René Redzepi, Chef at Noma, on Being No. 1

Finding A Calling In The Kitchen

Back in Denmark, Redzepi said, the most important thing to him was playing soccer and hanging out with friends. Still, cooking entered the picture relatively early. At 15, Redzepi decided to follow a friend into cooking school because he had "nothing better" to do.

"On the second day of school," Redzepi said, "there was a competition where the teacher told us to cook a dish, it could be anything we wanted, and we'll be judged on how it looked and how it tasted. And this was of course many years ago. There was no Internet, so we immediately looked into our books and magazines and so on to find a dish. ... I remember that that was one of the first times in my adult life, my so-called adult life, that I had to take a standpoint on anything.

"So I really asked myself, what do I really like about something? And this is the first time I asked myself, what do I like about food, and how do I win this? What do I have to do to to to win this. ... I had these childhood experiences of roasting chicken in the oven and the fats and juices melting down into the rice underneath it in the oven and so on and so on. So we cooked chicken with rice in a cashew nut sauce. Cashew, I'd never heard about it, but I love nuts, so I thought it was a little modern, a little exotic, a little innovative. And we cooked that and unfortunately there was a person in the competition, he was a trained butcher. So he made a ham salad that won it. We came in second.

"But ever since then, I think combined with what I've had as a child. I've just never been in doubt."

It was in school that Redzepi had the first inklings that cooking was something he might be good at and want to pursue.

"I remember we were dressing this plate, and you know, the chicken was there, and I thought, 'OK, I'll slice it, it would be easier to eat,'" he said. "I didn't know that it is easier to eat, and that's what they did in restaurants, I just thought we'll slice it up and help a little bit. And then we put the rice in a cup and then we put it out and there was a tower of rice, you know.

"And then my partner Michael, he was just about to pour out the cashew nut sauce on the rice, and I said 'Stop,' because there was a perfect little space there for the sauce. And we put the sauce there. And I was really like 'Wow, where did that come from?' I've never had a reaction like that before, where I really -- what does it matter, you know? Well it does matter, I know now, but I didn't know where it came from."

Top Chef René Redzepi: Apprenticeship

Redzepi apprenticed in a French restaurant in Copenhagen for four years. There he trained in the world of puff pastries and the perfect loaf of peasant bread. Then he went straight to the source.

"I spent four years there and of course back then, France was, for obvious reasons, France was the only place for high gastronomy," Redzepi said. "And I wanted to go to France and I did. It was [at] a three-star back then in Montpelier in '97. I spent some time there and experienced how a three-star French cuisine is. And while I was there, I read a paper in the French, some French paper about a restaurant in Spain, just across the border and it sounded very interesting.

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