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René Redzepi on Michelin Stars and the Nordic Food Lab

Photo: Gabe Ulla/Eater

As the sun starts to set on Hudson Street and folks around us continue to devour their late brunches, soaking in every last bit of the good weather, René Redzepi and I keep talking (see part one of the discussion). In the concluding portion of the interview, the chef speaks about the limits and achievements of the Nordic Food Lab, his dream of — but not obsession with — getting three Michelin stars, and the notion that it would be wrong to paint him as fanatical.

You say Noma is an infant.
Yeah, I'm still waiting for our crazy teenage years.

What does a mature Noma look like to you?
I have no idea. Absolutely no idea. But I'm certain it will develop. It's not necessarily so much Noma as it is this idea: if you ask a New Yorker on the street, "What is Scandinavian cuisine?" they won't know how to answer you, most likely. We're not even sure how to answer that. That notion is what is an infant.

I'm not sure I understand the term "local." For me as a chef, the closer I source my vegetables — if I have a great farmer with great soil — the better they will be. It just makes sense. There might not be a scientific basis for this, but I feel a difference when you wait two days to get the product. But our mission isn't so much to reduce food miles, because if you think about it, our region is massive. It is to understand our culture on a plate — in a way that looks to the future.

So are you inventing a cuisine?
I don't know if "inventing" is the right word. There's always been food. Cuisine has always been there. People have always been eating. Maybe we are just modernizing the flavor, the taste of it. The main goal is to have a cuisine that is known for deliciousness and not just for survival.

You may disagree with this premise, but if we look at the last years of elBulli, it seemed like the restaurant had so much capital — in terms of prestige, not money — that you could say reviews stopped mattering. You've been number one for two years. Do you care about reviews?
Yeah, I do, and so does Ferran. Absolutely. I mean, at the end of the day, we are there for the guests. It's no secret that in our part of gastronomy that the margins are so small, so what drives you and keeps you going is the smiles and the pleasure you see. So, yes, for me it still matters.

You also have to realize that there are no absolute truths when it comes to flavor. Sam Sifton may say that Per Se is the best, and the next reviewer might not think the same. You want this pat on the shoulder, but you have to know that it is so subjective.

And the third Michelin star. Do you want it?
Yeah, I do. I do.

Why do you think it hasn't happened?
I guess they don't like it that much. I don't know. Maybe they don't think it's good enough yet.

Are you concerned with changing the restaurant to make it happen?
No, not at all. I'd be lying if I said I don't dream about it. But I dream of many things. Years ago I dreamed of doing a guitar solo in front of 70,000 people. Maybe this is one of those things where it's a dream and not an obsession; I don't let it control my life. I don't let the thought of never getting the third star do anything to me personally. There is no point of it. There are too many other things to be happy about and focus on. Hopefully one day they will recognize it as their top, but if they don't, this is it. And in a certain way, it's kind of good to be an underdog. I would never change a single thing to obtain it, ever.

And I think that obsession with changing your restaurant to attract the stars is changing. I really think so. I think people are getting more in tune with what they enjoy. Look at a place like this. Yesterday, we were at Roberta's. It's hard to argue that this isn't incredible quality. Haven't you been to Michelin-starred restaurants where the quality is inferior?

A whole bunch of times.
I think everybody has those stories. I think that more and more people are going away from the guide as a textbook for how a restaurant should be set up. At the end of the day, I think it's us, the industry, that creates that type of ambiance. You understand?

You mean the near-psychotic obsession with making everything right in the hopes of getting the stars?
Yeah. People freak out. But it's not as bad as it used to be. When I was an apprentice, it was insane. The way that the Michelin Guide was seen was insane. For sure it remains the most respected among chefs, but maybe it won't do wonders for you financially. I feel that this whole new generation coming up is more relaxed about it.

Let's talk about the Nordic Food Lab. How has that experience been, seeing as you have never been an academic?
Well, none of us that are there on a daily basis are. Right now we have an intern from the University of Bra, which is amazing, because he is a trained chef and has a formal university degree in food science. Other than that, we have Lars Williams, a guy who grew up in TriBeCa. Then there's me. That's basically the team right now.

The place has been around for three years, though the idea came about five years ago. It is a foundation purely set up to generate new knowledge for the benefit of people cooking — mostly in our region. That is the core work, to generate knowledge.

It is now housed within Noma. But you say they have nothing to do with each other?
No, no, not at all. They are two separate entities. You can never base your menu on the work at the Nordic Food Lab. Doing the miso, for instance, is a six-month project that hasn't even yielded a dish. It's an ingredient. It's very important for your future development as a restaurant, though. Michel Bras says it beautifully, "The more letters you have in your gastronomic vocabulary, the better the sentences you can craft." This is a way of developing more letters, more cornerstones that will become staples of your cuisine.

And has the information been disseminated widely?
Absolutely. But it's in Danish. Mostly, these reports get written and put online and in journals, but we have to remember that it is just one guy, Lars. I go there to inspire, but I am not there every single day. Magic doesn't happen when you're one person, full-time.

It's just a very slow process. This is all the funding we have right now. But it's amazing what has happened. A dairy company read the project we did about seaweed and now they've produced a fresh cheese with seaweed, which is out for the market. They came to ask us for our thoughts, and we helped them as we would a cook. It's one of the projects that is building on the momentum that is happening.

Last year, when Joshua David Stein interviewed you, you described how you basically had to repeat your story over and over again and that people didn't know you. Now, things seem a bit different. You're traveling with the prince and princess, and you're promoting Denmark.
In the past year, gastronomy in our society has become more important. Now, there's a small entity in the government that is there to help promote food — not just butter or ingredients, but actual restaurants. I'd kind of rather stay back than go to New York for three days to work non-stop, but it is kind of cool to see this happening.

But do you consider yourself an ambassador?
No, I don't want to be that. Ferran is an official ambassador and face of Spanish culture, but I have no ambition of being that.

I think there are many other people that can do it better than I can. I don't have the time to do it, and I think that an ambassador needs to be somehow flawless. I'm not a politician in that sense.

How do you reconcile a sentiment like that with MAD Foodcamp and your involvement in the "Open Letter" in Peru?
Well, MAD Foodcamp is for the sake of learning new things. It's not because we want to promote Denmark. MAD Foodcamp could happen in any part of the world — you just heard me talking to Frankie about maybe doing it in New York. It's a way of addressing what I find irritating not having in my daily life. All of this information that we got, there's nothing in the sphere of cooking that pushes you to be a part of that world or reading. So, this is a way of saying, "This information is out there. There is much more to learn that you might be interested in."

So you're not working to spread anything?
Absolutely not. I have no interest in that. People can come and take it as they want to. If people say, "Look, I don't believe in it," that's fine. We'll still be friends. All I am saying is that the more you know, the better.

And the letter we wrote in Peru, ultimately, it is intended for the students of the school as an inspiration. It isn't a set of rules or a declaration. I think that someone misunderstood or misinterpreted it. I mean, when we were there, I was 100% sure that it was a letter to the students at the school. I don't believe in setting these types of life dogmas.

Are you going to do another MAD?
Yeah, probably, in the first ten days of July in Copenhagen. But it's very hard to pull this off without having a huge food company funding it. But we don't want that. Ultimately, you learn so much, and the whole vibe is so great and nourishing, I don't think it can hurt. The more sound information you have, the better you will be as a chef.

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