It's about 4 PM on Sunday and René Redzepi is sitting on a bench outside of the Crosby Street Hotel. He's next to Peter Kreiner, managing director of Noma, who, just before heading upstairs, informs us that we have an hour to conduct our business. We quickly try to figure out where to chat, and the chef jumps at the chance to visit his friends at the new Frankies Spuntino in the West Village.
There's a problem, though: not a free cab in sight. The chef suggests risking it anyway, and so, we aimlessly walk along and around Spring Street for fifteen minutes — Redzepi intrigued by every honking horn and passing person — until it's time to cut our losses. On the way back to the hotel, a free one suddenly appears on Wooster. And after a ride in which Redzepi asks the driver a bunch of questions about draconian New York taxi policy, and the cabbie takes us in the completely wrong direction, we arrive at 570 Hudson Street, thirty-six minutes down.
Over the next two hours, we chat over some drinks, sette anni peppers, shaved brussels sprouts, and grilled octopus. Here, in part one, Redzepi talks about his new book, the creative process, and where Noma is today.
So, you're working on a new book?
Yes. Hopefully it's coming out next year. I've been writing it for the past nine months.
What does it consist of?
It's basically a gastronomical journal I've been working on when I come home every night, where I write the progress and failures and the ideas down.
So it will be slightly headier than the last one?
It will be. It kind of narrows it down and gives you a backstage look at the creativity and how it works and the way we organize ourselves. You will see ideas starting out as a simple thought, ending up three months later as a finished dish. You see the process of that. At the same time, we also see the simplest things: the way we have an idea, a thought, when some ingredients come in in the morning and how, by the end of the night, we have a dish that is a masterpiece for us — it takes no effort and is totally integral, the way it comes forward. That is what I write about every day when I come home.
You do this every night? There are countless articles that talk about how you often get home at 3 or 4AM.
Sometimes, if I am very tired, it can be fifteen minutes. Other times, it's an hour. But every day. Of course there will be an editor to, I don't know, make it pretty, so that there is a story, a narrative, and everything gels together.
And it will be your voice completely?
Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes I also just do a memo of myself.
Yeah, and then maybe someone at the office will transcribe it. Sometimes that's almost too difficult, because when you read the way you talk, it often makes no sense. It's very, very difficult and different. You think you're saying it a specific way, but once you write it down, it's stupid.
Will it remain that way or will it be polished up?
It will be kind of written so that it sounds right. There, at the end of the night, your mind jumps around. In that sense, you have to refine it. There will be recipes, as well.
And are these straight-up Noma recipes or is anything adapted to the home?
Yes, straight-up Noma. There was one week where I was sick — really sick — where I had to stay home. There I cooked a chicken, and that recipe is in there. But basically it's recipes from the restaurant.
Now that we're talking about the creative process, I wanted to ask: how much of what you do is intuitive, would you say, and how much of it is deliberate?
Most of it is based on intuition, I must say. I think that it is the ingredient that guides us sometimes. But it does happen that you have a concept in your head and that's what becomes the inspiration. And mostly, the deliberate comes in complete droughts of the intuitive.
How often do you have those droughts?
It happens all the time. The deliberate is much more difficult.
What's an example of one of those dark periods?
This winter is a good example.
[Frank Castronovo spots Redzepi, comes by, chats for a bit about his recent trip to Copenhagen. He offers to bring out some snacks. Redzepi talks about his experience in the taxi, and how the cabbie couldn't believe he had never driven a car in his life. He asks if we can move to a table outside. Castronovo facilitates.]
About that drought.
So, one of the big droughts we ever had in the history of Noma was this winter. It was so cold. The water was frozen. It was insanely, insanely difficult for us. Imagine a bunch of people — professionals from all over the world — and no one is saying anything for hours. What are we going to do?
This remains constant throughout the course of days, months?
Oh, definitely months. We had problems for three months — big problems. One of the things that came out of it was what we called "trash cooking." That was one of the things we had to do to get inspired. We had to really force it.
You're referring to cooking with what is usually dispensed with?
Yes. We did all these kind of strange, weird things with fish scales, fish eyes.
How much of that remains?
Not much. A few things. The concept is still around: we just did something with the roots of the leek, for example. I can't really remember many specific examples from back then, but it's a great instance of forcing innovation as opposed to letting the ingredients and the changes of the seasons guide you. In all other parts of the year, the ingredients and the seasons are more than enough, since every day is a new day. You never know. If it rains heavily, the strawberries won't taste the same, so you might have to change the menu. The more you know the rhythms of the nature, the better you are. In your head, every year of experience keeps adding to your bank of reference points. It then comes natural and integral. It's quite special and simple, in a way, but obviously it can only happen with great experience.
People say that it's easy to cook simple food. But the more simple you make something, the more you've had to learn. The more you know about food, the more you know about cooking, the more you've cooked, the more simple you can do it — the more simple you can make it appear.
Would you call your food "simple"?
I think it's very complex, much of it in thought. It's deceivingly simple. When you have a plate of food where there are four ingredients, it may be the simplest thing to look at. But for us to get to that point where we put them together, it's so complex many times. It might be years of storing memories and storing information about how these ingredients come forward in different stages, so that at the end, there is a puzzle that comes together. But it took you one year to learn about, let's say, this specific type of chervil. Then the next year you learned about this indigenous, crazy rhubarb. And then the third year, you learned about the milk from this breed of goats, you know? Each thing is a little part of this puzzle. That's very complex, and it takes a lot of research and studying and being in touch constantly with what you have learned.
[A pitcher of booze arrives. Redzepi thanks profusely.]
What do you think marks the approach or style at Noma now compared to what was going on at the beginning?
Well, the major difference from now to the start is that when we opened we were going to be a restaurant that just incorporated more local food into the way of cooking that was popular. Mistakenly, we thought that simply by putting our ingredients into these existing recipes it would be enough. I truly thought that it would make it feel as if something was originating here. It was so difficult, so unsatisfying.
You've talked about that before, but did you feel it wasn't working in the moment?
In the moment, yes. People enjoyed it, sure. But we realized that we needed to capture the moment and the place and put it on the plate. That was the real turning point.
And how would you assess things today?
We have really been going in-depth with that over the last seven years. Specifically, we have a whole new idea of the things that exist in our part of the world. When I grew up as a chef in Scandinavia, we thought that what we had would be roots and some other wild foods — wood sorrel, berries, and mushrooms. But in fact what's out there is much greater than exists at any market or grocery, for instance. There were farmers out there doing amazing things. All of these things have been developed tremendously, and the product diversity available now is much greater than what it was eight years ago. I mean, eight years ago, it was impossible to get a fresh urchin. Impossible.
Would you say that that is thanks to Noma?
Yeah, and there's other cooks that are kind of delving into this and doing it their way. But yeah, we are a big part of that. You help to kind of push this forward. You have sous chefs that leave to open up their own restaurants that want to deal with these ingredients and ideas, and then you have the farmers, fishermen, and foragers that grow and have more clients. Some of them didn't have employees then, but they do now. Some of them had monocultures, and now they operate on policultures. There's so many wonderful stories.
Basically, where we are now — because we are still an infant — is getting to know our product range. What are the ingredients? What is the seasonality? How does that affect them? What are the different stages? How can they be used? Over the past eight years, we have explored so much. It isn't like before, when in the first four years there was a discovery every day of a new shellfish or a weird plant, and we had a eureka moment where we all high-fived each other.
In the last year, since we are starting to have an understanding of what is out there, we've been trying to see how we can use the ingredients in a different way, using inspiration from other cultures.
I was going to ask you: since so much of what you are about seems to be predicated on focusing on what is directly around you, do you consider drawing from other places, as well?
One of the big inspirations for this winter was the matcha tea. We dry, we salt, and we pickle tremendous amounts of food for each winter, but one of the things that we never got to use very well was dried herbs — wild plans that we dry that are delicious when you infuse them into a marinade or perhaps blend them with an oil. One of them is woodruff, which has like a tonka bean flavor. It's exotic in its spiciness. I had been to Japan, so the inspiration as a tea become the concept. We tried doing that with all of these plants.
Another very recent one has to do with the beechnut. This year, in Denmark, it's a mast year. So this year people are giving us walnuts for free. Walnuts, chestnuts, beechnuts are pests this year. The squirrels are going to be the fattest squirrels ever, so we may have to cook them, even though we don't have as many as you do here in the city. I read about the argan oil from Morocco, and the way that these women come and massage water into it so that the oil separates. Now we are thinking that we can do oil with all of these nuts, so we have people trying to do it the same way that the women in Morocco do.
Another inspiration is miso and soy sauce. We don't have soybeans in Scandinavia, since it is difficult to grow. The soybean that can grow is not protein-rich enough to develop all of the compounds, so we tried to figure out what we had. Well, every single Danish person loves peas once they come in season. They buy a bag of raw peas on the street corner. So, we found a fungus that is very similar to aspergillus oryzae.
What's it called?
I can't remember. We know it as a number, but I am sure there is a scientific name for it. But now the process has revealed that it separates in a similar way that miso and soy sauce do. It's not miso, it's not soy sauce, but it is fucking delicious.
Will you go as far as to call it "miso" or "Nordic miso"?
Maybe we will call it that, because it has the solidity, the complexity, the umami richness.
Another enormous success we've had this year is lacto-fermenting gooseberries. The liquid that comes out of it is astonishing. It's a whole new cornerstone that we can use in our cuisine. It's a way of adding flavor, brightness, and complexity to your purées, sauces, and fish. It's just incredibly delicious.
This is all part of what I said earlier: going off of the foundation we have established and opening it up and seeing what is possible.
Tomorrow, in part two, Redzepi talks about the Nordic food lab, Michelin stars, and avoiding dogma.