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Online Q&A: Noma’s René Redzepi

In April the number-one spot in the World's 50 Best Restaurants poll was taken from El Bulli by Noma, a restaurant in Copenhagen. In October, Noma, a cookbook by chef René Redzepi, hits the shelves and Redzepi will visit Australia to promote it in conjunction with the Sydney International Food Festival and Phaidon. On the eve of his return to Australia trip, Redzepi spoke to Gourmet Traveller chief restaurant critic Pat Nourse.


Rene Redzepi interview


Noma restaurant

Sydney International Food Festival

Phaidon Australia

You were in Melbourne for the food and wine festival a couple of years ago, René – does it bring back fond memories?

I loved Australia. I really, really loved Melbourne. If it wasn’t so far away I’d visit every year. For me, Melbourne was like Copenhagen just with better weather, and that’s just great, isn’t it? That’s like a dream city. Not too big; even though I know it’s quite big it doesn’t feel big. I love the people – they wore nice clothes when they went out to dinner and they went out to dinner a lot. It’s quite a cultural city and I was very amazed by the quality of the everyday eateries. The markets and the quality of the produce. Great coffee. I really enjoyed it.

Then there was me being a little bit stupid, thinking the whole of Australia was a desert like it is in the middle. It was very surprising, then, to go to the shorelines to pick plants with Ben from Attica, harvesting seaweed right there, and going to a small area of listed ground near where Ray Capaldi lives and there’s kangaroos there, and then picking wood sorrel and purslane. I could feel I wanted more. I left thinking about the great potential there is in Australia.

**I just read William Gibson’s new book, and one of his characters describes Melbourne as a Canadianised Los Angeles, but I think Tourism Victoria might prefer your Copenhagen-with-better-weather take.

** I think so – it’s a flat city, with nice people and the pace of the city is much slower than Sydney, for instance, or any other big city that I’ve been to. It’s just a good city.

What are your expectations for Sydney on this visit?

I was only there for two days last time, but I thought its sheer beauty was breathtaking. The Opera House is truly to me breathtaking. The way it lies there with the harbour bridge is so beautiful, but it also feels like a big city, a city where the pace is high, people are moving forward and you need to get out of our way.

My expectations are that I’m going to learn a lot more about Australia’s cuisine. I’m actually reading up on that right now. I just got my first book in yesterday, which is about indigenous food, you know [assumes appalling Australian accent], bush tucker. And I have three or four more books that I have to collect today at the post office. I’m interested in knowing what Australia is. What Australian cuisine is.

**It’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves.

** And it’s a very difficult question to answer. The notion of something truly unique and local is easy to think of but to express it on a plate without reference points is very difficult.

**Our top restaurants don’t use a lot of what you’d call bush tucker here today, truth be told.

** I read about a lot of interesting stuff, though. I think the quandong sounds interesting. Saltbush, too, sounds delicious, and I’m really interested in green ants. I also liked the sound of the worms that live in wood in the water, like all-white larvae. Think of it like an oyster – it’s a live creature in the shell that you’re opening up, only in this case the shell is a piece of wood and there’s a live animal in it and you eat it. If you can get past that whole idea, in the books it says it tastes of almonds.

**Following the rise of Noma, young chefs the world over are now going out and denuding their local parks and gardens of chickweed and wood sorrel in the name of René Redzepi-like foraging. How do you feel about being the inspiration for this sort of action.

** Ha, that’s brilliant, man, I love it. The gardeners must be so happy.

Funny thing is, though, they’re usually more interested in those introduced species than they are in things that grow wild here.

I think that understanding will take time, but the recipe for what’s truly Australian on a plate has to involve a lot of that. It’s something I struggle with every day – you cook food and you bring forward a taste, and how does that taste and the whole spirit and the culture of the dish, and then you think, how does this dish come together to have a sense of place, where it belongs only here and nowhere else in the world? That’s f***in’ difficult, man.

**So no danger of you being bored in the kitchen, then?

** Actually, we’re pretty far from it. I’ve always told myself the day that I get bored, the day the autopilot gets switched on, that’s the day it’s time to move on and see if there’s someone else who can take it further. This project for me, Restaurant Noma, is not a life project. Cooking is a life project, and I’m going to give 100 per cent of myself until I’m completely empty. The product line, the people growing, the whole definition of what our region and our time and place is about.

**Does that mean if you were to somehow explore that subject to your satisfaction you might then move on and open a taco stand?

** Yes! I don’t know. I have absolutely no idea where I’ll be in 10 years. I know one thing, though – I’d like to give my family, my child I have now and perhaps future children, the opportunity of living somewhere else in the world. I’d also like to give myself the learning experience of starting again from scratch and getting to know a new place, new people and new ingredients.

**The weather in Melbourne’s very nice this time of year.

** Who knows? I know I just don’t want to settle in. In Denmark we have the expression “you’re 40, you’re fat and you’re finished”. And in the same way this can happen with a restaurant: you struggle and struggle, and then it starts to happen, things start to balance, then money starts rolling in – this is not my ambition. I think the reason we have such a good team is because this is not the purpose for me in this project. We’re seeing how far we can take this project.

We’re ramping up into party season right now. Do you throw a good party?

I tell you, we threw the best party. When we received the 50 Best award we invited every single person who has ever worked with Noma – all of our farmers, just everybody. And there were 175 people; we did it on a boat and people fell in the water, we broke the toilet… it was an amazing party.

**You broke the toilet?

Well, there were people who hadn’t seen each other for years, a man and a lady and, well, you know. They’re a couple today, and they paid for the toilet themselves, so… it was such a party of spirit. It was fantastic. We have a party at the restaurant twice a year for the whole staff. One of them is a day-trip, where we go somewhere and we sleep, often in very rustic conditions. Our parties are always just full of f**in’ life and great spirit.

**What’s the secret to a good party, Redzepi-style?

** The secret is the people. You need the right people. You have the right people and you can play classical music and it’ll still rock. People will still dance and go crazy.

**What do you serve?

** I like to have a theme on it. When we had a salute party to ourselves, we also celebrated our dishwasher, so we ate Gambian food. But it can be anything, just anything well made.

**You’re not on Twitter, René – do you have a message we can send out as your 140 character proxies?

** Sure: “buy the book”.

What’s the book all about?

I’m a hard-working guy and having a lot of hardworking guys in the restaurant, and we’re busy, but we can only serve so many people. We’re making it, but only just, so we’re hoping that if the book sells it’ll buy us a little breathing room. I’m quite happy about the book because I feel it’s a great extension of the restaurant in printed form; that’s quite hard to make, but I think we’ve succeeded, and by having a book you’ve got financial possibilities without compromising your integrity setting up a frozen food line or opening a stupid restaurant that nobody cares about that people just show up to because there’s a name attached to it, and so on.

What are you loving on the Noma menu right now?

Right now we’ve got this incredible biodynamically grown spinach that has such a strong taste of iron, and steamed with seaweed it’s incredible. I love it. I love vegetables. I think vegetables are going to be the next big thing, I don’t doubt that at all. The way that everybody’s becoming more environmentally friendly, we’re going to have to eat more vegetables, that’s all.

**You’ve certainly got a lot more to choose from there as a chef.

** Definitely. You look at the differences between a brill and a turbot and then you look at the flavour difference between a spinach leaf and a quandong, it’s two worlds apart with big opportunities between them. The variety in the plant world is just so much more humongous than with meat. People are going to have to start learning to cook a carrot so it has the same qualities as a piece of sautéed foie gras.

Your flowerpot has quickly become one of the dishes young chefs rip off the most in their own kitchens. What’s it like to be now so widely imitated? Are you conscious of it?

No, you’re making me smile a little bit because it’s funny to hear it. I can’t believe it almost a little bit. My world is 350 square metres of Restaurant Noma, and then once in a while I get to talk to you guys and then once in a while I get to travel and that’s it. Honestly, it’s not something that I notice. Most of my living or my waking hours I’m in those 350 square metres.

**Have you felt the intensification of interest in Noma following the World’s 50 Best Restaurants naming it number one this year?

** Of course. And not only for the restaurant but for the whole dining scene in Denmark. It’s incredible – everyone’s business has picked up, gastronomical travellers are here more than before, and people are much more excited now. I’m very surprised. Of course, they have huge expectations, but they come in positive, ready to try something in a different part of the world that they haven’t tried before. It’s a very positive experience and we’re dealing with the whole pressure element of it quite well as a team. I’m really surprised – I don’t know if you have this expression in English where you say you’re in the eye of the hurricane, but that’s how it feels to me. It’s calm and nice; there’s no wind, but you can see around you there’s crazy stuff happening, but you feel kind of cool – this is how we feel I think as a restaurant. I think we’ll stay here for a while. Of course there’s the whole biblical idea of seven good years and seven bad years and we’re just about to finish our seventh year here, so are we going to go into seven good years or seven bad years?

Are Danes turning out in numbers? You’ve said in previous interviews that the people of Copenhagen were slower to support Noma than visitors.

That has changed 100 per cent today. People are curious, very, very curious.

**Do you get Princess Mary in often?

** No, unfortunately. I mean, our policy is that we take bookings three months in advance; we have 12 tables, we open them online and whether you’re a princess or a street hooker, the policy is the same. They have to be as ready on the phone or online as anyone else; they have like 15 palaces, they must have a guy who can book it for them.

Perhaps you should pick up some stuff while you’re here in Australia, just in case she drops in.

Yeah. I’d love to serve her some of those worms.

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