Where Wild Things Grow

Born in 1977, René Redzepi is one of the pioneers of New Nordic cuisine. He started his full-time cooking career in 1993 at Copenhagen’s Restaurant Pierre André, before moving to three-star Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier and then to Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli in Spain for a season. After meeting Grant Achatz (now of Alinea in Chicago) he did a stint at Thomas Keller’s three-star Michelin restaurant The French Laundry in California. His last job working for someone else was under Thomas Rode Andersen at Copenhagen’s Kong Hans Kælder. In 2003, he opened Noma. The restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star in 2005 and its second in 2007. It was named Best Restaurant in the World in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014.

Where Wild Things Grow Photo
Photos by Ditte Isager and Laura Lajh Prijatelj

René Redzepi doesn’t look like your archetypal man of science. As he slips through the front door of Soho restaurant Duck Soup dressed in indigo jeans and blue skater sweatshirt, he looks like any other media hand going for lunch of something on-trend and seasonal. But this casual demeanour belies his background. Redzepi has pioneered a style of food that is precision personified; his recipes as accurate as those to synthesise a new drug. He uses bacteria to do his bidding, making modern art out of fermentation at his two-star restaurant Noma, now set on the outskirts of Copenhagen. It’s the way in which that accuracy is applied nonchalantly to the plate that defines Redzepi’s style – a dichotomy of relaxed-looking presentation meeting painstaking precision that has helped him coin a new canon in fine dining.

The easiest way to understand Redzepi’s ideology and the philosophy behind Noma is to look at the man himself. His own history is a microcosm of what his restaurant has come to stand for: localism, a denunciation of waste and the ability to find the beauty in simple things. ‘My father was born in Albania and grew up in Macedonia under Tito’s Communist regime [in the former Yugoslavia],’ he says, cradling an oversize coffee cup with both hands. ‘He was part of the diaspora of 300,000 Albanians that moved all over Europe, to Turkey and into America. He settled on Denmark after seeing an advertisement in the paper for work going in a fish factory.

‘I grew up in Denmark, but I called Macedonia my home. In Denmark we lived like poor people in tiny apartments in a bad neighbourhood, with absolutely no money, eating ready-made food. But in Macedonia it was all different.’ His eyes start to blaze as he relinquishes the coffee cup for the first time. ‘For three months every year we went back to Macedonia. We were still poor, but every meal was a cooked meal with homegrown food. One of the earliest memories I have is of picking tomatoes straight from the vine. They were oddly shaped, not these perfectly round things we get today, and I would bite a hole into it to let the warm juice ooze out and I would just suck it and suck it until the juice was gone and it looked like a raisin. Macedonia was where I had my childhood; Denmark was the place we went to earn money, to survive.’

In a thread common to chefs of his generation, cooking was less of a calling, more of an accidental career path. ‘I wasn’t a bad student at school, but let’s just say I wasn’t overly enthusiastic. I was the kind of kid who knew what to do, but just couldn’t be bothered. When I got to ninth grade, I was told I wasn’t going to be invited back. My best friend had always wanted to be a chef, so I just kind of followed him into it. It wasn’t like I’d been to loads of restaurants.’ Aged 16, within a week, Redzepi was hooked. ‘Even though I was so young,
I was immediately like “right then, this is me for life”.’ What was the point at which he realised he had a real talent? ‘I don’t think I have ever felt that.’

It’s this modesty that underpins Noma. Ingredients take centre stage and Redzepi’s food allows no room for unnecessary flourish. He went on to learn his trade at restaurants that helped build this philosophy. One of his first posts was at three-star Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier, a proponent of vegetable haute cuisine. It was here that he met lifelong friend Sat Bains, who had just been posted to the restaurant after winning the Roux Scholarship. ‘We hit it off straight away as we were the only two who spoke English. I’d read about El Bulli in a French magazine and we decided to go and try it out.’ The dinner in Spain made a serious impact on both men. Immediately, Redzepi wrote a letter expressing his desire to work there. A month later he received a contract. ‘It was the most inspiring period in my life,’ he says. ‘I loved it so much; I very nearly stayed forever. It was the first time I was going to work not just to work, if you know what I mean? It felt like we were doing something special, like there was a purpose for it besides just working. I loved the Spanish people; they were so much looser than the French.’

From Spain and another placement at California’s The French Laundry – ‘the people were great and I learnt a lot from Thomas [Keller], but I found all the driving quite off-putting’ – the seeds of what Redzepi wanted his homecoming restaurant to be had started to germinate.

Today, Noma looks like a restaurant that is comfortable in its own skin, but this wasn’t the case when it opened in 2003. ‘Everyone thinks it was a clear vision from the get-go, but it wasn’t,’ Redzepi says. ‘For me, it was just “let’s use more local ingredients”. Honestly, it was as simple as that. I wanted to delve more into our own culture instead of always looking to France, Spain or Italy.’ It was around this point that he stumbled across an old Swedish army manual, issued to recruits on how to survive a year in the Nordic wilds. ‘I was reading this book and learning all sorts of amazing things about ingredients on our doorstep when this guy rocked up at our door. He had a long beard with teeth pointing everywhere and had driven up from southern Sweden, his van packed with stuff that he’d foraged in the forest. He took us out to it and just sort of said “here”.’ Noma’s ideology was forged.

In 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 the restaurant was awarded the title of Best Restaurant in the World. In 2016, Redzepi took the decision to close and take it on a world tour, popping up in Tokyo, Sydney and Mexico City. He and his chef David Zilber also found time to write The Noma Guide to Fermentation(Artisan, £30). ‘Our experience of fermentation is a story of accidents,’ says Zilber. ‘It’s a style of food that we are only just scratching the surface of understanding. Of the hundreds of millions of microbes on Earth, history has just happened to drop its cards in a particular way. Absolutely, there’s a flavour out there no one has tasted before.’

‘We’re at the beginning of something very special,’ agrees Redzepi. ‘In searching for flavour, we are discovering new building blocks which are unique in the world. Add to this all the heavy science, the big investor money moving into fermentation and growing meat in labs. This is the way we are headed.’ As early adopters of a science we’re only just starting to understand, it’s worth being grateful that Redzepi and Zilber are the vanguard.

Where Wild Things Grow Photo
Photos by Ditte Isager and Laura Lajh Prijatelj

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