In April this year, Noma, a small restaurant in Copenhagen known mainly to locals and European food cognoscenti, swept past the far more famous El Bulli in Spain and the Fat Duck in the UK to be named the world’s best restaurant by chefs, food writers and restaurateurs at the San Pellegrino Awards. Since then, Noma’s 40 covers have been booked solid.
The win propelled the restaurant’s young chef and co-owner, René Redzepi, and his radical Nordic cuisine into the spotlight. Arranging a time to meet proved tricky. Redzepi cooks lunch and dinner in the restaurant and doesn’t have a break in between, so we couldn’t eat at Noma. (Plus, I guessed, those who had travelled far to taste his cooking might be disgruntled to find him dining next to them).
Instead, Redzepi agreed to meet me on a rare day off – a Monday, when Noma is closed. I asked my hotel’s concierge about the restaurant Redzepi had chosen. “Schønnemann restaurant? Why are you going there?” he asked, almost suspiciously. “It’s where Danish people have lunch.”
Schønnemann is in a quiet square, just off the main shopping area in Copenhagen. When I arrive at midday, two cheerful Danish waiters are polishing large beer glasses behind the bar. I am handed a menu in English that states: “Classical Danish Lunch since 1877.”
I have just registered the dozen different ways to to eat herring when I look up to see Redzepi outside, securing his bike. Wearing grey jeans, grey shirt and white sneakers, with a mop of straight dark hair, the 32-year-old looks familiar, and I have to remind myself that, although we are contemporaries, he is an internationally famous culinary superstar.
“I just live round the corner. It’s a good place to have a quick lunch,” Redzepi says, in perfect English, as he sits down at our corner table. “I have to work later.” Isn’t this, I ask, your day off? “No, I never have days off,” he says. “Everything you do, everywhere you go, you’re always thinking about food. Your whole life is food.”
Redzepi chooses for both of us – a fried herring open sandwich to start and smoked halibut as a main. We aren’t going to be working our way through the lengthy Scandinavian schnapps menu as Redzepi has an afternoon of admin ahead, and I have a flight home. We order mineral water.
He dives into a basket of moist rye bread. “I’m sorry, I’m starving. I’ve been looking after my daughter this morning.” Redzepi is married to a colleague at Noma and they have a two-year-old, Arwen. He’s just dropped her off at nursery. Is Arwen a good eater? “Yes! She had 200g of pike perch last night,” he beams. Only a chef would be quite so precise about a child’s fish dinner.
“So,” Redzepi instructs, turning to the food already on the table, “you take the bread and spread it with fat or butter.” He demonstrates, taking a mound of pork fat from a small pot, loads it on to his knife and spreads it lavishly on the bread. I don’t like the look of it but am not about to question his advice. It’s pretty tasty.
I ask Redzepi about his working week. He says he works from 8am to 1am, five days a week. And this isn’t because he has a tiny team: there are 30 chefs at Noma – almost a chef per guest.
“And we’re not bored! We’re very, very busy. The way we cook is so much more time-consuming than some other Michelin-starred restaurants [Noma has two stars]. It’s easy to slice a piece of foie gras and sauté it. But when you work with vegetables and plants and herbs, and when you have to collect several of them yourselves, it takes much more time.”
He munches more bread. “Take a carrot for example. Washing it, peeling it, dicing it or whatever, braising it, planning it out per portion is very time-consuming. That is why restaurants of the calibre that want to cook with great products, will always be expensive, or seem expensive.”
Noma’s unique selling point is that all the ingredients used at the restaurant come from Nordic countries. Redzepi doesn’t use olive oil or anything else that isn’t indigenous to the region. His recipes include unusual foraged plants that haven’t been used in Danish cooking for decades, and old-fashioned drying and smoking techniques help the produce last through the dark months when little grows. (Noma’s success has helped turn foraging in Scandinavia from an amateur passion into a paid profession.)
Redzepi arrived at his Nordic credo in 2003, just before he opened the restaurant. That year he had been on an eye-opening boat tour of the North Atlantic coast, in which he met local purveyors of unusual ingredients such as sea buckthorn, horse mussel and Atlantic puffin. He still makes occasional trips to the outer reaches of Scandinavia to source ingredients and works with a botanist and an ever-growing team of foragers. The team also liaises with a biologist: “If I see something I haven’t seen before, I just snap it and send it to her. That’s the great thing about the iPhone,” he tells me, taking his out of a pocket. “Also if I find a good spot somewhere for, say, wild horseradish, I can put a needle on the iPhone map to show where it is and I can send it to all the sous-chefs.”
A nice mixture of ancient and modern, I observe. “Of course. We’re not hunter-gatherers. We use the best modern machinery – anything else would be stupid.”
I ask whether this experimentation has ever led to the odd mishap? “Oh yes. Many times,” Redzepi says, more amused than perturbed. “Choking, or burning, for example. I’ve had hundreds of ticks on me as well ... It’s not something I recommend people to do,” he adds, noticing my alarm.
Seasonality is key to Redzepi’s approach, not just because he thinks it is the right way to cook but also because he wants to give the diner a sense of the exact time of year, and an idea of the precise source of the ingredients. “Our job is to try to make a connection that is as unbroken as possible from wherever it is that the ingredients come from, let’s say the sea, the field or the forest,” he says. “There has to be some link with the original environment, and that tends to make you push the ingredient forward. It’s difficult to put a lot of fat, for instance, in dishes, as it changes it too much.”
Redzepi’s first cookbook, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine (Phaidon), has sumptuous photographs of his dishes: colourful, texture-rich mini-landscapes that hover magically in the realm between food and art. More often than not, vegetables take centre stage.
Noma doesn’t use much meat – partly in a bid to be environmentally responsible, but also because meat was always a luxury for Redzepi, who has a Macedonian father and spent time there as a child. “If we wanted meat when I used to holiday in Macedonia, we had to kill a chicken.”
With that our herring arrives – a large lump of it, with capers, red onions and parsley. Redzepi shows me the way, buttering more rye bread with pork fat and transferring the herring on top: voilà! The traditional smørrebrød, or Danish open sandwich. It is rich, warm and flavoursome.
I ask about the emphasis he puts on time and place in his cooking. How often does he change his menu to reflect these principles? “It can be different from lunch to dinner. Most of the time we change because the ingredients go out of season and the quality decreases. When you work the way we do, a heavy rainfall can mean that, suddenly, strawberries are out, for example.”
Does he study the weather report a lot? He smiles. “You know what? I think it’s something that people think is a little freakish about me – I know what the weather is like in most of Europe. It’s become almost an obsession, looking at the forecast.”
A long hot Danish summer followed by a few downpours means it is an extremely good year for mushrooms. “They’re just popping up everywhere,” he says delightedly. “Right now it is a brilliant season. It’s my favourite time of year because you have everything: we still have all the vegetables, salads, radishes, root vegetables, just everything. All the berries, they are in high season right now. Shellfish is back ... ”
Noma’s influence has brought about a small revolution in Scandinavian fine dining. New restaurants championing Nordic cuisine, often run by Noma alumni, have opened to acclaim. Redzepi is keen to emphasise his support: “I love it. A lot of them are doing their own thing, so it doesn’t feel like our restaurant. They are strong characters, these people.”
Redzepi is clearly a strong character, too, but easy-going with it – although, admittedly, I haven’t seen him working in the kitchen at its busiest. He is young, too, to be at the top of his game and to have worked in such a glittering array of Michelin-starred restaurants. He started as an apprentice at the Pierre André restaurant in Copenhagen, and then went on in 1999 to work at El Bulli and in 2001 at the French Laundry in California. It was El Bulli, the birthplace of Ferran Adrià’s “gastromolecular” cuisine, that Noma toppled in the 2010 San Pellegrino Awards.
As our smoked halibut arrives – large opaque slivers of fish, on chewy white bread, with sliced cucumber and dill mayonnaise – I ask Redzepi what it was like to win the award. Did he have any sense he might? “Yes, I could feel it. We didn’t expect it but, when we arrived in London, we could feel that people were making a fuss. There was some extra attention from journalists.”
Does he now feel under huge pressure to stay at the top? “Well, of course, it would be nice,” he says, “but it can only go one way from now, so we’re just trying to enjoy our moment in the spotlight.” I wonder if the chefs feel an added pressure in the kitchen? “Actually,” he says. “I feel as if we are in the eye of the hurricane, where things are surprisingly calm.”
We are both defeated by the amount of halibut, so I ask for the bill and Redzepi suggests we go elsewhere for coffee. As he wheels his beautiful handmade bike, we walk to a nearby café. I hold the bike for him and he heads in but comes straight out empty-handed. The best barista isn’t working today. He is fussy about coffee and suggests we try another café.
As we stroll, I ask whether Redzepi is tempted to do a television series and become a celebrity chef like Jamie Oliverand Gordon Ramsay. “I’ve had several offers,” he tells me, as we cross the bridge into Christianshavn, the island on which Noma is situated. “But I have always said I wouldn’t do anything unless I learnt something, the viewers learnt something and my family and colleagues learnt something.” This kind of earnest approach is, I suspect, something that some TV producers find hard to grasp (although Redzepi is starting to appear on TV – he was cooking on the BBC series Masterchef: The Professionals last week).
Near the Christianshavn canal, he darts into a small cosy café and asks for two macchiatos to be put on his tab. He is concerned because a youngster with large plastic spectacles has made our coffee rather than his favourite barista “in the whole of Copenhagen”. Despite this, the nutty-tasting macchiatos pass the Redzepi test.
After coffee, we approach Noma, housed at one end of a warehouse on the waterfront. It’s closed but there is still a certain amount of activity. We jump aboard a boat moored a few metres away. This is Noma’s operations centre where his chefs develop recipes, says Redzepi.
Inside the restaurant, the sun-filled dining room with its pared-down colour scheme of cream and stone is quiet, aside from someone fixing up a new telephone system – presumably to cope with the booking deluge. In an adjoining café area, off-duty young chefs are sitting around with files and pieces of paper. We wander out of the back door to a half-built shed area. This, Redzepi explains, is where he wants his vegetables to be kept. “How much more natural is it to keep a carrot out here than in the fridge?” he asks. This is typical Redzepi: a simple, convincing statement that makes you wonder why you ever kept carrots in the fridge.
René Redzepi will be appearing at the Freemasons’ Hall, London, on November 12. For tickets, go to www.seetickets.com or call 0844 209 7351
Rebecca Rose is the FT’s acting books editor
Hauser Plads 16, 1127 Copenhagen
Fried herring x 2 DKr118.00
Smoked halibut x 2 DKr250.00
Sparkling mineral water x 2 DKr66.00
Total (including service) DKr434.00 (£51.25)