Acclaim for restaurant that has reinvented traditional dishes

LAMMEFJORDEN, Denmark – When a cook is said
to be in the weeds, it usually means he is tangled up in too many orders coming
at him too fast.

But on a recent afternoon on the seashore
here about an hour’s drive from Copenhagen, the Danish chef Rene Redzepi was,
quite literally, in the weeds. Up to his knees. And what he was doing was
snacking. Browsing. Like a rabbit, albeit a rabbit in charge of a restaurant
that has set the culinary world abuzz.
Treating the windswept brush as an unkempt salad bar, he plucked a thin green
blade.

“This is how the Vikings got their vitamin
C,” he said. “It’s called scurvy grass. It has a horseradish tone.”

So it did, and the wild garden sorrel that
he found seconds later tasted every bit as sharp and lemony as he had promised.
For 15 minutes he and a companion nibbled on various petals, leaves and shoots,
attracting stares from onlookers in a campground nearby, who no doubt wondered
at their sanity and zest for roughage.

“So much of what you see here, it’s
edible,” said Redzepi, who regularly dispatches his staff to collect the scurvy
grass and sorrel, as well as what he called sea coriander, beach mustard and
bellflowers. All of these make their way into his dishes, along with puffin
eggs from Iceland and musk-ox meat from Greenland.

He is omnivorous in his exoticism, but
restrictive in his geography. If the Nordic region doesn’t yield it, Redzepi
doesn’t serve it, with rare exceptions (coffee, say, or chocolate). That
approach might well seem a recipe for obscurity, which is what many chefs,
diners and critics predicted for his restaurant, Noma, when it opened in Copenhagen
in 2003.

“You have to understand how hard it was for
them at the start,” said Daniella Illerbrand, the general manager of Mathias
Dahlgren, a restaurant in Stockholm. “People didn’t understand what he was
cooking. They wanted foie gras. He gave them cloudberries.”

Seven years later, Noma is an international
sensation, as is Redzepi, 32. On a trip to New York early last month to promote
his cookbook, “Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine,” to be published by
Phaidon Press in the fall, he was treated to a hero’s welcome from some of the
city’s most celebrated chefs: Dan Barber, Daniel Humm, David Chang, Paul
Liebrandt, Wylie Dufresne.

The following week, when he had returned to
Copenhagen, the stream of visitors into Noma included the chefs of two restaurants
in Spain with three Michelin stars apiece (Noma has two) and a sommelier from
the Chicago restaurant Alinea.

A fair share of the demand and attention
flows from Noma’s anointment in April as the best restaurant in the world, at
least according to an annual poll of food writers, prominent restaurateurs and
other industry insiders conducted by San Pellegrino, the Italian mineral-water
company. Most years, the survey draws little notice. But when it lifts an
establishment in tiny, wintry Denmark above legends like El Bulli in Spain and
the Fat Duck in England, there’s considerably more chatter.

Denmark, after all, isn’t Provence or
Catalonia. For a locavore chef, in particular, it has limitations. But Redzepi
has air-dried, pickled, cured, foraged and researched his way around them. He
has taken what could be a set of ankle weights and turned them into wings, his
culinary accomplishments drawing all the more regard for the degree of
geographical difficulty built into them.
“There’s so much more out there than we realize,” he said over a lunch after
his nature expedition, referring to what can be harvested not just in Scandinavia
but almost anywhere.

The lunch, it should be said, was in an
old-style Danish restaurant and consisted of old-style Danish food: pickled
herring, rye bread, smoked halibut, rye bread, smoked salmon and more rye
bread, with beers and shots of aquavit liberally thrown in. Redzepi is no
purist and no saint.

At Noma, he said, “We’re not trying to
change the world, and I’m not being judgmental.”

He is, instead, acting on the premise that
the most special, inimitable contribution a restaurant can make is to serve the
food that is freshest and truest on its given patch of the planet, to sift
through that region’s flora and fauna for unfamiliar flavours, to scour its
forgotten traditions for ingredients that cooks have stopped using. (Redzepi
works with two Danish food historians.)

Since he interprets “local” in a more
ethnically thematic than literal way, the fellow Nordic country of Iceland is
fair game, and that’s where he gets fat, exquisite langoustine tails. They are
cooked only briefly on a plancha, then served amid dabs of emulsified oyster
puree and drifts of seaweed powder on hefty, craggy rocks instead of plates. A
diner is denied utensils and instructed to use fingers to drag the langoustine
through its ablutions.

Redzepi likes to have people eat with their
hands and creates a kind of theatre at Noma that underscores the connection he
wants them to feel to nature – and that has the deliberate side benefit of
being great fun. He presents root vegetables in a flowerpot whose “soil” is a
layer of malt and hazelnut flour over an emulsion of sheep’s-milk yogurt, tarragon
and other herbs that functions as a dip. It’s crudites a different way. A dish
of shrimp and sea urchin powder, meanwhile, is arranged as a beachscape with
scattered stones and tufts of grass. And the design of the waterfront restaurant
emphasizes rough-hewn, rustic elements – distressed wood beams, sheep pelts
over the backs of chairs – over conventionally elegant ones.

Cooks regularly stray from the crowded,
relatively cramped kitchen into the dining room to deliver and explain such
dishes. Redzepi contends that this practice, along with the cooks’ foraging
responsibilities, deepens their respect for and investment in what they’re
preparing. There are typically some two dozen – more than one for every two
customers – pinging about, and because they come from a half-dozen countries,
English is the kitchen’s official language.

Redzepi was born and spent most of his
childhood in Copenhagen, where his father, an immigrant from Macedonia, drove a
cab and his mother, who is Danish, worked as a cleaning lady. At 15, instead of
continuing with academic studies, he chose to go to a restaurant trade school
simply because a friend was going there, too. He wasn’t sure if he was on a
path to become a restaurant manager, a waiter or a cook.

But then he discovered a talent and, more
than that, a passion at the stove. He went from school to a world-class
restaurant in France and from there to El Bulli. What that famously
experimental restaurant taught him, he said, was that rules could be tossed
merrily out the window.

“I didn’t come back to Denmark thinking,
I’m going to put a gel of a gel of a gel on my monkfish liver while I whip my
guests with burning rosemary,” he said. “I just came back with a sense of
freedom.” Later he travelled to California to work for a few months under
Thomas Keller at the French Laundry. He absorbed the chef’s famous
perfectionism, manifest in the spotless order of the Noma kitchen and in a
tableau that was repeated for minutes on end one recent night: a half-dozen
rapt cooks folding and placing scores of individual leaves of wood sorrel just
so over hand-shaved beef loin for Redzepi’s herbaceous version of steak tartare.

And Keller’s haute takes on such Americana
as macaroni-and-cheese and Creamsicles suggested the possibilities of at once
working within and reworking a country’s culinary heritage.

That’s what Noma is largely about, though
it’s also about a relentless questioning of what should and can be eaten and
whether the usual experience of an ingredient is in fact the best one.
During the months when the Nordic soil is stingy, Redzepi doesn’t just trot out
the plants that he has had the good sense to pickle, smoke and such in advance.
He wonders about the real potential of a potato or carrot.

That happened last winter, and from it came
a dish of what he calls “vintage carrot,” which is an oversize carrot that
spent much longer than usual in the ground and would be inedible raw. By
roasting it in thick goat’s butter at a very low temperature for a very long
time, he produces something meaty and mesmerizing, tasting partly of carrot,
partly of beet, partly of turnip, partly of nothing remotely familiar.

“You can’t get that flavour from a new
carrot,” he observed, adding: “How is a carrot supposed to taste? Perhaps the
taste we’re getting is the original carrot.”
He recently discovered that a potato on the verge of rotting in the earth
sprouts a network of smaller potatoes around it, and that these satellite
parasites are tender beyond belief and redolent of hazelnuts. So he is working
to persuade a local farmer not to uproot his spuds when he usually would.
“It’s like the caviar of potatoes,” he said. “It’s going to be much more
expensive, because you can’t touch the field for two years.”

These renegade, cerebral experiments
fascinate many of his peers. Chang said: “He could have cooked anything he
wanted to. He’s well versed in high-end French, in progressive Spanish. But
Rene said, ‘We’re going to focus on 53 or 58 indigenous horseradish plants in
the Scandinavian region.’ I think that’s really brilliant.”

Chang also noted that Redzepi uses his
so-called laboratory – a houseboat docked about 250 feet from the restaurant,
with an upper deck that’s all kitchen – not to develop better gums and pastes
but to put Nordic ingredients through dress rehearsals.

It’s where he and his team are working, for
example, on a new venison dish. “We imagine ourselves being the deer,” he said.
“What does it step on?”
His answer: snails and fiddlehead ferns. “The flavours will go together,” he
said. “Snails and deer: They live together. They have a symbiosis.”

And so, he said, he has put in an order for
2,000 snails from some of the many professional foragers he uses to supplement
what his cooks, on their days out of the kitchen, can scrounge up. He’ll no
doubt capture one or two himself. It’s his instinct, his way.

He recently discovered that a potato on the
verge of rotting in the earth sprouts a network of smaller potatoes around it,
and that these satellite parasites are tender beyond belief and redolent of
hazelnuts.

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