René Redzepi: In His Own Words

Read the full transcript of the "Nightline" interview with chef René Redzepi.

June 17, 2010 — -- RENE REDZEPI: My name is René Redzepi, I'm from Denmark. Em, I'm 32 years old. My father's Macedonian. I've grown up partially in Macedonia. My father's Muslim. My mother's Danish. So I've had a very different upbringing then most people from Denmark, because when we used to be in Macedonia, life was very different from Denmark. For instance, there was no refrigerators; there was only 2 cars in the city. And you know, the whole family lived together in a house and everything was, was evolving the meal. The whole day was planned around the meal . People were farmers and if you had to have a chicken you slaughtered the chicken. If you wanted to have a glass of milk you had to actually milk the cow. (Laughs) I never tasted coca cola until I was 10 years old. If we wanted the drinks—em, my aunt, she took the old rose leaves and she put sugar water over them to infuse and so on and so on. And then in Denmark, when we were there it was just a normal school life and I never expected to be a chef. As so many young kids when they, when they, when they finish the first part of school they don't know which direction. And then I was the same I just followed a good friend who wanted to be a chef and I thought okay, I have nothing else to do, nothing better. And so I followed him and on the second day of school there was a competition where the teacher asked us to cook a dish, that we wanted to. It could be whatever we wanted and we would be judged on how it looked and how it tasted. And this is of course many years ago, there was no internet and so on. So we immediately we, we looked into our books and magazines and so on to find a dish and I was 15 when I started my chef schooling and 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. You know what was important for me back then was when I'm gonna go to the… and play soccer. Those were the decisions I had to make. Not major ones or not anything where I really asked myself what do I really like about something.

REDZEPI: And this was the first time I asked myself, what is it I like about food, how do I win this? What do I have to do to to to win this. And then we started looking in—I had my, 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've never heard about it before but I love nuts, so I thought it was a little exotic, a little modern, a little innovative. And we cooked that and unfortunately there was a, (Smiles)there was a person in the competition, he was a trained butcher. So he made a ham salad you know that was eh, that won it. We became second. But ever since then, I think combined with what I've had as a child; I've just never been in doubt. I've always worked as a chef and always really all the time tried to, to work on becoming better at what I do and becoming clearer and clearer, clearer and clearer in our, in my way of defining who I am as a chef.

Do you think that your Macedonian roots or your Danish roots have more of an effect on your cooking?

REDZEPI: Macedonian, for sure. Even though today, our restaurant is known for doing a Nordic cuisine you know, a cuisine where we involve our natural products, our culinary heritage. And we've don't, we've stopped looking at our own products as something that doesn't belong in the culinary top. But I think in order to do that, I think it's been such a big advantage for me that I have a little outside upbringing, because if you are 100% native, I think sometimes you, things you grow up with, they are just things you grow up with, you can never put them in another context, therefore I think it's been to a big advantage that I come from outside. You know flat bread for a Scandinavian is a flat bread; it's something you have in your home. You have it in your home and that's it. You could never do anything gastronomical with it and serve it at a restaurant. But, in fact, you can, of course, it's just on how you see it and if you try to open the next door on flat bread and not always entering the same one again and again.

Did your mom or your dad cook?

REDZEPI: Yea, my father, he cooked. And I think that's also very important thing, that you actually get home cooked food. We didn't have, let's say, fancy foods or anything. It could be the most simple things, you hear this story again and again but it just, it really does matter that you actually--that somebody cooked food, home cooked food and you're sitting around a table eating with each other, no television going on and you're looking each other in the eye and you're having a conversation, you're speaking. And you're perhaps even discussing the food if it's good and so on. I think that's a very big part of it.

REDZEPI: And growing up in the 80's in Denmark, I think sometimes it could be very different for the most part of Denmark. It was… Microwaves were out, that was what people ate, ready meals in the oven and so on and so on and so on. So my father, he cooked and that's also been one of these things that I think now that's pushed me in this direction.

Give me one of your first food memories.

REDZEPI: One of my first food memories is watermelon, for sure. Because my family—they don't do that now, now they have cafes in Macedonia, but in Macedonia, they, uh, back then they were farmers and they lived on red peppers and watermelon. And still today, watermelon is something I love eating. And if it's not that, there's also, the one that's very close there's also roasted chestnuts. In the season, freshly roasted chestnuts in the fire with cold milk on as breakfast, that's also a very, very big childhood memory. And then berries of all sorts, but that's a Scandinavian memory.

Everyone always says you're Danish, you're Danish, you're Danish, you're from Denmark, you're fromDenmark, would you rather me say this is Rene Redzepi from Macedonia or it doesn't matter?

REDZEPI: I am from Denmark. I consider myself a Dane but I have a different upbringing and also a different culture in my family as my father is a Muslim. But I have a—I consider myself a dane—I have a Danish wife, my child is Danish and I am the Dane, Rene Redzepi with the not so Danish name and some other ways of looking at things and perhaps a normal Dane wouldn't.

Do you eat pork?

REDZEPI: yea. I'm not a Muslim.

But when you were growing up, was pork introduced into your life?

REDZEPI: I've always been told by my father even though he's a practicing muslim that we had to do what came naturally to us and It's impossible to escape pork in Denmark. I mean there's 5 million people in Denmark and there's 46 million pigs. So—have you ever heard the term Danish bacon? (Smiles) Because we grow a lot of porks—or pigs in Denmark and I ate pork as well when I was a kid.

At 10 years old you had your first sip of coca cola, but it didn't affect you, you didn't become like…

REDZEPI: No. No, not at all. I think these things are an acquired taste, and if you're not used to it, you're not gonna like it, but if you're only used to that, you're not gonna like other stuff, somehow, I think. You know so for instance, if you're used to eating a lot of fast food and perhaps drinking a lot of coke and all the other things, if you suddenly get a bite of any carrot that's grown by the best farmer for carrots of the best seed in the world and the best soil, perhaps you're not even gonna like it, you know? So, it's still not something that I have in my life. (Laughs) Coca Cola and so on. It's just very sweet. It doesn't taste of anything, it's just sweet.

You were saying Americans are more accepting of European chefs. Explain that to me… what do you feel that's different here? When it comes to the fact that you are very popular in Europe and then all of a sudden, everyone wants a piece of you here. What's the difference that you feel? Have you tried to gain acceptance here?

REDZEPI: No, I never tried. I've never tried searching for acceptance or I mean you don't have time for it when you work as a chef. You work, you're constantly working and I don't know what happened, it just seems that suddenly, er em, suddenly, a lot of countries, they woke up since we received this award, and perhaps—it's interes—I can understand that it's interesting. Most people would expect that if there is to be a world's best restaurant, you know it's a difficult thing to say that there is a world's best restaurant, but if there is to be, then it has to be from France or Spain or Italy or New York. One of these big cities where, where, where you know the or countries has either the money or the tradition. Not Denmark, you know, Denmark is known for design and towers and Hans Christian Andersen and Lego, not for food you know? We're known for that we have George Jensen silverware, Royal Copenhagen plates and the best crystal, and so on, but we have nothing to put on it. And em, and therefore I think it's quite surprising and perhaps that's why, perhaps that's why we haven't been so recognized before because people thought perhaps it was just some curiosity, could it really be the truth? Now, suddenly, we've been voted as the best and so now, I think people are really looking into this story and perhaps thinking well if it can happen in Denmark it could happen anywhere and there's something to look into. How did we do it?

What about the pressure now? Is it any different than before? I bet you're booked for the next 3 years.

REDZEPI: Well we only take bookings 3 months in advance and they are booked out of 3 months in advance to the date. But uh, we have 2 types of guest at a restaurant. That's at least how I see it. You have guests that believe that their opinion is the absolute truth you know? And then there's guests that don't believe that. I think that when you understand that and when you try—and when you know that the people that believe their opinion is the absolute truth, no matter how much these 28 guys you have in the kitchen, work and struggle to deliver food for them, then if you accept that and realize that there's nothing to do and focus on the others, then pressure is a relative thing, you know. Em, and I mean, as long as you tell yourself today I did everything I could, everything. I didn't—you know we were fully concentrated within our frame of work, we couldn't do anything better and if people are not happy then there's nothing to do. Just as long as you know that you've given yourself to the fullest and that's how we deal with it.

How do you not get burnt out? You do this every day for a bajillion hours a day….

REDZEPI: That's a big. That's an issue and um, I think, personally I think that—I think it happens to most restaurants that you know they need to change chefs, because every restaurant has their period where its, where they're searching and where it's just going forward and forward. And suddenly the search is over and you start repeating yourself becoming a cliché. You will probably still be very good and there will be a lot of guests but—and that's perhaps, when the burnt out is, has started. And then it's time to move on and reboot yourself. Perhaps at a new place, perhaps you take a year off, perhaps you become a plumber. I don't know but it is an issue that I don't know how to deal with it. I think that, of course there's also always the issue with chefs that they're expected to be in the kitchen every day, always. So even though if you wanted, you're thinking ah, I could take two months off now that would be good for me, that would be good for the restaurant in the long run, and it would be good for the staff. I think that it's so deep in most chefs that you can't just leave your kitchen, you just don't do it. People won't accept it. A chef is supposed to be in his kitchen morning and night, always. If the chef is not there then the food is not good. Even though, when the chef is there, there is still the same people cooking the food, you just have the chef organizing it. So, how to deal with this I don't know, but things are changing in the gastronomical world. Chefs are not only hidden away in their steel cages, they're also coming out and becoming part of television and so on and so on and so on.

Do you like that change?

REDZEPI: I like the change.

You do. Why?

REDZEPI: Of course it can be—everything has an extreme and everything has a paradox, but I like it. I think it pushes, I think it pushes gastronomy forward. I think it helps you think about what you are doing when you ask questions when you sit—like we do now and and discuss. Em, but like I said, there's extremes where perhaps it's not so beautiful. But I like it, I think it also creates a more healthy environment in a kitchen, because if the chef is there all the time constantly, everybody knows the stories of the angry chefs and there's a reason for it, because you're always working, you're always sweating and you're always behind. You're always struggling. You have cuts everywhere and these raises a good way to get a little inspiration, travel across the world, talk to people, you know, define yourself yet again to a new group of people in another part of the world. It matters, it really does. It helps shape your cuisine, for me, that you have these conversations with people.

So, Define yourself.

REDZEPI: Myself or my cuisine?

Yourself and your cuisine.

REDZEPI: Well em, of course everything, it's always difficult to define things, I would say. And also to define our cuisine as it is so new. Perhaps in 10 years we can look back and then it's easier to come up with some definition. And yet again, even if I think about Italian cuisine, I wouldn't even know how to define it. I'm sure if you ask Italian chefs they can't even define it. But, where we are now in our, in our, in our, in the 7 years we've been open, I would say that our cuisine has, is a cuisine that is packed with nature. It's a cuisine that uses nature, not only people that grow nature but also the wildlife. We have a region that's very big. It's quite a huge landmass. We only 25 million people. Which, which means there is a lot of untouched and unspoiled nature to be found. And em, once you start searching that and reading books and finding out how people dealt with nature before when they had to do it in order to survive, then you have a whole new product range and a whole new way of cooking. And once you also start looking into nature and perhaps even harvesting yourself and taking part of nature. Then that also really shapes your cuisine because you can only allow yourself to do so much to any given product you know, that you picked yourself or perhaps you know the people growing it. How much will you manipulate it. You want the link from its natural environment to be clear onto the plate. So I would say that's the biggest discovery we've had. That there's a lot of wild fruits involved in a, in a, in a kitchen and of course, the main focus area of a kitchen is that we always have to show people, our guests, a sense of time and place, which is something we remind ourselves constantly. You know, does it show people where we are in the world and what time of the year we're in. Can they get this in New York? Can they get this in Sao Paolo? There are so many restaurants that are contemporary world restaurants and it doesn't matter where in the world they are it's the same feel, the same music, the same this, the same that. And this is like a mantra you could say. We have—time and place, we have to show time and place. We remind ourselves. Of course, then there's conceptual layers, on how you-- dishes and innovation and so on and so on and so on that builds everything together. But, the essence and the core of everything is quite banal, it's just time and place. And it sounds easy but it's quite difficult.

When did you know that you were A. really amazing at this and B. that you really did want to do thisfor the rest of your life? It couldn't have been at 15 when…

REDZEPI: It was. I still – It was back then when I was 15, because I remember we were dressing this plate, and you know, the chicken was there and I thought okay I'll slice it, it would be easier to eat. I didn't know that it is easier to eat and that's what they did in restaurants, you know, I just thought we'll slice it up and we helped a little bit. You can take it up and then we put the rice in a, in a, in a cup and then we put it out and there was a tower of rice, you know. And then, eh, my partner Michael, he was just about to put the cashew nut sauce on the meat and I said stop, because there was a perfect little space right there for the sauce and then we put the sauce there. And that's -- I was really like wow, where did that come from? You know, I've never had a reaction like that before, where I actually —what does it matter, you know? Well it does matter, I know now, but I didn't know where it came from. So I think that was a period where I thought okay, this is… I'm gonna see what can come out of this.

And it just keeps getting more and more exciting for you…

REDZEPI: It just gets more and more exciting and I, you know, in Denmark, when you become a chef you take an apprenticeship for 4 years in a restaurant, you don't go to school as such. Then you have 3 periods of 3 months in a school. So, I went to, back then the best restaurant in Copenhagen, a French place and you know, it was a whole new world and you know making puff pastries and making your own bread then. Cooking stock suddenly and all these, all these, all these things were just so new and incredible to me, and especially the innovation of it. That food is constantly changing as seasons constantly changing. A recipe, I know now, is just a very strong guideline, there can never be an absolute for this. You know… if it's a recipe from Denmark and you do it in America, on asparagus, the asparagus is different. It's gonna need more or less vinegar for sure in order to have this magic in it. And eh, I went there, I spent 4 years there and of course back then, France was, for obvious reasons, France was like the only place for high gastronomy and I wanted to go to France and I did. It went to a 3 star back then in Montpellier in '97. And em, I spent some time there and experienced how a 3 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 that sounded very interesting. So I went there and I booked a table 2 weeks in advance and I did—that was to be world famous El Bulli restaurant. I ate there and there was a big, also clear mark in what has defined me. Because I was completely blown away back then I remember. This was something -- here was something I hadn't seen before. A chef that did his own thing. You know I was expecting to go to Spain to get French food. Not to get something so personal and something Spanish. Em, and it was a big inspiration, I applied for a job immediately, sent my resume, and all these things and when I got back a contract and I worked there the season after.

But you're so nature. And that's kind of science. So how did that… are you using that? How does thatwork?

REDZEPI: Well, I mean science -- There's a big difference in -- Science is good. Science is progress in a way. Machinery—there's nothing wrong with a machinery. A Blender is the same as a pacojet you know there's no difference other than it spins faster. And there's a big difference for me between machinery and chemistry and even some chemistry is natural. I'm not opposed to it. It's not something that's a big part of our cuisine, honestly it's not. For me El Bulli was not a molecular gastronomicy restaurant, it was about freedom. It was about seeing a place where, where, where, going to a place where everything is completely different from what you had in upbringing. All the books you were able to read at that point was only about French cuisine. You know, you have seen 120,000 ways of doing a foie gras terrine. With 120,000 different types of fruits accompanying with it. And the brioche and so on and so on. It's amazing. I love it. I love to eat it, but it's also good to see something different. And for me it triggered something into me. A sense of freedom, a sense of well what am I gonna do with my life, before that, I was gonna go back to Copenhagen at one point and do my version of French cuisine.

REDZEPI: While I was there, the grant, from millennia, he was there too, for a week and he didn't speak French or Spanish or anything, so I kinda helped him out and he was sous chef at French laundry and he told me about this restaurant and that was also something that immediately took my interest. This American chef. I was reading his book, "the coffee and donuts" all these ways that he incorporated the humor that perhaps, you know, em, people back then would say oh America, you know that's burgers and coffee and donuts, but he somehow made it—was proud of it, incorporated it into his world class cuisine that was, you know… I thought it was quite interesting, I wanted to see that. So I went there for a stage the year after at the French laundry. And that's also another big mark in my culinary life, to see his place, his organizational skills, but also as an American in a country where there were only French top chefs, really making his own path. That was so inspirational. You say—you know the competition, my first apprenticeship, experience in Spain, and experience at the French laundry, that all blended, melded together with your background suddenly there was just an opportunity to open a restaurant in this old warehouse that used to store goods from the North and then it all came together.

You realize your 32 years old. You're a baby. Do you look to the future and see yourself doing this for the next hundred years or do you just see the present? (Banter)

REDZEPI: Cooking or being at the restaurant Noma.


REDZEPI: Cooking is always going to be a part of my life, for sure, one way or the other. I don't know what else I should do. That's it. And this is what I do and this is what really I enjoy. And it's a pleasure that every night—for me, having a restaurant or cooking is about giving. Every night you're giving something. The experience of giving to people is quite unique and something I enjoy a lot. And you make people happy. That's also something that I enjoy a lot and right now, I believe that in our part of the world we also do make a difference, we are shaping something which is also quite, em, pleasing to be a part of.

Before 15 you were gonna be a plumber…

REDZEPI: I didn't know. I didn't know, I might as well have ended up as a gardener or…I didn't know.Mowing lawns somewhere. (Laughs)

So do you consider yourself a pioneer, because everyone sees you as somebody whose leading theway?

REDZEPI: I think that in our part of the world, Scandinavia, we are one of the pioneers of showing that gastronomy can be something—high gastronomy can be something very, very present and doesn't have to involve, you know, what is perceived as the normal luxury items that belong in a high gastronomy restaurant. You can actually, I mean a carrot has the same value as caviar if you know how to cook it and if you know how to deal with it properly. So, I would say we're one of the pioneers, yea, for sure, in our part of the world. And I think that that you know, (Clears throat) ---people sometimes ask me is there a message that you wanna pull through. Then I thought about it—is there a message I—do we have a message, why do we need a message? And I'm not sure we need a message. I don't want to preach anything but you can say that by doing it in Denmark, you know this cold spot in the way north where people think nothing can grow, we're also saying that it can be done anywhere. Perhaps the next big cuisine will be from Poland or wherever, you know and most people there laugh a little bit when you say Poland, but 10 years ago, they laughed when, if somebody said Denmark.

Were your parents supportive of you when you were all about being a chef?

REDZEPI: Yea, they were, they really were. I've never had anything but the freedom to do what I wanted just as long as it made me happy. So I've never had any pressure to go to college or stuff like that.

You have a child.

REDZEPI: I have a two year old.

What if your child said hey dad I want to do this too?

REDZEPI: If that's what she wants that's what she wants. When people are grownups they're grown ups.They make their own decisions you know. That's it.

Do you have a very traditional family, every night do you sit around the table and eat? What do youdo now that mocks your childhood?

REDZEPI: I still cook at home. A lot of chefs I think don't cook at home. But I still do, I love cooking at home, I love having friends. Actually that is… when I cook at home—I'm not off that much, I must say, I really work a lot. But when I cook at home, that is a very strong reminder of why I do what I do you know because there, there you really have a sense of giving something to people you love, or your friends, that you care for, and somehow that's also an inspiration to go back into the kitchen and cook and give to other people. So I really really enjoy cooking in my home.

And your child will eat anything? Carrot?

REDZEPI: Anything. So far, but you know that can change. Then there's one week where she eats ugh, then the next week she eats everything. But she's grown up on eating anything.

You intend to have another restaurant?

REDZEPI: I'm not gonna be here all my life, no. It's impossible. It would be, it would not be fair to Restaurant Noma that I were to be there and just repeat myself at one point I'm over. I need to go and another head chef needs to come in if there is anybody that wants the challenge and that dares somehow. But I think it's a natural way of, a natural evolution that—you have a period where, where your creativity and so on is high and as we are a restaurant that's known for creativity constantly evolving that's what we need to do all that time. And one point I will have nothing more to deliver to that project. I know for a fact, it's just the way things are and then I'll have to do something else, go somewhere else. I don't know find a way to reboot yourself. Somehow, if it's possible, or find a new head chef that can take it a step further.

You'll come to New York?

REDZEPI: Perhaps! (Laughs)

What does food mean to you?

REDZEPI: Well food is life. Food is culture. Food is em… food is people. Food is everything, and then again, food is not always everything. Food is what—is the fuel of human beings.

Are you an angry eater?

REDZEPI: I can be angry, but not very often… I think most chefs become angry once in awhile. You have deadlines at 12 and at 6 where you have to be ready. But, you know, I'm a human being. Is it nice to be angry? No, it's not nice to be angry, so I do everything I can not to be angry, that's for sure. If you have a day where you are angry, you're not having a good day, you know, you're just having a bad day, even when you go home, so, so that's for sure something that's a small part of our cuisine. Anger.