Rene Redzepi in Conversation in Japan
Sea snail broth anyone? Yes, NOMA is back! Tim Magee writing in the the Irish Times, offers us this:
"There are few sequels that are better than the original – The Empire Strikes Back, Godfather II, Manon des Sources, Toy Story 2. Noma’s original story is a movie I’ve been watching closely for years now, but it’s one of the most misunderstood, as just saying the name to some triggers critiques that have little to do with the actual experience. Like when people say they won’t try Game of Thrones because they’re not into fairytales about dragons, normally curious people are often less curious about the most important thing in the Noma show – what it tastes like – and eye-roll at the thought of eating something live or insects, fermentation or foraging. Things that have existed for all time and are just walk-on parts in Noma.
This sequel nearly didn’t make its opening weekend – delays, overspend and keeping one of the most employable restaurant crews on the planet on the payroll for nearly a year with no Noma to actually work in nearly bankrupted it.
Arriving a few weeks after the opening, I wasn’t sure what to expect or how different Noma 2.0 would be to the original. René Redzepi has created the new Copenhagen HQ around a site he found in 2014, where there was an old burned-out bunker that had been a shooting gallery. I say HQ, as this is more than a restaurant – this handsome collection of buildings is more like a campus. New Noma is sprawling – a series of interlocking wood-panelled spaces with floor-to-ceiling windows, and which must have one of the 50 best carpenters in the world. It looks like the kitchen under the stars from the Noma Tulum pop-up has been wrapped in glass and wood, and it smells gently of fresh timber, like a new ship"... read the whole story here.
Rene Redzepi has always loved Japan, and treasures the time he spent working at Kyoto's famed Kikunoi under the tutelage of Yoshihiro Murata. Here we revisit our interview with him when he returned to Japan.
One evening in February 2016, the foyer of the Kyoto Hyatt Hotel was awash with excited guests, well-dressed well-heeled folks, chattering endlessly and clutching the priceless tickets that would allow them to get a sneak preview of the documentary film of Rene Redzepi’s great Japanese culinary adventure, his just-finished, month-long ‘pop up’ project at the Tokyo Mandarin Hotel: NOMA Japan. Flashes popped, glasses chinked, and somewhere in the background a loud American voice exclaimed, “It’s like being backstage at a Rolling Stones gig!”
Such is the Hollywood-style hoopla that now surrounds all the world’s great chefs, but for Rene Redzepi, born to Albanian emigrants who escaped to Denmark from the war-torn former Yugoslavia, today’s Macedonia, it could all have been so different. “In school I was more interested in basketball, than study”, he says. “I was the short, angry Balkan kid, who developed an interest in weed for a while, and then, by chance, ended up at cooking school, because my friend who was so cool chose to go there”.
Two decades later, Redzepi has appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine, in an issue entitled “The Gods of Food”; his restaurant in Copenhagen, NOMA, has four times been voted ‘Best in the World’; and his high-risk Tokyo “residency” at the Mandarin Oriental had its 3,456 reservations snatched up within a day of being offered, with 58,000 hopeful diners shifted to the waiting list. Let’s take time to remember, Redzepi, at the time of this interview, is 37 years old.
If anything he looks even younger, as he dodges well-wishers, guests and the attentions of his adorable children who are expertly rounded-up by his wife, and NOMA co-worker, Nadine, and we dive into a quiet corner of the Hyatt to begin the interview. Smartly but casually dressed, bearded, thoughtful, softly spoken, Redzepi is ready to talk. Even though he will be on stage in 15 minutes, and the event managers are at our backs, he remains unflustered, concentrated, and eager to share his thoughts.
“Before we get started, there’s one thing you should know,” he begins, “the Director has asked me to go to great lengths to explain that this is only a rough, rough version of the final movie, that you are going to see. He keeps going on about it.” And then he adds with a grin, “What a prima donna!” An idle thought crosses my mind. Are global culinary superstars supposed to be so, well, affable? Where is the maniac ego?
Our conversation begins with matters local. “I visited Kyoto for the first time in 2009, invited to the kitchen of Yoshihiro Murata at Kikunoi, and I was so blown away. I said to myself, I can’t believe the food culture, I can’t believe the quality, I can’t believe this city, the architecture, I can’t believe the people, I can’t believe everything. I want to come back and learn.”
It took six years for Redzepi to fulfill his wish, the detail of becoming a global culinary superstar, and a father twice, putting something of a spanner in his travel plans.
“I was still trying to plan the trip, but you find it is very difficult to just tap out and leave your children, and leave your daily chores at the restaurant. Suddenly I discovered that I just couldn’t leave for a month or two months anymore. And that’s basically when the idea started brewing, slowly, and it took me two or three years to fully develop it. We would simply move our entire team to Tokyo, and consider it as an internship as much as a restaurant”.
Later this year Fortissimo Films will release a documentary feature describing NOMA’s incredible Japanese adventure, “Ants on a Shrimp.” That evening at the Hyatt we received a sneak preview, with footage of heavily-tattooed young Scandinavian men earnestly debating where to source materials, donning lab coats and scribbling cooking instructions that look like scientific equations. We see them eagerly poring over the produce at Tsukiji fish market, and nervously calculating the spiraling costs of deluxe ingredients.
Best of all we see a gleeful Redzepi plunging through a Japanese forest to emerge with a plant “that smells of lemon-grass. Fantastic.” The chef is especially impressed with his companions the matagi or ‘professional foresters’ who know exactly where to find the precious wild ingredients, and which ones to leave well alone. “Eat that,” explains one sage, “and you are dead in five seconds.”
Redzepi grew up foraging in the wild forests of Denmark, where he now teaches his young daughter where to pick wild berries and fresh nettles, and where he famously sources ingredients for NOMA’s minimalist wild cuisine, so I wonder aloud if he finds the rigorous discipline of the kitchen, and in particular the classical Japanese kitchen, in any way detrimental to the artistic process. He is, after all, famed for creating his own masterpieces to a soundtrack of Iron Maiden and Kraftwerk.
“No, not at all, for me that was absolutely no problem. To tell the truth I am really used to it. In any kitchen around the world, the order, the discipline and the structure are staggering. So it was no problem for me. What of course is very different is the commitment that cooks have, that they put into the place, like at Murata’s restaurant. The hours and the years they spend on their work is mind-blowing.”
For a few moments we are interrupted by a small exuberant band of his workers, laughing and shouting in glee, “We just spent a fortune on knives, Japanese knives! We spent ￥700,000!” These are his trusted allies, the ‘seal fuckers’ as they jovially term themselves, referencing the cynic’s opprobrium that greeted them when NOMA first opened its doors in 2003. No one calls them that any more, other than themselves.
His cohorts too must have learned so much from their sojourn in Japan, I suggest. “Absolutely,” he concurs, “we are taking so much back in terms of knowledge, and it will force us to look at our own cuisine again with new eyes. And for me, it was only befitting that we end our journey here in Kyoto, because this is where it started. For me, this is where I fell in love with Japan. Here is the core of Japanese culture, and its cuisine.”
Rene Redzepi talks with passion and intelligence, and a wry sense of humor, yet behind the easy-going, good-natured affable smile one can sense a deep and genuine respect for, and wonder at, the alchemic process of creating food. I ask him “What does food mean for you?” For a moment his brow furrows, and I remember that Yoshihiro Murata once told me “He’s a clever one, is Rene, thoughtful but not too thoughtful”.
“What does food mean? Well, the Protestant side of me says that it is just fuel, and everything else is just gibberish. And all the people who find pleasure in food are just useless snobs from the Bourgeoisie. But the other part of me tells me that food is just about everything that my life has been about.
“It is not only the way I find joy, and I believe that a mouthful can bring you joy—just look at my kids in the morning when they wake up grumpy and within seconds of breakfast have turned into angels. It’s also that food is a way of curing yourself. The preparation and the consumption of it. Food is an incredible catalyst for conversation and conviviality. And then food is your way of actually tasting the world. It is literally tasting. You can see, smell, and feel where you walk. But to me as soon as I taste a place, I feel I have arrived.
“So in once sense, food is the most basic instinctual need, but it is also everything else. It is an enjoyment of life, and it gives you rituals that navigate you throughout the year. Food is the thing you eat at the most sad moments; it is also the thing you have at the most happy and joyous moments. Everything we celebrate is done so with a meal, even death and weddings, the birth of a baby. Food is literally everything.”
A version of this article first appeared in ‘Beyond the Chopping Board: Master Chefs ponder the Meaning and Value of Food’ in Kyoto Journal #83, 'FOOD!' It is reproduced with kind permission of the publishers. Kyoto Journal is an award-winning non-profit volunteer-based quarterly magazine established in 1986 offering insights from Kyoto, Japan and all of Asia.