fully broke out. Even though people were much poorer, life took place in nature, people lived on the land, took walks in the mountains, played with fireflies, it was hot all the time. I have very good memories of it. And we ate very well.
Since ‘92 a lot of people left, especially to Switzerland – for some reason – and now they come back with a more westernized lifestyle. Before that, it was very rural, people spent time around the table, sat on the floor, ate with their hands. We ate very little meat, because if you ate meat, you had to slaughter one of your animals, so we ate beans – that’s how you get proteins – lentils, vegetables. I remember also playing a little basketball and handball.
And then, at the age of 15, when finishing 9th grade, I went to chef college, because a friend entered. I didn’t know which direction to take, I was tired of school and I simply followed my friend’s dream of becoming a chef. I actually thought I was going to be a waiter when I first entered, I didn’t want to be a chef. I thought it was a little dirty work – which it can be - but as soon as I enrolled in this college, during the six month introduction course, I instantly knew that this was what I wanted to be.
Primarily because of one episode on the second day of school, when the teacher asked us to choose a recipe that we should cook and we’d be judged on the taste and how it looked. And I remember as a 15 year old young man, the biggest questions I asked myself at that point were “when am I gonna play soccer, do the girls like me”, stuff like that. Never really any major questions, because I didn’t care so much about many things. “What am I gonna do with my life?”, I never asked myself that, I just followed the flow.
We couldn’t just go on the internet and surf for a few hours, you actually had to go back home, you had to go to the library and get cookbooks and magazines. And that was like an instant instigator of a will to learn something. It was the first time I remember, ever, having an experience of actually asking myself as a person what is it that I like about something. And that was a huge change for me. I went from being a guy that didn’t care about anything, who just wanted to play soccer and hang out with the friends, to coming early to school, reading about chefs and gastronomy, about the Michelin guide. I started to dream, tried to find the best places for apprenticeship and so on and so on. That episode really changed me a lot.
The simple question what I liked about food had such a big impact on me. We didn’t win the competition at the time, we became number two. And then from there, it’s just been one push forward. I started when I was 15, I’ll be 33 this year, so over 18 years in the industry. It’s a long time actually, when you think of it.
How is it possible to maintain this extremely high level, now that you’ve accomplished everything as a chef? What’s next? New challenges ahead, or are you even thinking about taking a year off?
It’s an interesting question, because what does it mean to have accomplished something? Does it mean you have finished your work, because, let’s say a magazine or an institution says that now that you have won the top awards you have arrived at absolute perfection? I don’t feel that whatsoever. We may have been voted the so called best restaurant in the world, but for me our work is not done here. The way we can express our whole land or terroir onto a plate can be much stronger and much more direct. We have not yet finished our discovery journey with the [available] product range and getting to know all the people that grow great things, I mean, this is a process that continues for years.
Suddenly you have a whole range of staff that you’ve trained yourself and that will go out and inspire others, which is a very satisfying element and a whole new factor which I didn’t expect. Sören has been here for almost 7 years this February and we turn 7 in November, but people leave and open restaurants and it’s extremely satisfying to being able to help and push people forward and to feel that you actually are taking a part in shaping gastronomy for a region. For a small part of the culinary history.
It’s very interesting and very energizing how far we can actually take this by using intuition and knowledge to shape something that has its own little world with no strong and clear reference points to other places.
How would you describe new Nordic cuisine?
We’ve been here 7 years now, how long is something new? First of all I hate the term, I hate that it got invented, I hate the way that the whole industry are the first ones to embrace it and kind of ridicule it. What we do is a regional European cuisine – that’s it.
Our main mission at the restaurant and what I tell the staff when they leave here is, give your guests a sense of time and place. Whether it’s the product range, which is a big part of us, but also the whole atmosphere, the way that the restaurant is set. That’s how we give our guests a sense of time and place.
It can only happen right here at this corner in Copenhagen at this time of the year. This is the essence of what we do. And then there is layers of finding staff, innovation and that’s the essence of it. That is our cuisine, it’s not a new Nordic cuisine. A new Nordic cuisine is a term that has been made as an inspiration for the industry and other people.
The industry tries to label everything and wants to turn new trends into mainstream, only for financial reasons? Is it hard for you to see the industry misinterpreting your concept?
They haven’t understood anything. I would love the fact that what we’re doing could be something on a broader social level, great food should be for everybody. Of course I know our restaurant is not for everybody, because it’s expensive. We buy very expensive products, we have forty to fifty people, so I’d have the biggest respect if somebody could actually make something for a broader social audience, but with the same quality element to it. Whether it’s just marmalade or it’s, you know, a creation in a two star Michelin restaurant. I would have very much respect for this, I would love to see it happen, but it hasn’t happened.
Because for the industry it’s just labels, there’s no depth to the products that have come out yet. There’s just no depth to it, it’s superficial, and it’s just a label. The essence of everything is the same. It might as well be – not that I have anything against Poland – a new Nordic line of bread that some company there made!? Where are the grains from, who grew it, why is this bread the new Nordic bread? It’s just a label. The wheat may be from Poland, or from Australia and the yeast could be from Belgium, perhaps it’s even baked in Germany. Who knows, and maybe then frozen? There’s no connection, there’s no sense of place. It’s just words and that is of course so stupid. That’s why I don’t want to be associated with this term. It’s becoming like Tivoli gardens.
A lot of these people should be ashamed of themselves. Everybody knows there are a handful of people, who decides what every person eats, what’s in the supermarkets – they should be ashamed of themselves. Everybody said this project was impossible. I know now, with a little bit of commitment and patience it is indeed possible, despite a first wave of skepticism and people that reject it. Then a new truth can actually occur. And on the same note, I’m so tired of listening to the same and the same “we’re just delivering what the buyers want” – it’s just not true. It is just not true! Those people who have made the whole society not being able to taste proper ingredients and products and buying the cheapest of the cheap, pressuring everybody, it’s just something to be so ashamed of.
I don’t understand why these supermarkets, the big chains, why they don’t have a panel of chefs, philosophers and anthropologists. And of course marketing people. Everything that combined together somehow outlines what is the product range, what is it that we want to do.
We have a social responsibility to ensure people stay healthy, but everything is done for profit. And I believe that you could still make a profit by doing it proper and also in an honest way. “Using local” has been said for the last 15 years, I mean Alice Waters in America, she has been saying that for so many years and in France it’s the most common thing, and so it is in many places. But we are doing it in an area, where nobody thought that it could be done. Where people think there are not enough products, the product range is too small and lack of availability because of the weather.
In our region we have created supply lines south of the border that are much stronger than within our own region. So people simply thought that it could not happen. In the bigger picture we are showing that it is just a matter of a mindset and some type of commitment & patience and it involves some kind of understanding. By that I mean you have to read and study in order to understand various things. That is important, not the message of “using local”.
Do you tap into other culinary directions to spark new things?
Well, we’re putting up a new book and we call it “Time and Place”. This is what I always teach the staff, that when we are in doubt we go back to time and place. Very simple, very banal.
I have to go to Australia in 2 months to give a lecture at the Sidney opera house. I‘ve been spending the last days on researching Australian products , the food culture & history of it.
In Australia I want to somehow try to give an audience of 1500 people a sense of their own time and place – if it’s possible – through their own products. Products that they probably don’t understand or didn’t realize that were there. In order to do that, you really need to study what’s out there, how it can be eaten and so on.
What is your favorite way to research?
Books. Not cookbooks. It’s not so much cookbooks, more like cultural books. I think books are one of the most underestimated items in the past decade. Obviously you can find very good information and articles on the internet, but old books, proper books, I think, give you a much better understanding.
It’s like you’re in your little world. So books are the main thing, the internet and networking which is very, very big as well. In school, if you want to say something you raise your finger. So that’s what I do, I raise my finger all the time, you understand. I reach out to people all the time, you call up people you hear about all the time. There are two people right now looking for kangaroo milk for me. It should be very tasty, high in protein, it should be good for making cheese, for instance, and it’s good for your health. It’s something that I started two days ago.
That’s the interesting thing when you come from a certain place, because when you grew up in a certain way, all your culture is shoved in your face, and that’s the way it is. You’re framed. And you can’t step out of it unless you travel a lot to see other cultures, then you can somehow see your own culture from outside and understand it better. One of the reasons why Noma has been such a great success is the fact that I have different cultures in me, when you travel a lot you see things differently. So once in a while, you know, you need someone that comes from outside for new input.
Do you have a strong connection or interest in other foreign cuisines? Anything that’s in the back of your head?
I would love to do a book or a research trip on the history of products, but there’s no money for these things. Take the 15 most used products in the world, and then you start where they originate from. Carrots. Maybe the carrot. I know that it started in Afghanistan, that’s what some people told me, and then you go there and you follow the carrot. That would be very interesting; you would at least get a lot of interesting recipes, different varieties. I would love to do that at one point, that’s a dream, to be able to do that. But imagine the amount of money you need for something like this. And nobody is interested in things like this, you know. People want reality.
What is your favorite and least favorite side-effect of becoming number one? Did you experience a change in guests?
No. More happy guests. I mean, everybody said, now you’re only going to get the people with the private jets and so on, but this hasn’t happened. We have to book a table three months in advance and people that are extremely wealthy and busy just don’t do that. It’d be more like “we come in two weeks”, but we’re fully booked, we only have eleven tables. It’s the same process for everyone, you have to go online and you have to book a table when a new day opens. And the one who gets there first gets there first.
I would say that there are much more enthusiastic guests coming to try now, very open-minded. We can put anything we want on the menu; people are here to try, not to get full.
“There’s lamb on the menu, I don’t really like lamb, can you do something else.” Perhaps two years ago we had a lot of these experiences, now people say “hey, they’re doing lamb, I wanna see, what they are doing with lamb.” Or with oysters and so on. And that’s a gift, it’s so fantastic that we reached that stage. We even served some guests beaver.
With the industry constantly seeking for new trends, what do you think comes next? Increased focus on the local/sustainability trend?
I think it’s gonna go deeper into that and focus on more specific subjects. I think that vegetarian cuisine will grow a lot, it will grow from, I think, a hippie style, bad cuisine, with tofu burgers and incense, meat dishes without meat, to just cooking vegetable dishes. I think it’s gonna grow a lot, I think people are going to open up for the diversity of vegetables, the diversity of flavor and how you can apply it. You don’t have to necessarily eat that many proteins.
I think that’s the next big one. People are really gonna be surprise about what you can do with vegetables. Vegetables, plants, berries, mushrooms, all types of grains, it’s so huge, I mean, probably 15.000 times bigger than what we have of animals available to eat. There’s not that big variety of animals to eat, a cow, a pig, a lamb, pheasants, all in all, 20, 30 types? I mean, you can find 10 types of carrots in just one of our farms.
How do you keep your energy at such a constant high level?
It’s very hard. One of the hardest things, especially in our business. Because everyone knows, that the restaurant trade is always in financial trouble. And honestly , it’s the truth. It’s the same for us. Not so much now, but each month it’s a question of meeting the budgets, you never know. And you have a deadline twice a day, twelve o’clock and six o’clock, where you have to deliver, you know, you have to do the best you can for each service, you can’t run on auto-pilot. You can’t just do your job nice and easy, you have to be fully concentrated. So I agree with you, it’s so under-estimated.
In restaurants like this, where people come for the innovation, for the creativity, it’s so fucking hard. It really, really is. It’s everyday lunch and dinner, it never stands still, you’re barely making it. People are making shit money, they work all the time, but there is a sense of the achievement and a sense of pushing boundaries. A sense of shaping things, with your fingers and ingredients, just seeing things transform from one to another is very satisfying. And the reactions of the guests, the whole sensation of giving to people is quite unique and deeply satisfying. And worth the while.
But I do wish that it was more appreciated sometimes. You see guests all the time, you know, unhappy guests, people that don’t like your food and because they don’t like it, they think that it’s bad. That’s one of the most difficult problems to handle as a chef. To think that every single diner in a restaurant is super happy would be nonsense, because not everybody likes the color red, some people would walk with it, but they don’t really like it. I mean, it’s the same here. Once in a while we have guests, which believe that because they don’t like it, that it’s actually bad. Full stop. That’s the absolute truth with this place and I have no respect for that. I have no respect for those type of people. But I have tremendous respect if they say “this is not my style, I prefer another type of cuisine”. That’s completely fair and honest. Unfortunately it doesn’t happen often, it’s more the other way around. And once people have eaten in Michelin starred restaurants, they think they know everything.
Do you get critical guests more often these days?
No, less. It feels like we’re in the eye of the hurricane. We’ve been open for seven years and I haven’t had a period of such calmness. It’s a paradox by saying that, because we never had more focus on us, but we seem to tackle it with some calmness. Everything is well laid out and structured, so it’s quite a special moment. That’s how we feel, that’s how I feel. Of course once in a while we get guests, that are extremely critical, they have so big expectations, but they enter the restaurant with such a positive vibe and a will to really want to eat to what they have been so much looking forward to. And can we – within our frame of work – deliver our maximum of our abilities, then it’s amazing.
It’s amazing, how energetic and focused yet calm your kitchen operates. I would say it’s not a typical environment of high end cuisine/gastronomy.
Well, I can be angry, too, in the kitchen. It happens of course, because of the crazy deadlines we have, the work hours, you know, just the fact, that there is a whole team that needs to be at their full concentration two times a day. It’s so brutal, so once in a while it gets hot. But in essence I don’t believe in such environments.
I’m a normal person and every person on the planet is trying to find a spot where they feel happy and I don’t think people are feeling happy in those environments, unless you’re a masochist or something. Strongly concentrated, team work environments, where people are supporting each other and they know, they got each other’s backs and we are working towards something, that will make happier people. And there’s no question – it shows in the results.
But I can understand, why chefs can be very angry. Like I said, I can be very angry, and I understand why people can get angry every day. Honestly, I can. And I hate the people that are standing on the outside with some form of education and pedagogies, you know, and that are saying yada yada yada, and all their bullshit. I hate those kind of people, because they should just try it. They should put themselves in a 100-hour work week, where you’re barely making it. People are earning 2000 Euros a month, it’s the same for everyone. Listen, don’t get me started on that one. There are so many opinions and so little knowledge.
Can you give us a brief example of the recipe development process? Is it purely methodical or does it differ?
It depends on the idea that’s behind it. For instance we have some ideas written on a board here, like this one, called king crab. The whole idea of the dish is “dark and cold”, because these king crabs live in the deep sea water, where it’s very dark and very cold. So that might take two months before we feel, that we have made something that truly pushes the king crab forward, but that somehow also encapsulates its environment. That’s difficult.
Then there are other times, when you have a perfect celery and you think “this is a beautiful celery, I’m going to try to cook it slowly”. I would then treat it like a piece of chicken, where you roast it for hours and keep basting it with butter and herbs. So the whole philosophy on that dish is to treat the vegetable as a piece of meat, with the same type of commitment. So in that case we have almost a finished dish, because the celery in itself is so great, so you think of it, you start it and four hours later it’s done.
But it can be many ways, there are many techniques. One of our techniques is: if you find an ingredient, that’s out of this world and you wanna combine it with a given dish, we do that by looking at what’s in its natural environment. We had strawberry dessert on the board and it’s just finished. As everybody knows, where strawberries grow you put hay, and you do that because of the water. So if it rains the soil doesn’t ricochet backup and also to keep the weeds down. But one of the few weeds that grows through is chamomile. So we made a dish of chamomile, hay and strawberries. Right now we also have a dish of game meat and right now all the flowers have seeds, the wild flowers, they have seeds on them, so we pick all the seeds and there are berries everywhere, so we have a dish of berries, these flower seeds and the deer.
Could you name some signature ingredients, which you’ve been using over the last seven years?
Sorrel and vinegar. Something that’s used in almost any menu that we have, are acidic ingredients such as sorrel and vinegar.
Do you ever take downtimes?
Well, everything is always about food, anywhere I go I look for ingredients, it’s crazy, no? But this is what I really enjoy. When I’m off, I love to go to dinner; I love to see if I can get inspired, I love to see how other people think. I love to cook in my home. If I travel somewhere, I look forward to getting the best food. I’m taking January and February off, it’s the first time I’m having vacation since we opened. I’m going one month to Mexico and one month to California and will be staying with friends. I’m also gonna be there in October, in San Francisco, because of the book. We’re going to Sydney, NY, Seattle, San Francisco and Toronto in ten days. When you sign up a book deal with an international publisher, you kind of have to, or else they won’t sign with you. And normally they want you to do it for a month, but that’s too long for me.
Your new book will be published by Phaidon in September. Tell us more about it.
I hope this book gives us a little breathing space financially; it needs to sell, of course. We had several publishers that wanted to publish the book, but we chose the one we thought were the best to craft an extension of the restaurant, not necessarily a cookbook as such. More like an atlas of how we do things, our philosophy.
But there are 100 dishes in it. I wrote a diary before we opened, which is in it, the chapters are divided into colors. But the readers are not told so, they have to experience the shift of colors and the shift of moods themselves, you know, we don’t push it in their face. And it’s very unusual that the publisher will say yes to letting the pictures stand by themselves without a recipe next to it, but I think that makes a better flow.
It covers products, dishes and places. The photo shoot was extremely difficult, you can’t just keep producing dishes and it is extremely expensive. But you can actually cook the dishes if you can get the ingredients. I mean, I know that a lot of people want a cookbook and as such this is not so much a cookbook.
If this book sells a little bit, we’re hoping for some breathing space the next year, one where we don’t have to turn every single dime – well, they say you have seven good and seven bad, we’re just about to finish seven years, so I don’t know if it’s been the bad or the good ones! Which period are we entering now? We’re not complaining at all.