René Redzepi Knows His Way Around A Metaphor
Words and frozen bananas at the Noma test kitchen
René Redzepi has arrived at the sprawling test kitchen located above the restaurant he runs in a converted 18th Century warehouse off Copenhagen Harbor. It’s morning and his staff — line cooks, various kitchen lieutenants, stages — are arriving in clusters. The Meters' “Hand Clapping Song” plays. Espressos are made. Tweets are tweeted. “Good morning people! Today, we will be going positively crazy. Here's to a smashing day!” writes Redzepi to his over 40,000 followers. I ask him later about what he was so excited about. Yeast, it turns out, can make a chef go Baldwin on the social web.
“The exploration of yeast as a flavor was on my mind,” he says as we sit in one of his restaurant’s private dining rooms. “We have a positive energy and momentum and it seems like right now we are at the peak of momentum, where things flow effortlessly and ideas are endless.” There’s a pause. A breath. “Next week, I’m sure, it will all be gone.”
These are the types of peaks and valleys that come with running the World’s Best Restaurant. I was tempted to preface with the hedgy what is regarded as the World’s Best Restaurant, but after Noma (a hybrid of the Danish words for Nordic and food) topped San Pellegrino’s World's 50 Best Restaurants list three years running, there is no argument that the new Nordic cuisine he revolutionized is the hottest on the planet.
But as I found out after spending some time with Redzepi and his kitchen crew, including sharing a staff meal of fresh pasta and chocolate-covered frozen bananas, it was clear that getting to the top — the Danish way — was a slightly more laid-back affair. I counted three high-fives and a couple back slaps, with Redzepi leading the charge. Here’s our rapid-fire interview. I had to let the guy get back to his yeast.
I feel that when people talk about you they always want to use the word “foraging” and that is not what you want to be equated with right now…
I don’t mind it. It’s obviously a label that is there right now and that is the way things are. Although to me, the idea of foraging is a way of exploring the world. It is not something that is a novelty to me. It is the way that I look at food and at the world.
So foraging is a metaphor!
Yes, it is a way of exploring the world.
Tomorrow you are being honored by the Danish government for your achievements in cooking. How do you feel about all these awards?
I take these things with a grain of salt. Such accolades are a spice or sprinkle of something that is not really necessary on the dish that is my life. In that sense, it doesn’t really do that much to me.
I’m going to finish this metaphor! So they over-seasoning your life.
Right, that is not the end result of the things that we do here.
Switching gears. We are on the cusp of fall right now. What are some products that you are excited about getting into the kitchen?
Fall is an astonishing season. Before you leave, you must try some of the wild berries that we have en place right now because the variety of flavors coming out are outrageous. The forest is sprouting again with all these things and the farms are rich in all sorts of products. It’s harvest season!
Let’s talk about hiring young chefs. How many resumes are you getting per week?
A lot. A hundred per week, probably. It has nothing to do with resume. I believe that you can always sense a commitment through words.
Can you give me an example?
There are many of them and I have read so many. In the past year, I have actually had to stop reading them. Sometimes, people spend a lot of time explaining their resume and where they work. Other times, however, people speak about food and how they love it. I tend to lean more towards that – when people talk about food and their ideas behind coming here.
It is a motivation driven by the food and not by the place, which is a big distinction. In that sense, they don’t need to have a big resume if they are in love with a philosophy or a way of approaching and cooking ingredients. If that is what is bringing them here, and not because this is the restaurant Noma, that is what we are looking for. I think we can sense that. It is as if we are casting in the movie world. There are professional casters who are trained to find the right fit and it is the same here. It is a group of individuals who need to be together for many, many hours every day of every week, all year. It just doesn’t work with people who are cast badly, despite their having the best resumes.
Tell me about some chefs right now that you really excite you.
I will focus on young guys. I believe that Christian Puglisi from Relæ – he is becoming known – is an extraordinary talent. He is going to keep getting better. One of the places that I would travel to right now if I could would probably be Blaine Wetzel’s place in Seattle – Willows Inn on Lummi Island.
Why does that excite you?
He seems to have a distinct connection to the place he is in.
Similar to here?
It is similar, but he has a very different approach. He used to work here actually, but he is connecting to a place that is very interesting in the northern part of North America. It seems like the perfect place to go and “tap out” for a few days.
It is really an undiscovered and unrepresented part of the United States.
Yeah. They are known for some IT and coffee I think!
Give me a teaser for David Chang hosting the MAD Symposium next year. How do you guys communicate about it over the next 10 months?
I will meet with Chris Ying [the editor] from Lucky Peach on Saturday. We had our first meeting this year, the day after MAD finished. All of us sat right here for six hours planning and making a structure. We have had four Skype meetings in two months. This is a monster. It doesn’t happen if you only meet a little bit. You need to talk a lot. Arranging the narrative is complicated. The idea to start was guts.
More metaphors, man!
Yeah. It is a road and it’s a straight line, but it becomes a sphere once you start dwelling. You go from here to there to back there. You are able to find the path where everything becomes clear, but first you must explore…
You have an empty whiteboard and start from scratch?
Yes, we started from scratch with a theme: “guts.”
Was that your idea or Chang’s?
Chang came with “risk” and we worked it into “guts.” It symbolizes courage. It is culinary, it is your metabolism. What happens in your body when you eat, risk taking, being brave. It is quite broad. And within that you need to figure out two days of interesting programming that is made for cooks.
You set the bar high last year. Do you feel pressure?
No. I have so much fun with this thing. The whole idea is learning, and I feel that I am learning so much myself by exploring it for a full year and talking to all these brilliant people and reading their books. Through the process, I have become a better leader, a better manager and a better cook.
Through setting up the conference?
Yeah, and through listening and learning from these people.
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