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Rene Redzepi: Pearls of Wisdom

By William Drew , 06-Dec-2013
Last updated on 06-Dec-2013 at 15:23 GMT2013-12-06T15:23:42Z

Rene Redzepi:

Rene Redzepi: "I only have one job, running Noma."

The chef-owner of Noma in Copenhagen – three times voted the S.Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant – discusses losing and rediscovering his creative spark, aided by writing a newly published journal.

There is a striking simplicity in most of our recipes now. Before it was all ‘of the moment’, based on intuition and discovery. Now we’ve had time to work on these ingredients and explore how we cook them.

Writing the journal raised the question ‘Why are we doing what we’re doing?’ Did we want to create a big conglomerate? Or only to work for accolades? I needed to home in on what we had before, when we were always learning and at the forefront of developing a food culture for the region.

Our trade has changed. There was no chance 20 years ago of dreaming of becoming more than a cook in a basement. That felt like it was our only destiny.

Some of our long-term projects, like fermentation, have really kicked off. The next ‘foraging’ will be fermentation; it’s a whole new paradigm of cooking. We’re still just scratching the surface.

If you’d asked me five years ago what I’d be doing now, I’d have said I’ll be a chef on some ferry crossing being miserable. But I’ve never had more fun, even working 90 hours a week.

Chefs now take all the shine [in the restaurant industry] and that’s a problem because fewer people want to enter the front-of-house profession. The food is paramount, but even with great food, the service provides extra magic. It’s almost undefinable, but it gives spirit and soul to a place.

What’s happened at Noma in the past eight months has been a transformation.

When the whole world explodes on you [in 2010, as Noma first won the S.Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant title], it’s flattering, it’s amazing, but it can also be limiting. Like when you have a hit album, the record execs want another one the same, you know? 

For a while the decisions I made, even subconsciously, were not based on whether we were having fun or doing something interesting, but on protecting our success. It was a strange restaurant mid-life crisis.

The Nordic Food Lab [research facility] has 10 people. We have funds for a three-year project researching the eating of insects.

I have only one job, running Noma. Of 365 days I might be gone for 30. The rest of the time I’m in Copenhagen – that’s where I find the most pleasure: cooking my kids’ porridge, making their lunchbox and then going to work.

In 2011 we had some financial issues. How can that happen to the so-called best restaurant in the world? By taking your eye off the ball. If you have 150 ingredients coming in and one of them is turbot, one day it’s £9 a kilo, the next it might be £18. And we wanted to give people as much as possible, so we kept adding more courses. Crazy.

Cooking is not quite a white-collar profession yet, but it’s no longer blue-collar; perhaps it’s some kind of hipster grey!

The weather is a major factor in our world. And it fucks you up if you’re not ready for it.

Chefs from across the world are now working on projects together, as we’re doing with David Chang and Alex Atala [for the MAD Symposiums]. What comes out when cooks take the initiative to explore food culture is going to be very exciting.

We all know that good service is about more than holding three plates and serving from a certain side, but expressing exactly what the job is about is difficult.

I love St John and Rochelle Canteen [in London]. And I also go to The Sportsman, near Whitstable – it’s crazy good.

I still like the fact that there’s never a day that’s the same in this business, that you’re in tune with seasons, in pact with nature. And you meet the most impassioned people. It’s a positive insanity.

There will be no more Nomas. But there could be a simple René Redzepi restaurant: somewhere to feed as many people as possible, as cheaply as possible, with absolutely no design. 

A Work in Progress: Journal, Recipes and Snapshots by René Redzepi is published by Phaidon, £39.95.

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