COPENHAGEN (Reuters Life!) - Chef Rene Redzepi, whose Danish restaurant Noma has just won one of the industry’s highest accolades, launched his culinary career with a plate of chicken and cashews but has gone on to persuade the world to take Nordic cuisine seriously.
He cooks with only Scandinavian ingredients -- no foie gras, olive oil or mangoes -- and only those he considers sustainable, so traditional staples like cod and eel are also off the menu.
But the tight frame Noma set for itself pushed Redzepi and his team toward the creativity that has made them famous and on Monday won them the top spot on the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, pushing Spain’s elBulli off its perch.
“We were patient and kept working, and didn’t just fall in the easy traps, and said this is our range, this is how we work, we can’t step out of it, because we need to develop a new type of flavor for our region,” Redzepi told Reuters in an interview in Copenhagen late last year.
Summers spent in his father’s native Macedonia, eating with friends and relatives, gave him a taste for local, seasonal food. It also, he said, helped him see more in traditional Scandinavian cuisine than many of his countrymen.
“Danish people for the most part thought it was a joke,” he said of the decision to open a restaurant dedicated to Nordic food, housed in a converted waterfront warehouse.
“When it comes to food we seem to think that everything south of the border is better than what we have ourselves, and I always used to say it is not better but different.”
The commitment to local food has shaped the restaurant’s menu beyond the ingredient list. The long, harsh Scandinavian winters means there is a lot of smoking and pickling.
And he has searched for more than is on offer in Copenhagen’s store shelves.
Redzepi speaks with older people and explores old recipe books in a hunt for new ingredients. He also goes out to explore what he can harvest wild and several foragers have built a business out of supplying Noma.
“Most ingredients have been used at one point, whether it was just after the second world war when people ate whatever there was because of no money, or whether it was when people actually had to use everything there was to survive through winter,” he told Reuters in the Noma bar.
A friend helped Redzepi find his vocation by signing up for a cooking course. The teenager decided to join him on a whim, but was hooked from the first assignment.
He chose to cook chicken and cashews -- decidedly exotic for Denmark two decades ago -- and won first prize for presentation after stopping his cooking partner pouring sauce over the rice, although they came second overall.
“At that age, your biggest decision is whether to play soccer that afternoon, but for some reason I took it very seriously... and since then I have never been in doubt.”
Working days can start with a foraging expedition before dawn, and end after midnight. Sometimes the chefs even risk their health in the search for new, wild, ingredients.
“We just eat things. If you work a lot with products you can see what looks succulent, if you just put it in your mouth and you bite a little bit, usually nothing happens.”
The risky sourcing process has brought rich rewards -- his finds include a herb he says is now used widely in Denmark.
“We have a plant which looks like a chive but tastes like Coriander. Obviously this is an incredibly surprising flavor and a huge discovery, that suddenly you have cilantro flavor in our part of the world. It was just chance.”
And Redzepi’s creative genius means there is no shortage of willing hands, despite the tiring work. He has 25 staff and gets an average of 8 applications to join the team on any given day.
Food lovers may one day be grateful he is working with so many other chefs. Having re-invented Nordic cuisine, he says he cannot promise he will be doing it forever.
“One of the worst things that could happen to me with this place is that I just keep going and going and all inspiration is gone, and the autopilot is switched on...I always told myself that once that happens, then it is time to leave.”
Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison, editing by Paul Casciato