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René Redzepi on Eats, Jews, and Leaving Noma [Don't Panic]

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René Redzepi, foraging for schoolchildren.
René Redzepi, foraging for schoolchildren.
Photo: Joshua David Stein / Eater.com

In our initial trek, the world's greatest chef, Rene Redzepi, and I walked through Soho in search of a good cup of coffee. We found one at 2:52pm on E. 7th Street at Abraço. This, our second installment, takes us from coffee to black bread and lox, from E. 7th Street to E. Houston and from 2:52 to 3:29pm.

You had said you're operating Noma on a 1.5 to 2 percent profit. What do you think the biggest impediment to making Noma a highly financially successful restaurant?
What is impediment?

Challenge.
First of all, I don't want to work anymore. That's one of the biggest ones. I don't have the urge for it. I don't have the urge to spend or divide my time into other things than Noma.

But in the sense of making Noma itself more financially fruitful. Is one to two percent industry average?
No, I think it is less. But for me as well, Noma is a unique and personal project.

Jamie McCormick, owner of Abraço: Your coffee is ready.

[Redzepi sips his.]

Oooh, that's good. You live around here?

No, I live in Brooklyn. Have you been out there yet?
Yeah, I was at Roberta's the other day. With [David] Chang and all the people you always meet. It's a great crew. Really good people like the Torrisi guys that have very specific ideas.

[Pause]

Thank you for this place. Oy yoi yoi yoi yoi yoi yoi. This is good coffee.

[Returning to the topic]

As a chef I think life is a bit easier in Copenhagen than it is in New York City, where you are constantly being watched and the rents are so expensive, everybody is open seven days a week. It's always always always always. We're closed two days a week for instance. If I want to, I can just shut off. I'm in the kitchen and nothing else. Nobody can get to me. That's impossible here. I feel it on the guys [in New York] that they have to somehow be part of [the scene]. If I say for two weeks I don't want to talk to anybody, that'll happen.

That can't but help your cuisine.
Of course, if you are stressed and you need time to relax, you need that.

[We pass a deli near E. 6th Street with bitter melons sitting in a cardboard box outside.]

What the hell is that?

It's a bitter melon.
Where's that from?

India, I think. Let's ask.

[Redzepi enters the store. An old Indian man with red teeth sits behind the counter.]

Hello, The bitter melon, out there. Is that from India or is it from here?

Clerk: It's from the Dominican Republic but the origin is India.

[We leave.]

See this is New York City. Everything is here.

8 million times and places.
It is crazy to think of the cultures and the people who are here. Often when you meet Americans they always say where they're from five generations back. But in Denmark, most people are from there. They're from there. They stay there. My father is from Macedonia though so I have a different background. He's Muslim as well.

Were you raised Muslim?
Well, I read the Koran but I've always been told that since I grew up in Denmark, I can do what came naturally to me. I'm not religious today. I'm nothing. In Denmark we are Protestants which is basically nothing and today I married a Jewish girl even.

Mazel tov.
That's fun. Going to Jewish parties is fucking fun.

Stomping on the glass?
Yeah, when you go to weddings and when they start dancing and they never stop.

And singing Siman Tov U Mazel Tov.
Yeah! One thing I never knew about Jewish people?

They're great in the sack!
Well, another thing other than that of course. Of course you know the Jewish people have been persecuted throughout history but I never knew that the connection was so strong with the Jewish people between each other. Maybe it's not in New York because there are so many of them but in Denmark it's so strong. If you have Jewish people visiting and there's another Danish Jew, they find each other and take care of each other.

Well, I'm taking you to a Jewish deli.
Pastrami?

We're not going to Katz's we're going to Russ and Daughters.
Is that better than Katz's?

Much.
About the Jewish people. I married a Jewish woman, and my sous chef for the past seven years, he found a Jewish girl as well and guess what? Now they are both best friends. My girl is English-Portuguese and she's from Denmark. I think it is brilliant. OK, what were we talking about? Everything and nothing. Oh, since we were talking about Jewish people, one guy that I had so much fun with was Alan Richman. He spent six or seven days in Copenhagen and he ate at Noma two or three times. I know he is controversial to some but his humor is great, and I loved him. When he found out that Nadine was Jewish of course he had to spend time with her. He's the one that taught me how to say "Oy!"

Well, you'll have ample opportunity to use it at Russ and Daughters.
We were talking about the first spot. Suddenly the New York Times is in our city.

Yes, two writers in fact: Peter Meehan and Frank Bruni.
Yes, spending days there. I think Bruni wrote a great piece on us by the way. He was very relaxed. Bruni and I spent three days together. He was in the kitchen and eating. I took him around of course. I took him to see the land. People are surprised that there is such an abundance in the cold north. So it's important for them to see it up close.

Even the shots from the book one wouldn't think it exists.
Honestly the same for us. Seven years ago I never knew it existed.

You talk in the book about how the culinary traditions in Scandinavia were French.
In fine dining they were. On an everyday level, this [gesturing to the deli cases in the window] is what you eat, more or less. But it had never been elevated to high gastronomy. It's always been rustic and basic flavors: vinegary, smoky, served on rye bread.

[We enter Russ and Daughters.]

It smells like Scandinavia in here. Do they have dark bread? Oy! I'm taking that. Baltic rye bread with lox and salmon. I'll take that.

[Surveying the deli case.]

I like chopped liver. I eat that all the time.

This place has been around since 1914.
Same owners?

Yeah Josh — the guy with the beard — is the fourth-generation owner.
Ha, fancy white fish salad! All the ladies in New York want the herring.

[Our sandwiches are delivered. We leave and find a place on a bench, near a homeless man and unpack our sandwiches.]

Do you feel like you'll have another sea change as you did in 2003 and that resulted in Noma as we know it?
I think if that is going to happen it probably will not happen at Noma. It means for me Noma is closing and I'll start something new. I don't see this as a life project. I see it as a project where you take it to the limit and you feel you've given it everything you can and that's it. Then you leave. I feel so lucky that I'm part of something like this and I want to keep it pure.

Do you think Noma is sustainable or is there an expiration date?
Yes. If you're talking about taking it easy and living off our name, it could go on forever. But I also think we're known for forward thinking in gastronomy and that's what I want to keep this project alive with. But it will be impossible to do with me steering. At one point, it is just over. It happens to everybody. I think I can reboot again but it is somewhere else. But for now, I have so much energy and ambition for that cuisine, but anyplace that is known for innovation has its period, and its time when things blossom and things are happening. Then you make the molds, the molds fit and that's it.

[Tomorrow, part three in the journey.]

· Eaterrogation With René Redzepi: Part One [-E-]
· All Eaterrogations on Eater [-E-]
· All René Redzepi Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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