In August 2012, the Danish restaurant Noma and its head chef René Redzepi moved to London for a fortnight to share his ideas on fine food – and ants – with the British.
By Jesper Løvenbalk Hansen, Focus Denmark no. 3 2012
During the Olympic Games, the worldfamous Danish restaurant Noma moved into the luxurious setting of Claridge’s Hotel in London.
After ten days and 3,500 table reservations, which were booked in less than two hours, Bloomberg’s food critic Richard Vines wanted to know whether it had proved possible to transfer the thoughts of what has become known as the “new Nordic kitchen” to another country.
“Of course,” Noma’s head chef and co-owner René Redzepi replied. “The philosophy and the enthusiasm we know now can be adapted anywhere.”
The method that René Redzepi brought with him to London is based on a constant search for new fields in gastronomy, and he is happy to take new and surprising ingredients into use. In London, he did not hesitate in treating his guests to live ants. They taste, according to the Danish chef, of lemongrass.
As a general rule, Redzepi only uses local ingredients – and preferably ingredients that he and the rest of the staff at Noma have gathered themselves. The focus is on sustainability, respect for nature and using original foods which Redzepi thinks are disappearing with the industrialization of our food culture.
“We try to make food with the ingredients we have around us. We work with local farmers, we gather local ingredients that Nature provides – and we exploit seasonal ingredients to the limit,” says Redzepi, who insists that it is not about idealising the past or returning to the Stone Age:
“Naturally not. We use the most modern machinery – anything else would be silly.”
“We gather local ingredients that Nature provides,” says Noma’s René Redzepi.
René Redzepi has often been compared with the Danish film director Lars von Trier, who in the 1990s established the golden age of Danish film, based on a strict set of rules concerning the use of the handheld camera, and the non-use of artificial light and sound, scenography and costumes.
In the same way, a Nordic dogma for cooking has developed where the rules include the use of local ingredients, and dishes that must reflect the changing seasons while at the same time being based on modern knowledge concerning the connection between health and tastiness. The rules also include promoting the wellbeing and sustainability of animals in relation to our natural resources.
This approach put René Redzepi on the front page of Time Magazine earlier this year under the headline “Locavore Hero”. The magazine used the term “Redzepi effect” to describe chefs who apply the dogma of geographical limitation in the ingredients they use.
“I don’t want to be quoted here and there for saying that you have to do such and such. I don’t want to judge other people, they can do as they please, because I do what I want. In reality there is nothing particularly sacred about my menu. It is actually just a recreation of the meals I knew as a child with my family in Macedonia. We lived largely on vegetables and livestock from the family farm, so when we were served chicken it was really a big thing. Slaughtering was not something that happened every day, so it was very natural that vegetables represented the largest part of the meal,” he says.
In August 2012, Noma moved into the luxurious
setting of Claridge’s Hotel in London
A viable concept
René Redzepi grew up in Denmark, but his father’s family is originally from Macedonia, where René spent his summers until the war in the Balkans broke out in 1992. His family background and the summer holidays in Macedonia provide, ccording to the chef himself, a good part of the explanation for why he makes food the way he does.
“In Macedonia the whole family lived in the same house, where everything centred around the main meal of the day. The whole day was used to prepare the evening meal – people were farmers and if chicken was on the menu, we had to slaughter it first. If we wanted milk, we had to milk the cow,” says Redzepi.
It is this genuineness and authenticity in cooking that has brought success to René Redzepi and Noma. So thinks Nikolaj Stagis, whose book The Authentic Company includes interviews with Redzepi, hose career Stagis has followed since Noma opened in 2003.
Nikolaj Stagis explains that although many expected Noma’s Nordic dogma to be a short-lived fashion, it has turned out to be a viable concept because the people running the restaurant “do not come to a halt and rest on their laurels, but continue to refine and cultivate what they are really good at.”
“An authentic company works with something original – something old-fashioned, historic or in another way a carrier of our heritage. But it also changes the historic features, it revolutionises or innovates at the same time. It reflects on its own material and takes it forward,” says Nikolaj Stagis with reference to Noma.
Noma is located in an old warehouse in Copenhagen.
After the Olympic Games in London, René Redzepi and the rest of Noma’s staff are back in Copenhagen. The London experience has been digested, and Redzepi can look back on ten intense days with lots of international star status, celebrities at the tables and autograph hounds.
“Here at home it is not like that at all. It’s funny, but in London you can achieve an almost surreal star status if you are a successful chef. It was wild and slightly overwhelming, and I have perhaps been a bit shy. But I think you just have to be yourself and then enjoy the moment.”