"Last year should have felt smashing: Noma had been named the world’s best restaurant, I’d put out a book that nobody could cook from but was selling really well and we were full every day, for lunch and dinner… But I wasn’t ok,” says renowned Danish/Albanian chef René Redzepi in the opening pages of the journal in his latest Noma cookbook, published by Phaidon. It’s a candid and personal account of highs and lows after obtaining two Michelin stars and his restaurants being named Number 1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list three years in a row from 2010 to 2012.
In town to launch his book earlier this month, Redzepi chose Cumulus Inc. on a busy Thursday lunch hour to chat. We’re sat in the centre of the room at a circular table looking in towards the open kitchen, and when Redzepi arrives, he has his sous chef Lars Williams, a tall, tattooed New Yorker in tow. No one flinches when Redzepi enters the room, a strange response in a time where chefs are afforded rock-star status.
“If I walk down the street, in 10,000 people that you pass, maybe one will say ‘hey,’” he says modestly. “But I walked with Matt Preston the other day, it’s insane, kids want to jump on his shoulders, mothers want to touch him…but for me the point is not to be famous.”
Redzepi is rather unassuming but typically Danish looking: fair skin, straight brown hair, clean shaven and conservatively dressed in a navy shirt, black jeans and sneakers. There’s nothing extravagant about him - despite his restaurant commanding the most sought after dinner bookings in the world. These days, you’ll wait three months for a reservation.
Dishes for us to share begin to arrive at the table as Redzepi speaks confidently about his new book. A Work in Progress: Journal, Recipes and Snapshots comes as a three-part package: a cookbook of exquisitely delicate dishes from the restaurant; a small picture book made up of what appear to be iPhone shots taken in the kitchen at Noma; and the journal, where Redzepi has relayed daily accounts of life on the inside, over the course of a year.
Through these three very different formats, we are given an insight into the restaurant in a way that is less organised and more raw than most fine dining restaurants would reveal. It is also a deeply personal account into the creative mind of a chef facing the challenges of success.
“Let’s eat,” Redzepi encourages as he starts on a smashed peas and broad beans on toast. “Oh yum, I want to take this back for a staff meal.”
Though the food at Noma is strictly Scandinavian, the staff hails from 23 different countries and customers flock from all over the globe. “We have Aussies in the restaurant every day. They are the best guests,” Redzepi says with a grin. “They’ve come so far and have been waiting for this meal… the guy who greets them is from Adelaide, the guy who cooks their food is from Surry Hills in Sydney… they eat this ‘weird’ Scandinavian stuff, it’s very cool.” These ‘weird’ dishes might include anything from unusual fermentations to dehydrated herbs ground into powders or something from Noma’s ‘trash cooking’ repertoire – a technique of creating dishes from the parts of animals and vegetables that would be otherwise destined for the bin.
During lunch, Williams sits quietly as Redzepi jokes casually about ideas they have while eating in another restaurant. I wonder if they will take much inspiration from the experiences they had on their whirlwind week trip to Australia, which has included talks at the Opera House and The Wheeler Centre, and a visit to Mr Wong in Sydney, as well as in Melbourne’s Attica, Rosa’s Kitchen, Silo and St ALi.
They talk of native flavours of lemon myrtle and lemon aspen, which is “insanely good”, but what Redzepi seems most interested in is harvesting ants, he tells me as we polish of duck waffles with foie gras and prune. “Australia is one of the few places in the world where you can easily get ants for consumption, you are very lucky,” he says with excitement, talking of some that are coriander flavoured and others that taste like honey. “Insects are a future super food,” he advocates, citing a recent UN report. “Meat is going to be very expensive in the future; it’s going to be a real luxury, so how will we get out protein intake?” As he shows me a video of some ant harvesting he’s done while in Australia, Redzepi talks of using ants in pastes for dishes at Noma. “It’s a flavouring like miso or soy sauce. You really don’t need much because it’s so strong. Now we’ve just got to find ways to make it taste as good as a steak.”
As we come to the end of our lunch, we touch on the foreword of the book, written by Lars Ulrich, a fellow Dane and drummer from Metallica. “It’s the best foreword I’ve ever read,” he says seriously, with a grin. “It took him six months to write but that guy is a genius, he’s so fucking smart…and the best bit, he’s unafraid, and I admire that.”
At just 36-years of age, Redzepi might be a picture of success, but he’s a humble one who’s perhaps trying to retain that sense of being ‘unafraid’ and not guided by the pressure that success brings.
“Success is a marvellous thing, but it can also be dangerous and limiting,” he says, reiterating some sentiments from his journal as we finish up with dessert. “Nothing can prepare you for it…and we’re still just a little restaurant of 40 seats.”
Published by Phaidon, René Redzepi’s A Work in Progress: Journal, Recipes and Snapshots is available from bookstores around the country.