NOMA: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, Chef René Redzepi's brand new highly-anticipated cookbook from Phaidon, is like Manet's Odalisque. It's big, white, blocky and pretty. It's also a little uncomfortable and that isn't entirely a bad thing. Chances are before you've even opened the book, you've read the unwritten preface: NOMA is the best restaurant in the world and, by extension, Redzepi is the world's best chef. The temptation is to assume NOMA is the world's best cookbook. That isn't the case. Instead, the book is frustrating and beautiful in equal measure and often simultaneously. It's dickish, cocky, and cool.
Unless you yearn to despise the protagonist, don't start with the introduction written by Rune Skyum-Nielsen. Tweetless journalist Skyum-Nielsen's writing might just be awkward — or translated poorly — or he might genuinely hold Redzepi in such slavishly high reverence but his tone rankles. "René has come to terms with the harsh, weather-beaten realities. In fact he wouldn't have it any other way," he writes. "Autumn is a strong candidate for René's own favourite season," he reports breathlessly later. René this, René that, one can almost hear the hard on.
After a few pages of this, one wants to find René and give him a wedgie, a wet willie and send him on his way. Happily, when René appears in person, as the author of a journal also called "A Perfect Storm" — "René appears with an ever-present smile and a gleam in his eye, holding a leather journal in his handsome man hands"— he's enthusiastic and likeable. The journal, a record of a 2003 journey Redzepi took to the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland and that spurred his spirit toward NOMA, may be the most approachable and engaging chunk of text in the book and, if he hadn't "in some odd way erased three days from it," I'd happily read much more. [Ed note: Chefs are horrible archivists. David Chang also lost most of the incredibly detailed notes he took exploring Japan's ramen shops.] Here we find Redzepi discovering the bounty of Scandinavian cuisine.
On his first day in the Faro Islands, Redzepi writes, "I get acquainted with havtorn (sea-buckthorn). A small yellow-orange berry. Very, very sour. Tastes of exotic fruits. Wow!" Later, eating live langoustines, he writes, "Wild! The tears are flowing." He's like a baby discovering he has arms and legs and by then end, he begins to hit his stride. But then abruptly, the journal ends —the pages lost— and we're thrust into the food.
Every page of NOMA could be a Sigur Ros cover. Moody and saturated photographs of dishes are interspersed with similarly intense images of white fjords under gray sky atop sandpaper blue water, or a farmer standing just out of focus on a verso with a recto of a full-bleed shot of blueberries. It's hard to tell what one might be served if one ever books a spot at NOMA and what one might see outside when one gets there. I can't think of a higher compliment for a chef so rooted in marrying the narrative of his ingredients with their flavor.
The food itself is beautifully plated from a "Dessert of Flowers" to "Pork Neck and Bulrushes, Violets and Malt." But it's bedeviling to find the recipes for these, which happen to be lurking at the back of the book like a bunch of teenagers. Not that the recipes will be of much help unless you have a Thermomix, a circulation water bath, and a strong grasp of gelatin handy. "Blueberries Surrounded by their Natural Environment" — a beautiful image on page 136 that looks like a small English garden mound on a plate — has 33 elements and more than 50 steps, some as cryptic as "bloom the gelatin." I have no idea.
But this — like A Day at El Bulli or Alinea — is less cookbook as didactic tool and more cookbook as inspiration and glimpse into genius. Though I run the risk of sounding like Skyum-Nielsen here, I doubt Caravaggio could write a painting primer and there's no reason why René should write a cooking primer either. Even more importantly, Redzepi's foundational ethos — that his food is an enmeshed product of his time and his specific place — renders the idea of easy-to-make replicable recipes moot. The natural environment of his blueberries is much different from the natural environment of your blueberries. Besides, the book is too nice for the kitchen. Best just keep it on the coffee table, next to the remote and Rizzoli's The Velvet Underground monograph, its natural environment.
· NOMA: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine [$32.97 at Amazon]
· René Redzepi Interview With Charlie Rose [-E-]
· The Eater Fall 2010 Cookbook and Food Book Preview [-E-]
· All René Redzepi Coverage on Eater [-E-]