“Wow, what an incredible room!” I say as I walk into the luxurious suite at London’s iconic 5-star hotel, Claridges. It’s where I’m due to interview the culinary über-star, René Redzepi, who is in London launching his new book A Work in Progress which was released yesterday, Monday 11 November by Phaidon. “Yea, this place is nice,” he says, emphasising the word ‘nice’ in his warm, Danish accent. “I come here when I’m in London and every time I do they’ve changed something. They must renovate this place, like, every week!”
If this is true, then the start to my conversation with René is incredibly apt, considering the main theme which emerges as you read the text which lies at the heart of A Work in Progress’ three-part collection – his journal – is change. The change, René tells me, that took place at his restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, after it was named the world’s best restaurant in 2010. A moment he recalls, quite surprisingly, with bitter sweet reverie as we delve into a conversation of success, failure, progression and, uh, ants…
Anyone who picks up A Work in Progress for the first time quickly realises that it is no ordinary cookbook. The collection comes in three parts: your journal, which lies at the heart of the collection; Snap Shots, a mini booklet filled with polaroid-style photos; and a recipe book called Noma Recipes that logs Noma’s recipes through the seasons. Tell me about the structure and why you chose to do it this way rather than, say, a more conventional cookbook?
The seed of this trilogy actually started only as a journal. And that journal started as a project for myself so that I could understand our restaurant and how the creative side of things worked a bit better. And why there were good days and so many bad days. Mostly bad days at that time, actually! When I started writing [my journal] it had an immediate effect on our daily lives and creativity. I became better at what I do and the staff became better, too. We became a better restaurant!
And then, one day, one of the Editors at Phaidon read it and she really liked it and said “this could be a book.” I sent everything through, along with the recipes. That year was a very good year – it was unusually high. We had created almost 100 recipes. And there were failure dishes on top of that!
Initially, I thought we’d just put out the journal. I wasn’t sure but I thought, “maybe people want to read that.” I didn’t know what to think. And then it became a three-book thing.
At the heart of it is of course the journal. You’re supposed to pick up that and then afterwards go back and see all the cross references to the recipe book and so on and then you get more involved with the food and the daily life of a year in this crazy restaurant, this crazy trade, somehow!
Your journal opens with a very honest comment on the liberating and simultaneously limiting effect of success. At one point you say: ‘I was scared, scared of losing the precious worldwide attention we’d stumbled into. All of us were. We were too worried about what people expected of the so-called ‘world’s best restaurant’. Is the limitation you felt after your success what inspired you to write your journal?
Well, we became No.1 – the world’s best restaurant. Today, people achieving this award would now know what to do. Say, for example if Massimo Bottura is the next number one, he would now know what to expect, what buttons to press, four years ago, it sounds so weird to say it but four years ago the World’s 50 Best was not as big as it is now. Something really happened that year because it just exploded. Especially that year because we were this little place and, sure, people had heard of it, especially in Europe, but overseas it was virtually unknown. It was still a novelty here, nobody really, truly, believed that there was something great happening in Denmark of all places. Not in France, or Italy or Spain – you know – the obvious places, and then it happened and it was just such a big shock to the system. How could that little place dethrone elBulli – that was how people mentioned it – and it just became insane! I didn’t even process it, everything from that time I just see as a series of lights and flickers.
We felt very humbled. The limitation came afterwards because at first, you know, it was so flattering. It was nice! It felt good. It felt great! All these people, suddenly, all this attention.
When that happens you start making new decisions, which I didn’t expect to make. You know when you dream ahead and you imagine if it happened to you? I never actually envisioned that I would doubt the decisions that I made when it was so easy and so clear three months earlier. Suddenly they were becoming the wrong ones, even. Because I wanted to keep this success, I wanted to protect what was going on. And that can f*** you up. With enough time spent like that, when you’re trying to alter who you are to protect another situation, I very quickly became not very happy about the situation.
And that’s when the journal began.
Reflection is a really good thing! Looking back at your success as world’s best restaurant, how do you think the award benefited you? And do you feel any differently now that you’re no longer No.1?
Financially, it really boosted the business, like, insanely. It wasn’t incomparable to anything. I don’t even know how many hits we had on our website because our website crashed and our supplier – the people who delivered the platform – threw us out of the company! They fired us and said “listen, you’ve entered a different game, we don’t want you any more, you are taking so much of our space that other platforms are becoming slower.”
So all of this incredible attention was spiked by a bitter dose of rejection!
Exactly! And at this time we didn’t even have a reservationist! The day after the award we had 1,000 emails for reservations in 1 hour. So we had to shut down everything. We took away all the emails and by the time we got round to doing that there were almost 8,000 emails. Lau, the restaurant manager who has been with me from day one, sat down for almost a week to get through them.
Do I feel any differently now? No. I feel the same as when we were No.1. It’s nice to have but not a need to have. And that’s the big difference. Don’t get attached to these things. And you know, to tell you the truth in terms of busyness and limelight, I don’t feel any difference at all. I could feel that after the third year, something changed in people’s perception of our place. I can’t explain it exactly but people would say that “you’re cemented now”.
A Work in Progress seems to be a lot about success and creativity and how to continue finding new creativity in an environment that appears to have reached its saturation point. Do you think you managed to find new creativity and achieve everything you set out to with the journal?
The journal really helped find new creativity in an incredible way. And it fits so well with Lars Ulrich’s foreword. When that came through two hours before the final deadline after he’d pushed it back – he was really working on it – and I read it, I was like, “shit man, that is exactly how it happened throughout the journal.”
You know, once you move freely, like “f*** it, there is nothing to lose, just have fun with it, this is not life or death,” then you begin to find the joy in the project and not be limited to your success. And that freed up a lot of tension. When I look at what we did four years ago when we became no.1 for the first time as opposed to now, I can’t understand how we became No.1! I understand that, back then, we were fresh and new and that adds 20-30 per cent to your appeal, but in terms of sheer quality and ideas now from four years ago, we’re on another level completely, now.
And you believe your reflection through the process of writing your book was the reason for the new creativity at Noma?
I do. Instead of being afraid of success and creativity, we began to spend time taking the opportunity to set up this restaurant that could be the place of our dreams. A lot of changes happened, as you can read in the book, we closed the banquet room, we started the MAD symposium, trash cooking and
Saturday Night Projects began, too…
Other than success, creativity, progress and failure (sometimes), are there any other overarching themes that run throughout the book?
I think dealing with a team and being a boss, a leader and how to actually manage people, and I think, just generally joy, how to find joy in your daily work. I think that’s very crucial. I think those are the themes that I got out of it, that were important to me and that directly translated into a more wholesome, sound, creative environment which came about at the restaurant after writing it.
Lars Ulrich’s ruminations on creativity and the word ‘unafraid’ really emphasise the culinary boldness that clearly went into every recipe in the collection. There’s some really out-of-the-ordinary ingredients in there, like reindeer tongue, live eel and black ants. One recipe (Bouquet of greens and black ant dipping) calls for ‘24 black ants – or any other ant with a distinct citrus flavour’. I would class myself as an ambitious home cook but I wouldn’t know where to start when selecting citrus-flavoured ants, never mind where to source them! So I have to ask, how accessible do you think Noma Recipes is to the average cook? Did you intend for it to appeal to a niche audience and what were your aims when you decided to include such progressive ingredients?
I think the journal is for everybody. If you want to have a replacement for your Monday night spaghetti bolognaise then this is maybe a bad choice! But I definitely think this is much more approachable than our last book in terms of recipes. I mean, of course, there’s an ant in there, but if you really want to find an ant just put a piece of candy on the floor and you’ll see them! Not all taste good though. We have three varieties that we use. We know by size and colour and also the ant hill. We have an entomologist
An entomologist? Tell me more about that…
Have you got to the bit in the journal about the symposium time? So Alex Atala talks about insects and using them in Brazil. And that’s the moment when I decided, ok well f*** that, why am I not exploring that here? I don’t want to be one of these self-righteous westerners that think “these people do it because they’re savage, they’re barbarians, we’re clever people.”
And that’s when I started investigating it and I found a lot of ingredients that I use now, all of which have become part of our repertoire, a very tiny part, but we use it as spices and flavourings. That year we started the Nordic Food Lab, too. Two years ago there was a guy who came over to us from Oxford – he was an anthropologist and their star student. And I read his thesis and I liked him. He was very keen and he came by and I asked him why we don’t eat insects in the western world. So we decided to develop a programme which he wrote – it took him five months full time, working at the Nordic Food Lab and three months ago we got funded 3,500 million krone for a three-year project called Deliciousness as an argument for entomophagy.
That’s a long title…
It is! But it’s a long title for a very important issue. For example, you have a steak and you have a cricket – what are you going to choose to eat? Most people would choose the meat. Unless the cricket tastes as good, or better. So that’s the job of the next three years, that’s our project…
I think insects are the foods of the future, but I have to say, I’d prefer it if they were hidden in dishes, rather than appearing on my plate, full-size, antennaes still in-tact…
Well, it’s already hidden everywhere! There’s this rumour that McDonald’s grounds up mealworms and puts it into their ground beef. Mealworms is a super food, so it makes sense…
It doesn’t sound too appetising, but I guess that’s the aim of the project – to change our perspectives on the deliciousness of insects! I wonder if you can change my perspective on the taste of ants? Describe what black ant dipping tastes like…
Like a powerful hit of lemongrass with a whiff of lovage.
That does sound tasty!
It’s very tasty…
In his foreword Lars says that “creativity comes from within.” Do you agree? What do you think inspired you most when creating A Work in Progress?
I think creativity does come from within. The way that I experienced creativity when writing the journal is that it’s not a big or strange thing that gets handed to you by god. It’s your experiences from before and your ability to recollect and use those experiences at the right time – that’s when something new happens. If you’re good at storing all the conversations and inspirations that you pick up and remember them at the right time – in the now – that’s when creativity happens.
You’re often called upon as the chef who changed the face of Nordic cuisine with your avant-garde and innovative style and A Work in Progress proves there’s no sign of you slowing down. Do you agree?
I absolutely agree. There’s a bigger grinder at Noma today. There’s much more energy – it’s much more powerful. It’s a bigger engine. I feel it every day and it boggles my mind that we can still wow people. We used to turn on the engine and we would just stroll along. Now, we’re like a juggernaut!
What have you got next on the horizon?
More of the same. What we’re doing in the fermented kitchen – which I also wrote about in my journal – that’s a whole new paradigm that I think is going to change cooking. Not just the stuff that we’re doing but in general, what’s happening around the world in this field. It is so big and so inexplicable what can happen when you ferment produce, it’s insane. I don’t think anyone really has an understanding of it. I mean, the best way I can explain it is that if you imagine one drop in this glass of water [taps glass of water] it’s the full body of the plant kingdom – from roots to berries to seaweed – and the rest of it, all of the other drops, that’s the world of bacteria. And one of these types of bacteria, which is like the size of a dust particle, gave us soy sauce. And another one gave us chocolate. And another gave us coffee.
So do you plan to start a mini farm of bacteria at The Nordic Food Lab?
Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. I can’t even begin to explain. There’s so many strains of it. And it sounds weird saying bacteria, because the connotations are so negative. But it can change things in such interesting ways and that’s something we’d like to explore more.
On another note, you’ve spent quite a lot of time in Australia recently. Do you have anything exciting from Australia’s culinary scene to report on?
I think Australia is on this huge discovery journey of their own native ingredients, and there’s so much stuff. Do you know what this is? [he shows me a photo]
Wow, that looks messy... What is that?
That’s an ant’s nest. We found it just outside of Sydney. Australia is a crazy place. It’s a melting pot of things and people. And you have its indigenous culture, too. It’s very interesting. I think there’s a lot of inspiration to get there. As a foreign cook, that would be my starting point, definitely. Ben Shewry is a man to watch over there at the moment. He’s doing it at his restaurant Attica.
I’ve noticed you’ve worked with Ben quite a lot recently with the Cook It Raw festivals and MAD. Talking of Cook It Raw, when’s it coming back?
The next one will be next year some time, probably in Mexico.
Isn’t that where you started writing the journal?
Yea, that’s where I started writing. Mexico to me is like a second home. I haven’t been to Brazil so I don’t know too much about the food there, and I think that Alex is probably the most influential and brilliant of all the Latin American chefs, but at the same time I truly believe that Mexican food is the strongest there is, to me, by far.
Can you recommend any restaurants?
I mean, I’ve been to Enrique Olvera’s Pujol a couple of times and that might be the most obvious place, but it is just so f****** amazing. Like, really, really good.
So, if you were to take a plane ride to anywhere in the world, just for one meal, would you say
No, I would go to a place on Lummi Island in America. You travel to Seattle and then you fly for an hour and then you take a boat for an hour and then you find yourself on Lummi Island and there’s a chef called Blaine Wetzel. If I could choose and if I had the time and everything would be cool – like direct flights and everything – I would go there. He spent a couple of years with us at Noma. He was a really bright chef and a genuinely good person. If he feeds the fire right, in five years, his restaurant could be impossible to get into. The restaurant is only open in summer and it’s a bit of a special excursion going there – it’s really unique.
Other than Blaine, who should we be keeping our eye out for?
There’s this guy in Copenhagen – I’m going to sound totally jaded because all these people have worked for me, but I truly believe in him – called Matt Orlando, who has just opened a new restaurant. He’s an American who used to be the sous chef at Per Se and he worked at The Fat Duck. He as all the credentials that you dream of. Every food critic will look at this guy and say, “yes, that’s the stuff”. He just opened. Again, give him seven or eight years and I truly believe it’s going to be the most smashing, interesting restaurants in the world. His restaurant is called Amass. You should check him out.
I certainly will! Getting back to you for a final note – what’s been the highlight of your career
so far? Finishing A Work in Progress?
It was a big moment when I closed my journal. It was one of the most painful things to do. When I say painful I mean difficult, like, f****** difficult. You need a lot of discipline. I can’t say it was a very pleasurable thing to do.
Sounds like quite a cathartic process – you have to go through the pain process to reap the benefits!
Yes. And I felt so alone! You know, I’m used to working in a team and suddenly you sit there and you’re looking at your screen and you’re thinking, “ok, what happened today”. I definitely have a new-found respect for people who do this. I didn’t know you needed so much discipline. But it was definitely a worthwhile project for all the change and creativity it brought in return…
A Work in Progress, £39.95, www.phaidon.com