Rene Redzepi : Noma Past, Present & Future

2015 has been an eventful year for Rene Redzepi. He took his team to Japan for a couple of months, initiated big projects in partnership with Yale University, announced the closure of Noma in its present location and relocation to a yet undeveloped site in Refshaleoen. It has also been a year for moves as he and his wife Nadine found their dream home in a 17th century building and moved en famille with their three daughters and his mother: all this while planning another big project. This time another culinary exploration with the entire Noma team and their families to Sydney, Australia for a sold out ten week short term restaurant (he doesn’t like the term pop up). The just released documentary “Noma: My Perfect Storm” has created yet another furor in the media about him while he spends the holiday season on the sandy beaches of Tulum in the Yucatan.

When I recently visited him in Copenhagen he spoke with candor about all the various aspects of his present life, he stated that he was content with the status quo. The amazing thing about this young chef is how realistic he is about his impact in the industry and apt to share his very honest insights acquired through his experiences. It is inevitable that being in the constant limelight brings criticism along with plaudits but none of this has changed him over time. Along with many others around the world I have acquired a new perspective about the industry and our trade from him over the years and feel a sense of pride in his accomplishments.

A few years ago the pressure of living in the constant limelight became difficult to manage and he escaped to Mexico (his favorite destination) to put things in perspective, which of course he did. He spoke from the heart in a darkened auditorium at Mesamerica about this phase and instantly many others in the industry felt it was alright to acknowledge this phase in their professional life. A few months later it was a delight to see him partying with other chefs at the crazy “Octopus(sy)” Gelinaz riff on Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio’s dishes. At his MAD Symposium you often find him seated on the floor next to the stage but not at the after parties except for a token appearance. The fame and media attention are a byproduct of his inherent charisma. His primal-flavored cuisine of the Nordic region makes an indelible impression that is hard to shake off and a meal at Noma is always a unique experience (provided you can get in). All said, he is an original!

A part of my conversation was published on The Daily Meal, but an extended version with details of the Fall 2015 menu is posted below.

Chef Rene Redzepi
Chef Rene Redzepi

Rene Redzepi: Impossibilities & Possibilities

by Geeta Bansal

On a drizzly, cold grey day in Copenhagen after a hectic lunch service and the clamor of the staff lunch had died down Rene Redzepi the acclaimed Danish chef of Noma sat down for an interesting conversation. His two Michelin-starred restaurant, which shot four times to the top spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list before moving into the third place this past June, is on every food enthusiasts bucket list. Redzepi is probably the most recognized name in the restaurant business, as the crusader of Nordic cuisine, a topic unheard of until he appeared on the gastronomic horizon. Extremely intelligent, articulate, and honest, there is a charisma about him that draws others into his world; a unique environment created by this young chef: part researcher, part explorer, part dreamer, and despite his renown still a regular guy.

In an age when chefs of insignificant stature surround themselves with entourages consisting of publicists, assistants, managers and hangers on it is refreshing and reassuring to observe that this chef’s opinions and dreams stem from his own intellect and are for real. Redzepi is constantly redefining himself and his trade, while opening new windows into the industry and energizing his peers as well as new and old generation chefs. The MAD Symposium created by him draws a select group of cooks, producers, food journalists , historians, scientists and others connected to the food world from all over the globe to the red circus tent pitched on Refshaleoen in Copenhagen every year. The Nordic Food Lab a self-governed nonprofit research operation that Redzepi helped create and was once housed on a barge moored by the restaurant and now in residence at Copenhagen University,  expands the sphere of his influence worldwide. Recently his MAD nonprofit organization has partnered with Yale University in projects which will address environmental and political issues connected to the food industry.

This year MAD took a gap since the Noma team accompanied their chef to Tokyo to set up Noma Japan (5400 miles from Copenhagen) for ten weeks, and the next territory they have set their culinary sights on is Sydney, Australia. Just like the Japan venture, Noma Australia was sold out within minutes of the ten week schedule being released and these overseas projects have propelled other chefs onto the road with their own teams in emulation of Redzepi. It’s not just Noma style plating or dishes that appear all over the world since hordes of stagiares who spent just a hot minute in the Noma kitchen are now capitalizing on the connection in other kitchens and even reality TV shows. Just about everything that Redzepi initiates instantly becomes de rigueur in the industry and the benchmark by which others measure their culinary contributions.

A few months ago the announcement pertaining to the closing of Noma in 2016 not only sent die-hard fans scrambling for elusive reservations at the restaurant, but probably also set in motion plans for similar restaurants within urban farms in other cities around the world. Just a few days ago, 108, a new casual restaurant by members of the Noma team scheduled to open next year was announced. This more laid-back version of Noma will take up residence in the present Noma kitchen for a thirteen week tenure, while the rest of the team is in Australia, before moving to its permanent home.

When he travels to congresses or food events like Gelinaz, Redzepi a veritable food diplomat is surrounded by throngs of adoring fans drawn by his multi-faceted persona and now famous face, especially after making the cover of Time magazine not just once but twice. He has authored two books: the first the “NOMA” cookbook, and the second more of a journal titled “A Work In Progress” that he actually started maintaining after bringing Noma to the number one position in 2010, a mere seven years after opening. Once Noma found its niche it has since became the beacon of foraging, local and seasonal, and the new format of Noma will take it to yet another level. Dining at Noma is an experience, and I always leave wondering in which part of the world I will see a copycat version of a Noma dish next or first.

Seemingly unburdened by plaudits Redzepi is admirably unchanged over the years, whether warmly welcoming guests into Noma, or to his test kitchen or when MAD attendees disembark from boats at the MAD Symposium. He is held in high esteem by the international fraternity he has helped build along with other like-minded big name chefs, many of them his close friends. His fastidious attention to every detail became apparent as I observed him conducting a staff meeting before service, going over details of each expected guest.

As a result the service at Noma is very personable and welcoming and the team members appear to be genuinely invested in the guest’s experience. Many protégées have gone on to open their own ventures in Copenhagen and beyond with the backing and encouragement of their boss, who does not shy away from promoting them. Even if it involves the most well-known chef in the world putting together tacos in a food stall at Torvehallerne food market in Copenhagen!

Rene prepping his staff
Chef Redzepi staff briefing

We sat down in the staff canteen conversing over the racket of a couple of Pacojets running at the same time, the boss being just one of the guys, as the staff went about their business undeterred by his presence. Rene is the kind of leader who, when head dish washer Ali Sonko was unable to join the team onstage at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants  Awards in 2010 in London due to visa problems, had the whole team don t-shirts with his picture to include him anyway.  In 2012 Redzepi handed the mike to a suited Sonko to speak on his behalf after being named the number one restaurant once again, this while he himself stood on the sidelines. No wonder he is loved by his brigade and inspires such dedication and commitment. As he reminded me he is only 37, and no doubt the world will hear a lot from and about him as he chases his latest dreams in his Noma imaginarium.

What do you think about impossibilities turning into possibilities?

The whole project of Noma should have been an impossibility from the get go for the very reason that my father came as a Muslim immigrant to a very Northern European Protestant place on earth and here we are opening a restaurant trying to define what cooking means in this region. So from that notion it should have been impossible that it happened and also that it has been a success. That is Noma something that was deemed impossible but became possible. I honestly have this feeling inside of me that whatever I dream of, however crazy it seems there is a sense that it could work. I feel somehow I could make it work if I genuinely wished for it. My world in a way has become one where nothing is impossible at the moment. The only impossibilities would be the ability to cure all deadly disease or end wars. I genuinely feel if you are able to find the impossible aspect of every situation you are in and learn from it you are going to move forward and untangle yourself from any impossible situations. This has been my general feeling throughout my life.

Are you playing to a different audience now as opposed to when you first opened Noma?

I would say it’s very different as when we first opened we were nobodies. We had a small $30 lunch menu for two or three courses and all these different dishes that guests could choose from. The menu would consist typically of proteins, sides and there were all these other safe choices. Everyone from a family to a business person could come in and enjoy since that was our clientele then. People could just pop in for a quick lunch if they were hungry and today that has changed dramatically to people who are waiting for months to get in. Their whole journey or one year vacation may be just to be here at Noma so it’s very different now. On our side we have we have always had great respect for our guests but even more so now than ever because people are committing all this time to be here. That is a change in terms of the kind of people we get. Do we have business people now? They are fewer since they don’t book three months in advance but more of the adventurous diners, on a fairly younger scale as well. It’s not the traditional Michelin star diner as all over in Europe. It is a much younger clientele than that.

Since you are now recognized for a cuisine that is not mainstream, does it impart freedom to define your own innovative version of cuisine, and of the restaurant scene?

I think that helps us tremendously as when you become known for a train of thought and then more people want exactly that from you. Obviously like today we have a dining group in our private dining room, downstairs we have a restaurant manager from Vendome, a chef from Pascal Barbot’s kitchen, a restaurateur from Sydney, a hotelier from Brisbane, and chefs from Denmark among others. That is the story of our everyday service now and that certainly gives us the opportunity to do food that we want because people are here to genuinely experience what we have to tell them about food.

In this journey so far, has the confidence graph changed?

It fluctuates all the time! I have had moments when it dips completely and doubts surface about everything you do and sometimes you doubt your whole professional existence. You think everything you are doing is crap and you are nobody and just a phony. I still get that at times and I am very doubtful. Sometimes it takes just one person during the whole week out of all the guests that come here who says that he thought something was terrible and the whole kitchen is in a funk. The whole kitchen team can then go and discuss it for hours like on Saturday night at the end of the week we discuss all aspects and details of our service. It doesn’t matter whether there were twenty or thirty other tables of people who said, “We loved it! It was amazing what you did with this, I felt what you were doing,” etc. it doesn’t matter because one person or one table had that negative experience and they were vocal about it. That can be enough for you to think, “Are we not good enough? We should revisit everything,” and so on.

Does that keep complacency in check and constantly keep you on the edge?

We have to be on the edge for not only our own sake but also for the guest’s sake. We have to be there on the playing field like it’s a champion’s league semifinal for lunch and also for dinner. We cannot have a friendly match; for us it’s like we have to win this one for the guest’s sake. They come here expecting us to do that every time. That energy, our presence and our commitment should be felt by them. They should feel that is why we woke up early, foraging in the forests, fields and farms and coming to the kitchens to cook and process everything for them to enjoy for lunch or dinner.

Why the need to constantly redefine yourself?

I feel we are in the process of trying to work within a region and find flavors within a region. We are trying to build a new sense of tradition. That whole task and job is a very long one, it needs a lifetime of work and may turn out to be the next generations body of work. In the process of searching and exploring you will have to adapt at times so that you can build on everything you have learned in the process. You build on that foundation so as not to derail and this is why we are constantly searching for ways that take us to the next level of comprehending our processes and work. It helps us understand what have been doing in the past twelve years.

What are the most significant or recognizable advances in the Noma story?

Our story is the discovery of two major things. One is we found foraging; by that I mean we found the wild landscape and connected ourselves to a new range of ingredients. It is actually an old range of ingredients that we forgot about. We found a new perspective on food, flavors, and what’s around us and it has been amazing process of discovery.

The second is the processing of these ingredients using a lot of ancient as well as new methods of preservation like fermentation, pickling etc., especially fermentation where we are doing a lot of work. These two have been the most significant contributions, the discovery of foraging ingredients and secondly the new ways of making building blocks for cuisine which is what we are doing in the fermentation kitchens through all the potions, liquids, vinegars, and the umami paste that we are creating there.

What is the next stage in this exploration process?

It is going to discuss seasonality and how you deal with it throughout the year. We now believe that there are three main ingredient flows in our region. The first one is in our oceans during the cold months from January to April, the second is a green flow of vegetables and anything coming from the plant kingdom from May to August, and the third is in the forests or wilderness from September to December. This is where we see abundance of different ingredients during the year and this is what I feel we should be focusing on cooking in those periods.

Will that change the menu format?

It will change it by season quite dramatically from going from fish and shellfish to vegetarian and then focused on more game meats and wild fruits. These three seasons and how you can eat during these will be represented on the menu. Once you realize that, wow! It makes sense to cook like that you develop a more interesting perspective on seasonality for this region as this is what available here. Once you come to that realization there is no going back and I thought about this and now we have to change into becoming a part of that process. This is what we have been working on for the past three years.

Your critics say that this shift is a way of getting publicity.

Publicity you can get in so many ways, and for us we are really lucky in that aspect. We didn’t have to change our restaurant to get that publicity. We have more exposure than ever before and I would say it’s actually a huge risk for us to change in this way.

Are you apprehensive about taking on this risk?

It would be easy to stay put instead of taking on this huge risk and continue doing what we are doing now and keep the status quo. We can just move forward and have MAD grow and we have lots of other things to build on while still pushing ahead. We are actually going to close everything and almost start again in a new space, with new rhythms and a new soul.

As a father with a young family are you scared about risking your future?

I am very scared because we are going to risk everything. In reality we are risking a lot to pursue this, and when I look at my wife I feel this one is going to be a big one, almost like starting anew. Of course, honestly it is a big decision. It is easier to keep going here, renovating, building and expanding and continuing our research. Once you know that it is the right way to move forward even if it’s risky you have to go with it. If we actually nail it, it’s going to be amazing.

What is planned for this present space of Noma?

We don’t really know, but we are probably going to let it go.

When do you begin construction at the new location?

Right now it’s still that derelict building and we are in the process of going through the last touches with the architect and the authorities. In this project we are not going to be as green and inexperienced as our first project but we are never the less taking away the last six or seven years of growth and development.

The new project will be a restaurant on a farm?

It will be a city farm, based in seasonality and cooking meals based on that aspect during the year. The same quality and standards will be maintained while we cook based on the seasons. We will cook with ingredients from the ocean and then from the plant kingdom, where guests will not miss a single bite of protein, and then focus on the wild food in the next season. I think personally that we will become much better than what we are now.

You do realize that whatever path you choose, many others will follow you all over the world? Do you have a sense of responsibility?

Right now yes people will follow and of course there is a realization about that. I feel we are very good in communicating our ideas and expressing what is going on and we try not to keep anything secret. I think the future is sharing and building of small networks and communities that in turn belong to a larger community. We are part of a community, people come to MAD and become friends, become connected in a big community of chefs that are pushing forward and trying to be there for each other. And truly we are really doing this here.

You have been instrumental in building a fraternity in this industry. Why is that important for you?

I think that is the future, building communities, connecting people, this I think is an omen for the future. It’s about doing things together and there is a great irony in the notion that if you want to succeed professionally you have a better chance of doing it if you involve yourself in a community. I believe we can be more successful financially when working within a community as opposed to saying I have this idea and it’s only for me. Everybody else can have their own ideas to do their thing while I do my own thing. You may be as successful but not as longstanding a model as when you progress in a community.

Doesn’t ego interfere with that process?

It does and this is one of the greater dangers in any progressive movement. Even in a place like Copenhagen if we start telling each other that so and so is very successful as me or God forbid we say this or that young chef in town is getting all the attention we will start looking like the old farts that have nothing to offer.

Once this polemic begins it deters the pushing or moving forward. I think a lot of these situations are based in stupidity and lack of knowledge and so it becomes more important to have meeting places to discuss face to face, exchange and talk. I think everyone in our trade is on the same page more or less. Most people want to have a successful operation to make people, their family and the team happy. They want to be able to afford a comfortable lifestyle in their surroundings, and once in a while a few of these people just blossom through and become extraordinary in their field. This may be from a philosophical point like Michel Bras or from a business point of view like others. Ultimately everyone has the same dream: of building a place where they can work with their craft and make people happy.

You are perceived as belonging to a “cool gang of chefs”. How do you respond to such comments?

In some way they are correct as there are a few people who are always in the news and seem more interesting. I think it’s unfair to blame the “cool kid” because it’s the press that creates this impression. In a sense there is a reality to that because some of these people have a moment, some even a very long moment in the limelight and they continue to be interesting. The press keeps writing about them and though it is at times unfair and too much attention is given. At MAD we try to bring forward people who are relatively unknown like a chef from Somalia or a young female chef from Paris in order to spread the conversation and open the eyes to other aspects of our trade.

I usually don’t comment about this subject as I don’t know how to deal with it. This whole process of press relations and who gets how much attention etc., but I do feel that there are people out there not getting their share of attention.

There is a “Chef from Noma” phenomenon around the world with people who spent a short time here with you. Are these stagiares going to continue coming to the new project?

They are going to be coming for sure but probably fewer in number. Their tasks will be different as we will also be farming quite a bit. It’s going to more interesting.

Is the farming another risk factor in this new concept since you will be dependent on nature?

For sure, but then I won’t be the farmer myself we are hiring specialists for that job. We will have an actual farmer and we are still working on the logistics of how big the farm will be. It depends on the authorities and how much they will allow us to build into farm space.

When will you be opening the doors to the new location?

We will be open sometime in 2017; it could be May or July. We will close here in December 2016 and for part of 2016 we will be in Sydney Australia.

Are you going to continue organizing the MAD event, as you took a gap this year?

We will and one of the things that people don’t realize is that it is hard to source money for it. In order for us to be free and not have logos everywhere we don’t have sponsors. We do apply for grants all the time and have dinners with which we hope to fund this. We have built up a network of people that donate, and that’s how we do it. We do have individual projects like our Yale project, the wild food projects that get individual grants and get funded for three to five years but that whole budget is separate and not flowing into the organization. Even if the MAD organization disappeared tomorrow, the MAD institute with Yale will still be viable and funded.

What is the next dream?

To have one more child! I have three girls.

Are any of them interested in the kitchen?

Not yet, though they love to eat and be here to see what’s going on. They spend every Saturday here and sometimes my oldest daughter likes to set the napkins in the dining room. Who knows maybe one of my kids will find their own inspiration and like to join the family business. I will not push them but if it happens naturally I will open the doors.

You went to Japan this year and next year it’s Australia. What is behind this urge to explore?

That actually happened after I had children because my wife and I are a mixed bunch so to speak. Even though we are both white she is from a Jewish background and I come from a Muslim background, which is a strange mix in Europe. I just want to show my kids something about the world and let them experience other cultures and ways of looking at things. These are things I want to do myself as well as I still have the same desire as when I was eighteen and wanted to travel and learn. The difference is now I have three kids and a restaurant so I decided that now all of us could go together.

There are a total of fifteen children traveling this time to Noma Australia. Any team member with children and spouses has the opportunity to take them along. All the children will go to public school while we are there; all they need is a uniform and books. We did that in Noma Japan as well and the kids loved it. Now my kids speak fluent English after this experience and it was extraordinary to see them grow.

Do misconceptions about you bother you?

No, now I am 37 years old and I just keep going, misconceptions will clear out to be replaced by more and so on.

Does the elusive third Michelin star rankle, or are you content with the status quo?

I am not content in the sense that I feel we can go far for reasons that are natural to us and not just for the Michelin guide.

To be truthful any chef who says it doesn’t bother him is not being honest. The young chefs who are growing up now will probably not care as much but we still grew up in a very traditional environment and there was only one guide, the Michelin. It was the supreme thing to be in and so I care but I do not care to the point that I want to change anything in my professional life or my private life to go the extra mile to get it.

What about the 50 Best Restaurants list and the controversy surrounding it?

I think it’s a great thing and they changed gastronomy worldwide. When they came on board the whole world opened up and so many restaurants from all over the world came into the mix. Yes you can criticize it and there are a lot of things to criticize about it but I try not to take it seriously. I just see it as a big party that has helped fill our restaurants and has changed our region in terms of opportunities for restauranteurs. Of course no one seriously believes that they are the best or if there can be one that is the best. Despite all the controversy I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. The more talk about it the more it’s going to keep growing and in a sense all the detractors are making it bigger.

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