I went to Copenhagen for lunch at Noma, just voted the best restaurant in the world, and discovered a new kind of Nordic cuisineby / August 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
After my lunch at Noma, feeling happy, full and slightly awestruck, I found the chef, Rene Redzepi, sitting on the deck of his houseboat-experimental kitchen overlooking Copenhagen harbour. The sea was pewter, the sky sifted thunderheads incipient with rain. Diminutive, young, a little weary, he pushed a flop of dark hair out of his eyes, shook my hand and politely asked how my lunch had been.
“It was amazing.” I told him, “It was like going for a walk along the Danish coast, coming across a dappled glade, a rock pool, a patch of pine forest, a stony cove—and eating it.”
Together with his business partner Claus Meyer, Redzepi has forged a new concept of Nordic cuisine. Their restaurant, Noma, has just been voted the best in the world at the San Pellegrino awards. Redzepi, who is only 32, told me he never wanted a “white tablecloth” kind of establishment. When Meyer showed him the space, in an old salt warehouse on the abandoned wharves of the neighbourhood of Christianshavn, he fell in love with the wood beams and the Baltic view. Before opening in 2004, they embarked on a grand tour in search of ideas: Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Sweden, Lapland. Only Scandinavian produce is used in the restaurant: no tomatoes, no olive oil, no far-travelled tuna, and no luxuries like foie gras or caviar. The limitations of the thin northern terroir have led to a deeper understanding of ingredients and their possibilities.
I asked Redzepi when he first felt a new dish had come together. “When we did the tartar,” he said. I’d had the beef tartar as part of the 12-course tasting menu. It came on a slate slab, sliced into soft fragments between a hache and carpaccio, with a thatch of tucked-in sorrel leaves. Told to eat with our fingers, we pulled at it like delicate Vikings, swabbing the meat through swathes of tarragon smoosh. “When the first customer got it you could see it changed the way people experienced the dish,” he recalled.
Redzepi’s cuisine is like nose-to-tail eating for vegetables. One dish arrived as a pool of silky puree overlapped with a skein of curd, laid with slivers of new potato, sprinkled with tiny circles of crisps and doused in a sauce marbled with lovage oil. Another course was a fat year-old violet carrot, slow roasted, basted with goats’ butter and served on a jet-black Gotland truffle.
Each vegetable was treated with reverence. Radishes came growing in a terracotta pot and we pulled them out of the hazelnut-malt soil and ate them leaves and all. Jerusalem artichokes were churned into ice cream and interleaved with jellyish discs of green apple and rich malt. A carrot sorbet was encased in a buttermilk cloud and spotted with clumps of liquorice cake like scattered topsoil. The food conjured a sense of lost innocence; I felt like Alice in Wonderland having lunch with Peter Rabbit.
Redzepi’s background is modest: his father was an Albanian Macedonian immigrant who drove taxis, his mother was a cleaner. “When I grew up in Denmark in the 1980s, it was just shitty shitty food, chicken pieces that were shoved in the microwave, fish sticks.” But he spent summers in his father’s village in Macedonia, absorbing a different culture. People were too poor to buy chemical fertilisers and the tomatoes looked weird—and tasted incredible. “We had meat only on very special occasions; if you wanted meat you had to slaughter your own animal.”
Redzepi left school at 15, followed a friend to catering college and found to his surprise that he was good at cooking. After an apprenticeship in France, he worked under Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in California and at Copenhagen’s priciest restaurant, Kong Hans Kaelder. But most influential on him was a season under Ferran Adria at El Bulli, back when molecular gastronomy was as new and bold as space travel was in the 1960s.
As his palette has become more defined, Redzepi’s techniques have simplified away from El Bulli-style flourishes. One resource is a 1960s survival guide written for the Swedish special forces. Increasingly, he is interested in food integral to time and place.
In our meal, a soft-boiled quail’s egg arrived nestled in a bed of gently smoking hay. A single oyster came steamed in an enamel pot filled with pebbles, seaweeds and shells. We were given a horn-handled hunting knife to cut a rectangle of venison, which came surrounded by its fellow forest dwellers: a chanterelle mushroom, a snail and a filigree tangle of fiddlehead ferns. I queried a smear of velvet khaki and was told it was woodruff. The venison did not come with the cranberry-redcurrant pairing that usually accompanies game. The dish tasted somehow of ethereal bitter shadows.
Afterwards I spent the weekend with friends on the Danish coast and walked my Noma meal for real. There were roses growing alongside the dunes and I pickled the petals in homage to the amuse-bouche of orange buckthorne berry and pickled hip rose that had begun our lunch. Great meals can be like great art—they make you look at life in a whole new light.