"Recipes are only guidelines. It is the cook who makes the difference".
Rene Redzepi certainly is flavour of the year; his popularity has risen dramatically since 2010 when he received his first ‘best restaurant of the year’ award. Now with two years under his belt both he, and his restaurant, are- unsurprisingly; continuously booked out.
The face of Noma (a portmanteau word, running together nordisk (“Nordic”) and mad (“food”)) Rene has a modest eatery (only 12 tables) in the Christianshavn harbour district of Copenhagen. Specialising in new-wave Scandinavian food that is meant to be eaten with your hands, and is served on rocks instead of plates, Noma has easily gained its 2 Michelin stars. However, it wasn’t always Rene’s path to become a chef.
Born in Copenhagen to a Danish mother and a Macedonian father, Rene experienced the luxury of home cooking at a time when it was popular to eat microwave meals and drink coca-cola. Spending long summers in the then Yugoslavia gave him an appreciation of land and growing techniques that he would use later in his life.
His father was the main cook in the family, preparing cheap but satisfying menus and experimenting with dishes. This upbringing, although a huge influence in later life, didn’t lead Rene down the culinary path. It is a pure coincidence, and only a chance of fate, that Rene got into the world of cooking.
At 15, he was asked to leave school, his results were failing as he readily admits he was only interested in football and girls. With no defined aspirations for the future, he decided to follow his friend into catering college. And his passion began to grow.
Quickly adapting to his new choice of career, Rene received his big break at 16 when he was accepted as the apprentice to Pierre André; a locally family run Michelin starred restaurant. Learning the basics of traditional French cuisine gave Rene the inspiration to head to France. He believed that the true meaning of French cuisine was in France, he learnt swiftly that it wasn’t always the case.
After working at numerous restaurants including elBulli near Barcelona, and The French Laundry in California, he was approached by Claus Meyer; the Danish television personality and host of television’s New Scandinavian Cooking.
At only 24, Rene was in great demand; he had already turned down the opportunity to be head chef at numerous restaurants. But Meyer’s offer was one he couldn’t refuse. Rene would have full reign of the North Atlantic House, an 18th century warehouse and a cultural centre for the North Atlantic region, and would cook traditional Nordic cuisine.
Noma’s success was instant, within two years it received its first Michelin star. Its dishes were attracting customers from near and far, but Rene wasn’t content that the food was only influenced by Nordic ingredients – having occasionally imported out-of-season produce. He wanted Noma to be more than just another Scandinavian themed restaurant, he wanted to understand the Nordic traditions and locally grown ingredients.
In 2004, fate intervened and gave Rene the chance to fulfil his ambition. On a hunting trip to the cold, white north that is Greenland, he became aware of the harsh environment. Realising that without the skills of the fishermen and farmers he wouldn’t survive on the land for long. It was with this epiphany that he began to embrace the fishermen, and the farms, understanding the lay of the land and how weather effected growth.
On his return, he started to pare things down and learn about the forgotten Nordic ingredients (bulrushes, sea buckthorn, lingon berries). Taking the weather as the marker, he began to discover that you would need to use intuition to see the possibilities of what the land could offer.
Growing and foraging became second nature, so proud of his researching and experimenting he calls himself and his staff “gastronomic explorers”. It is a constant learning process, and dedication to the task is both gruelling and exhausting. But, thanks to Rene, new and long-forgotten ingredients -from all over the Norse regions, from Bornholm to Greenland; are once again part of the Nordic diet.
Nowadays, his time is split between his family, his new initiative and the restaurant.
Working as a team encourages his own evolution, they may be a small team but each one has good hands, and a quick brain, and that is something you can’t always learn. Being a chef isn’t easy, Rene admits to getting stressed in the kitchen and wondering why he continues, but thankfully he hasn’t hung up his chef-whites yet. “Recipes are only guidelines,” he says. “You have to use your natural-born skills as a human being to taste a dish. It is the cook who makes the difference.”
Rene is the organiser and founder of MAD symposium; the first of which took place on the 27th and 28th of August 2011. The project is intended as an educational tool for the developing chef. By improving literacy in ecology, studying food history and food production methods this Symposium sought to increase the general awareness of today’s chef.
There were several hundred prominent participants including foragers, fruit and vegetable growers, chefs and as well as other distinguished, relevant institutions as The Danish Association for Biodynamic Agriculture, Organic Denmark and the University of Copenhagen.
For the second edition of MAD, the focus has been shifted 'from the natural world onto the internal one – from the world of plants onto the person'. This year, the theme will be appetite.
In Rene's own words, 'as chefs, we work and live through appetite – it is our natural habitat. Knowing the techniques of our craft, the science of cooking or the seasons of produce is of course valuable, but we can deepen our understanding even further. We can investigate the intuition that drives our everyday routine and inspires creativity – that is essential to producing a fundamentally good meal.
We want to recognise the many tacit decisions that determine how we think of food, flavour and deliciousness. To actively acknowledge what our hands and fingers appreciate instinctively after years of labour. To explore the hunger that is the source of our inspiration'.
He encourages us 'to dare for better, to think bigger'.