Tales of toil and triumph from the founder of New Nordic cuisine
A Work in Progress: Journal, Recipes and Snapshots. By René Redzepi. Phaidon; 648 pages.
NOMA, a restaurant in an old warehouse in Copenhagen, was propelled to fame in 2010 when a collection of critics and food professionals anointed it the world’s best restaurant–a title it defended for two more years, alongside its two Michelin stars. René Redzepi, Noma’s head chef, has been hailed as the founder of “New Nordic” cuisine, which reinterprets Scandinavian ingredients to create unexpected dining experiences, such as eating ants and live shrimps, or seaweed and foraged herbs. Like devoted pilgrims, diners now come from around the world to sample Noma’s cerebral, 20-course celebration of seasonal food.
Mr Redzepi has already written a book about his restaurant, which he opened in 2004. “A Work in Progress” is different: affecting the same spartan elegance of the restaurant itself, it comes as three unadorned books in a cardboard box, with recipes, photographs and, most interestingly, his journal from 2011. Written during the year after Noma became famous, in the spare moments between finishing service and falling asleep, this diary is the best portrait yet of the intellectual and emotional challenges of delivering one of the most creative menus in the business.
Who would want to be a stagiaire (trainee chef) in a leading restaurant? It involves 80-hour working weeks, the likelihood of being scarred (mentally and physically) and the prospect of spending far more time with colleagues than with a partner or spouse. To cap it off, a stagiaire is not even paid. Yet Mr Redzepi’s journal goes some way to explaining why his apprentices, at least, put up with the hardship. His kitchen is a laboratory where everyone can experiment. On Saturday nights staff are asked to prepare and present new dishes to the rest of the kitchen. One result which ended up on the menu was an edible mussel shell of flour, squid ink and clam juice.
Noma’s staff has also spent a lot of time performing what he calls “trash cooking”–using the produce and animal bits that most people throw away. One such dish mixes frozen slivers of cod liver with fish scales cooked in clarified butter. What emerges from Mr Redzepi’s chronicles is a portrait of thrift, environmental sensitivity and ingenuity. His kitchen is constantly redefining the flavours available during the barren months of winter. He once had his staff explore ways to serve a carrot. The experiments were astoundingly comprehensive. Someone turned fermented carrots into a cocktail. Smoked dried carrots were the most interesting discovery, though too savoury for the planned dessert.
Mr Redzepi’s journal also captures the drama of feeding other world-famous chefs (such as Ferran Adrià and Fergus Henderson) at his annual MAD symposium, which he has hosted in Copenhagen since 2011. This event brings together chefs, scientists, farmers and activists for two days of foodie seminars and displays.
Such creative approaches to cuisine do not come cheap, for either the participants or the customers. Indeed, Noma nearly went bankrupt, despite its popularity, until Mr Redzepi raised prices and introduced efficiencies. Altogether this trio of books gives the clearest picture yet of the costs, stresses and triumphs of a chef who is striving to turn mealtimes into opportunities for delight and surprise.
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