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Rene Redzepi is a culinary genius

Yes. We will talk about Rene Redzepi and the ants on the Noma menu. But you’ll have to wait for that.

I won’t tell you too much about Redzepi himself (you’ll have to see Rude Food in Brunch on Saturday to read my profile of one of the world’s greatest chefs) or about the influences that went into the creation of Noma, which has been voted the World’s Greatest Restaurant a record five times, has three Michelin stars and has revolutionised restaurant cooking.


But we will talk about the food. Though Noma is in Copenhagen and is almost impossible to score a table at, its founding chef, Redzepi, regularly leaves Copenhagen and goes in search of new locations. Seven years ago he turned up in Sydney, Australia for a ten-week residency.


   When Redzepi says ‘residency’ he means it. He closes the Copenhagen restaurant and his whole team (around 100 people), shifts to a new location.  They bring their families, set up temporary homes, send their children to local schools and immerse themselves in the local culture.


   Redzepi makes several trips before they all arrive to meet local suppliers and to understand local ingredients before creating a menu. I have never been to the original Noma in Copenhagen but in 2016 I was invited by Tourism Australia, along with a motley crew of foodies and chefs, to dine at his Sydney pop-up. (Tourism Australia was supporting the event.)


   The residency had sold out within minutes of the reservation lines opening but Redzepi owed Tourism Australia one dinner. We were flown in from all over the world for that single dinner.


   Last week, I googled the articles I wrote about the residency and recalled all the wonderful dishes Redzepi had created for Sydney. He had served wild Australia shellfish, with each oyster and whelk topped with a thin crisp made from chicken broth, brushed with crocodile fat. The fish, the chickens and the crocodiles were all local.  He served a deep-sea snow crab with egg yolk. It had a deeply intense flavour that was impossible to pin down. I asked him about it (because there was no ingredient listed on the menu that could explain where that flavour came from) and he explained that he had fermented minced kangaroo meat and collected the juices that dripped out. They become a sort of garum (not entirely unlike Thai nam pla) and he had used it to flavour the crab. Of course crab, and kangaroo were both local.


   He had taken an Australian sea abalone (an abalone is a shellfish much prized by the Chinese) and turned it into a delicately melting schnitzel. How, I asked him, had he got abalone to abandon its chewy texture and become so tender? The Chinese beat the hell out of abalone and I still can’t eat it. But Redzepi, the master of technique, had slow cooked it till he got the tenderness he desired; a texture that I had thought that abalone was incapable of assuming.


   Redzepi has done other residencies including one in Mexico since then. They are huge enterprises because they involve the mass migration of his team from Copenhagen to wherever the residency is and he rarely makes much money out of them. Mexico made no profit, Australia turned a small profit and it is not clear that Kyoto will break even.


   Ah, Kyoto. Last year Redzepi announced that his next residency would be in the historic Japanese city of Kyoto. As always, tables sold out in minutes. My son, Raaj, who has been to the Copenhagen Noma and knows Redzepi’s people wrote to them to ask if we could get in. It turned out we could and not only that, Redzepi would talk to me for the sake of the readers of the Hindustan Times. (So, thank you, dear reader, I only got in because of you.)


   We booked air tickets, flew to Kyoto and checked into the Ace Hotel where Redzepi had taken over a beautiful high-ceilinged room. It overlooked a garden and he had furnished it himself with local handicraft and art works that seemed curiously unlike the rest of the Ace Hotel.


   I spent an afternoon chatting to him (you can read about that as well in the next Rude Food) and discovered that contrary to his public image of being a difficult and arrogant person, the archetypal cold Scandinavian, he was actually quite humble, warm, vulnerable and candid. I doubt if he was putting it on; I was an obscure journo from a country he had never even been to so he had no reason to pretend.


   What also struck me was how intensely he felt that all food had to be about warmth and joy. This came as a surprise because many of the chefs who say they have cooked at Noma, (most have only been interns) produce joyless food, treat their restaurants as temples of gastronomy and act as though guests should be privileged to eat there. Rene’s attitude is exactly the opposite.


"Delicate tofu was served with shaved wild almonds and peppery (mustardy even) nasturtium flowers. A thin slice of very fresh cuttlefish came alive because of a glaze of whisky vinegar.

   I told him that more Indians had done stages (internships) at Noma than had ever eaten there. And I did not think the interns all over the world who got plum jobs by claiming that they once worked at Noma had done the restaurant’s reputation any favours. Many of them misrepresented what Noma’s food was about and missed his central message that all food was about enjoyment. He laughed but did not disagree.


   The next day, Raaj and I went for the lunch we had managed to book four months ago. The first surprise was that the moment you entered, staff members gathered around to welcome you. Redzepi was in the dining room greeting guests himself. The atmosphere was friendly, warm and full of joyous laughter. At least sixty percent of the guests had flown thousands of miles to get here and the Noma team was determined to make it a special (once-in-a-lifetime, even) occasion for them.


   And then the food (20 courses!) started coming. Which brings us finally to the subject of ants.


    Redzepi is famous for using ants as a flavouring. Chefs don’t think eating insects is a big deal. Alex Atalla uses South American insects all the time. Heston Blumenthal’s new book (Is this a Cookbook?) contains a heartfelt plea for us all to consider adding crickets to our diets. And in the north of Thailand, they eat locusts while their neighbours in Laos eat red ants.


   But as a good Gujarati, I draw the line at ants and insects of all kinds. Fortunately the Noma menu did not list any ants for our lunch. All went well till we got to a dish, described innocuously enough on the menu as ‘Shiro Ebi and Miso Crisp’. When it was served (it was a sort of tartare of delicious small shrimp), there, littered on top of the shellfish, were the corpses of many dead ants.


   I freaked.


   I asked Raaj if he would eat my ants. He agreed on the grounds that anything Rene makes must be tasty. Inspired by his confidence. I dipped my spoon into the dish. It was wonderful: sweet shrimp with citrus flavour.  There was no taste of ants. (As though I know what ants taste like!) Because I enjoyed the dish so much, I polished it all off in no time at all wondering what had happened to the ants.


   Rene passed by our table, I stopped him. I had tasted the shrimp with their citrus dressing, I said. Why was I not getting any insecty flavour?


   He had heard this kind of question before. “There is no citrus on the shrimp”, he said. “The ants provide the citrus flavour.”


   Ah well, live and learn. Another bridge crossed.


   The rest of the food demonstrated how Redzepi was able to take local ingredients and local dishes and still make them his own. Shabu Shabu is a Japanese dish that is usually made with thinly sliced beef which you cook lightly in a hot broth. Rene replaced the beef with seaweed and the dish worked. But it was the excellence of the bubbling broth that stole the show.


   This is the bamboo shoot season in Kyoto, a time when chefs at the top restaurant in the city (and Kyoto has more Michelin stars per capita than any other city in the world) fight to get the best bamboo shoots. I don’t know who Redzepi’s supplier is but he served excellent bamboo shoots with a squid broth that was out of the world. Delicate tofu was served with shaved wild almonds and peppery (mustardy even) nasturtium flowers. A thin slice of very fresh cuttlefish came alive because of a glaze of whisky vinegar. A local green rice was served with white roses.


   The dishes kept coming. And they were all delicious. There is a food philosophy among Kyoto’s great chefs which says that good food consists of taking the best ingredients and making them taste even more like themselves. It is a philosophy that Redzepi seems to have embraced but unlike the Kyoto chefs he added something surprising to every dish.


   Yes, his bamboo shoots tasted like the best possible version of a bamboo shoot but the squid broth gave the dish a different and delicious edge. The cuttlefish was the best I have ever tasted. But the whisky vinegar is what made it sing.


   That, I guess, is what great chefs do. They take the best ingredients and make them sing for your supper.


   Did I regret flying 3400 miles for lunch?


   Not for a moment. This was an astonishing and great meal. It was totally different from the Sydney meal. But that’s Rene Redzepi. Put him down anywhere in the world, and he will search for the best local ingredients and create a menu that captures the sense of place. And yet it shows us the place through the eyes of a culinary genius.



Posted On: 03 Apr 2023 06:40 PM
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