The other day René Redzepi — chef at Copenhagen's Noma which was voted the best restaurant in the world and author of Phaidon's Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine — was in town for a couple of panels and a book tour. I met Redzepi on an unusually warm day in front of 160 Varick, where he had just been interviewed by WNYC's Leonard Lopate. ["I thought it was going to be a conversation but it wasn't," said Redzepi.] His signature brown cable knit sweater was swung over his shoulder and his brown bangs swung over his eyes. He's handsome in a Stephen Malkmus kind of way, but there's an absolute lack of pretense or affectation that is very un-Malkmusian. In honor of time and place, one of Redzepi's major preoccupations, this Eaterrogation is broken up into three segments linked to our meander through Manhattan on our way to the restaurant wd~50, where Redzepi hoped to drop off a signed book to chef Wylie Dufresne. This segment stretches from 160 Varick to Abraço in the East Village and from 2:10pm to 2:52pm.
Well you know I haven't tried this before, going on a book tour. Normally when you are doing a presentation, you are cooking at the same time. You are talking about food. Now this is different, you are having talks, you are speaking. I was in the Sydney Opera House in the concert hall with 13,000 people, alone on stage for an hour and a half.
Four or five days ago.
What did you talk about?
I started at one end and finished at the other. [Beat] No, of course there is a story to be told about our restaurant but there's a story as well within the restaurant of some type of dedication and commitment which is interesting and perhaps unusual.
Do you get bored telling the story of the restaurant over and over again?
Actually, no I don't yet because I really like it. I'm really proud of it, you know? I will say the big attention that there is right now is so new to me, I haven't become tired of it. Perhaps if you ask me in two years it will be different. Remember that I live in Copenhagen, a city of one million. The attention here in New York is much more than I see in my own part of the world.
Proportionally it's a lot greater or just in absolute numbers?
Well, proportionally it is still bigger in Denmark that's true. But there are a lot of people here, there's a lot of food-related media. There are a lot of chefs and people to talk to.
How have you been occupying yourself?
This is literally the first time I'm walking the streets and breathing some fresh air. Other than that it's been in airless radio studios and lecture halls. I've eaten a bit as well. I had probably the best meal I had at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Pickled mussels, a fish burger. Really, really good stuff.
Speaking of, Chang definitely has a personality that people think of as "David Chang" — do you feel like that is crystallizing around you?
No, not at all. David Chang has been here for a while whereas I am just here now and it's just a scratch on the surface. [People are saying:] "Okay, what's the restaurant about? Okay, it's from Denmark. There's some type of sourcing locally." But New Yorkers know a lot more about David Chang.
It's true much attention is paid to his personality. But soon they'll get to know the real dark René Redzepi.
The juicy stuff. Oh my god.
In fact, you've already been pigeonholed as a forager. I read a lot of pieces like in the Times of London [NB: Annoyingly behind a paywall, see photos: pic 1 and pic 2.] and The New York Times where people drag you around to forage on command. You invariably are described as nibbling on petals.
I don't understand that people are focusing on foraging as the main thing. For me foraging is just one small part of a kind of stepping back into nature. That's one part of it. But there's the whole understanding of the weather, what it brings, conversations with other people that is just as important.
One of the things I loved about the book is when you have the portraits of the purveyors. It goes beyond saying simply thank you.
When we first did the book, my initial idea for the book was that we would set it up on producers so there would be a portrait of a producer and then the ingredients he had we cooked with but it got too difficult.
It's also interesting that there's only your byline. You didn't have a co-writer.
Well, I wrote it. Except for the intro, I wrote everything else. I tried to have Rune Skyum-Nielsen — the journalist who wrote the intro — do the portraits of producers and it didn't work out. It was too formal in a two-hour interview. He can never know what I know about these people and can never put what I think is important about them. So I ended up writing that and the whole diary.
The diary –A Perfect Storm — where you travel through Scandinavia on a culinary walkabout — is really interesting to me. Reading the text by Rune, and all after hearing all the talk about the restaurant, Noma develops this precious shell that's difficult to crack through. Then you read your writing and you're pretty enthusiastic about things. There are lots of exclamation marks!!!
Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland. I would recommend anyone to go there. It is a truly unique experience. No one ever goes there. They are like back in time. They have shitty food though. If you go to a restaurant, it's not good food. But they have incredible incredible products.
[We walk into the Alessi store. The coffee program used to be run by Joe The Art of Coffee but since then it seems Tarallucci e Vino has taken over.]
[To the barista] I'll have a double cappuccino. Where are your cups?
[Barista shows Redzepi a 12 oz paper cup.]
Do you have a smaller one? Can I see your cups?
[Barista hands Redzepi a 12 oz paper cup. Redzepi looks at it with concern, doubtfully.]
Barista: 12 oz cup I can just put half.
No, but it is not the same.
Do you want to go somewhere else?
Yeah. The thing about a coffee like that is you want this creamy milk and if there is too much space, then the coffee from underneath just going through. I hate that.
[Walking up to Houston and then north on Lafayette, we chat about my recent trip to London which was, for the record, great.]
But enough about me? Reading that piece in the London Times?
I haven't read it myself. He's a really really nasty bastard, [critic and author] Giles [Coren]. He's one of those guys that his biggest interest in his life is to make himself famous.
It's funny, when you see the photos in the piece, it's all Giles and you.
That's how he is. If we were talking, he'd ask a question. I'd answer. He'd say, remember to quote this, we can make this into a television program. He was a really disappointing journalist. The one thing that is funny is because I didn't like him I told him, "It's interesting with all these British journalists, they come and they want food for free whereas the American ones they can't do it, because if you receive something then it is difficult to write about it."
And then he ate at Noma, and I know he had asked to get it for free, and I told the publisher no way. And the publisher said, "Oh, we'll pay for it." Then Giles called the publisher and said, "I'll actually pay for my own bill." I think I shamed him. [Ed Note: The Times of London disputes this. See their clarification and a statement from Redzepi here.]
Especially here, the New York food people I met, it's just a step up.
In that Times piece and in your diary, you talk about eating a live langoustine, which you used to serve at Noma but now?
Now we serve shrimps.
They're slightly less sympathetic, I guess. Either way, it brings up the point that though you talk about our relationship with nature, man's relationship with nature isn't always harmonious. It's not always an enjoyable thing, for either party.
In what sense? Do you mean because you actually have to kill an animal between your teeth? There's such a disconnect between an understanding of what there is in nature, how you live with it, how you harvest it, and how you deal with the fact you have to kill something once in a while. But there's a circle there that is just so natural. When people are angry that they are eating a live shrimp, it's just so stupid.
The argument people make — although it might be specious — is that eating a live langoustine is an unnecessary step. But I suppose that's because most people would like to have that off-loaded.
"Don't give these moral issues to deal with, please. We are perfectly happy the way we are." But there's another factor to it regarding the shrimp. It just tastes a lot better. That's it. That's the most important thing here. When you eat this one, just taken out of the sea, it is delicious, much more than when you kill it first and then you serve it ten hours later. There are things that happen to it. If you allow yourself to taste it and get by the fact that you have to kill it yourself, the reference point for what this particular variety of shrimp should be is changed forever. It pushes better flavor and more intense flavor and more fresh flavors
It's interesting to hear you say this because the cost of those flavors is having to confront uncomfortable ideas. Would say the ultimate goal of a restaurant like Noma is to be an enjoyable...
...no, experience to the diner, or is enjoyability not the ultimate aim?
The ability to enjoy and have great flavor and also to make people use their brains in a different way other than just experiencing well-known delicious flavors can go hand in hand. I hope to think we're one of the restaurants that do that, that push the reference frame on what people can think they can eat, and why they should eat and so on. I don't want to be a restaurant where people just go to fuel up. I want it to be a place where people go to get some good food that is delicious and that keeps me alive. At Noma I want more.
[We've reached Rapha Cycle Club, the cycle shop and café on Bowery that serves Third Rail coffee. It's closed.]
[We talk, briefly, about when I moved to New York, how I got into journalism after realizing I'd never make it as a dancer, then about the state of journalism both long-form and online — there is no iPad app for the Noma book in the works — and then Redzepi mentions the Michael Pollan piece about cooking with fire. He liked it but wonders if anyone actually read it.]
Pollan cooked with fire for 36 hours.
Did that appeal to you?
Fire is something you share with chefs all around the world. There's the mixture of ingredients, and spices, and how you cook it. But the fire we all have. I always thought my retirement restaurant will be a place you enter, and then there's a big oven with small holes all around, and everything is cooked there. In one the bread is being baked. In another you have squab roasting. In another, carrots roasting with some cumin. You'd have different heat, different holes to put in.
Maybe you needn't wait until retirement. People must be approaching you for ideas ideas since the Pellegrino listings came out? How have things changed?
Everything has changed tremendously. We didn't expect to get this prize. What was even more of a surprise is that there's such a big change. Last year we were number three. It's two spots different, but it changes everything. Honestly, I think I'm in New York City for that. Who would have known?
People love to hold onto titles. That's why in boxing, you have the world champion, and then everyone else.
Of course I don't believe we are the world's best restaurant. In fact, I think the award would be better if it was something like the Cannes Film Festival where you win a prize but they're not saying it's the best movie of the year.
How else has it changed?
We get 100,000 requests a month for bookings. We have twelve tables. We seat 40 guests a service. And we're open five days a week. It's ridiculous. The day after the event we had 280,000 unique hits on our website from 90 different countries. It crashed. We more or less have opportunities to do restaurants or something around the world, once a month.
Well you based Noma on time and place in Nordic cuisine. How translatable is that?
How do you roll it out to a big money maker? You don't. That's the simple answer to that. What we're doing at the restaurant can only be done there. Our approach to things and the knowledge we have to research things can be adapted anywhere. But you have to involve yourself in a new culture and understand some things about the place.
In other words, the approach is translatable but the context has to be completely different.
I think that is doable, but whether that is something I am interested in right now, not at all. I am so happy with my situation. I have a team that has been with me for so long. We're not at the goal line, not by a long shot. I still feel the urge to go deeper into what we're doing to try to somehow make the whole experience clearer and clearer. And of course, everybody asks how are you going to make this into a financial success. And I don't know.
[At this point it's 2:52pm. We've arrived at Abraço, a tiny coffee shop in the East Village. Redzepi looks at it and smiles. "I like this place," he says as we enter. Join us tomorrow for Part Two of our journey: From Abraço to Russ and Daughters.]
Let's go in. I know you need your coffee.
Clarification from The Times of London, added 10/22/2010:
"Rene Redzepi misunderstood the situation about the meal at Noma. His publishers' PR people offered to pay for the meal. Giles was not aware of this and as soon as he became aware he insisted on paying for himself as he always does. Rene did not 'shame' him into paying. Giles has never asked for or accepted free hospitality at any of the restaurants he writes about for The Times - it is a matter of professional integrity about which he and the newspaper feel very strongly."
Statement from Rene Redzepi, added 10/22/2010:
"I would like to apologise to Giles Coren and The Times, and for any offence caused by the comments which were reported in this article. I misunderstood the situation and I am very sorry"