Ahead of his first visit to Ireland next month for the Ballymaloe Litfest, René Redzepi talks to Joe McNamee about his culinary revolution.
EVEN if you view food as nothing more than fuel, chances are you’ve still heard of René Redzepi, the latest ‘weird chef’. In Redzepi’s case, he is forever fated to remain in some eyes, “the Michelin star chef who serves up live ants!”
He is also one of the world’s great chefs, co-proprietor of the internationally-renowned Noma in Copenhagen, voted the greatest restaurant in the world three years running and holder of two Michelin stars. At one stage, the 40-seat establishment was receiving over 100,000 booking enquiries per month.
Among his professional peers, Redzepi is globally revered as a near-deity and that reverence is about much more than his ability to fry an egg. Certainly, he can cook, once saying, “You have to know how to cook before you can become a chef”, and his training took the traditional classical route before several professional epiphanies, including stints in Ferran Adria’s El Bulli and Thomas Keller’s French Laundry.
Redzepi’s influence on his peers is down to so much more than any perceived culinary ability. He has taken the principles of the global locavore movement — eating only that which is produced, grown or raised in the immediate locality — and reduced the palette further still, using micro-local and seasonal ingredients, as much wild and foraged as cultivated, and created a whole new cuisine that is sustainable, brilliantly inventive and yet, crucially, exquisite to the taste; after all, he says, “The only way you can get people to eat things they’re culturally unsure of is to make them delicious”.
And, for most diners, that would certainly apply to ants.
Born in 1977, to a Macedonian father and a Danish mother, he was raised in urban Copenhagen but passed long summers on his father’s family’s farm in rural Macedonia.
He has always made plain his disdain for dewy-eyed culinary biographies but this was the beginning of his education.
“The cooking I do today,” says Redezepi, “has got something to do with my upbringing and the person I have become.
“I had always rejected those romantic stories of ‘cooking with the grandmother’ but looking at my own story, flashbacks to my childhood, in Macedonia it was a farming family working on the fields, working the land with only iron tools while the kids would roam, eating berries, eating chestnuts for hours.
“There is not even a Macedonian word for it, but that was foraging.”
Denmark at that time was rather like Ireland, a large agricultural sector moving rapidly towards industrialisation while domestic cooking was losing touch with any sense of tradition, increasingly falling for the facile charms of processed food.
“The older generation may have grown up with curing meat and fermentation,” he says, “but for the younger generations who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, it was pretty stale. There was not a lot happening in the kitchen.”
Redzepi’s first inkling of a career arrived in his mid-teens when he and a friend came second to a professional chef in a competition, cooking a chicken and rice dish that evoked those Macedonian summers.
He began his training in a fine dining French-style restaurant in Copenhagen.
“There is a good system of training cooks here, a bit different from the traditional system.
“When I first entered culinary school, you yourself are obliged to find an apprenticeship, a four-year contract. The restaurant must make you a chef and it is very much a restaurant-based education.”
A visit to El Bulli in 1998 was a pivotal moment, the legendary Ferran Adria’s deconstructionist culinary experimentation opening up a whole new way of thinking for the young Dane, who took a job there.
A subsequent spell in The French Laundry in California was an education in using local, seasonal ingredients.
He returned to Copenhagen but all the while his own culinary ethos was gradually coalescing, albeit slowly at first.
“I was out walking with a friend and we could smell garlic everywhere.
“It was another chef, Mads Refslund [now head chef of the acclaimed Acme in New York] and we took the plant back to his mother, a true hippie and she knew what it was — wild garlic — and how to use it. Back then, I probably walked across chickweed and ground elder and didn’t know that some of these things tasted so good. Or that something I just thought was some inedible beach shrub [sea arrowgrass] could taste like coriander.”
In 2002, fellow chef and all-round culinary polymath Claus Meyer asked Redzepi to become the chef in a new restaurant, Noma, in a cultural centre for the Nordic countries.
They began travelling throughout the region, researching and unearthing old traditional foods.
“There is a wealth of ingredients in the wilderness,” says Redzepi, “and we have a lot of wilderness. I had a new sense of curiosity and opened my mind to new flavours that I wouldn’t have thought were valuable compared to fine dining items.
“It gives you a sense of place, a micro-season, finding a beautiful flower and poaching it in butter afterwards — it was a breakthrough for our cuisine.”
And then the arrival on their doorstep one day of a retired teacher really opened their minds.
“Roland Rittman was a high school teacher and a field biologist who loved nature. He was losing his hearing and could no longer teach so he was wondering what to do with the rest of his life.
“He began picking mushrooms and filling his freezer until his wife told him, no more. He began selling them in a local market in southern Sweden and sold out immediately.
“Southern Sweden is very connected to Denmark so when he read about the re-opening of an old building showcasing north Atlantic and northern traditions and the restaurant there, he filled his van and just showed up one day.
“He had a huge white beard like Santa Claus, white chest hair bursting out of his shirt, his pants held up by braces, he was so funny.
“He just rolled out of his van and introduced himself.
“It was like Christmas Eve multiplied by 2000, all these new flavours unfolded.”
When Noma first opened, rival restaurants were condescending, but with near-instant acclaim softening a few coughs, they eventually began to take a lead from the new arrivals.
“Back then it was very common for most restaurants ordering produce that it all came from one central depot. Nobody cared where their carrots were from as long as they had carrots.
“We began reaching out to farms and when I first entered the farm we still use today, I just remember feeling so comfortable.
“Today, you are almost not considered serious if you don’t work with at least one farm.”
Redzepi and Meyer were at the heart of the Nordic Food Manifesto, issued by a select group of Scandinavian chefs in 2005, espousing a set of principles promoting the use of seasonal, local produce and traditional foodstuffs and techniques, and giving birth to the Nordic food revolution. Redzepi even wound up on the cover of Time magazine.
Redzepi’s non-profit organisation, Mad (Danish for ‘food’), was founded in 2011, bringing together culinary thinkers of all stripes and the annual highlight, a symposium in Copenhagen, is where he first met Darina Allen.
“I was so lucky to meet Darina. We have always had Irish chefs at Noma, more Irish than French, and when you ask them about Irish cooking, they never mention the Michelin Stars, it is always the Allens they talk about.
“I’m looking forward to spending time with them at Ballymaloe.”
What marks Noma out is the constant willingness to push the boundaries of what is viewed as ‘food’ and they are forever experimenting at their in-house Nordic Food Lab. Serving ants may appear gimmicky, but insects are already consumed in many parts of the globe and questioning the unsustainable primacy of meat in the Western diet fits entirely with the Noma ethos where vegetable reigns supreme.
So do they serve food or art?
“Hunger doesn’t come into the equation of most restaurants on our level.
“If people need fuel and come to a restaurant like ours, they’re unlikely to be satisfied.
“But if you want to use your whole sensory apparatus, for some people, eating meals can give a transcendent experience, like an art experience that can stay in your mind but the inevitable truth of any fine dining meal is no matter how ‘golden’ it is, the ‘gold’ all turns to shit in 24 hours.
“In our case, we are mostly craftsmen but we are highly trained, skilled, educated within our sphere.
“And we are not just specialists in cooking.
“We have acquired natural biology skills you don’t learn in cooking school.
“Every day, we distill what is out there so you taste the ‘day’ of the place you are in.
“If you happen to think that food and flavour are worth your time, that gives the icing on top that makes life fun.
“If all is only about survival, why do people have nice apartments instead of little shitholes to just sleep and shelter in.
“You need to feel alive and, in a digital world, food is still analogue!”René Redzepi’s Radishes 16 long radishes
125g sheep’s milk yoghurt
5g instant food thickener
85g malt flour
50g hazelnut flour
75g lagerDay 2
20g malt flour
50 hazelnut flour
60g butter, melted
Wash the radishes and cut off the bottoms. Remove the leaves and stems, leaving only a few pretty ones.Herb cream
Roughly chop the herbs and shallots. Add the yoghurt and capers and process in a Thermomix. Blend in the mayonnaise and pass through a fine sieve (strainer). Blend the mixture with the instant food thickener.Malt soil
Day 1: Preheat the oven to 90°C(195°F). Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl and pour into a food processor. Process three times in short bursts while adding the beer. Spread on a tray and dry in the oven for 3–6 hours. Push through a coarse sieve to remove the thickest lumps.Day 2: Repeat the mixing procedure from day one with the remaining malt soil ingredients, then mix the two batches together by hand, ensuring that no moist lumps are left in the mixture.
Serving: Use a piping (pastry) bag to half-fill a small pot with the herb cream. Season the radishes with sea salt and insert them in the cream. Sprinkle enough malt soil on top of the radishes to cover the cream completely and the radishes partially.
* Noma: Time & Place in Nordic Cuisine by René Redzepi, €49.95; A Work in Progress: Journal, Recipes, Snapshots by René Redzepi, €49.95
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