René Redzepi can reel off the names that were once thrown at Noma by ‘friends and colleagues' with a smile. This is partly because Danish chef humour is, it seems, as sharp as our own native variety – a relatively thick skin going with the territory.
But mostly, it's because in just over three years, the Copenhagen restaurant has rapidly gone from being the butt of jokes to a rising star of Scandinavian gastronomy.
Having opened in November 2003, it had gained a Michelin star by March 2004 and, marked down as a ‘Rising Star' in Michelin's Main Cities of Europe 2006 guide, it is widely tipped to gain a second star when the 2007 results are released on March 15. Naturally, more significant is the fact that Noma was placed at number 33 in The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2006.
Located in a renovated quayside warehouse, in the Christianshavn district of the Danish capital, which, back in the day, was the Royal Greenland Trade Enterprise and was, accordingly, used for the storage of sea salt and whale blubber – hence those jibes.
Given to a trust fund in 2001 by the Danish government, the once derelict warehouse was transformed into what is now known as Nordatlantens Brygge (North Atlantic House), its mission to promote the culture of Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands through its four exhibition rooms, with the building also housing the Icelandic Embassy and the Home Rule Representation for the Faroe Islands and Greenland. From the beginning, the plan had been to include a restaurant within the building. The opportunity to do so eventually came to Claus Meyer – a Danish TV cookery personality and businessman with the can-do clout of Jamie Oliver and fingers in multiple pies through a diverse empire built on catering and food retail – who then approached Redzepi.
"The trust wanted to create a restaurant that both reflected the house's history and its new purpose history," recalls Redzepi, sitting on one the stylish black leather banquettes in Noma's bar. "Claus and I went to the house. Then we brainstormed and talked about what we'd like to do and what would be possible here."
The ambitious aim that emerged was to create a new cuisine built around ingredients sourced from Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland, with the necessary addition of produce from the Nordic region as a whole – which, for those of you who never paid attention in geography, takes in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland.
"We've had restaurants before that have done a Nordic type of cuisine – there was one in Copenhagen. We can't say that we are the first and we don't have a secret recipe, we're just going for it," says Redzepi. "The actual concept was about making something new, not just looking at our region like a museum and keeping everything so old-fashioned – it's about looking at everything in a new way.
"The way I see the Nordic region is that we have such a big land mass with only 25 million people living on it, much of it practically untouched, lots of it appearing just as it was thousands of years ago. So what does that actually mean on a plate for me? That means it should be subtle, light and involve things very close to their raw state, lightly cooked. It's a type of cooking that doesn't contain a lot of fat.
It's a type of cooking that's very healthy because we have this produce that's very close to its natural state – that to me is what healthy food is about, not just taking the butter out."
Before Noma opened, Redzepi spent seven weeks touring Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and remote parts of Sweden in search of new ingredients. "Of course, I knew a bit about what was out there. But I didn't know about the richness of produce available in the north," he says. "I knew we had seas but not what we really had besides cod and sole. Suddenly, I'm looking at urchins and sea cucumbers, specialities that we used to import from France… seaweed and beach herbs that you find growing everywhere."
By swearing off olive oil and sauces made with wine and instead making use of the Nordic techniques, such as smoking, pickling and drying, Noma's approach initially furrowed more than a few Danish brows. Redzepi characterises the typical nay-sayer thus, "You're really trying to do a gastronomic restaurant by only using the products that we have in our region? You want to do a restaurant by not using foie gras, Iberico ham, caviar or truffles? You're crazy."
Fine dining in Scandinavia, in general, and in Denmark, in particular – as in much of the world – has historically tended to be in thrall to the French and latterly, the Italians. "Our biggest problem – and mostly, we don't see it anywhere else in culture or design – is in the culinary sense, everything south of Denmark or Rhone region is always seen as better," he says. "Our esteem for our own culinary heritage is rotten."
Still only 29, Redzepi got started in the business early. The son of a Danish mother and a Macedonian father, his childhood was spent between his two homelands. He entered catering school at 14, out of curiosity rather than with any burning desire to become a chef. "I don't have any glorious story, like most French chefs do about their grandmother nurturing them," he says. "I never expected to be in the food industry.
I was lucky that one of my friends attended catering school and I thought I would join to see what it was all about. Only then was I hooked, and straight away, I knew I was going to be in the business and the direction I wanted to go in."
He actually started his career as a waiter as it was close to impossible for someone his age in Denmark to get a kitchen placement. From 15 to 18, he did an apprenticeship and ended working as a sommelier, entering two competitions and finishing second in a Danish championship.
"During my last year as a waiter I knew I was going to be a chef," he recalls. "I saw there was a different sort of creativity and that there was more craftsmanship. Being a waiter is extremely important, but in a different way – it's more about connecting with people, it's not so much about using your mind to create things and work up concepts, which was what I wanted to do."
That said, Redzepi found his time working front of house invaluable and, accordingly, at Noma, he looks comfortable out of the kitchen, which he likes to leave to serve guests by saucing dishes tableside. "It's something every chef should try," he suggests. "Chefs often don't understand that waiters have to do everything for the sake of the guests. That was why it was very important to me that the kitchen was open.
I want the chefs to see the guests and how they feel about the whole thing, and I want them to be able to easily walk out and help serve."
At 18, he started a chef apprenticeship with Philipe Houdet, at Pierre André, a fine French Copenhagen institution. "It was the sort of place where if you show that you're interested you'd get to do everything," he says. "There was no rigid hierarchy in the way that there is in great French restaurants where you have to do four years as a demi-chef." After three years, he took a placement at Le Jardin des Sens with the Pourcell Brothers. While there, he read about a Spanish restaurant called El Bulli and decided to visit during a break from work.
This was 1998, and the meal he had changed the way he thought about cooking forever. "At that time, creativity, for me, was about new combinations, such as horseradish with lobster – a lot of the dishes I had back then, I suppose today would just be considered modern but in '98 they shook the ground under me. Dishes such as spaghetti carbonara, hot and cold pea soup, the way they set up the petits fours, the surprise of these tastes, the rabbit with apple gel, the foie gras with salted fig sorbet, the brioche soup, at all these things, I felt utterly amazed."
He immediately applied for a place in El Bulli's kitchen and returned to work the '99 season. "I can honestly say that was one of the best periods of my life. The place is magical, and one day, Ferran Adria's going to be considered as important as Escoffier – I don't even doubt it,"
he says. "What I really got out of El Bulli, besides techniques and stuff, what surprised me the most was that it was a restaurant I didn't expect to exist anywhere in the world. For me, back then, if you were going to open a gastronomic restaurant, you did French – that was it.
"Suddenly, there is this guy doing his own thing, following his own rules no matter what the established French gourmet world says and believing in it – which is what makes it strong.
The dinner I had there – and after working there for a season – was the main reason Noma opened with the concept that it did," he says.
"But there are a lot of things I don't agree with. El Bulli's main focus is not always on the best products. Their main focus is on concept and technique. For me, I love having fresh products in all the time. I love to see the changing of the seasons. I love going out and smelling the air and feeling that it's 10 degrees warmer and starting to think maybe next week we'll have the first onion flower come out.
Because you know these things, you sense them, so you know how seasons work. This is much more important to me than any machine, but the machines that can make your blood purée for the flowers is also very important.
"You can't ignore a lot of these things; they are the future, you cannot pretend that they're not there and you must exploit them in your own way," he says of his kitchen's use of hi-tech tools, such as pacojets, cyrovas and water baths. "But any given technique will never have more to say than any given product, that's for sure."
After El Bulli, he returned to Scandinavia to help a colleague from Pierre André open a restaurant in Sweden. He then undertook a fivemonth spell at The French Laundry, which after El Bulli, perhaps reinforced the importance of seasonal produce to him, before returning to Denmark to take up the sous chef berth at Restaurant Kong Hans, which is where he was working when Claus Meyer looked him up.
Future plans for Noma include a brand new kitchen which will be installed this summer and taking the covers down from 45 to 40. He also hopes to start a small garden outside the restaurant and to work in partnership with the Nordic Gene Bank.
"They've kept genes of all the plants that they consider original Nordic," he explains. "A lot of these varietals, particularly in the past 30 or 40 years, have disappeared as we've moved to imported varieties bred for shelf life. We're working with them to get back on track again."
All this work and the manifesto laid out by Redzepi and his Nordic peers (see box ‘The New Nordic Kitchen') is about "Trying to realise who we are in a culinary sense," he says. "It's about having enough self-confidence to say we have goods and produce and a way of thinking and a style on par – different – but on par with France or Spain." Naturally, there's a long way to go before such ambitious aims might come to full fruition but with what he has achieved at Noma, Redzepi has made a very promising start.
WE WENT TO NOMA AND WE ATE…
- With Cepe Mayonnaise and Smoked Cheese
- Chicken Skin with Mustard Seeds, Cod Skins, Flat Bread, Oat Chips, Potato Chips with Seaweed Salt, Bakskuld (dry, smoked fish), Fjord Shrimps
- Greenland Shrimp, Cucumber Juice, Horseradish Snow and Potato Skins
- Crudité of Vegetables and Salad Emulsion, Norwegian Scallops and Brown butter
- Jerusalem Artichoke and Seabuck Thorn, Warm Mayonnaise and Muesli
- Seaweed and Langoustine, Oyster and Parsley
- Norwegian King Crab and Leeks, Ashes and Mussel Sauce
- Cod and Sauce of Mead, Herb Salad and Mushroom from Sweden
- Sweetbread and Milk Skin, Glazed Onions and Bread Salad
- 40-day-aged Jersey Beef and Caramelised Apple Purée, Glazed Beets and Smoked Marrow
- Barley and Milk Ice Cream, Dried Berries and "kys"
- Carrots from Gotland, Sugarbeetsirup and Mint
- Caramel in textures, Skyr and Malt Soil
THE NEW NORDIC KITCHEN
In November 2004, Claus Meyer and René Redzepi arranged a Nordic Cuisine Symposium attended by 12 of the regions top chefs – the result was the following 10-point manifesto:
1. To express the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics that we would like to associate with our region.
2. To reflect the different seasons in the meals.
3. To base cooking on raw materials which characteristics are especially excellent in our climate, landscape and waters.
4. To combine the demand for good taste with modern knowledge about health and well-being.
5. To promote the Nordic products and the variety of Nordic producers – and to disseminate the knowledge of the cultures behind them.
6. To promote the welfare of the animals and a sound production in the sea and in the cultivated as well as wild landscapes.
7. To develop new possible applications of traditional Nordic food products.
8. To combine the best Nordic cooking procedures and culinary traditions with impulses from outside.
9. To combine local self-sufficiency with regional exchange of high-quality goods.
10. To cooperate with representatives of consumers, other cooking craftsmen, agriculture, fishing industry, food industry, retail and wholesale industry, researchers, teachers, politicians and authorities on this joint project to the benefit and advantage of all in the Nordic countries.
For more details go to nordiskkoekken.dk