The man behind Noma
Copenhagen chef René Redzepi, who is making his first visit to Ireland next month, talks about what drove him to create his award-winning restaurant
Copenhagen chef René Redzepi. Photograph: Mikkel Heriba
It’s a rainy Friday in Copenhagen. René Redzepi has spent a morning at home with a feverish daughter. Forty people are downstairs in Restaurant Noma having the lunch of their lives. Two wild-eyed Norwegian fans will want face time with him during the interview. But the 36-year-old chef seems relaxed in his skin. It’s not hard to see how this boyish Dane, who’s more likely to pickle his laurels than rest on them, inspires a generation of cooks.
Sitting in trademark chefs’ whites and brown apron in the restaurant’s beautiful private dining room, Redzepi talks about the chip on his shoulder that drove him, how he probably won’t get three Michelin stars in the first Nordic guide and why he’s looking forward to his first visit to Ireland, to appear at the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food & Wine next month.
He’s heard a lot about Ireland from the young Irish chefs that have passed through Noma’s kitchen. “They tell me ‘yeah we have the chefs, the Michelin stars, but there’s really only one and that’s Ballymaloe.’ It just stands out and it’s the giant.”
So he’s intrigued by the Allen dynasty. “They don’t have Michelin stars but they are the most influential food family in Ireland, probably ever. They’re doing something very honest that makes sense to them and that makes them happy and their guests happy.”
That quest for happiness and “deliciousness” is a version of the food of his childhood, he now realises. Born in Copenhagen to a Danish mother and Macedonian father, his early years were spent on the family farm in Macedonia.
“I’ve always rejected that romantic story that you always hear the French chefs talking about, the grandmother stirring the pot and they were watching. I hated it. I always thought it was bullshit.”
But now he sees the echoes of the kid he was “roaming about collecting chestnuts and wild berries. Back then it was something that was so common you didn’t think of it. Today it’s one of the biggest buzz-words in cooking: foraging.”
Noma turned Copenhagen from a backwater into the must-do city on a young chef’s CV. “Ten years ago we fought for the same 200 customers every night. Now we’re fighting for 2,000 every night, or more at times.”
The irony is that the man who put Denmark on the culinary map attributes some of his success to being an outsider. “I think the competitiveness is coming from a family of cleaners and dish washers and coming also from a family where I’ve seen my own parents work their asses off, much more than any regular Dane wants to, ever, especially in a kitchen.
“But because you have that chip on your shoulder you want to succeed. You want to show that this family is more than just ‘the help’. That made me push through at moments when it was so much easier just to say ‘let’s tone it down. We don’t need to go there. Stop at one star. It’s fine.’ ”
The feeling of being an outsider lingers. Although he’s at the centre of a brotherhood of world-famous chefs Redzepi has yet to be invited to speak to a Danish cookery class.
“We’re much more respected out of Denmark than in Denmark. I can see that when I went on a book tour. I can go to Sydney and fill the Sydney Opera House.” In Copenhagen he reckons 60 people would turn up. Does that bother him? Not in the least.
Last month Michelin announced it was planning its first Nordic guide, sparking speculation that some of the region’s restaurants would get the top award of three stars. Will one of them be Noma? “I don’t think so. I think there are many other candidates that are more clear. Every guide has their way of doing it and their formula to tick off. I definitely think there will be many more restaurants in Scandinavia that get three stars before we do.”
After 21 years in kitchens his energy is shifting. He’s “not mentally tired” but more physically tired than when he used to shoot straight out of bed to the restaurant. It’s partly Dad fatigue. His wife, Nadine, works in the restaurant, and is six months pregnant with their third child. Winter has been a rolling set of sniffles and fevers. Their eldest daughter Arwen spends most Saturdays at the restaurant. “She gets fed and sits, and reads and draws.”
His non-identical twin brother Kenneth, works as a sort of caretaker in the former warehouse that houses Noma after a severe case of tinnitus finished his career as a law student. “He was the first in our family to go to university,” Redzepi says. Some psychologists might speculate that having a brilliant high-achieving twin also contributed to the young chef’s drive.
Was Redzepi always a good communicator? He recently told his 80,000-plus Twitter followers that all of the staff in the restaurant are moving to Tokyo to operate as Noma Japan for two months next year. Another reboot to reinvigorate what they do.
Communication skills were something he had to learn in order to train chefs, he says. Otherwise he would just have been the crank who wanted to put a carrot on a plate and who then got angry when no-one understood why.
So what next in Copenhagen? “The fermentation project. It’s going to be one person devoted solely to the innovation of it. I mean there’s things bubbling away everywhere. It’s pretty insane. Some of it is four, five years old, so it’s pretty exciting.”
Later, in the test kitchen, he tastes dried butterbur flowers and wonders why “these can’t taste as good as they smell” because they smell like orange spice cake. He’ll underline the words “pickle and ferment plants” several times on a whiteboard.
“I know we’re not there yet, but there’s something going on,” Redzepi tells the chefs.
Over the staff meal (tortilla loaded with chicken, avocado, tomatoes and a rib-sticking warm black-bean paste), I chat to Noma’s latest Irish recruit, Ian Doyle, who deep-froze and then deep-fried some cubes of reindeer heart for his recent Saturday Night Project, when the chefs submit their ideas to their peers. Walking out into the rain, I’ve no doubt that whatever was “going on” in the test kitchen, if they don’t nail it in that hothouse of hard work and hard thinking, no-one will.
REDZEPI ON ...
“So many cooks have become addicted to accolades. You can never allow accolades become like dear family members or best friends. Because these things come and go and then each time you lose them it’s like a lost love. It’s terrible. You’re gutted.”
“I was so clear about it from the get-go. I have been confused about it, but not to the point where it was changing things for me. What I was struggling with mostly was what to do with it and what to get out of it. And I’ve chosen to try to do something positive with the Nordic Food Lab and with the (MAD Food) symposium. That’s why we haven’t opened other restaurants to have financial success. Operating five restaurants? It’s crazy how difficult that is.”
Being the best
“When we had Number One the first time I just put everyone in a circle and said, ‘Listen guys, just enjoy the moment and don’t start believing it or making this part of your soul or your very being because it’s like a bank loan. It’s not yours to own. You have to pay it back.’
“When you have that you have a lot of people that don’t care about food they just travel to impress somebody. Fifty per cent of our guests became like that. They had no idea about food. It was just to say that they’d done it.”
“I despise the term ‘new Nordic’. I recognise why most cooks around the region hate the term because no matter what they do – if they just put a local herb onto the plate – immediately they’re under that umbrella. But the change into something authentic and regional? That happened a while ago. And one of the things that made it go stronger and faster was the fact that we arrived.”
Cult of chefs
“Nobody can really understand it. Everybody agrees it’s not going to go away. Where is it going to be 40 years from now if you look at what happened in 10 years? It could be monstrous, crazy. The question is whether it’s something that’s good monstrous or bad monstrous.”