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What Being Number 1 Meant to René Redzepi

We caught up with the Noma chef a few weeks before his restaurant fell to number 2 on the 'World's 50 Best Restuarants' list

Ali Rosen

Rene Redzepi

The annual "World’s 50 Best Restaurants" list came out today and after three years in the top spot, Copenhagen’s Noma moved down a notch to number two. But don’t start shedding a tear for René Redzepi just yet. When we spoke to him a few weeks ago, the renowned chef expressed appreciation for being number one, but felt that enough had already come to Noma from the designation. "It made us full and it shifted the attention toward our region and gave us a lot of opportunities," he said. "[But] it’s not important to me to stay number one and have these accolades. It was an important stepping stone." He also cites the MAD symposium and Nordic Food Lab as coming in part because of the award.

Redzepi also agrees with the notion that Ferran Adrià has posited, that these lists are always going to be too subjective. "Imagine all of us deciding on the best color of the world each year... There are many restaurants out there that to a lot of people are 10 times better than us," he said.

But no matter the accolade, Redzepi is happy to just be doing what he is already doing. "Do I wish to be a part of food, and cooking?" he says. "Sure, we should all try that, we should all try to leave things a little bit better than we received them."

It seems like number two will suffice just fine.

Here’s why you can’t kayak to Noma

The life of a world-famous chef isn’t an easy one. René Redzepi’s forthcoming book, A Journal, describes a year in his life at Noma, as he tackles errant sous chefs, wild ingredients of wildly differing qualities, and experimental cookery that doesn’t always yield the tastiest of results.

The book, which originally formed part of his A Work in Progress box set, was written while Noma was still housed in an old warehouse on the dock front in Copenhagen.

However, its new waterside home, on a stretch of disused shipyard in the Copenhagen harbour, has brought the restaurant even closer to nature.

On Monday, to mark the opening of the restaurant's vegetarian season, Redezpi and co. posted this picture on its Instagram. Why the anti-kayak sign? Well, the text reads ‘fuglereservat’ or bird sanctuary, and, as the chef tells Eater, the sign was put up as part of a deal Noma struck with the local bird watching group.

We’re not sure whether the Noma kitchen will be quite so kind to its feathered friends when its game season opens this autumn, but for the time being, kayakers will have to find another way to this world-famous restaurant. For more on René and Noma, go here.

The man behind Noma

It’s a rainy Friday in Copenhagen. René Redzepi has spent a morning at home with a feverish daughter. Forty people are downstairs in Restaurant Noma having the lunch of their lives. Two wild-eyed Norwegian fans will want face time with him during the interview. But the 36-year-old chef seems relaxed in his skin. It’s not hard to see how this boyish Dane, who’s more likely to pickle his laurels than rest on them, inspires a generation of cooks.

Sitting in trademark chefs’ whites and brown apron in the restaurant’s beautiful private dining room, Redzepi talks about the chip on his shoulder that drove him, how he probably won’t get three Michelin stars in the first Nordic guide and why he’s looking forward to his first visit to Ireland, to appear at the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food & Wine next month.

He’s heard a lot about Ireland from the young Irish chefs that have passed through Noma’s kitchen. “They tell me ‘yeah we have the chefs, the Michelin stars, but there’s really only one and that’s Ballymaloe.’ It just stands out and it’s the giant.”

So he’s intrigued by the Allen dynasty. “They don’t have Michelin stars but they are the most influential food family in Ireland, probably ever. They’re doing something very honest that makes sense to them and that makes them happy and their guests happy.”

That quest for happiness and “deliciousness” is a version of the food of his childhood, he now realises. Born in Copenhagen to a Danish mother and Macedonian father, his early years were spent on the family farm in Macedonia.

“I’ve always rejected that romantic story that you always hear the French chefs talking about, the grandmother stirring the pot and they were watching. I hated it. I always thought it was bullshit.”

But now he sees the echoes of the kid he was “roaming about collecting chestnuts and wild berries. Back then it was something that was so common you didn’t think of it. Today it’s one of the biggest buzz-words in cooking: foraging.”

Noma turned Copenhagen from a backwater into the must-do city on a young chef’s CV. “Ten years ago we fought for the same 200 customers every night. Now we’re fighting for 2,000 every night, or more at times.”

The irony is that the man who put Denmark on the culinary map attributes some of his success to being an outsider. “I think the competitiveness is coming from a family of cleaners and dish washers and coming also from a family where I’ve seen my own parents work their asses off, much more than any regular Dane wants to, ever, especially in a kitchen.

“But because you have that chip on your shoulder you want to succeed. You want to show that this family is more than just ‘the help’. That made me push through at moments when it was so much easier just to say ‘let’s tone it down. We don’t need to go there. Stop at one star. It’s fine.’ ”

The feeling of being an outsider lingers. Although he’s at the centre of a brotherhood of world-famous chefs Redzepi has yet to be invited to speak to a Danish cookery class.

“We’re much more respected out of Denmark than in Denmark. I can see that when I went on a book tour. I can go to Sydney and fill the Sydney Opera House.” In Copenhagen he reckons 60 people would turn up. Does that bother him? Not in the least.

Last month Michelin announced it was planning its first Nordic guide, sparking speculation that some of the region’s restaurants would get the top award of three stars. Will one of them be Noma? “I don’t think so. I think there are many other candidates that are more clear. Every guide has their way of doing it and their formula to tick off. I definitely think there will be many more restaurants in Scandinavia that get three stars before we do.”

After 21 years in kitchens his energy is shifting. He’s “not mentally tired” but more physically tired than when he used to shoot straight out of bed to the restaurant. It’s partly Dad fatigue. His wife, Nadine, works in the restaurant, and is six months pregnant with their third child. Winter has been a rolling set of sniffles and fevers. Their eldest daughter Arwen spends most Saturdays at the restaurant. “She gets fed and sits, and reads and draws.”

His non-identical twin brother Kenneth, works as a sort of caretaker in the former warehouse that houses Noma after a severe case of tinnitus finished his career as a law student. “He was the first in our family to go to university,” Redzepi says. Some psychologists might speculate that having a brilliant high-achieving twin also contributed to the young chef’s drive.

Was Redzepi always a good communicator? He recently told his 80,000-plus Twitter followers that all of the staff in the restaurant are moving to Tokyo to operate as Noma Japan for two months next year. Another reboot to reinvigorate what they do.

Communication skills were something he had to learn in order to train chefs, he says. Otherwise he would just have been the crank who wanted to put a carrot on a plate and who then got angry when no-one understood why.

So what next in Copenhagen? “The fermentation project. It’s going to be one person devoted solely to the innovation of it. I mean there’s things bubbling away everywhere. It’s pretty insane. Some of it is four, five years old, so it’s pretty exciting.”

Later, in the test kitchen, he tastes dried butterbur flowers and wonders why “these can’t taste as good as they smell” because they smell like orange spice cake. He’ll underline the words “pickle and ferment plants” several times on a whiteboard.

“I know we’re not there yet, but there’s something going on,” Redzepi tells the chefs.

Over the staff meal (tortilla loaded with chicken, avocado, tomatoes and a rib-sticking warm black-bean paste), I chat to Noma’s latest Irish recruit, Ian Doyle, who deep-froze and then deep-fried some cubes of reindeer heart for his recent Saturday Night Project, when the chefs submit their ideas to their peers. Walking out into the rain, I’ve no doubt that whatever was “going on” in the test kitchen, if they don’t nail it in that hothouse of hard work and hard thinking, no-one will.


Michelin stars
“So many cooks have become addicted to accolades. You can never allow accolades become like dear family members or best friends. Because these things come and go and then each time you lose them it’s like a lost love. It’s terrible. You’re gutted.”

“I was so clear about it from the get-go. I have been confused about it, but not to the point where it was changing things for me. What I was struggling with mostly was what to do with it and what to get out of it. And I’ve chosen to try to do something positive with the Nordic Food Lab and with the (MAD Food) symposium. That’s why we haven’t opened other restaurants to have financial success. Operating five restaurants? It’s crazy how difficult that is.”

Being the best
“When we had Number One the first time I just put everyone in a circle and said, ‘Listen guys, just enjoy the moment and don’t start believing it or making this part of your soul or your very being because it’s like a bank loan. It’s not yours to own. You have to pay it back.’

“When you have that you have a lot of people that don’t care about food they just travel to impress somebody. Fifty per cent of our guests became like that. They had no idea about food. It was just to say that they’d done it.”

New Nordic
“I despise the term ‘new Nordic’. I recognise why most cooks around the region hate the term because no matter what they do – if they just put a local herb onto the plate – immediately they’re under that umbrella. But the change into something authentic and regional? That happened a while ago. And one of the things that made it go stronger and faster was the fact that we arrived.”

Cult of chefs
“Nobody can really understand it. Everybody agrees it’s not going to go away. Where is it going to be 40 years from now if you look at what happened in 10 years? It could be monstrous, crazy. The question is whether it’s something that’s good monstrous or bad monstrous.”

René Redzepi: A Work in Progress René Redzepi

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How do you achieve greater creativity at the world’s best restaurant?

René Redzepi committed to writing a journal for an entire year to reflect on this question and the result is A Work in Progress: Notes on Food, Cooking and Creativity.

Three books in one, a journal, recipe book and flick book, A Work in Progress recounts the day-to-day life at Noma – from the trials of developing new dishes to the successes that come with winning the 50 Best Restaurant award. While the journal is the book’s heart, it is supported by the recipe book containing 100 brand new recipes and the flick book of 200 candid images which provide a stunning, and often humorous, insight into the inner workings of the restaurant and it’s talented team of chefs.

Reflective, insightful and compelling, René interweaves observations on creativity, collaboration and ambition making A Work in Progress of interest to food lovers and general readers alike. Specifications:

  • Format: Hardback & Paperback
  • Size: 270 x 220 mm (10 5/8 x 8 5/8 in)
  • Pages: 648 pp
  • Illustrations: 300 illustrations
  • ISBN: 9780714866918

"These three books perfectly capture Rene Redzepi's gastronomic vision: playful and fiercely imaginative, deeply rooted in season and place, and committed to pure, real ingredients."—Alice Waters

"Rene Redzepi is, without a doubt, the most influential, provocative, and important chef in the world. This book chronicles a year in the life of a chef, a creative process - and a restaurant considered by many to be the best."—Anthony Bourdain

"Redzepi has given us a book - or really, three books - that take us not only into the field. but also into the wildest place of all: his mind. A striking, thought-provoking, and imminently pleasurable read."—Daniel Barber

"F**k me, he's a good chef!"—Fergus Henderson

"This is a brilliant, honest, and ultimately exhilarating insight into one of the most important culinary minds in the world."—Daniel Patterson

"The perfect package. Gorgeous recipes, candid snapshots, and a year's worth of journal entries are what you get in Rene Redzepi's latest. But that's not our favorite thing about the Noma chef's three-volume set. The package design - three monochromatic and straight-up minimalist covers, all held together by a color-coordinated rubber band - makes this title (and all of its parts) a must for any collection."— Bon Appetit

"There's no doubting [Redzepi's] genius. A profound insight into how he conceives his dishes. The [recipe] selection here contains some of Noma’s key naturalistic techniques and will therefore be of interest to many chefs cooking at a high level. A rare glimpse into one of the world's most influential kitchens."—Restaurant

". A raw, fascinating and innovative exploration of an elite chef's obsessive life. But more than that, it is a book about creativity."—The San Francisco Chronicle

". [A Work in Progress] forms an intimate look at what Redzepi does, how he does it, and what it means to do it. What fun to delve into this landscape of Nordic ingredients and ideas. You just might find yourself dreaming about eating hay and ants for dinner and spruce parfait for dessert."—Food & Wine

"Unique and insightful, this is one collection true food lovers will delight in."—Publishers Weekly

". The best portrait yet of the intellectual and emotional challenges of delivering one of the most creative menus in the business."—The Economist

"A food nerd's dream."—Wine Enthusiast

"[A Work in Progress] gets our pick for the best cookbook of the year because it's human, intimate and inspiring."—Tasting Table

Garum: the ancient ferment being reinvented by chefs

Henry Coldstream takes a look at how the liquid byproduct of fermented fish became the condiment du jour of Ancient Rome and how chefs today are using the product to enhance their cooking.

Henry is a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Henry is a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Despite being all the rage in restaurant kitchens across the world today, ferments have been around for millennia. What started as a necessary technique to preserve food for longer is now something most of us enjoy for the flavours it adds to ingredients. And while we’ve heard of fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut and miso, garum doesn’t enjoy the same sort of popularity in the home kitchen. However, many of us have actually tasted it before, or at least something comparable, without realising.

Packed full of rich umami – as all the best ferments are – garum is at its core a liquid seasoning made from the liquid fish expels as it ferments. It’s a similar product to the likes of fish sauce or even the UK’s Worcestershire sauce, which is also made from fermented anchovies. Over the years it has also been referred to as the ‘Roman ketchup’ due to the way it used to be liberally applied to any and all savoury dishes in Ancient Rome. These days, however, garum is used with a lighter touch, often as a seasoning to bring out the savoury notes of ingredients as well as adding further depth.

When garum started growing in popularity around the first century AD, it was made by combining the entrails of various fish with salt and fresh herbs, which were then left to ferment for up to three months before being pressed with stone to extract the liquid. Different grades of garum would then be produced, ranging from weaker products diluted with water or oil, to thick pastes made by evaporating concentrated garum for a rich umami depth. Its popularity meant small garum factories began popping up across the Roman Empire, which are still being discovered by archaeologists to this day. For years it was even used as a medicine to ease ulcers and dysentery. When the Empire fell, however, garum production ceased almost completely and this once household essential all but vanished for years to come.

While garum production was thriving in Europe during the Roman period, a very similar condiment was proving popular in Asia – what we know today as fish sauce. There’s evidence that sauces made from a combination of fermented fish guts and soy beans were being used as condiments in China as far back as 300BC. However, over the next few hundred years, soybeans started to be favoured more in China (leading to the creation of soy sauce), while in places like Vietnam and Thailand, fish became the chosen fermented protein. This distinct split in favoured condiments remained relatively clear-cut until the seventeenth century, when traders began to bring food up to China from the South. However, soy sauce is still strongly associated with China, whilst fish sauce is more commonly used in Southeast Asian cuisines.

The fish sauces of Southeast Asia, often strongly flavoured and made from anchovies, are often regarded as the closest thing we have to traditional garum today, although we tend to use it more as a cooking ingredient than a condiment. However, something thought to be an even closer relative of traditional Roman garum is Campania’s Colatura di Alici. Made from just two ingredients (salt and anchovies), the fish are left to ferment for weeks until the liquid can be drained off. It’s believed that Colatura tastes very similar to the garums of Ancient Rome and is generally used in the same way (as a condiment rather than a cooking ingredient).

The story of this historic seasoning doesn’t stop here. With a new wave of fermentation-obsessed chefs spearheading new and rediscovered ways of incorporating ferments into their dishes, garum is evolving. With waste reduction and sustainability more important than ever for restaurants, chefs have found ways of making garum without having to buy in anchovies – or even any fish at all.

René Redzepi, the chef at Copenhagen’s legendary restaurant Noma, is generally credited with leading the modern-day resurgence and reinvention of garum by using proteins such as bone marrow and even grasshoppers as the base. He realised that due to the nature of the fermentation process, which traditionally would involve the enzymes in the fish guts breaking down the protein, he would need to use something else to trigger the fermentation. The answer to his problem? Koji – the fungus used in the production of everything from sake to miso. Along with salt, rice grains inoculated with koji spores are added to the fermenting mixture to do the job of the enzymes, meaning that almost anything containing protein could be turned into garum.

Chefs and fermenting-obsessives alike have now attempted to make koji-triggered garums out of everything from bee pollen to Guinness, all of which are subtly distinct in flavour but have the same whack of umami that the seasoning is known for. What’s more, these new-wave garums are being used in a whole host of different ways in restaurants. Some chefs add it to their braising liquids to give meat an extra intensity others use it as a condiment in the place of soy sauce. Meanwhile, more and more Italian chefs are using their beloved Colatura di Alici to invigorate pasta sauces or drizzling it over pizza.

Garum is a fantastic example of an ingredient which has been around for centuries yet is still evolving and being used by chefs in contemporary restaurants to this day. If you’re a keen fermenter looking to up your umami game in the kitchen, why not try experimenting with your own garums? All you need are a few ingredients on top of your chosen protein – along with a lot of patience.

Q&A: What do you cook for the best chef in the world?

“You could say my whole life revolves around cooking and eating,” writes Nadine Levy Redzepi in the introduction to her new cookbook, “Downtime: Deliciousness at Home.” The book is a collection of recipes woven together with stories of the various roles food has played throughout her life, from childhood memories of eating pomegranates from a tree in Portugal, to standing on a stool learning to cook porridge over the stove, to dating — and later marrying — one of the world’s most acclaimed chefs. Levy Redzepi’s husband is René Redzepi, chef and co-owner of Noma in Copenhagen, often considered the best restaurant in the world. The Danish couple now has three daughters, and Levy Redzepi wrote the book, in part, for them as a means of collecting and preserving the recipes they’ve shared at home.

I recently interviewed Levy Redzepi about her debut book, the stories of her childhood and how they influenced her love of cooking, and her husband’s favorite dish of hers (hint: she made it on one of their first dates). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did your childhood affect and inspire the way you approach food and cooking?

I was born in a small town in Portugal. We lived in a small house, and to save money we lived off the land. While my big brother went to school and my father would most likely be at a bar or sleeping it off, I would spend the day with my mother tending to the animals and picking and planting food that we would eat. I remember clearly walking around the herb garden with all the beans, the geese and the chickens.

My parents earned a living as street musicians, and we would travel around Europe. When they had a good day, we would celebrate by going to a restaurant that was a little better than the one we normally would.

My parents thought food was the way you celebrated everything. If you splurged on something, it was food, not toys or clothes. It was always about the food. Nadine Levy Redzepi, author of “Downtime: Deliciousness at home”

I think that my childhood has affected the way I think about food and cook a lot in so many ways — so many memories and feelings tied to food. I think that when I go grocery shopping or I am in the middle of cooking and there is a voice or images going through my head inspiring me — all the flavors and smells, memories from childhood, traveling and restaurant experiences that I have had so far.

How old were you when you started cooking?

I was about five or six when is started making porridge, with my knees on a chair so I could reach the stove-top properly. My mother would work 24-hour shifts or have evening shifts. My brother was supposed to stay home and watch me, but he felt very confident that I could make a sandwich and take care of myself, which I refused to do. I had seen my mom making porridge lots of times, so I was sure I could do it. Porridge quickly turned in to scrambled eggs and so on.

Your cookbook is geared to home and family, and it’s kind of the antithesis of what your husband does at the restaurant. How does his style influence how you approach food at home?

I think it’s influenced my home cooking on so many more levels than I can even think of. The approach to food at Noma I find incredibly inspiring — the whole idea of taking a celeriac for example and telling yourself that this is the most valuable ingredient, to treat a seemingly boring or humble ingredient the same way you would the most expensive cut of meat or fish.

Most important, I’ve learned that you have to play around in the kitchen, and that good things often come out of making mistakes.

And how do you influence him and his approach to cooking?

I think — or I know because I have heard René say it — that he thinks it’s inspiring when I cook at home for loved ones, seeing the effort and warmth that goes into cooking a meal for family and friends. The warmth from home cooking I think is something that he is very focused on having in the restaurant.

Can you tell me a little about your cooking style?

Well, I have a husband who works a lot, so I go from work, grocery shopping, pick up our youngest and by the time I am home, I have about 30 minutes to have dinner on the table if we are to sit down and have some quality family time around the table to sit and talk about our day.

Of all the recipes in the book, is there one that has particular meaning to you?

The chicken liver pasta sauce is a recipe that the village women taught my mother how to make when we lived in Portugal, chicken livers being quite cheap. I had this so many times throughout my childhood I clearly remember how I started tasting it and seasoning it when my mother cooked it and how I gradually took over making it from her. I’ve always loved this dish, and it’s also the dish I made for René the first time I cooked for him.

Rotini with spicy chicken liver sauce Ditte Isager

Why did you decide to write a cookbook?

When I was pregnant with our first daughter, Arwen, who is 10 now, I was thinking about my own childhood, my mother and what type of mother I wanted to be. Amongst the thoughts, one of them was that I wanted to start a family cookbook that could be passed down from generation to generation.

Everytime something goes wrong in the kitchen, you learn something. Nadine Levy Redzepi

I started writing down my favorite recipes in a notebook, and René would jokingly say, “Who knows? Maybe one day it’ll be a published book.” I would laugh and say, “That’s what you do.” Gradually, it turned a little more serious as René’s publisher at the time had asked him to make a Noma-at-home book, and René said it would be a crap book because I was the one that cooked at home.

When I was at the end of my pregnancy with our youngest daughter, Ro — she will be 4 in July — I started an Instagram account and started just posting photos of our dinner and breakfast. Within months, I had two small publishers reach out to me asking if I might have any interest in doing a book. This gave me the push I needed.

What’s your husband’s favorite dish of yours?

I think he has many, but I think that the chicken livers will always be a favorite.

You entertain a lot of famous visiting chefs at home, such as David Chang and Matty Matheson. What’s it like to cook for them?

I am happy to say that most of the chefs that come to our home are good friends and people we have known for years. I will admit that I was really very nervous the first time I cooked for René.

Most of them, like René, don’t go to someone’s home expecting a fancy restaurant meal. I think, if anything, they are even more appreciative of a home-cooked meal than anyone else.

Food Bowl

As part of the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl, Times Food critic Jonathan Gold discusses writing about home cooking with Nadine Levy Redzepi, author of “Downtime: Deliciousness at Home.” The free event is scheduled to take place in Pasadena on May 20.

Levy Redzepi will also take part in Plant Power: The No Beast Feast. Hosted by Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken and featuring an international lineup of prominent chefs, the event will showcase innovative vegetable-driven cuisine paired with drinks from female winemakers, brewers and distillers. The dinner is taking place on May 19 at Coral Tree Plaza at Border Grill.

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What Being Number 1 Meant to René Redzepi - Recipes

Zen. That’s the word that came to mind when we entered the second, larger kitchen upstairs at Noma and noticed six chefs and cooks around a table, silently but determined cleaning micro-greens and herbs. It’s a picture that beautifully showcases Noma’s approach to food and cooking.

You may have seen yesterday’s feature on NOWNESS, an edited excerpt of our interview with René Redzepi. The overall time we got to spend in the kitchens, try ingredients we haven’t heard of before, talk to the chefs and get insight into the operations was only topped by our talk with René. It provides a fair glimpse into his thoughts and take on the concept of eating local and sustainability and how the food industry latched onto it in its own way.

This is René, 100%, unfiltered.

Your biography reflects a multi cultural background, how has your growing up influenced your culinary history?

Well, I’m born to a Danish mother and Macedonian father, back then of course it was Yugoslavia. My father is of Albanian decent, but the family has been living for generations in Macedonia, they are Muslims.

But you are not?

I’m not – we always had the freedom to choose to do whatever came naturally to us. And my mother is not a Muslim, she’s a Danish protestant. My wife is Jewish. As a child I remember the late 70’ies & 80’ies here in Denmark as a period where everybody had to save and save, nobody had any money, it was just a period of grey. Food was bad, everything was just bad, the 80ies have been horrible. I don’t remember Denmark as a particularly nice spot in that period.

I remember my childhood mostly in Macedonia where I spent every year a minimum of 7 weeks, until ’92, when the war fully broke out. Even though people were much poorer, life took place in nature, people lived on the land, took walks in the mountains, played with fireflies, it was hot all the time. I have very good memories of it. And we ate very well.

Since ‘92 a lot of people left, especially to Switzerland – for some reason – and now they come back with a more westernized lifestyle. Before that, it was very rural, people spent time around the table, sat on the floor, ate with their hands. We ate very little meat, because if you ate meat, you had to slaughter one of your animals, so we ate beans – that’s how you get proteins – lentils, vegetables. I remember also playing a little basketball and handball.

And then, at the age of 15, when finishing 9 th grade, I went to chef college, because a friend entered. I didn’t know which direction to take, I was tired of school and I simply followed my friend’s dream of becoming a chef. I actually thought I was going to be a waiter when I first entered, I didn’t want to be a chef. I thought it was a little dirty work – which it can be – but as soon as I enrolled in this college, during the six month introduction course, I instantly knew that this was what I wanted to be.

Primarily because of one episode on the second day of school, when the teacher asked us to choose a recipe that we should cook and we’d be judged on the taste and how it looked. And I remember as a 15 year old young man, the biggest questions I asked myself at that point were “when am I gonna play soccer, do the girls like me”, stuff like that. Never really any major questions, because I didn’t care so much about many things. “What am I gonna do with my life?”, I never asked myself that, I just followed the flow.

We couldn’t just go on the internet and surf for a few hours, you actually had to go back home, you had to go to the library and get cookbooks and magazines. And that was like an instant instigator of a will to learn something. It was the first time I remember, ever, having an experience of actually asking myself as a person what is it that I like about something. And that was a huge change for me. I went from being a guy that didn’t care about anything, who just wanted to play soccer and hang out with the friends, to coming early to school, reading about chefs and gastronomy, about the Michelin guide. I started to dream, tried to find the best places for apprenticeship and so on and so on. That episode really changed me a lot.

The simple question what I liked about food had such a big impact on me. We didn’t win the competition at the time, we became number two. And then from there, it’s just been one push forward. I started when I was 15, I’ll be 33 this year, so over 18 years in the industry. It’s a long time actually, when you think of it.

How is it possible to maintain this extremely high level, now that you’ve accomplished everything as a chef? What’s next? New challenges ahead, or are you even thinking about taking a year off?

It’s an interesting question, because what does it mean to have accomplished something? Does it mean you have finished your work, because, let’s say a magazine or an institution says that now that you have won the top awards you have arrived at absolute perfection? I don’t feel that whatsoever. We may have been voted the so called best restaurant in the world, but for me our work is not done here. The way we can express our whole land or terroir onto a plate can be much stronger and much more direct. We have not yet finished our discovery journey with the [available] product range and getting to know all the people that grow great things, I mean, this is a process that continues for years.

Suddenly you have a whole range of staff that you’ve trained yourself and that will go out and inspire others, which is a very satisfying element and a whole new factor which I didn’t expect. Sören has been here for almost 7 years this February and we turn 7 in November, but people leave and open restaurants and it’s extremely satisfying to being able to help and push people forward and to feel that you actually are taking a part in shaping gastronomy for a region. For a small part of the culinary history.

It’s very interesting and very energizing how far we can actually take this by using intuition and knowledge to shape something that has its own little world with no strong and clear reference points to other places.

How would you describe new Nordic cuisine?

We’ve been here 7 years now, how long is something new? First of all I hate the term, I hate that it got invented, I hate the way that the whole industry are the first ones to embrace it and kind of ridicule it. What we do is a regional European cuisine – that’s it.

Our main mission at the restaurant and what I tell the staff when they leave here is, give your guests a sense of time and place. Whether it’s the product range, which is a big part of us, but also the whole atmosphere, the way that the restaurant is set. That’s how we give our guests a sense of time and place.

It can only happen right here at this corner in Copenhagen at this time of the year. This is the essence of what we do. And then there is layers of finding staff, innovation and that’s the essence of it. That is our cuisine, it’s not a new Nordic cuisine. A new Nordic cuisine is a term that has been made as an inspiration for the industry and other people.

The industry tries to label everything and wants to turn new trends into mainstream, only for financial reasons? Is it hard for you to see the industry misinterpreting your concept?

They haven’t understood anything. I would love the fact that what we’re doing could be something on a broader social level, great food should be for everybody. Of course I know our restaurant is not for everybody, because it’s expensive. We buy very expensive products, we have forty to fifty people, so I’d have the biggest respect if somebody could actually make something for a broader social audience, but with the same quality element to it. Whether it’s just marmalade or it’s, you know, a creation in a two star Michelin restaurant. I would have very much respect for this, I would love to see it happen, but it hasn’t happened.

Because for the industry it’s just labels, there’s no depth to the products that have come out yet. There’s just no depth to it, it’s superficial, and it’s just a label. The essence of everything is the same. It might as well be – not that I have anything against Poland – a new Nordic line of bread that some company there made!? Where are the grains from, who grew it, why is this bread the new Nordic bread? It’s just a label. The wheat may be from Poland, or from Australia and the yeast could be from Belgium, perhaps it’s even baked in Germany. Who knows, and maybe then frozen? There’s no connection, there’s no sense of place. It’s just words and that is of course so stupid. That’s why I don’t want to be associated with this term. It’s becoming like Tivoli gardens.

A lot of these people should be ashamed of themselves. Everybody knows there are a handful of people, who decides what every person eats, what’s in the supermarkets – they should be ashamed of themselves. Everybody said this project was impossible. I know now, with a little bit of commitment and patience it is indeed possible, despite a first wave of skepticism and people that reject it. Then a new truth can actually occur. And on the same note, I’m so tired of listening to the same and the same “we’re just delivering what the buyers want” – it’s just not true. It is just not true! Those people who have made the whole society not being able to taste proper ingredients and products and buying the cheapest of the cheap, pressuring everybody, it’s just something to be so ashamed of.

I don’t understand why these supermarkets, the big chains, why they don’t have a panel of chefs, philosophers and anthropologists. And of course marketing people. Everything that combined together somehow outlines what is the product range, what is it that we want to do.

We have a social responsibility to ensure people stay healthy, but everything is done for profit. And I believe that you could still make a profit by doing it proper and also in an honest way. “Using local” has been said for the last 15 years, I mean Alice Waters in America, she has been saying that for so many years and in France it’s the most common thing, and so it is in many places. But we are doing it in an area, where nobody thought that it could be done. Where people think there are not enough products, the product range is too small and lack of availability because of the weather.

In our region we have created supply lines south of the border that are much stronger than within our own region. So people simply thought that it could not happen. In the bigger picture we are showing that it is just a matter of a mindset and some type of commitment & patience and it involves some kind of understanding. By that I mean you have to read and study in order to understand various things. That is important, not the message of “using local”.

Do you tap into other culinary directions to spark new things?

Well, we’re putting up a new book and we call it “Time and Place”. This is what I always teach the staff, that when we are in doubt we go back to time and place. Very simple, very banal.

I have to go to Australia in 2 months to give a lecture at the Sidney opera house. I‘ve been spending the last days on researching Australian products , the food culture & history of it.

In Australia I want to somehow try to give an audience of 1500 people a sense of their own time and place – if it’s possible – through their own products. Products that they probably don’t understand or didn’t realize that were there. In order to do that, you really need to study what’s out there, how it can be eaten and so on.

What is your favorite way to research?

Books. Not cookbooks. It’s not so much cookbooks, more like cultural books. I think books are one of the most underestimated items in the past decade. Obviously you can find very good information and articles on the internet, but old books, proper books, I think, give you a much better understanding.

It’s like you’re in your little world. So books are the main thing, the internet and networking which is very, very big as well. In school, if you want to say something you raise your finger. So that’s what I do, I raise my finger all the time, you understand. I reach out to people all the time, you call up people you hear about all the time. There are two people right now looking for kangaroo milk for me. It should be very tasty, high in protein, it should be good for making cheese, for instance, and it’s good for your health. It’s something that I started two days ago.

That’s the interesting thing when you come from a certain place, because when you grew up in a certain way, all your culture is shoved in your face, and that’s the way it is. You’re framed. And you can’t step out of it unless you travel a lot to see other cultures, then you can somehow see your own culture from outside and understand it better. One of the reasons why Noma has been such a great success is the fact that I have different cultures in me, when you travel a lot you see things differently. So once in a while, you know, you need someone that comes from outside for new input.

Do you have a strong connection or interest in other foreign cuisines? Anything that’s in the back of your head?

I would love to do a book or a research trip on the history of products, but there’s no money for these things. Take the 15 most used products in the world, and then you start where they originate from. Carrots. Maybe the carrot. I know that it started in Afghanistan, that’s what some people told me, and then you go there and you follow the carrot. That would be very interesting you would at least get a lot of interesting recipes, different varieties. I would love to do that at one point, that’s a dream, to be able to do that. But imagine the amount of money you need for something like this. And nobody is interested in things like this, you know. People want reality.

What is your favorite and least favorite side-effect of becoming number one? Did you experience a change in guests?

No. More happy guests. I mean, everybody said, now you’re only going to get the people with the private jets and so on, but this hasn’t happened. We have to book a table three months in advance and people that are extremely wealthy and busy just don’t do that. It’d be more like “we come in two weeks”, but we’re fully booked, we only have eleven tables. It’s the same process for everyone, you have to go online and you have to book a table when a new day opens. And the one who gets there first gets there first.

I would say that there are much more enthusiastic guests coming to try now, very open-minded. We can put anything we want on the menu people are here to try, not to get full.

“There’s lamb on the menu, I don’t really like lamb, can you do something else.” Perhaps two years ago we had a lot of these experiences, now people say “hey, they’re doing lamb, I wanna see, what they are doing with lamb.” Or with oysters and so on. And that’s a gift, it’s so fantastic that we reached that stage. We even served some guests beaver.

With the industry constantly seeking for new trends, what do you think comes next? Increased focus on the local/sustainability trend?

I think it’s gonna go deeper into that and focus on more specific subjects. I think that vegetarian cuisine will grow a lot, it will grow from, I think, a hippie style, bad cuisine, with tofu burgers and incense, meat dishes without meat, to just cooking vegetable dishes. I think it’s gonna grow a lot, I think people are going to open up for the diversity of vegetables, the diversity of flavor and how you can apply it. You don’t have to necessarily eat that many proteins.

I think that’s the next big one. People are really gonna be surprise about what you can do with vegetables. Vegetables, plants, berries, mushrooms, all types of grains, it’s so huge, I mean, probably 15.000 times bigger than what we have of animals available to eat. There’s not that big variety of animals to eat, a cow, a pig, a lamb, pheasants, all in all, 20, 30 types? I mean, you can find 10 types of carrots in just one of our farms.

How do you keep your energy at such a constant high level?

It’s very hard. One of the hardest things, especially in our business. Because everyone knows, that the restaurant trade is always in financial trouble. And honestly , it’s the truth. It’s the same for us. Not so much now, but each month it’s a question of meeting the budgets, you never know. And you have a deadline twice a day, twelve o’clock and six o’clock, where you have to deliver, you know, you have to do the best you can for each service, you can’t run on auto-pilot. You can’t just do your job nice and easy, you have to be fully concentrated. So I agree with you, it’s so under-estimated.

In restaurants like this, where people come for the innovation, for the creativity, it’s so fucking hard. It really, really is. It’s everyday lunch and dinner, it never stands still, you’re barely making it. People are making shit money, they work all the time, but there is a sense of the achievement and a sense of pushing boundaries. A sense of shaping things, with your fingers and ingredients, just seeing things transform from one to another is very satisfying. And the reactions of the guests, the whole sensation of giving to people is quite unique and deeply satisfying. And worth the while.

But I do wish that it was more appreciated sometimes. You see guests all the time, you know, unhappy guests, people that don’t like your food and because they don’t like it, they think that it’s bad. That’s one of the most difficult problems to handle as a chef. To think that every single diner in a restaurant is super happy would be nonsense, because not everybody likes the color red, some people would walk with it, but they don’t really like it. I mean, it’s the same here. Once in a while we have guests, which believe that because they don’t like it, that it’s actually bad. Full stop. That’s the absolute truth with this place and I have no respect for that. I have no respect for those type of people. But I have tremendous respect if they say “this is not my style, I prefer another type of cuisine”. That’s completely fair and honest. Unfortunately it doesn’t happen often, it’s more the other way around. And once people have eaten in Michelin starred restaurants, they think they know everything.

Do you get critical guests more often these days?

No, less. It feels like we’re in the eye of the hurricane. We’ve been open for seven years and I haven’t had a period of such calmness. It’s a paradox by saying that, because we never had more focus on us, but we seem to tackle it with some calmness. Everything is well laid out and structured, so it’s quite a special moment. That’s how we feel, that’s how I feel. Of course once in a while we get guests, that are extremely critical, they have so big expectations, but they enter the restaurant with such a positive vibe and a will to really want to eat to what they have been so much looking forward to. And can we – within our frame of work – deliver our maximum of our abilities, then it’s amazing.

It’s amazing, how energetic and focused yet calm your kitchen operates. I would say it’s not a typical environment of high end cuisine/gastronomy.

Well, I can be angry, too, in the kitchen. It happens of course, because of the crazy deadlines we have, the work hours, you know, just the fact, that there is a whole team that needs to be at their full concentration two times a day. It’s so brutal, so once in a while it gets hot. But in essence I don’t believe in such environments.

I’m a normal person and every person on the planet is trying to find a spot where they feel happy and I don’t think people are feeling happy in those environments, unless you’re a masochist or something. Strongly concentrated, team work environments, where people are supporting each other and they know, they got each other’s backs and we are working towards something, that will make happier people. And there’s no question – it shows in the results.

But I can understand, why chefs can be very angry. Like I said, I can be very angry, and I understand why people can get angry every day. Honestly, I can. And I hate the people that are standing on the outside with some form of education and pedagogies, you know, and that are saying yada yada yada, and all their bullshit. I hate those kind of people, because they should just try it. They should put themselves in a 100-hour work week, where you’re barely making it. People are earning 2000 Euros a month, it’s the same for everyone. Listen, don’t get me started on that one. There are so many opinions and so little knowledge.

Can you give us a brief example of the recipe development process? Is it purely methodical or does it differ?

It depends on the idea that’s behind it. For instance we have some ideas written on a board here, like this one, called king crab. The whole idea of the dish is “dark and cold”, because these king crabs live in the deep sea water, where it’s very dark and very cold. So that might take two months before we feel, that we have made something that truly pushes the king crab forward, but that somehow also encapsulates its environment. That’s difficult.

Then there are other times, when you have a perfect celery and you think “this is a beautiful celery, I’m going to try to cook it slowly”. I would then treat it like a piece of chicken, where you roast it for hours and keep basting it with butter and herbs. So the whole philosophy on that dish is to treat the vegetable as a piece of meat, with the same type of commitment. So in that case we have almost a finished dish, because the celery in itself is so great, so you think of it, you start it and four hours later it’s done.

But it can be many ways, there are many techniques. One of our techniques is: if you find an ingredient, that’s out of this world and you wanna combine it with a given dish, we do that by looking at what’s in its natural environment. We had strawberry dessert on the board and it’s just finished. As everybody knows, where strawberries grow you put hay, and you do that because of the water. So if it rains the soil doesn’t ricochet backup and also to keep the weeds down. But one of the few weeds that grows through is chamomile. So we made a dish of chamomile, hay and strawberries. Right now we also have a dish of game meat and right now all the flowers have seeds, the wild flowers, they have seeds on them, so we pick all the seeds and there are berries everywhere, so we have a dish of berries, these flower seeds and the deer.

Could you name some signature ingredients, which you’ve been using over the last seven years?

Sorrel and vinegar. Something that’s used in almost any menu that we have, are acidic ingredients such as sorrel and vinegar.

Do you ever take downtimes?

Well, everything is always about food, anywhere I go I look for ingredients, it’s crazy, no? But this is what I really enjoy. When I’m off, I love to go to dinner I love to see if I can get inspired, I love to see how other people think. I love to cook in my home. If I travel somewhere, I look forward to getting the best food. I’m taking January and February off, it’s the first time I’m having vacation since we opened. I’m going one month to Mexico and one month to California and will be staying with friends. I’m also gonna be there in October, in San Francisco, because of the book. We’re going to Sydney, NY, Seattle, San Francisco and Toronto in ten days. When you sign up a book deal with an international publisher, you kind of have to, or else they won’t sign with you. And normally they want you to do it for a month, but that’s too long for me.

Your new book will be published by Phaidon in September. Tell us more about it.

I hope this book gives us a little breathing space financially it needs to sell, of course. We had several publishers that wanted to publish the book, but we chose the one we thought were the best to craft an extension of the restaurant, not necessarily a cookbook as such. More like an atlas of how we do things, our philosophy.

But there are 100 dishes in it. I wrote a diary before we opened, which is in it, the chapters are divided into colors. But the readers are not told so, they have to experience the shift of colors and the shift of moods themselves, you know, we don’t push it in their face. And it’s very unusual that the publisher will say yes to letting the pictures stand by themselves without a recipe next to it, but I think that makes a better flow.

It covers products, dishes and places. The photo shoot was extremely difficult, you can’t just keep producing dishes and it is extremely expensive. But you can actually cook the dishes if you can get the ingredients. I mean, I know that a lot of people want a cookbook and as such this is not so much a cookbook.

If this book sells a little bit, we’re hoping for some breathing space the next year, one where we don’t have to turn every single dime – well, they say you have seven good and seven bad, we’re just about to finish seven years, so I don’t know if it’s been the bad or the good ones! Which period are we entering now? We’re not complaining at all.

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It was a bittersweet time, though, because it was during those years that her father developed a problem with alcohol which would ultimately split the family up, sending her, her brother and their mother back to Denmark. It was a massive culture shock for the family.

"Coming to Denmark was blurry in a way, even though I remember glimpses of it," she says. "At the time my Mum was devastated and my brother was upset. Being 12 and being away from your Dad … I think that's tough. And seeing Mum not in the best state . she didn't actually want to come back to Denmark. But she got over it, and started working, and started cooking a lot again and then things started getting better."

These deeply personal stories are a mix of beautiful and raw. As a child, Nadine and her brother would gather almonds then sit on the steps of the house cracking the almonds with large rocks. The fruits of their labour, which would often involve caught fingers, would be handed to their mother to make into an almond and marzipan cake. When their father's drinking would be accompanied by mood swings that would be taken out on their mother, Nadine's brother would cover her eyes and sing to her.

"When I started writing the book, I let Rene read this story," she says. "That was the only thing he saw [before the book was published]. When he was reading it, I couldn't stand it. I actually went up to our bed and hid under the covers. He came up and said, 'this is incredible. I want to read more. I want you to write more about it'. I showed my Mum, too. She was proud, and was crying, and it was so nice."

/>Noma chef Rene Redzepi would be an 'amazing' home cook if he turned his hand to it, says Nadine.

Telling those stories in the book came quite easily. "I was thinking about writing the book for almost a year before I started, so the back of the book is actually the first thing I wrote. I think everyone – the agents and publishers especially – they all need to know this story so they can get over this thing about me just being a chef's wife."

The pair met when Nadine was 19, and waitressing at Noma. A few years and a baby later, the Copenhagen restaurant was making international headlines. In his foreword to Downtime, Rene writes: "Nadine, without ever intending it, reminded me of the values a cook can sometimes forget when they've spent most of their young career as a mercenary in adrenaline-fuelled kitchens. If I hadn't seen her channelling all of the best intentions into making someone happy, I don't think Noma would have ended up where it has."

And now, here she is, with her first cookbook on the shelves and 100,000 Instagram followers. Which, for an unprepossessing home cook, is almost otherworldly.

But then, Rene's end of hospitality – the pointy end where Michelin stars and topping the 50 Best list is part of daily life – is a little strange. It's a world where restaurants have massive social followings. These titans of cooking don't live in the same world as everyone else. They are worshipped. They are photographed and harassed wherever they go. So to live in this heightened state, to be in the inner circle, as a mother and wife, confidante and ultimate adviser brings its own set of challenges when it comes to carving out some creative space.

It was extremely important to Nadine that she write this book unaided. "I knew that making the book people would say 'oh, great, some chef's wife making a book – he probably wrote it'. Rene's is such a strong voice and Noma has such a strong identity, that for Nadine to distinguish herself from him required her to have a cone of silence as she was writing. This was something she needed to make as herself – not as an extra limb of Rene Redzepi.

"I think Noma, and what Rene is, is all a part of it somehow. It's how I got my foot in through the door. But I just feel I really needed to do something on my own. Rene did not see the book until it was finished. And I knew that because I admire Rene so much that if I did show him that I would listen to everything he says. And he is not a home cook. He could be, if he wanted to focus on that for a while – he would be amazing. But I didn't want to lose myself in this."

Touring with the restaurant has certainly broadened her scope when it comes to her cooking. In every country the restaurant pops up in, she takes inspiration from ceramics to ingredients. "I feel like I've always done this," she says. "Whenever I eat something, I'm always thinking about what it is – trying to take a different ingredient apart in my mouth – dissecting the dish. And when we travel, I think about the things I could bring and use at home. While Noma go on their research trips, I go on my own little research trip, too."

Quickfire corner:

Music to cook to: It depends on my mood, but sometimes Rene puts on reggaeton. We also have all the playlists from Noma Japan, Australia and Mexico which I love.

After midnight snack: I'm trying to remember the last time I ate past midnight. We often have really nice hams, cured meats and fruit at hand. I think if I was quite hungry, I would also eat rye bread. Very Danish.

Kitchen weapon: I've been thinking about that, and I probably have three. A good knife, a frying pan, and rubber-ended tongs.

Formative food writing: My Mum never had cookbooks which is why I was so obsessed with TV shows, like Ready Steady Cook.

Non-cooking ninja skill? I can stand on my hands and, while I stand on my hands, I can shift from one hand to the other and touch my thigh.

Downtime, by Nadine Levy Redzepi, RRP $55, Penguin Random House

What Being Number 1 Meant to René Redzepi - Recipes

May you grow like an onion, with your head in the ground.
—Old Yiddish Curse

This is how you cook potatoes the Noma way: Find an organic farm in the Danish countryside. Persuade the farmer to leave a field fallow for a full year and then have him dry out the hundreds of kinds of grasses, plant tops and weeds that have grown in it in the absence of crops. Unearth a few new potatoes fresh from a neighboring field. Pack each one individually in the dried weeds. Then wrap them in salt dough. Roast. When they’re done, mash them lightly with a little bit of butter. Pack the mash in skins made of dehydrated milk, creating “ravioli.” Sprinkle with wild herbs, chickweed, yarrow and glazed snails. Add a sauce of buttermilk blended with newly cut grass. Prepared this way, the dish should allow the green flavors from one field to merge with those of the potatoes from below. According to René Redzepi, the chef who created it, the completed ensemble should taste “exactly like the wonderful, heartwarming scent of a freshly mowed lawn on a summer’s day.”

When Redzepi described this recipe in front of a packed audience at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre this past November, I found myself strangely moved. It sounds like a lot of work, but it contains a beautiful thought, of hay, herbs, sun, grass, earth, a particular season in a particular place. It’s like something out of a poem by Wordsworth or John Clare. It’s the kind of recipe that has lifted Redzepi to culinary fame. In the nine years since he opened his restaurant in a Copenhagen warehouse, Noma (the name is a combination of the Danish words for Nordic and food) has become one of the most sought-after tables in the world. Starting in 2010, it was named the best restaurant in the world three years in a row, a position it only lost this year, to El Celler de Can Roca in Spain.

Given these accolades, it’s perhaps no surprise that Redzepi could draw a crowd of over a thousand to a lecture and cookbook signing, or that he was introduced by his fellow Dane, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, as an artistic genius on par with Picasso and Pollock. (Ulrich collects art.) Still, I couldn’t help wondering what we were all doing there. After all, only a handful of people in the audience had ever eaten at Noma, and chances are only a handful ever will. Redzepi himself seemed a little shocked by the attention. As he writes in the journal that accompanies his new book of recipes, “No one cared what a chef had to say” in the past. “When did restaurant chefs leave the kitchen … to get projected into this?” he asked from the stage, before launching into stories about his decision to serve live ants to his customers (they taste like lemongrass) and his lengthy quest to make a worthwhile dish out of lamb brains.

It turns out that the trick with the lamb brains is to treat them as a spread and an accompaniment to bread. They have a difficult texture — “in between foie gras and fish sperm” — and you can’t overcook them (they fall apart) or let them dry out (the results are apparently too horrifying for words). The solution to Redzepi’s other question, of when chefs started to occupy a central position in the culture, is a bit harder to pinpoint. Though in San Francisco, at least, the answer is: some time ago. And not just because this is a city where no matter what else is going on — skyrocketing rents, police shootings, municipal corruption — the people you meet always want to tell you about their newest breakthrough with food.

The Bay Area is America’s incubator of utopias. And for the past forty years, one of the principal ways these utopias have articulated their vision of the world is through food. From the hippie communes of the Sixties and Seventies to the techno-futurist bubble cities of today, each utopia has developed a cuisine of its own and, usually, an ideology to go with it. But while in the past this often had to do with negotiating human relationships to nature, now it has more to do with technology. We’ve gone from back-to-the-land-ism and organic farming to software and engineering, with tech moguls and hackers testing the limits of food’s perfectibility.

Another way of saying this is that, in the Bay Area, an extraordinary number of millionaire geniuses spend prodigious amounts of money in pursuit of the perfect burger or cup of coffee. Jack Dorsey, the co-creator of Twitter, owns Sightglass, a South-of-Market coffee shop that used the latest in imported Japanese technology — halogen siphons — to make superior espressos before they switched to something even fancier. On Valencia in the Mission, two young tech multimillionaires have plowed their earnings into a tailor-made urban chocolate factory that crafts elegant (and expensive) bars from beans sourced from individual farms in Ecuador and Madagascar. Then there’s the recent Columbia graduate who almost started his own version of Facebook while in college. Even though his company didn’t go anywhere, he made a fortune and now roams the earth dining at the best restaurants and posting endless reviews and Instagram photos on his blog, which reads like a modern-day update of John Cheever’s Swimmer.

Of all the technologists trying to remake themselves in the food world, perhaps none have gone further than Nathan Myhrvold. The longtime head of technology at Microsoft, and now the head of a predatory multibillion-dollar patent farm, Myhrvold has devoted years — and millions of dollars — to remaking cooking along rational, scientific lines. The fruit of his labor is a five-volume, ten-pound book called Modernist Cuisine, in which hundreds of kitchen staples are reimagined as baroque marvels of techno-futurist cookery. They’re very hard to make. Take his burger, in which every component — including the bun and ketchup — is made from scratch, and whose ingredients are meticulously tweaked to achieve the laboratory-tested optimum flavor profile: The lettuce is infused sous-vide with hickory smoke, the cheese is aged in wheat ale, the tomato is vacuum-compressed, and the whole thing is covered in a glaze of suet, tomato confit, beef stock and smoked fat. The patty itself gets cooked sous-vide in suet, dropped in a liquid nitrogen bath, and deep fried.

However intense its flavors, the burger takes hundreds of combined man-hours to make and requires equipment not normally found in all but the most elite restaurant kitchens. Myhrvold’s work conjures a world in which comfort food is made with the same precision engineering and allowance for luxury that goes into the construction of rich-guy yachts and custom jets. It’s a perfect expression of his whole mode of life as amateur paleontologist, corporate raider, safari enthusiast, patent troll, eighties Bond villain and Willy Wonka.

Yet the scale of Myhrvold’s ambition pales beside that animating the makers of a new food substitute named Soylent, after the fictional food infamously made from dead humans in the 1973 film Soylent Green. A high-energy mix of nutritive powders — oat flour, tapioca maltodextrin, rice-protein powder and canola oil — boosted with a number of vitamins, minerals and other additives, Soylent has a “sour, wheaty” taste and, when combined with water, a texture like diluted oatmeal. But flavor isn’t the point. Soylent was developed by a young computer programmer named Rob Rhinehart who was frustrated with his body’s need to consume food three times a day. Soylent was his solution. It is supposed to contain all the vitamins, proteins, amino acids and sugars needed to sustain the body — indefinitely.

According to most who have tried it, Soylent is a bland, if not nauseating, gruel. It is non-food. But it carries with it a revolutionary potential: to liberate the mind from the tyranny of the body. It promises to be the last meal you ever have to eat (or drink). Soylent has proved to be remarkably popular, raising $100,000 in pre-orders in only a few hours online and eventually winning over $1.5 million in venture-capital funding. It seems especially popular with people interested in hacking their biology as if it were another piece of hardware. I recently overheard a young computer programmer say that he had purchased a week’s supply as an experiment. Talking to New York Magazine, Zach Alexander, a 30-year-old software developer and an early adopter of Soylent, explained its appeal like this: “For me cooking is like an art form. And it’s really frustrating how biology compels you to eat food three times a day even though you don’t want to.”

The same kind of scientific tinkering that went into the design of Soylent has extended into the upper reaches of haute cuisine. In new modes of cooking, food gets dematerialized, turned into distilled scents and pure flavors. You can ingest whole meals with an eyedropper or a straw. It’s almost abstract, and indeed the move in haute cuisine of the past decade or so has been a modernist one: to try to liberate what we eat from its connection to its origins. More and more, chefs have been trying to make food that doesn’t taste or look or otherwise resemble the ingredients it is made out of.

In this, they’ve been led by Ferran Adrià, the Catalan chef in charge of the recently shuttered elBulli, probably the most influential restaurant of the new millennium. Using techniques drawn from the worlds of chemistry, physics and materials science, Adrià invented a host of ways to distill properties from one ingredient and infuse them into another. His cooking uses centrifuges, atomizers and industrial coolants. With them, he infuses scents into sprays, makes oils and liquids into gels, and turns semisolids like cheese or chocolate into unrecognizable landscapes. When the art critic Jerry Saltz ate at elBulli, he said that “nothing looked like what it was nothing tasted like what it looked like.”

In Adrià’s “molecular gastronomy” (a term he hates, but which has stuck), flavor, smell, color and texture all act as independent variables, and can be recombined at will. With Adrià, dining is surrealism: caviar tastes like melon juice olive oil arrives in the shape of a loop of wire or a gelatinous “olive” a volleyball of frozen ice cream tastes like gorgonzola popcorn balloons disappear when you touch them. Adrià’s innovations have spread out across the food world over the years. It’s now not uncommon to find foams and gels on menus in fancy restaurants and unconventional thermodynamics deployed in neighborhood bakeries. One of my favorite examples of the new scientific cuisine comes from a “contemporary patisserie” in San Francisco called Craftsmen and Wolves. They sell a ($7) savory muffin called the “Rebel Within.” When you cut it open there’s a perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg inside. How did it get there? Why didn’t it set with the rest of the dough? I spent weeks trying to figure it out before someone told me the answer. (They supercool the egg in liquid nitrogen before they put it in the dough.) Knowing how it’s done removes some of the initial satisfaction, but that mysterious molten egg still seems to me to embody what the technological approach to cooking can do at its best. It’s a moment of domestic magic. That the ingenuity that goes into it so outstrips the result is essential to its charm the pleasure lies in the conquest of the useless.

S o where does René Redzepi fit in this new world of food? The nature-worshipping forager cuisine he’s perfected at Noma seems at odds with both Ferran Adrià’s scientific whimsy and Soylent’s austere post-humanism. In actual fact, Redzepi apprenticed for a long time with Adrià, but his cooking doesn’t feature many of his master’s characteristic flourishes. Which is not to say he didn’t learn anything from his time at elBulli: he uses gels and centrifuges, and engages in some elaborate deceptions, like making “twigs” out of deep-fried crisp bread coated with edible “lichens.” But these advanced techniques aren’t at the heart of his aesthetic. Rather, Redzepi’s focus is on ingredients and on dishes that evoke the sense of a certain place and time.

This insight — “the plate should reflect the where and when of the guest” — came about gradually. At first, Noma was a fairly standard haute cuisine restaurant, making classic dishes with a few substitutions to give them a local flavor — for instance by using sour apple wine to make stock or sea buckthorn in place of vanilla for a crème brûlée. This went on for a while, until Redzepi, stuck in Greenland after a hunting trip, had a breakthrough: he realized that by relying on wild ingredients foraged from the Nordic countryside he could create something new — cooking that, according to him, speaks to a “truly personal and inspiring relationship to nature.” From then on, his cooks took to scouring Danish beaches for aromatic sea grasses, searching hayfields for edible blossoms and interrogating farmers about individual batches of unripe strawberries. Soon thereafter, they started importing 200-year-old mahogany clams from Norway and edible lichens and mosses from the Swedish woods. Whole new categories of foodstuff came to their attention. The forest, especially, became Noma’s larder. In his Journal (one part of his new three-book collection René Redzepi: A Work in Progress) Redzepi explains that, although often overlooked, trees offer so much: “There are the tiny shoots, the needles, the delicious sap, the gelatinous layer between the bark and the tree, the mosses and not to forget the fruit: the chestnuts, hazelnuts and so on.”

The primal scenes of his creativity take place in the forest or on the beach. In the Journal, he remembers finding sea arrowgrass for the first time on a beach and being amazed at its bright, herbal flavor: “The juices burst into my mouth, salty like sea water and then an explosion of flavor, like the finale of a fireworks display: coriander … From that day on the world looked different.” Time and again he returns to the woods in search of inspiration:

I went foraging, sinking into the forest, tasting things, hoping to clear my thoughts and take that deep, relaxing breath that allows me to shrug off the bustle of the kitchen. I took a second and rested on my haunches, absentmindedly picking things up around me. A snail slowly wandered through the moss. I followed as it inched along, unaware that it was selecting its own garnish. Back in the kitchen, the snail was cooked very tenderly, glazed a little in a tasty, intense broth, then lovingly encircled by cooked and raw roots, plants, shoots and flowers: it was a small mouthful representing a few square meters of a particular Danish forest on that exact day. It felt so satisfying to use my intuition in that way.

He’s right — there is something alluring about all this: the silence of the forest, the coolness of the moss, the snail selecting its own garnish. But I don’t think it’s because of the suggestion of new flavors. Not many people yearn for the taste of yarrow, sea buckthorn and tree sap. And yet they flock to Noma, and, if they can’t make it there in person, to the idea of Noma. The appeal of Redzepi’s cooking has to do with a kind of pastoral dream. In a moment when haute cuisine has been summoned to arbitrate our position between technology and nature, Noma comes down firmly on the side of the wild.

It’s difficult — and perhaps irresponsible — to critique the food of a restaurant where I have never eaten, and the recipes in a cookbook I can’t cook from. (In the interest of service journalism I was going to try to make something from Noma Recipes, but without access to mahogany clams, desiccated scallops or reindeer blood, I had to give up.) But I do think it’s possible to ask some questions about the meaning of Redzepi’s food, especially since the Journal gets so deep into the thought processes behind it.

The Journal chronicles a year in the life of Noma. It’s a constant struggle to make new dishes, hemmed in by two constraints — each has to be both Nordic and seasonal. These constraints impose a series of daunting challenges for the chefs, chief among them the fact that not much really grows in Denmark in winter, and what does hasn’t typically been considered fit material for fine dining. In response, Redzepi’s team devises a series of inspired workarounds. They find ways to maximize the flavor and longevity of their produce through drying and pickling, discovering such unexpected ingredients as juniper-beech powder and pickled gooseberries. They also begin a whole program of “trash cooking,” in which they devise dishes out of fish scales and potato peels.

Redzepi presents cooking at Noma as a process of continual innovation and collaboration. Actually, it’s sort of intoxicating to imagine working there — the thought of showing up every day to think about the weather and the seasons, looking for inspiration in the crates of forest mushrooms and live shrimp gathered that morning by bearded fishermen. On Saturday nights, there are jam sessions where the whole staff gets to come up with dishes of their own, like kale ice cream or cucumber dessert (which Redzepi immediately puts on the menu). Not to mention the fact that Redzepi almost bankrupts the restaurant by spending all his profits on remodeling the staff kitchen. All in all, Noma seems like an open, interesting and progressive place to work, one with exactly the kind of internal culture tech companies dream of fostering.

The appeal of Noma as a workplace might actually go some way towards explaining why chefs have become such cultural icons in recent years. In the past decade or two, as Silicon Valley has emerged as the most dynamic sector of the economy, our ideas about aesthetic fulfillment have undergone a subtle transformation. Our models of creativity are no longer struggling loners like painters or novelists. They aren’t media figures, like pop stars or movie stars. They’re not performers of any kind, for the most part — definitely not dancers, stage actors or classical musicians. More than anything, they’re skillful managers and team builders — entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, architects like Zaha Hadid, chefs like Redzepi. Their mode of work — sociable, engaged, attentive to design, profitable — is immensely appealing, especially to those stuck alone at a desk or computer console.

W hat Noma doesn ’t feature much of is actual Scandinavian cooking. Redzepi twice tries to make versions of dishes he remembers from childhood — his Macedonian grandmother’s stuffed grape leaves and a classic Danish dish of game with cream sauce — and both times faces deep skepticism from his staff, who warn him: “Are you sure you want to work on this, chef? It will never be as good as you remember.”

But Redzepi avoids direct imitation of classic Nordic fare, just as he approaches the dishes of his youth as obliquely as possible. Those rice-and-meat-stuffed dolmas he remembers from his childhood turn into roasted packets of cabbage leaves filled with pike fillet and verbena sauce. The first time he sees the dish, Redzepi says, “This doesn’t look like Macedonia.” What he is after isn’t an evocation of a memory or a recreation of a particular way of eating. It’s not really pastoral either, at its core — at least not in the sense of replicating the foodways of actual peasants or shepherds. What Redzepi is getting at is a vision that has proven to be remarkably seductive in our technological age. His cooking is an attempt to commune with nature in a primal way, to talk directly to the soil and the trees.

One of the most famous dishes at Noma is called Fjord Shrimp with Brown Butter. In it, several live shrimp are served live in glass jars full of ice. The diners pluck them out, dip them in butter and eat them alive. Eating Redzepi’s shrimp (or his citrusy live ants) offers more than a flavor or an experience: it offers contact with animality itself. Redzepi admits as much, writing that the butter is “really just for the timid, who want to cover the insect-like eyes and head with a quick nervous dunk” — the real point is the encounter, “predator against prey.”

But even more compelling than the animal world in Redzepi’s cooking is the idea of the earth. That bite of shrimp contains “an accurate representation of the flavors of the ocean at this exact moment.” Similarly, when Noma’s chefs prepare wild duck, they serve it covered in beech leaves: a way of imagining its last moments as it falls to its death on the forest floor. Which is what so much of Redzepi’s work returns to: the forest floor itself. Hence the attention to soil, grass, mushrooms and wood. In its refusal of culture in the name of nature, Redzepi’s cooking reminds me not so much of anything Nordic, but of Teutonic philosophy. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Martin Heidegger describes a pair of old peasant shoes vibrating with “the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field.” The earth represents, to Heidegger, a state of being before humans and before language. It’s a kind of philosophic no-place at the other end of an experiential abyss. The difficulty of thinking our way into it is the reason it’s so hard to answer the question of what it’s like to be a bat — or a toad or a rock or a clump of grass. Poets fascinated by the nonhuman realm, like Seamus Heaney and Francis Ponge, try to put this “silent call” into words. In his own peculiar way, Redzepi is attempting to do the same thing, only instead of trying to give it voice, he wants to put it on a plate.

At one point in the Journal, Redzepi imagines surprising one of his best customers with an ultimate dish. But it isn’t so much a dish as an experience:

that wonderful sensation of walking through the woods on fields of wet moss. I want to take these pieces of moss, cleaned, dried and simmered in juniper broth, and sprinkle them with dried berries, forest plant, juniper oil, cep oil, thyme oil — anything delicious from the woods. I imagine Ali, looking down into the bowl at what looks like wet moss, then at his spoon, back to the bowl, and glancing up with a scared look, asking “what should I do?”

So this is Redzepi’s wish: to put a piece of ground in front of a diner and have him figure it out. And once you got over your dismay at being served moss on a plate, maybe you would. His cooking is an attempt to go beyond the world of language and culture and into the world of pure things. And like any real artist, Redzepi articulates desires we didn’t even know we had — not for nutritive powders or engineered foams, but for contact with another way of being. To taste the essence of rocks and trees, to creep through the forest like a snail, to sleep in the earth like onions, with our feet in the air.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy Gordon Arlen’s review of Charlie Trotter.

Art credit: Noma photos (CC BY / Flickr)

If you liked this essay, you&rsquoll love reading The Point in print.

Nordic Cuisine @ Noma World’s #1 Restaurant & MasterChef 󈧏

‘Noma is best known for its fanatical approach to foraging but there is much more to this ground-breaking restaurant than the mere picking of Mother Nature’s pocket’ said the S.Pellegrino Judges. 2010

With impeccable timing Celebrity Chef Rene Redzepi has just released his new cookbook Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. It is much more than just a cookbook, it’s all about how the creative class is helping to reinvent the world by transforming the local economy. It is also about Redzepi’s award winning restaurant and the recipes that made it number one in the world in San Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurant awards 2010.

For the best in class, Noma is the number one place to eat at right now in the world. The Australian Masterchef 2011 judges confirmed this to their Australia wide audience during the grand finale. Imagine tickets for a tour in Scandinavia will book out, which is a good thing for Europe in the current economic milieu.

It was Rene Redzepi’s unbelievably challenging ‘Snowman Dessert’ that was prepared by finalists Kate Bracks and Michael Weldon competing to win the coveted title of Australian MasterChef 2011, that caused a kerfuffle. Kate emerged triumphant, but there was very little in it. And, Rene was on hand to guide them both through its preparation, which was more than challenging to say the least.

In a cook off that included blasting the food while wearing safety goggles the judge’s gave Kate’s snowmen fulsome praise. “You’ve pretty much nailed it, the number one dish from the number one chef in the number one kitchen in the world,” says Preston. It was a touch of genius to bring Rezepi to Australia to create the final challenge. In Copenhagen Rene Redzepi has been widely credited with re-inventing Nordic cuisine, which ‘experts’ say is more an interpretation of Nordic food than classical Nordic food itself. Rene is definitely a man in the right place at the right time. Noma, his restaurant at Copenhagen is considered the entire package, from flawless execution to an emotive, intense, liberating way of eating. Unlike any other it is a beacon of excellence and an inspiration to many.

Noma, on the waterfront at Copenhagen

Rene Redzepi operates at the cutting edge of gourmet cuisine, combining an unrelenting creativity with a remarkable level of craftsmanship. His inimitable and innate knowledge of the produce of his Nordic terroir has made him first in his class. Some have attempted to copy chef Rene Redzepi’s approach, although most have failed.

Restaurant Noma is located in an old warehouse on the waterfront in an urban neighbourhood of central Copenhagen. Once a centre for art and culture, its interior design by Signe Bindslev-Henriksen sets the scene for the cuisine to come.

Michel Guérard’s Cuisine Minceur

Looking at the food being plated up on the promo offered on the Masterchef final reminded me immediately of French Chef Michel Guerard’s landmark and very fashionable at the time, Cuisine Minceur, which came out in 1976 at Paris and 1977 in English at London.

Hailed as revolutionary, the most exciting idea in half a centry of cooking after a while of delicate foraging and eating it all became exhausting and enough was enough for most. Faced with a backlash, and as quickly as he could Guerard, published his Cuisine Gourmande in 1978 at Paris and London, which was certainly not meant for slimmers. So what we see next from Redzepi will probably set the new standard of cuisine for yet another next decade.

MasterChef producers flew Redzepi in for the Masterchef 2011 event. While he is here no doubt he will also sign copies of his book around the country highlighting the role exquisite cuisine is playing in helping to reboot flailing world economies.

Noma interior, chic, sleek, rustic and stylish

Cooking, cuisine, chefs, cooks and challenges are certainly something Australians seem to enjoy, based on all the reality cooking and renovating show cluttering up our screens. Who needs a good well written drama when you have so many people busy fueling and stoking the fires under the latest and best cookware in the Kitchen.

Redzepi in his career worked at the award winning restaurants elBulli (closed July 2011) and The French Laundry, which is a uniquely American restaurant in California whose chefs have been inspired by the cuisine and the countryside of France.

At Noma diners are served exquisite concoctions, such as ‘Newly-Ploughed Potato Field’, which is painstakingly constructed to express their amazing array of Nordic ingredients. Redzepi’s fascination with giving his diners a real taste of their food’s environment extends to serving dishes on pebbles found in the same fields as his produce. His search for ingredients involves foraging amongst local fields for wild produce, sourcing horse-mussels from the Faroe Islands and the purest possible water from Greenland.

From pot to plate at Noma

Redzepi has heightened the culinary philosophy of seasonally and regionally sourced sustainable ingredients to an exquisite level, and in doing so has created an utterly delicious cuisine.

Noma Redzepi’s book is an unprecedented opportunity to learn about Chef Redzepi as well as Restaurant Noma’s history and philosophy the sourcing of ingredients the experimentation behind the dishes the cultural significance of dining at Noma. It contains ninety of Redzepi’s recipes, by far the most comprehensive collection yet published.

The book will also feature a series of specially commissioned photographs, illustrating the food and atmosphere of Noma, as well as the Nordic environment that lies at the heart of Redzepi’s cuisine.

Noma seems an interesting choice of name for a restaurant offering produce and services mainly to an elite. They have taken its meaning from the Greek nom?, which means feeding, grazing (akin to némein to feed, graze, consume) so that it sounds like we’re going back to nature. After all, who would ever think of making a mousse out of carrots and building it as a snowman to make a dessert. Yet that is just what Rene and his team did.

It’s good old thinking outside the square stuff and thank heavens there are those out there keeping the creative momentum going. Mind you, we all don’t have the equipment to make this rare delicacy in our kitchens, or the time to spend three hours (at a fast clip) to complete it for the family after a hard day at the coal face.

But let’s not be hasty or harsh. It is only in the pursuit of excellence in all things that our society and global culture will continue to evolve.

Stretching ourselves to the limits and beyond is what makes humanbeings so interesting. And if we are to get out of the global economic mess we are all in together then we need to emphasize the importance of human activity and creativity in community, much more than you might have ever imagined before.

Today it is in our cities that the global economic recovery will arise. It will be fashioned in urban centres of excellence where technological infrastructure, diversity of talent, and tolerance will attract creative people to gather so that they can become the new age contemporary cities core population. Then as the creative vanguard prospers so will an economy that is driven by inventiveness.

As Richard Florida so aptly pointed out in his landmark book ‘The Rise of the Creative Class‘ ‘Only by understanding the rise of the creative class and its values can we begin to shape our future more intelligently’.