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René Redzepi
René Redzepi

The world's best restaurant is in ... Denmark? Add to ...

Not long ago, "Danish cuisine" could have been considered an oxymoron. Grey burgers, boiled potatoes and bland gravies were tragedies as classic as Denmark`s nobler spawn, Hamlet. That all changed in 2003, when a young Copenhagen chef named René Redzepi opened Noma, billed as the first restaurant with a modern North Atlantic menu. This year, the 12-table establishment took first place at the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards, unseating Spanish superstar Ferran Adria's El Bulli after a four-year reign. Mr. Redzepi's bizarre creations - based solely on ingredients indigenous to Denmark, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, such as einkorn wheat and sea lettuce - are collected in a visually arresting new cookbook, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. Among the dishes: steamed egg white and birch wine with wild mushrooms; snails and moss; and sweetbreads and seaweed with bleak roe and seashore herbs. Mr. Redzepi, 32, spoke this week with The Globe's Beppi Crosariol.

Danish cuisine has long been the butt of jokes. Is that a fair comment?

For sure. Scandinavian-Danish cuisine was something quite rustic, mostly known for pastries and smorgasbord cuisine, which in itself has become a joke. Today a smorgasbord is a term that you use for some highway cafeteria that serves you all-you-can-eat for a cheap price. We're not known for restaurants of high calibre that cook anything Danish or Nordic.

What inspired Noma? Was there an epiphany?

First of all, travelling and visiting the world to see cuisines of high calibre and seeing what made them unique. Another important factor is the house we're in. [The owners]wanted a restaurant that reflected the history of that building, which was a trade house for goods around the north. That's when it started to come together.

Is it true you employ Danish food historians and professional foragers?

Yes. There are four foragers that attached to our restaurant. They now have their own businesses, where they actually supply many restaurants, whereas when we first opened, two of them, they only delivered to us. And it's been important that I talk to people for historical references on food and how people ate. So, I have a very strong connection with two historians.

Ever been poisoned by a new ingredient while foraging?

Countless times. When it comes to mushrooms, I would never chance it. But when it comes to green leaves and plants, in our part of the world at least, you can't get anything that you can die of. You can have allergic reactions, as in a minor choke, or vomiting, perhaps diarrhea, and, if you're really unlucky, the three things at the same time. But more recently, if we see something that we haven't seen before, which is rare these days, then we'll always put it through one of our food historians or a botanist to make 100-per-cent sure.

Do you have a favourite discovery?

I can tell you one of the most surprising ingredients I've ever found. Perhaps five years ago on a beach I saw this herb that looked exactly like chives. I put it in my mouth and started chewing and, surprise, it tasted exactly like coriander. There I was on a beach in the north of the world having indigenous coriander greens, something that I always expected to only belong to Asia. It was one of the moments where I told myself that probably everything that I need to cook with is around me, that we just haven't found it yet.

Given the harsh Scandinavian climate, is it hard to confine yourself to local ingredients?

I would compare it to quitting smoking, for lack of a better example. In the beginning, you want it and you think you can't do without. Then suddenly you start living without it and that becomes your life and eventually you stop thinking about it. I don't feel that we are missing anything any more.

What do you eat at home? Ever tuck into a hamburger?

No. I would love to eat a really great burger, but it doesn't exist in our part of the world. In my home I tend to eat a very simple version of what we cook at the restaurant, which is vegetable-oriented, with a little bit of fish and very little meat. For instance, a dish in my home could be steamed spinach with spruce, where I take a spruce branch and put it in the pot and that infuses into the spinach.

What does one drink with your food? Is it wine-friendly?

We mostly serve wine. We also serve beer. And, believe it or not, we have a juice menu, which is becoming bigger and bigger and bigger. Initially we put it on because I'm not a big drinker. But elsewhere you always get these sweet apple juices or something that is brought in. So, we started making our own juices, for instance beet juices that we flavour with vinegar and so on.





Do you get complaints about the food?

Of course [laughing] now that we have the Americans. We actually had one, probably six months back. Maybe he was from Texas, with blue jeans and a big belt with a big silver buckle. When the first dish arrived, he said, 'Wow, boy, you guys sure eat lightly over here.' And he said it with that fat accent. He left not happy, for sure. He wanted big portions and piles of food.





Do you seriously expect home cooks to try your recipes? Where would I find sea lettuce?

I know that, for North American home cooks, this is not your everyday cookbook. For me, I see it as a bit of a Nordic gastronomic atlas, where you can learn about ingredients and a modern version of our gastronomic culture. And I think there is also a great deal of inspiration in the book because of the fact that we're making it in Scandinavia, a place where people don't perhaps expect high gastronomy to come from. The next best kitchen in the world could come from Canada. And why not? Why shouldn't it?

This interview has been condensed and edited.

René Redzepi will appear in Toronto on Saturday in conversation with Alison Fryer of The Cookbook Store, 12:30 p.m., Isabel Bader Theatre, 93 Charles St. W. Tickets, $65, which includes a copy of Noma (416-920-2665, www.cook-book.com).



Follow on Twitter: @Beppi_Crosariol

 

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