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From the Fall 2015 Issue "Food Fight"
For the world’s greatest chefs, their disciples and acolytes alike, food is not simply the stuff of life. It is a passion, a calling that consumes them, defines their existence—at once a craft and an art form—as it has been for 37-year-old René Redzepi, and his extraordinary restaurant Noma in Copenhagen. Voted four times as the best restaurant in the world, most recently last year, it is now en route to becoming an empire, staffed by more than a hundred people, a state-of-the-art food laboratory next door, and now a new global organization he founded, MAD, devoted to spreading the religion of food and its meaning in Scandinavia and abroad. His family driven from their native Macedonia by the Yugoslav wars, Redzepi was born in Copenhagen, and trained there in some of Europe’s great kitchens. In 2004, he opened Noma in an 18th century warehouse turned cultural center. He talked with World Policy Journal Editor and Publisher David A. Andelman and Managing Editor Yaffa Fredrick from Copenhagen.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: We’re interested in talking about what inspires you about food. What’s your philosophy of food?
RENÉ REDZEPI: Well, that question is something that can be ever-changing. The more you dig into the idea of what food is and what it does, what it means to a place, what it means to be a local chef, you become more confused about the very question itself, which is what is food. To me, food is literally everything that I do. It is the way that I’ve decided to explore life, through the lens of food, and the culture that surrounds it. And I think that also somehow goes back to the very point of how food is the biggest joy and enjoyment that you can have in life, and I think food has also become a way of connecting me not just to the landscape where I am, but also enabling me to create a community of people, and that has been the most empowering thing in my journey in food so far, and something I would even say that I didn’t believe in before—that community is so important. Throughout our journey, we’ve been able to connect with people in fields, and in the ocean, and really create a spirit of togetherness, where systems are in place and we feed off each and we respect and help each other, and we can also depend on each other. That, to me, has been one of the most magnificent things about my journey into food—the people who come with it.
WPJ: That’s very interesting. Basically you’re talking about a hyper-localization of food, cuisine, and cooking. This hyper-localization is very important to you?
REDZEPI: It is, but then again it’s also full of controversy in a place like Denmark, because what does it mean to be local in today’s modern place. I mean, there’s being local as in I get my ingredients 20 miles away, and then there’s being local in a cultural sense. And if you look at that, then our region is not that local. Even though we have a common culture in the northern region, it’s a region that’s vast, enormous. So I struggle with the aspect of what it means to be local. Sometimes I wouldn’t be able to get an onion from north of Stockholm, let’s say. Our farm is out of onions, so we’re looking for onions. And then we tell ourselves, well let’s look into our culture to see who has onions. Because in our minds, we see Sweden as being a local nearby area, so we search that place. But in reality, Germany would be much more local for us to source those onions, but because culturally we aren’t aligned as closely as say with Sweden, it becomes almost a moral issue.
Fried Finnish reindeer moss with pulverized cep mushrooms
WPJ: But in terms of the hemisphere, we’re in a global world where you can get onions from say South Africa during the Danish winter. You can bring them to Copenhagen because you wouldn’t naturally find onions in Germany that time of year.
REDZEPI: That’s absolutely true. I’m a believer in that food in its natural season is the right thing to eat. I base this not on science at all, but just being a person who has been involved with food since I was very young, and very specifically in the last 12 years when I’ve been able to really profoundly look at it and feel the effects of the way we cook. I genuinely also believe that it is the right way to eat as a human. You take harvest in what’s in high season, what’s at the peak, not just for the sake of flavor but also for the sake of how your body should eat throughout the year. But of course the problem is that people are so removed from the very action of this. It’s something that we’re relearning again on how to take full advantage of nature’s resources so we can eat in a new and exciting way that also will do a lot of good for ourselves and our health. This is a new attitude for us that we’re starting to dwell on.
Before, at a restaurant, it was a notion that after eating a fine dining meal you would be so full the next day your stomach would be torn into pieces. It was all a part of this hedonistic dive into flavor that your body would ache afterward. Sometimes, when the meal gets too big, you serve all these things and don’t take into account how the body processes these things. So, slowly, over the course of time we’ve been starting to dwell on that—fermentation. And as we understand more, we start learning more about what healthy gut bacteria can do for you as a person, and you start wanting to add that to the menu. I’m finding that to be such an added bonus and a sign of the future that the best of flavors don’t need to be engrained in things that are bad for you.
WPJ: And I think that’s actually a perfect transition because you have said in interviews that you consider yourself a vegetable guy who likes to treat meat as a “backup singer.” Is that the way meat should be treated? Are we consuming too much meat with such heavy meals in western societies?
REDZEPI: I will tell you from the perspective of being a cook and everyday cooking and looking at people. For cooking, people want familiar things, so 99 percent of people just want a steak and a brownie. But personally, from a chef’s perspective, I’m incredibly bored by eating the same food throughout the world. Whether it’s for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack. For the sheer sake of food excitement and diversity, I think its something that is inevitably going to change. I think the market will drive toward that. And do we eat too much meat?
I’m not a health nutrition specialist at all, but I think if you have a diet primarily based on plants and you are able to make these plants taste as good as steak, because that’s also the key, it has to be as delicious as that T-bone steak, even though it’s a bowl of steamed spinach, and you are able to do these things through the magic of the cooking, through the magic of condiments, then people are happier. As a person who searches for flavors, suddenly you have a palate of flavors that are so much more diverse than always relying on the 10 to 15 staple proteins that seem engraved on every menu. Then it doesn’t matter where you are. From that perspective, I would say we do eat too much of the same food everywhere; it’s boring.
Lacto-fermented gooseberries with lemon verbena oil and lavender
WPJ: Well, that suggests the mission of this organization that you founded, MAD, with the goal of teaching people about food and how to make every meal a more nutritious experience. Our understanding of the mission statement is that it’s the quest for a better meal and to leave the world a better place than we found it. How is that possible? In so many parts of the world, people are just desperately trying to feed themselves on a dollar or two a day, or what they can grow on a small plot.
REDZEPI: Of course, it’s a tragic thing, and it’s in great contrast to any good restaurant anywhere in the world, where people are eating well. In some places, people aren’t. I don’t have any answers to that—it’s so complex. What I generally believe is that there’s a crisis in terms of actual cooking. People have lost their ability to cook a meal, even the simplest—a legume and a carrot—and how to transform that into something that’s nutritious. I think it’s a real issue. Especially in the West, where people have access to food, they simply don’t know anymore how to process it. I think that MAD is the beginning of a place driven by chefs who want to begin tackling some of these questions within the world of food. This is something that’s so new and fresh, but I believe that the world of cooking and the chefs themselves, the skills that they have, once they realize, can put this knowledge to use. The skills are a quest for delicious flavors, because ultimately good flavor is the selling point in any behavioral change in terms of food.
I also believe chefs have a great skill in organizing and a drive unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. A lot of people in the cooking industry are so curious about what more there is to cooking than just cooking in a restaurant. We’re discovering that there’s this vast world of food and nutrition where we can be a part of this somehow. That is what MAD is exploring, but it’s baby steps. First, we spent four years creating a community to see if there was any excitement for the betterment of our trade and the betterment of food in different ways, that we could explore food through our restaurants in new and exciting ways. We’ve been overwhelmed with the success of MAD, and we promise that were going to be an action-driven organization.
One of the things that we’re trying to do now with MAD, especially in the West, is a project we call Wild Food. It’s a MAD-driven project where we take Denmark as the starting point, and it’s a project that has two phases. The first phase is creating a curriculum for school kids where they will be taught edible wild nature, not just seeing the beauty of a landscape, but eating it and tasting it. We believe if you are taught from childhood a close relationship with nature, you grow into understanding the dependency of it and your eagerness to preserve it, in a different way than an adult. The other part of it is creating a foraging license, so that individuals can take an education in how to harvest the landscape, how to eat it, how to cook it, and how to do that in a sustainable fashion of course. And with that, there will be a platform online where the edible landscape is described, not just for its historical or medical benefit, but for its potential for cooking that’s a project that we’ve been writing, and we just got this funded—€1.3 million euros [$1.4 million] to initiate the project, so that we can implement it in the public schools in Denmark and make it a part of the curriculum. We hope we can use Denmark as a starting point.
WPJ: We’d like to come back to NOMA and ask what you hope people will take away form a meal at NOMA, repeatedly the greatest restaurant in the world.
REDZEPI: Well, I think if we can connect people to a place, let’s call it northern Europe, and if we can connect them to the seasons or have them experience that eating “the now,” that is our biggest challenge. We need to feed the moments, and have them take the time and realize that eating is one of the most enlightening and enriching and also life-necessary acts to do, and they go hand in hand. When people put away their telephones and start conversing and taking in the fruits of the season, people generally have an experience that they don’t forget, and this is our biggest challenge.
Onion, pear, kelp oil, and salt of wood ants
WPJ: So basically, bringing back a connection between your diners, the food they’re eating, and the land that it came from, which is something that we think in our urban societies, we’re getting further and further away from—a connection with the land?
REDZEPI: Yes, but it’s more than that—its also a connection to people. I mean, its difficult to explain, but you see it. Just the 12 years we’ve been open, when social media came, the way people are connected even throughout the meal, it’s been a huge shift, so connecting to the land, but also maybe restaurants are somehow becoming the last bastion of some sort of conversation. So today, there are more elements than just connecting to the land. Not only do we need to find ways to connect people, but we also need a cookbook for people to use as a starting point.
If you consider coffee, tea, bread, charcuterie, all the staples we eat everyday, they come from fermentation. We see how little we’ve exploited to understand the world of mold and yeast. The premise of setting up a fermentation facility was to eradicate food waste in our restaurants. It just keeps going, because we keep discovering all these things we can do.
WPJ: Tell us about your laboratory.
REDZEPI: The lab’s job right now is to work on vegetation. We call it the science bunker in which we explore the potential of bacteria and molds to change ingredients and flavors. And we also explore this as a way to actually get rid of all of our food waste. This was the driving force to set up our fermentation lab, as a standalone facility next to our restaurant. We built it two years ago. We wanted to get rid of food waste in our restaurants. We thought the use of bacteria or molds can take food waste and through inoculation of bacteria we would be able to produce a liquid or paste we could use somewhere around the kitchen. How it can be used—the world of bacteria, molds, and yeasts—becomes very fascinating. I hate to throw things away. It drives me crazy. And now, we keep discovering all these things we can do.
WPJ: Thanks so much for joining us!
[Photos courtesy of Peter Brinch and NOMA]