"For me cooking is something that is completely transparent and without pretence, that is honest and generous and has something true and original to it."
On the surface this might seem like a very modest philosophy. But for René Redzepi it has brought him from a humble background as the son of a poor immigrant to the founder and head chef at the world´s best restaurant, Noma.
The fact that Rene Redzepi was to become one of the world's most influential chefs was not written in the stars. Redzepi grew up in a family with little money and he and his brother managed ten newspaper rounds to help contribute to the family finances. Only the essentials could be afforded, and this also applied to food.
Redzepi had difficulty concentrating at school, and it was largely a coincidence that he started at the Hotel and Restaurant school after finishing basic school. But within a week, he won a competition for the best dish and from then on he was hooked into the world of food.
Freedom and energy
On leaving the Hotel and Restaurant school, Redzepi became an apprentice at one of Copenhagen´s few Michelin restaurants at the time, Pierre-André. From there he went on to the three-star Jardin des Sens in Montpellier and later to El Bulli in Barcelona. The latter had a huge impact on the young chef.
"It was a fantastic year – there was a freedom and energy in the kitchen. You worked hard from 7.30 in the morning and came home at 2:30 at night for many days in a row," Redzepi recalled in a 2010 interview with the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende.
Back in Copenhagen Redzepi became deputy chef at the restaurant Kong Hans, but in late 2002 he was contacted by the Danish chef Claus Meyer, who offered him the chief position in what would later become Noma. Despite being only 25 years old, Redzepi had already been offered several head chef positions, but the opportunity to start a restaurant from scratch attracted him. And he was thrilled with the idea of working with Nordic food:
"It made absolute sense to work with Nordic ingredients. I had no problem with having to do without, for example, foie gras, which I've never been a big fan of. But at that time the concept was not yet sharply defined, and I can remember that Claus said that if we wanted to use an eggplant we could, which made me relax a little. I accepted the position, but not until I saw the place. It was very exciting that the building stood alone by the water in the city centre, yet with plenty of light and air and tranquillity around it. I've always been looking for a place where you don´t stare into a wall while you cut onions, but rather where you can experience the world outside."
The bare essentials
At first, however, Noma was not a success. The concept of the restaurant was unclear and both the food industry and the critics ridiculed the unconventional dishes and ingredients. But after a few years the concept fell into place. Redzepi decided to focus on the bare essentials of Nordic food and local produce.
"Instead of thinking about what we would have done at El Bulli or Kong Hans, I began to listen more to myself and ask what I would like if I came to Noma as a guest: A sense of time and place. We are not in Sao Paolo, New York or London, but in Copenhagen in southern Scandinavia. Most of our ingredients are from Sealand and Southern Sweden, and we have to follow the seasons."
The world´s best restaurant
From then on things went rapidly forward for Redzepi and his restaurant. Noma suddenly became the hot topic in international gastronomic circles. In 2008 the restaurant received two Michelin stars. The following year it was judged the world's third best restaurant by Restaurant Magazine and in 2010 Noma was named The World's Best Restaurant, a title it has since maintained.
Today Rene Redzepi spends most of his time developing new dishes and travelling the world, trying to advocate the philosophy that in just six years took Noma to the top in global gastronomy: Use your local produce.
As Redzepi explained in a 2010 interview with Phaidon:
"During the years Noma has been open, it´s been one big learning curve of understanding our region, the soil, the seasonality, what the weather gives us and so on. Today nature is our biggest inspiration. I see our restaurant having some type of pact with nature. That is simply the essence of it."
Sources: "Mød Verdens bedste kok" by Søren Frank. Berlingske Tidende 2010.
Interview with René Redzepi. Phaidon.com.
Noma was named the best restaurant in the world for the fourth time in 2014: