René Redzepi walks out of the kitchen with a handful of raw carrots and introduces himself while munching on one. “I hope you don’t mind if I snack,” he says. “I eat all the time – I just love food.” His comment might sound like a cliché, especially coming from someone who’s regarded as the best chef in the world (Redzepi’s restaurant, Noma, has two Michelin stars and was recognised as the best restaurant in the world for three years straight at the San Pellegrino 50 Best awards, the Oscars of the culinary scene).
But in fact there was a time when Redzepi couldn’t care less about food. Behind his Nordic looks, long hair and thick beard, Redzepi conceals half of his genes: his Macedonian ancestry. “I grew up in a Muslim neighbourhood where men would never step into the kitchen,” he says. “I never really had a passion for food – or at least I didn’t know I had one. I didn’t see cooking as an inspiring activity.” Restaurants were a rarity in 1980s Eastern Europe so it was difficult to envision a professional career in cooking. But it was a twist of fate (in the form of bad grades at school when in Denmark) that led the 15-year-old to follow his best friend and join a chef academy in Copenhagen. “For the first week I was just standing there, shrugging my shoulders, not very interested in what was going on,” he says.
“What really interested me was playing football and meeting girls.” And then things got competitive. One year, Redzepi’s academy hosted an internal contest where dishes had to be presented to the teachers, who would then judge the food by presentation and taste. “That for me was the turning point,” says the chef with carrot in hand and eyes wide open. “Competition was built in me, I’ve always liked to win.
The challenge made me ask myself, ‘What do I like about food?’” After cooking a chicken with cashew sauce inspired by a Macedonian recipe, Redzepi won the competition. His career rose rapidly after that small but significant win, taking him to work in some of the best kitchens around the world. He cut his teeth at the Pierre André restaurant in 1997 when it received its Michelin star, his stint at El Bulli coincided with Ferran Adrià’s heyday and he learned the ropes with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in California.
In late 2002 he was contacted by Danish restaurateur Claus Meyer, who suggested they open their own diner in a maritime warehouse in Christianshavn, an island neighbourhood in Copenhagen. One year later, the then 26-year-old launched Noma with a menu based on foraged and exotic ingredients from the country’s backyard, including sea coriander and beach mustard found on Copenhagen’s beaches. Celebrated for his creativity, Redzepi quickly made it into the 50 Best Restaurants list in 2006 and rose all the way to first place four years later.
Until Redzepi stirred up the Scandinavian cooking industry people didn’t really travel to Copenhagen for its food. But Redzepi’s gutsy menu soon attracted the attention of foodies worldwide who flocked to his restaurant to check out the developing Nordic food scene. His efforts were quickly recognised by the Nordic Council of Ministers (the official inter-parliamentary body in the region formed by Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Åland) who appointed him as ambassador for the New Nordic Food Programme. After Redzepi hit the headlines worldwide, the value of Danish food and its restaurant industry was noticed too by other bodies such as food (the non-profit Food Organisation of Denmark), an association with a budget of more than €9m dedicated to the promotion of the local cuisine.
“As a restaurant we’re trying to define the flavours of this region and we’re still not at the top of our game – we’re infants,” says Redzepi. “There’s still a long road for Noma, our producers, and other gastronomical innovators in the region and we won’t remain static.” Redzepi means this literally; during the course of the interview his 50-strong staff move swiftly between prepping stations before taking a 90-minute break in their private canteen.
Every day in this secluded dining space, the team eats a three-course meal to the sound of classical music, surrounded by recipe books and stacks of ingredients that could come out of a medieval spell – dried woodruff, Icelandic moss, thuja cones – and relaxing before the dinner service. It’s so pleasant that it’s hard to believe that only a few years earlier Noma had only seven cooks working with four gas burners. “We didn’t even have our own toilets,” laughs Redzepi. “At the time we could only serve a few dishes per service; we now do tasting menus with over 20 dishes per head with things as exotic as fire ants and crickets from the nearby forests.” Redzepi, however, has not let the accolades go to his head. Despite the awards he is far from being pretentious. Standing in the busy kitchen where cooks sort the final ingredients before the evening shift, he looks just like any other chef, with carrots in his hands.
René Redzepi CV
1977 Born in Copen-hagen and spends part of his childhood in Macedonia
1992 Enrols at the Hotel and Restaurant School in Valby
1993 Joins the Pierre André restaurant in Copenhagen
1999 Works at El Bulli in Roses, Spain
2001 Does a stint at the French Laundry in California
2003 Noma opens in Christianshavn
2006 Noma makes it to the 50 Best Restaurants list, debuting at number 33
2007 Noma receives two Michelin stars
2008 Establishes the Nordic Food Lab
2009 Lands third place in the 50 Best Restaurants list
2010 Wins first place in the 50 Best Restaurants awards
2011 Inaugurates the Mad Symposium, a worldwide food conference in Copenhagen
2012 Wins first place in the 50 Best Restaurants awards for the third year in a row