Noma’s René Redzepi Never Stops Experimenting
After the loss of his restaurant’s best-in-the-world title in 2013, Danish chef René Redzepi is back on top with 90 new avant-garde recipes and a pop-up eatery in Japan
By Howie Kahn in the Wall Street Journal
“I’VE BEEN THINKING of writing a book on how to deal with a bad year,” says René Redzepi, calibrating the espresso machine in his sun-filled home kitchen in Copenhagen. It’s a late-summer morning, and the 36-year-old chef, wearing spandex tights and a T-shirt, has just returned from his near-daily outdoor fitness regimen of running, crunches and burpees. As the coffee brews, Redzepi’s daughters Arwen, 6, and Genta, 3, weave between their father’s knees, and his wife, Nadine, sets their infant girl, Ró, to rest on his shoulder.
According to Redzepi, 2013 was “an avalanche of disaster.” It started in February, when 63 diners at his legendary restaurant, Noma, contracted norovirus from a batch of tainted mussels. News about the incident—Redzepi’s first public misstep—quickly spun out of control. “We’d been the No. 1 restaurant in the world since 2010,” he says, referring to the closely watched San Pellegrino rankings. “It felt like standing outside on a perfect, clear day and suddenly being beaten to the ground by hoodlums.”
At the same time, the restaurant was changing its investment structure as Redzepi was concluding a seven-year hunt for a new partner. He and Noma’s original majority owner, the Danish restaurateur and food personality Claus Meyer , had been at odds over the restaurant’s identity since 2007, but the collapse of the world’s financial markets slowed the chance of any deal coming to fruition. Eventually, Redzepi felt a connection with Marc Blazer, the Dutch-American CEO of Overture Investment Partners, and completed what he refers to as his divorce from Meyer. Soon after the papers were inked, Redzepi became the restaurant’s largest individual shareholder—just before Noma lost its distinction, that April, as the best in the world.
For Redzepi and his staff of 81, it all amounted to a wake-up call—a clear sign that regaining their No. 1 position from Spain’s El Celler de Can Roca wasn’t going to be enough. “People were acting like it was the end of Noma,” says Redzepi. “But you know what? I wouldn’t want to be without this motivation. I told my whole team I wouldn’t want to be without this tremendous and inspiring push. Sometimes you need a bit of anger towards the world.”
Sliding one spot isn’t exactly a fall from grace, but it’s hardly a welcome concept for a chef who’s spent the past decade outpacing his industry. Since 2003, the year he opened Noma, Redzepi’s “New Nordic” cooking has defined menus from New York to Paris. Redzepi forages; the world forages. Redzepi ages his proteins in hay; the world follows suit. In fact, part of his annus horribilis included the realization that being mimicked dilutes the potency of his product. “Everyone was doing what I was doing,” he says. “So I had to change.”
Since January, Redzepi has fallen back on what he knows best: hard work. He has developed more than 90 new recipes for Noma. He’s talking about opening a second Copenhagen restaurant—“Everyday food, done extremely well,” he says. Next year, Redzepi will mentor his longtime pastry chef, Rosio Sánchez, as she opens a Mexican restaurant called Hija de Sánchez in a space across town. Despite having only an advisory stake in the project, Redzepi has made several excursions to Mexico this year to study the country’s flavors (a mole-inspired dish has even appeared on Noma’s menu). But his biggest and most anticipated upcoming endeavor is Noma’s pop-up in Japan. Beginning in January and lasting five weeks, Redzepi and 60 of his staff members, including his Gambian head dishwasher, Ali Sonko, will relocate to Tokyo to serve a brand-new 14-course menu in a dining room they’ve rented in the Mandarin Oriental hotel.
“We need better planning. We’re behind,” Redzepi says with intensity. “The only thing we know is 50,000 people are on the waiting list.”
HOURS LATER, Redzepi bounds into Noma’s upstairs test kitchen, shedding his street clothes in favor of a short-sleeved, Nehru-collar chef’s coat and the long, brown apron that constitute his staff’s uniform. Until he arrives, everyone from his senior staff to his stagiaires looks like part of the team, but once Redzepi enters the room, all the cooks suddenly look as if they’re dressed as him. He’s spent most of the day with his family marking the occasion of Arwen’s first-ever day of school. “They ask parents to stay for the entire day,” he says. “And on top of it being her first day, my daughter also lost her first tooth!” When someone asks Redzepi about what the tooth fairy might leave beneath Arwen’s pillow tonight, he says, “I don’t know about those things. We didn’t have that growing up.”
‘I wouldn’t want to be without this motivation. Sometimes you need a bit of anger towards the world.’
When Redzepi talks about his childhood, the first topic he covers is labor. René’s father, Ali-Rami Redzepi, moved to Denmark from rural Macedonia in 1972. “He worked all the typical immigrant jobs,” says Redzepi. “Taxi driver, chauffeur, bus driver, greengrocer—he delivered fish for many years.” Redzepi’s Danish-born mother, Hannah, cleaned houses, offices and hospitals. She met her husband while working as a cashier in a Copenhagen cafeteria. “My father was the dishwasher,” says Redzepi, who started contributing to his household’s earnings at the age of 11 with two jobs—one delivering beer, cigarettes and schnapps for a neighborhood kiosk and the other as a paperboy. “It turned into five paper routes,” says Redzepi. “This was about helping my mother and father pay the rent, and also about sending money back to our family in Macedonia. But it was also good training for the restaurant business and for Noma, in particular, where, for the first five years, I went into full-blown working mode. I just had no clue what else was going on in the world other than in our kitchen. It was the kind of thing where you finally pick up a newspaper, and there’s a guy called Cristiano Ronaldo, and you’ve never heard of him.”
All the brown aprons gather around a giant cucumber. Light pours through the large, open windows; a breeze carries the faint smell of marine life from the Øresund. “You can make a cucumber steak with this,” Redzepi announces to a group that includes sous-chef Thomas Frebel (Magdeburg, Germany); Rosio Sánchez (Chicago); head of research and development Lars Williams (New York); and a small sampling of the dozens of international interns (Finland, Albania, India, Australia) who spend long, silent days here sawing through marrowbones, peeling walnuts, sorting edible flowers and tenderizing squid.
Redzepi begins firing off possible treatments for the cucumber. He did the same thing yesterday with sunflower seeds and will do the same thing tomorrow with the season’s first apples. “Why don’t we salt it whole and lacto-ferment it?” he says, before launching into a gourd-themed speech that’s part dialectic, part brainstorm and part lecture. He phrases his ideas in the form of questions, but only rhetorically. “What about scooping it out and doing something savory with ice, lemon, cucumber juice, clam, mussel and oyster juice?” Redzepi slices the fruit and hands out morsels to taste. “What if we do something with just the seeds?”
Eleven years in, and the food at Noma is unmatched. After eating a dish of lobster and nasturtium, Sean Brock, of the restaurant Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, recalls thinking, “A dish like this should be the goal of every chef, a dish that appears innocent and kicks your ass.” The Icelandic-Danish installation artist Ólafur Elíasson attributes the success of the restaurant to Redzepi’s unique ability to “turn what begins as a feeling into an action.”
My own recent meal at Noma had little in the way of gustatory or visual familiarity. Three years ago, when I visited last, Redzepi’s food found inspiration in reference to the natural world—the forest floor in winter, Denmark’s shoreline. Now his plates are cooler, more abstract and minimal. One dish paired succulent, ripe mulberries with turbot roe. Tiny coriander flowers rested at the tips of the roe slices, which were shaped like duck tongues. A few drops of a ferment made from grasshoppers added extra umami flavor. I ate with Ryan Poli, 37, a Chicago-based chef who had recently walked away from a high-paying gig with a large American hospitality group. He had turned to his old friend Redzepi—they met while working at California’s French Laundry in 2001—for a mid-career reboot as an intern. Poli just shook his head at the beauty and the depth of the dish. “The mulberries are extraordinary on their own,” Redzepi said later, “so it makes creating a dish like that a lot easier. It’s really simple.”
“That’s part of his cooking genius,” says Daniel Patterson, of San Francisco’s Coi, “the ability to conjure brilliance from humble and often overlooked ingredients.” Taking it a step further, Redzepi has made a policy of “Trash Cooking,” in which almost nothing that comes into the Noma kitchen gets thrown away, and every part of a food is processed into something useful: skins, seeds, membranes, guts. This year, realizing that not quite everything can be made palatable, Redzepi purchased a hulking, humming, many-thousand-euro compost machine, in the hopes of still running a restaurant with zero food waste and also, potentially, distributing haute trash. “I’m thinking of sending guests home with a bag of that soil,” he says, “so our food can help them grow their own food.”
Beyond his strategic thinking about garbage, Redzepi has also devoted considerable energy to preservation techniques. He’s perpetually ramping up production in his “dried kitchen” and “fermented kitchen,” tasking his staff, including Dr. Arielle Johnson, a newly hired full-time food scientist, with dehydrating and breaking down everything from berries to bugs. Over the summer, under a directive to ferment more—to discover, in Redzepi’s estimate, thousands of entirely new flavors—Noma erected its “science bunker,” comprising four shipping containers stacked on two levels behind the restaurant.
“This is funk,” boasts Redzepi, opening the door to a chamber where peas and nuts are aging on a shelf. He makes a quick joke about the phrase “fermented nuts” before delivering a succinct history of fermentation, from Roman times to the present. He then jogs up to the second level, where there’s both a laboratory and a garden. “These chiles,” he says, pointing at the rooftop dirt, “are a special variety from Greenland. They found them frozen in ice after 10,000 years.” Redzepi rolls his eyes. “Just kidding,” he says. “They’re Rosio’s. Come see the centrifuge.”
Redzepi refuses to take sole credit for any of these initiatives. “None of this would have turned into what it is today if not for this cocktail of people,” he says of his crew. “We’re a bunch of crazy, hungry kids from bad backgrounds who are just willing to go all in.” Included in this group is his wife, Nadine, Noma’s former reservations manager, whom he saw on the sly for six months while trying to enforce a no-dating-among-staff policy at the restaurant. He now calls the rule his “best mistake.” “I actually wrote this out and sent it around: ‘If people fall in love with each other here, then one of them has to leave,’ ” he says. “Obviously, I changed this. Many people have fallen in love here.”
Redzepi laughs, tightens his apron and pivots to head downstairs for the nightly predinner meeting, where vital information about guests is discussed in the round. Tonight, table 6 is here to celebrate beating cancer. “Remember why they come here,” Redzepi instructs his team. Later, he tells me, “One of the things I fear most is having none of these people around to enjoy the successes with. I feel immensely grateful for all of them. Without them it would be so lonely and almost worthless.”
NOMA RECLAIMED its No. 1 spot in April. Ranking aside, it’s never been better. Even walking through the door stands out as a singular moment. A dozen or more chefs come off their stations, briefly leaving their time-sensitive constructions, to say hello and welcome. As a gesture, Redzepi says, it stems from his last visit to Macedonia, where, as a boy, he’d spend as much as half the year with his parents and twin brother, Kenneth (now head of maintenance at Noma)—with cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles—eating and sleeping in a small stone house, until local conflict flamed into war. “I have this image from when we left,” says Redzepi, who hasn’t been back to the country since. “My father woke us up and took us to the car. It was the middle of the night, and we started driving. I remember looking back over my shoulder and I could see the rest of our family, all lit up by the taillights, just waving.”
In revisiting that memory here on a daily basis, Redzepi has fostered a familial culture in which he’s able to both love and ride his staff in equal measure. “René is never happy with where he is at,” says Matt Orlando, Noma’s former head chef and now the chef-owner of Copenhagen’s Amass. “There is always something that can be done better. Everything is constantly re-evaluated and dissected.”
Roy Choi, of the newly opened Commissary in Los Angeles, suggests that Redzepi is “haunted.” Says Choi, “Something about him is uneasy and at unrest. And that’s what creates things we’ve never seen before.”
‘René is never happy with where he is at. there is always something that can be done better.’
A prime example is the MAD symposium (mad means food in Danish), Redzepi’s annual industry gathering in Copenhagen. There, under a circus tent, cooks, scholars, entomophagists, neurobiologists, urban farmers and a host of other thinkers and disrupters plot out the future of food. “René is focused on the future in the biggest way possible,” emails activist-chef Alice Waters. “He can gently (and not so gently) nudge ambitious young cooks in the right direction and ask them to think about the bigger picture.” Choi, who, in partnership with Michelin-starred chef Daniel Patterson, announced an initiative to challenge the fast-food industry at this year’s meeting, credits Redzepi for “putting the whole chef community on his back with MAD.”
Redzepi’s own conclave has opened doors for him at other prominent gatherings. This September, he joined the ranks of burgeoning corporate executives and young royals at the World Economic Forum of Young Global Leaders conference in China. (Out of this year’s 214 invitees, Redzepi was the only chef.) “Because of that,” Redzepi says, “I’ll get to go to Davos to represent MAD, which is also a nonprofit organization, to meet with world leaders. I want to find ways for MAD to actually last.”
BACK IN NOMA’S KITCHEN, apparently absorbed by a frond of fennel, Redzepi hears the word Japan and jumps into his cooks’ conversation. They’re discussing an upcoming prep trip, and he’s concerned about focus. “We’re not going to go there and copy our food or copy Japanese food,” he says. “We want to try something. We want a challenge. We want to learn something from it. You could say we’re in the process of gunning for three Michelin stars in Tokyo even if we’ll only be open there for a month.”
Several weeks later, with Redzepi heading home from the China YGL conference, I Skype with Lars Williams, who has just stepped back into the Noma kitchen after a week of reconnaissance in Japan. Redzepi has made four trips to Tokyo so far this year, but it’s this recent one carried out by his deputies, Williams and Thomas Frebel, that will please him the most, since Williams is now able to articulate some definite plans.
“There’s 12 artisan plate makers using clay and wood to create all-new table settings for the restaurant,” says Williams. New flatware and chopsticks are being made by additional Japanese craftspeople. Novel ingredients have been discovered after many hours of foraging in the Nagano area: Japanese ants have been procured, mountain grapes are in abundance, wild kiwis are likely on the docket. Five kinds of wood are being processed into oils and broths. Larvae from lethal hornets will be turned into a sauce. Ten cooking oils, 10 salts and 15 sugars have all been tested for possible use. Venison tongue has been sourced, as has horse meat, but the menu is being kept primarily vegetarian to stay in line with the idea of “being in Japan, but still being Noma,” says Williams.
They might use farm-raised turtle, though, and they have learned how to butcher one accordingly. Williams reports that 40 different lacto-ferments and garums, ranging from 15 varieties of grapes to plum to eggplant, are now under way. The 112 people who eat at Tokyo Noma every day (two seatings, 56 guests at each) will be eating dishes that literally contain several months’ worth of flavor, just as at Copenhagen Noma. Williams is hopeful all this will please Redzepi. “There will be a lot of questions that we’ll answer with a direct yes,” Williams says. And that’s the answer Redzepi is always looking for: yes, with conviction and heart.
Walking home one night after dinner service, still wearing his apron and pushing his bike alongside a canal, Redzepi reflects on anxiety, reclamation, ambition and drive. “These happy breakthroughs happen all the time,” he says. “Moments where everybody is on the edge and nervous about the whole thing and then, because we have the knowledge, it works.” Redzepi leans the bike against his home’s yellow exterior. The structure, a gut-renovated 300-year-old former blacksmith’s shop, shares one wall with a Salvation Army soup kitchen. Entering, he makes a snack of soft cheese on buttered, grilled rye before heading to bed. “We work as intensely and as profoundly as possible,” he says. “That’s the only real shield we have against failure.”