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

Copenhagen's Noma takes top honors in ranking of world's best restaurants.

June 16, 2010 — -- René Redzepi, the young chef who elevated Noma in Copenhagen to its standing as best restaurant in the world in the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants rankings, has pioneered a cuisine dubbed "New Nordic."

While it may be impolite to wonder aloud about "Old Nordic," the new cuisine is built on local ingredients like sweet green strawberries, musk ox and flowers harvested from the seashore, which tell a Danish tale of "time and place," according to Redzepi.

Noma's win, based on voting by more than 800 food critics, chefs and restaurateurs, resonated far beyond the Danish capital. In part that's owing to the youth of its chef and co-founder, who was born during the second Anker Jørgensen administration (a.k.a. the Carter years). But the main driver of excitement about Redzepi and his restaurant is the sense that they really do represent a new direction in eating well.

"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 present and doesn't have to involve, you know, what is perceived as the normal luxury items that belong in a restaurant," said Redzepi. "You can actually, I mean a carrot has the same value as caviar if you know how to cook it and if you deal with it properly."

If comparing root vegetables and sturgeon roe seems willfully provocative, for Redzepi it is not emptily so. Since opening Noma in 2003, the chef has worked culinary miracles while adhering to a stringent locavore ethos. Nothing goes on a plate at Noma, which is set in an old 18th-century shipping warehouse in the Copenhagen harbor, unless it comes from the Nordic region. In wintertime, that means carrots.

But it also means wood sorrel, garden sorrel, chickweed and nettles growing in the woods around Copenhagen and even in town gardens, Redzepi says in his new cookbook, "NOMA: Time & Place in Nordic Cuisine."

"You just have to know where to look," he says.

With warmer weather, the cuisine turns to "bulrushes; axelberry shoots and wild ground juniper; raw Scandinavian shrimp... pickled quail's eggs; ... oyster mushrooms foraged from nearby woodlands," according to the cookbook.

The ingredients could come from one of the fables of Denmark's best-known writer, Hans Christian Andersen. Part of Noma's magic is to make the fabulous real.

A Fresh Perspective

Prior to opening Noma, Redzepi apprenticed in two of the world's most renowned kitchens, Thomas Keller's French Laundry and Ferran Adria's El Bulli. (El Bulli held the top spot in the S.Pellegrino best restaurant rankings for four straight years before Noma grabbed the title.) Redzepi grew up between Copenhagen, his mother's native city, and Macedonia, his father's native country. Now 32, Redzepi lives in Copenhagen with his wife and daughter.

The chef spoke with "Nightline" recently about his cooking philosophy, his evolution as a chef and the advantage he sees at being an outsider.

Redzepi credits his Macedonian roots for giving him a fresh perspective on what was possible with Nordic cuisine.

"Our restaurant is known for doing a Nordic cuisine, a cuisine where we involve our natural products, our culinary heritage," he said. "And we've stopped looking at our own products as something that's doesn't belong in the culinary top. But I think in order to do that, it's been such a big advantage for me that I have a little outside upbringing, because if you are 100 percent native, I think sometimes you, things you grow up with, they're 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 grew up outside. Flat bread to a Scandinavian is a flat bread; something you have in your home and that's it. You never do anything gastronomical with it and serve it as 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 enter the same one again and again."

No. 1 Chef René Redzepi: Between Two Worlds

Redzepi's earliest food memories go back childhood days in Macedonia, living and cooking with his father's family.

"I've grown up partially in Macedonia. My father's Muslim, my mother's Danish," said Redzepi. "So I've had a very different upbringing from most people in Denmark, because where we used to be in Macedonia, life was very different from Denmark. For instance, there were no refrigerators; there was only two cars in the city. And the whole family lived together in a house and everything was revolving around 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 milk the cow. I never tasted Coca-Cola until I was 10 years old. If we wanted the drinks, my auntie, she took the old rose leaves and put sugar water over them to infuse, and so on and so on."

For Redzepi, Macedonia was a place that valued the kind of nature-based cooking that informs the Noma philosophy. People ate what was on hand.

"One of my first food memories is watermelon, for sure," he said. "Because my family -- they don't do that now, they have cafes in Macedonia, but ... 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 [food memory] that's very close is roasted chestnuts. In the season, freshly roasted chestnuts in the fire with cold milk on [it] as breakfast -- that's also a very, very big childhood memory. And then berries of all sorts, but that's a Scandinavian meal."

Despite the Macedonian influence, Redzepi said he identifies most with his mother's native country.

"I consider myself a Dane," he said. "I have a Danish wife, my child is Danish and I am the Dane ... with the not-so-Danish name, and some other ways of looking at things [that] perhaps a normal Dane wouldn't."

Given his Muslim background, we asked the chef about pork.

"I'm not a Muslim," he said. "... 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."

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.

"So I went there and I booked a table two weeks in advance and I did -- that was to be world-famous El Bulli restaurant. I ate there and there was also a big, clear mark in what has defined me. Because I was completely blown away back then, I remember. Here was something I hadn't seen before. A chef that did his own thing. I was expecting to go to Spain to get French food. Not something so personal and something Spanish. It was a big inspiration. I applied for a job immediately, got a contract and I worked there the season after."

While El Bulli is known for scientific cuisine that draws heavily on obscure preparation techniques and the application of chemistry to foodstuffs, Noma takes the opposite tack, which Redzepi describes as a "nature" approach. He discussed the difference.

"Science is good. Science is progress in a way," he said. "Machinery -- there's nothing wrong with machinery. ... 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 [at Noma], honestly it's not. For me, El Bulli was not a uniquely gastronomical restaurant, it was about freedom. It was about seeing a place where, going to a place where everything is completely different from what you had in upbringing.

"All the books you could read at that point was only about French cuisine. 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 in me. A sense of freedom, a sense of 'Well, what am I going to do with my life.' Before that, I was going to go back to Copenhagen at one point and do my version of French cuisine."

Time and Place

Instead of doing French haute cuisine, Redzepi was able to strike out in his own direction. He ended up being a trailblazer. The result was New Nordic cuisine. But what is it? Even its inventor acknowledges the elusiveness of a definition.

"It's always difficult to define things and also our cuisine, because it is so new," Redzepi said. "Perhaps in 10 years we can look back and then it's easier to come up with some definition. ... I would say that ours [is a] cuisine that is packed with nature. It's a cuisine that uses nature, not only people growing nature, but also the wildlife.

"We have a region that's very big. It's quite a huge landmass, and we [are] only 25 million people. Which means there is a lot of untouched and unspoiled nature to be found. And 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. ...

"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 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 year it is. 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. ... 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."

World's Leading Chef René Redzepi: Getting Into Noma

We asked Redzepi exactly how hard it is to get into Noma, given its growing profile worldwide. His answer quickly turns to the pressure in the kitchen to justify the "world's top restaurant" title.

"We only take bookings three months in advance, and they are booked three months in advance to the date," he said. "But, uh, we have two types of guest in a restaurant. That's at least how I see it. You have guests that believe that their opinion is the absolute truth, 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 there are people that believe that their opinion is the absolute truth, even when you have these 28 guys you have in the kitchen, who work and struggle to serve 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."

As much success as he has had at Noma, Redzepi doesn't expect to be there forever, he said.

"I'm not going be here all my life, no. It's impossible," he said. "It would not be fair to Restaurant Noma that I were to be there and repeat myself -- at one point I'm going to be over. I need to go and another head chef needs to come in -- if there's someone else that wants the challenge and dares. But I think it's a natural evolution that -- you have a period where your creativity is high, and as we're a restaurant that's known for creativity, 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 that for a fact, it's just the way things are, and then I'll have to do something else, go somewhere else, find a way to reboot myself."

Redzepi embraces the label of pioneer, whatever pressure may come with it.

"I would say we're one of the pioneers, yeah, for sure, in our part of the world," he said. "...People sometimes ask me is there a message that you want to put 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, this cold spot in the north where people think nothing can grow, we're also saying that it can be done anywhere. Perhaps the next big cuisine will be in Poland or wherever, you know, and most people there laugh a little bit when you say Poland."

"But 10 years ago, people would laugh if somebody said Denmark."