Chef Rene Redzepi of Noma: 'We wanted to have a complete little forest on a plate'

There are restaurant awards all over the place, then there are the awards that people actually pay attention to. The World's 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna, lists the 50 best restaurants on earth. Consistently at the top of the list? Noma, the creation of Rene Redzepi, in Copenhagen.

Redzepi's C.V. includes working with a lineup of great food minds from Spain, France and the U.S. But what he cooks at Noma is like nothing you'd eat anywhere else -- it's meticulously local. Denmark is not the easiest place to source local food. Redzepi is the author of Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Did you have any idea that Noma was going to take you to this place?

Rene Redzepi
Rene Redzepi

Rene Redzepi: No, I for sure didn't. When you are starting out as a chef, you dream that one day perhaps you can inspire people, you'll have a restaurant and cook some food that can have something to say out there perhaps in your city, in your country and if you're really lucky, in the world. But that was just a dream. That it in fact were to happen I never expected.

LRK: From the outside looking in, you're coming from a place where traditionally people have not had a lot to work with. Or is that not true?

RR: That's the thing, because it's not true. We've had a period in our country -- and I think this goes on many places around the world -- where you are somehow just blind to what is truly out there in terms of ingredients and diversity. As we were researching and going into depth, we found a richness of diversity that we just didn't know existed.

LRK: You kept a diary. You did a trip -- it sounded like you were following the Vikings. You were in the Faroe Islands, you were in Iceland, you were in Greenland. You were researching for the restaurant. That diary is so vivid. What did you find?

RR: This was the beginning of everything. The notion of "let's do a restaurant where we try to incorporate our regional produce" was of course an easy thought. Is there enough produce? We simply didn't know. That journey was the instigator of everything.

We told ourselves that we would work only with our own natural ingredients. But I think it's important to say that just because you do that, work locally, a cuisine doesn't necessarily come out of it. If you do a crème brûlée, even though you put huckleberries in it from here, the cultural dish still belongs somewhere else. That was quite difficult.

In our research of all this produce and all these products and working locally, there was a whole new discovery of a culture as well, of trying to find out why we eat the way we do. And why is it in fact that we haven't had a highly-developed gastronomical culture before.

LRK: On that trip was there one thing that you discovered that really stood out for you?

RR: The first time I tasted sea buckthorn was a revelation to me.

LRK: What is it?

RR: This is a small, orange berry. It's acidic, astringent, it's delicious. It varies; it can be quite sour, full of vitamin C. This is a berry that can be used in just any part of cuisine -- savory, sweet. It can be dried. It's just such a diverse berry, you juice it and there's tons of pectin in it. You can make gels out of it.

It has a small note of something exotic, like passion fruit or mango. As a Scandinavian you think, "Our fruits are perhaps plums, apples and berries. This exoticness doesn't exist here." That was a very big surprise. Something told me that there's more out there to be found.

LRK: Can you walk us through one of the dishes that you do, how you get there?

RR: One dish that we could talk about is a dish that involves a forest. Usually if you have any type of tree, you use the nuts -- the walnuts, the hazelnuts and so on. In North America you do the sap, where the syrups are, maple syrup.

We have a lot of birch trees in our region. We simply asked ourselves, "How does the wood taste? How is the bark?" We tried doing a broth of it. You can actually infuse the wood flavor into stocks or water if you like it very simple.

The dish we ended up doing with this broth -- we wanted to have a complete little forest on a plate -- became chanterelles that are simply sautéed. We finely, finely shaved fresh hazelnuts. They're almost like fresh almonds, milky and extraordinarily crunchy, and they don't have this dried flavor. They're a completely different sensation than dried hazelnuts. You shave them thin so it covers all these chanterelles, and it gives texture to the dish, and enriches it a bit. Of course I believe that chanterelles do in fact have a bit of nutty flavor once roasted.

Then you have this birch-wood broth. The wood infuses into the broth, creating a very special flavor that you somehow recognize -- it's almost as if you're walking through a forest and smelling the forest. It sounds crazy. You're recognizing it, you're eating it. There's tartness and almost a tannicness to it, but still deliciousness with natural acidity and a little bit of sweetness as well.

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