I learned a few things in 2014. This is one of them.
René Redzepi is the best chef in the world.
This is all I knew about Redzepi as we drove down to County Cork for the Ballymaloe Literary Festival last May. His restaurant Noma is the best restaurant in the world. That and something about Scandinavia and impossible reservations.
The Redzepi session was sold out when we got our tickets, and I wasn’t too concerned about it. But in the car on our way, I saw a tweet about an extra ticket to Redzepi and I snatched it up.
So I had very little expectation of this greatest chef in the world. As a matter of fact, I was surprised when the thin, shaggy haired guy that I almost bumped into coming back from the loo appeared moments later on stage. Not as surprised as our friend Caryna was when she asked for his ticket at the door, however.
Redzepi began to tell us his story. I was fascinated.
He told us about growing up with a Macedonian father and Danish mother. On holidays when his schoolmates were taking off to Italy or France, he would visit family in Macedonia. He was ashamed of this as a child. There were few amenities in Macedonia. They slept on the floor and ate communally. There was no word for ‘foraging’. Foraging was part of what they did for food. Meat was for special occasions. Oh, the excitement of those days. The kids would help chase down a chicken, and bring it to an aunt. It would be slaughtered right there, no doubt, and they would watch her pluck the feathers with anticipation. Then it would go into the oven, and still they watched, the skin turning golden, the smell just driving them crazy, and fat dripping onto potatoes below. And then finally the eating. Everyone together, eating from shared plates. Licking fingers.
The ‘old ways’ are foodie Shangri La now. We suburban souls who grew up knowing chicken only in square packages from antiseptic, white supermarkets, or in a bucket shoved through a window in a drive by dining. Oh, we crave authenticity! So Redzepi is right on point with current farm to mouth trends. (Confession: I personally have never even bought a whole chicken. I’d be a horrible pioneer, so I’m a bit like, Redzepi did it, so I don’t have to….) But the thing I like best about his recounting of his childhood is that best-chef Redzepi recognizes something he considered a deficit turned out to be a strength. It wasn’t something he asked for. It was given to him.
Redzepi’s tale continues with a bit of disaffected youthdom, signing up for cooking school with a mate, and then not immediately, but at some point realizing he was kind of good at this, and he liked it. So, onward. He emphasized in his story the value of mentoring, of having someone who wants the best for you. And he gives much credit to the luck of timing, the way his path took him from Ferran Adrià to Thomas Keller to Grant Achatz. Yes, he was eager to learn, he was bold to ask for jobs, but he seems a bit amazed still at how many doors actually opened when he knocked, and that he absolutely wouldn’t be where he is if they hadn’t.
Redzepi values the path. Working as a waiter was a crucial stage he says, to be the person presenting that plate of food, to see the reaction, both good and bad. He never wants to lose that connection. Doesn’t want to be the chef holed up in the kitchen. Would you invite friends over for dinner and never leave the stove? He had to learn to manage the people in a kitchen–the things they don’t teach you in culinary school. It would have been worthless to achieve something like World’s Best Restaurant, he says, without being able to share it with a team.
Another key moment from his story are they early days of Noma when a lunch service had zero customers. Zero. Take note: everyone has to start at zero.
I wrote in my notebook: René Redzepi likes lunch!
I like lunch too! Although I think this statement was about keeping perspective, not discounting certain eating experiences. I think Redzepi would love to have a food truck.
You gentle readers probably already know everything I’ve written and more about René Redzepi, have already read his Journal, of which I am only on page 40 (19th March), possibly have even cooked something from the supremely beautiful (that light!), borderline insane Noma cookbook (hay oil!). I’m so glad I was able to discover Redzepi in person and hear his story. I came away so full from his talk.
Since he is a real person to me, I might take the time to understand why one would take a carrot, sous vide it for 45 minutes, then char grill it for an hour (turning every 15 minutes), brush with a sea buckthorn reduction and then dehydrate for 4-5 hours. (Recipe, page 58). That is putting a lot of faith in an orange root. But it is winter. We have carrots and little else, so we are going to cook the heck out of that carrot.
You go, René. Call me. We’ll do lunch.