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The food and the flavours are Redzepi’s real interests

When the Rolling Stones announce a tour, the tickets for every single concert are snapped up in a few hours.

Something like that happened with chef Rene Redzepi and Noma. When the Copenhagen restaurant announced that it would shift to Kyoto in Japan for a two-month residency, reservations for every table for every meal service for two months sold out in minutes.


Like the Rolling Stones? Well, yes and no. Most people who buy tickets to Stones concerts feel some personal connection to the music: A heartbreak captured in Wild Horses; a party that resounded to the rhythm of Miss You. When they go to a Stones concert, they want to relive those moments; want to see their favourite songs performed and want to see how Mick Jagger can breathe new life into Satisfaction.


  Not so with Noma and Redzepi.


   Many of the people making the trek to Kyoto (and guests came from all over the world) have never eaten Noma’s food before. Redzepi is not a high-profile public figure or TV star like say, Gordon Ramsay: Most diners don’t even know what he looks like. So the Mick Jagger / Rolling Stones parallels don’t work.


   And here’s the big difference: Redzepi never plays his greatest hits. There is no Noma counterpart to the final encore of Satisfaction and no foodie version of Sympathy For the Devil.


   Redzepi has no signature dishes. God knows, he has invented countless dishes that others have copied. But every menu is new. The classics are all retired. So nobody bought air tickets to Japan to relive a favourite foodie moment at the Noma residency. Even Redzepi did not know what the menu would be like when the pop-up was announced or which dishes would be served to the guests who were lucky enough to score tables.


   So why is Noma’s Copenhagen always booked out months in advance? Why do Redzepi’s out-of-town residencies sell out in minutes even though guests have no idea what to expect?


   I asked him this question last fortnight in Kyoto when we spent an afternoon chatting about food. Redzepi said he did not know the answer. He did not get particularly attached to dishes and was unwilling to repeat himself.


   Why did people come from so far (and pay so much) to eat his food?


   He said he was mystified.


   He probably knows the answer, even if he is too modest to put it into words. Ever since Redzepi opened Noma two decades ago, he has been the most influential chef in the world; the leader of the generation that took over from Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal.


   As Pete Wells wrote in the New York Times, “I don’t think any restaurant came up with so many ideas that were shoplifted by so many other places in so many other cities quite so quickly.”


   People called Noma’s style New Nordic because some of the food relied on foraging and fermentation. And sure enough those elements were widely imitated. But Redzepi has never seen himself as a leader of any movement, Nordic or otherwise. While his food is cerebral, its origins seem more instinctive. As Wells wrote, chefs copy “things Mr. Redzepi did without understanding why he did them in the first place”.


"The journey was about investigating the ingredients in the world around us and finding flavour. The restaurant was only a part of that journey."

   To pin Redzepi’s philosophy down, people seized on elements of Noma. The ants that he sometimes used in dishes to add flavour; the small plates that started the meal; the refusal to always use delicate China and porcelain and an enthusiasm for seashells, slates, logs, rocks and other vessels for serving food; the popularising of natural wines over the great chateaux of Bordeaux; the acidic flavours that sometimes came at the beginning of a meal; the complex broths that Redzepi devised, the use of unfamiliar ingredients (reindeer heart, sea buckthorn, rare seaweed) and so on.


   While all of these elements have featured at Noma, the reality is both simpler and more complex: Redzepi was an outsider both to Denmark and to the food orthodoxy. So he did what brave outsiders do. He ignored the old rules and invented his own: In life and in the restaurant.


   Though much is made of Redzepi‘s Nordic origins, he is the son of an ethnic Albanian Muslim from Macedonia who moved to Denmark. The family went back to the old Yugoslavia for long stays and Redzepi says he was much happier there than when he was in Denmark, whereas the son of a Muslim, Eastern European migrant, he was never allowed to feel at home.


   He found his voice in the kitchen, but unlike most chefs who set out to create dishes, he saw cuisine as a journey to find new flavours and to explore the world of taste.


   Take garum, which he revived. Garum was made by the ancient Romans from fermented fish or meat to create a sauce that they seasoned their food with. Nobody alive today has ever tasted the original Roman garum, because it vanished from Italian cuisine centuries ago. Redzepi recreated what he imagined the sauce was like and used it to flavour food.


   He did the same sort of thing by fermenting the guts of fish and created umami flavours that traditional haute cuisine had never used. But the dishes that made his early reputation and were widely copied were never ends in themselves. They were just steps along the way in the journey to find and understand flavour.


   Given his background and what he says was a troubled childhood, his success and the pressures that came with it led to problems. There were anger issues and his kitchen-manner could be too in-your-face. He says now that he has worked on those issues (he has had therapy) and is much more at peace with himself.


   I went for lunch to his Kyoto residency and was struck by how good-natured his kitchen (up to 48 chefs for 60 guests) seemed to be even in the middle of a high-stress service. Redzepi was in the dining room where he went up to every table and chatted to guests. When there was a gap in service, he picked up plates and took the food to tables himself. There are not many great chefs who would do that.


   Then he vanished into the kitchen. Later he told me that there was a minor kitchen crisis and he rushed to resolve it. Presumably he was able to quickly sort it out because he was soon back in the front of the house and when I went to the kitchen later, the chefs seemed happy and relaxed.


   I asked him why he has said he would close Noma in Copenhagen next year. His answer seemed to be in keeping with his overall philosophy. The journey was about investigating the ingredients in the world around us and finding flavour. The restaurant was only a part of that journey. Now that it had become uneconomical to run that kind of restaurant, his journey would continue in different ways. (The starting salary for chefs at Noma is around 3000 euro and the kitchen has fifty or more people making the food. That’s one reason why it is so expensive to run.)


   Redzepi hopes to keep all his chefs on and to continue researching flavour and creating new products (such as the excellent vinegars and sauces he has launched for sale) aimed not at the mass market but at the discerning cook. From time to time, when he feels the journey has yielded interesting results, he will undertake a residency (like the one in Kyoto) and serve customers again.


   I knew that for Redzepi, the dishes were not the point, it was the journey. But talking to him, I had the sense that even a dining room is not the point. The food and the flavours are his real interests. And those don’t require a dining room where you serve lunch and dinner everyday.


   It is a brave decision but one that’s easy to understand. Most influential chefs (Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal, for instance) have gone beyond restaurants and into food and flavour as end in themselves.


   So yes, Noma will die. But it will also live forever. And sometimes we will be lucky enough to get a taste of what Redzepi has been up to.



Posted On: 07 Apr 2023 12:12 PM
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