Six years ago, René Redzepi – arguably the best chef in the world – stunned fine dining lovers by announcing he was shutting down his beloved restaurant, Noma, for good.
The chef had spent the decade leading up to that 2016 announcement collecting accolades for Noma, his temple of New Nordic cuisine: global acclaim, Michelin stars, and a seemingly permanent place at the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. And at the peak of his success, it seemed, he was tearing it all down.
Since then, he’s been travelling, hosting Noma pop-up restaurants in Tokyo, Sydney and Tulum, Mexico. And in 2018, he opened a new Noma, in a new location in Copenhagen. Now, he’s released a cookbook – called Noma 2.0 – based on the new restaurant.
He spoke with The Globe about the process of reinvention, on how he avoids burnout, and the evolution of kitchen culture in recent years – including his thoughts on the TV series The Bear.
Why did you make the decision in 2016 to shut down the original Noma?
At the time, we had enjoyed quite a lot of success. And with each success, you also get defined by no more than two or three kinds of specific things. For us it was foraging and fermentation. Even though you try not to be trapped into that mindset, you do get trapped a little bit.
So in order to have a sense of creative freedom, and at least mentally feel like we had nothing to lose, I felt we needed to uproot everything we had and try something different.
How is Noma 2.0 different?
First of all, we’re even deeper into the seasons: There’s a focus of vegetables in one season. Seafood in another. And on the forest – wild foods – in the third season.
Another thing that’s changed is that we have travelled quite a bit. Twenty years ago when we opened, we were very focused on ingredients being Nordic. We’ve taken that dogma away.
Even though we’re very much in support of all the people we work with here locally, we’ve also opened our minds up to learning from the different people and places around the world.
There’s been a shift in recent years in how we approach other culture’s foods – in the difference between appreciating versus appropriating. How has that conversation affected your approach to travelling, and the Noma pop-ups around the world?
I think it comes natural to how I’ve lived my life. My family are Muslim immigrants to Denmark. And having grown up with a different culture in a place, I’ve always had this sense of, ‘Okay, I need to be careful. I need to take care.’
We do that by really diving deep into it, and not just taking a shallow plunge. I think that’s very important. When we go to Japan, to me it’s not about us cooking Japanese food. But we’re going to learn from it. And we will bring back the ideas of such a deep culture.
There’s also been a shift in the conversation around kitchen culture. Have you watched The Bear? (the critically-acclaimed FX show that depicts an abusive restaurant culture – and in which the fictional main character once worked as a chef at Noma)
I have watched it. I don’t think there’s a cook who can see it and not be triggered a little bit.
All cooks will know immediately what I’m saying – when you get into the moment, it’s really busy, all the guests are waiting, and one order goes wrong – two orders go wrong, and something messes up, and you just find yourself 20 minutes behind, constantly.
I think it’s probably still very much how it is in many places around the world.
The marketing materials for Noma 2.0 the cookbook read: ‘This book is a cookbook, but is not necessarily meant to be cooked from.’ The ‘recipes’ in the book don’t contain measurements, or detailed cooking methods. (For detailed recipes, readers can refer online). Is this a cookbook?
I think professional chefs will find a lot of value in it. I know some of our regulars – some home cooks – have already started doing some work from it. It’s definitely a cookbook, we cook from it everyday. The problem is, (laughs) with some of the recipes, you need a fermentation lab as well to get to the finish line.
But it is meant to be this deep dive into what’s been going on, into our creativity, as an inspiration for the curious home cook.
In the past, so much of Noma’s cooking style has been about context – about place, and time. How do you translate that into a cookbook for cooks and home cooks around the world?
We just think of representing, as clearly as possible, what we’re doing here. And letting people be inspired from it.
We did think whether we should give substitution recommendations. For instance, some obscure ferment we’re doing – should we just write, ‘soy sauce’ in there? But, no, we decided this is Noma 2.0. We have to set it up in the way that it is – the way we do it.
There are a number of recipes involving mould.
We’re all used to seeing mould around milk in solid form – a brie is full of mould, a gorgonzola has blue mould. So we started testing this out, growing mould – good mould – on ingredients, to see what would happen. And it turned out it can really alter ingredients in a very interesting and often, tasteful way.
There’s a dish in the book called mouldy asparagus. You cook the asparagus, after which you innoculate it with a mould called aspergillus oryzae, and you put it in a chamber that has the right humidity and temperature. It changes not only the texture but also the flavour of the asparagus, making it more umami potent. And the texture is melting.
There’s a chapter in the cookbook by the British artist David Shrigley, called ‘How not to lose your sparkle’. How did that come about?
About 15 years ago, I was at a show where Shrigley was represented, and I immediately fell in love. He was there at the show, and I started speaking to him. His gallerist was actually one of the first people who had started coming to Noma before we were famous.
I asked him if he could contribute a piece [to the cookbook], and I gave him the question: ‘How do you not burn out?’ He changed the question to ‘How not to lose your sparkle.’
How do you answer that question for yourself?
I don’t think there’s one clean answer to something like that. Building up your fortress, then tearing it down. Then building it up again until there’s a village, as opposed to just one fortress. I think that’s something that, for the last two decades, has really worked for us.
I’m only 45. My kids say I’m old. But I just feel young. And I want to keep exploring.