Noma's Rene Redzepi on fame, fun and not freaking out

Eating local is a whole other adventure in the hands of René Redzepi. Redzepi turned fine dining in Copenhagen on its ear when instead of serving the usual French dishes with local fish at his restaurant Noma, he dug deep into cuisine that is truly local: cuisine inspired by wild ingredients like reindeer moss and birch bark.

Redzepi's work has earned Noma Michelin stars and a place on the list of the world's 50 best restaurants. The author of the three-volume René Redzepi: A Work in Progress explains why fun is one of the biggest factors in the restaurant's success.

Rebecca Sheir: As part of this three-volume book you have a journal. Why is the journal part of this cookbook?

René Redzepi: The journal is the heart of the cookbook. First of all, there was never meant to be a three-volume book called A Work in Progress. I was writing this journal for myself to understand more about our restaurant. But then my editor read it and she really liked it. Then I sent it to some other people and they really liked it.

At first, we thought, Should it just be a book? But since I'm a cook, I thought that there should be recipes in there too.

RS: In your journal, you keep going back to the idea of creativity, cracking the nut of creativity, figuring out where it comes from, how we can get more of it. What did your journal help you figure out?

RR: I could only see that after I'd written the journal.

In between all those maniac hours and all the ingredients, the pressure, the accolades, the interviews, everything, I put in between all of these layers something that I didn't think was important in the kitchen, something that I'd been taught wasn't important -- that was fun.

Fun and playfulness, having those be part of your kitchen, a professional kitchen, has turned out to be one of the biggest success factors for us at the restaurant. The past 3 years have been built on that.

RS: What do you mean fun? How do you have fun in that kitchen when there is so much going on?

RR: We're still a kitchen. We work from morning to night. The pressure is on -- we have lunch, we have dinner, 40 diners each time. They're waiting for that magic to happen.

Simple things matter like changing the opening hours. That will take away that double seating that you could do on two or three of the tables. We changed our opening hours from 6 to 7 p.m. so that we could sit down and eat a three-course meal for 1-and-a-half hours.

I closed our banquet room. Banquets are extremely lucrative but they are horrible in terms of fun. They're simply not fun. So I changed it and built a staff canteen, a library for the staff and a little espresso corner.

Then one of the big impacts in a kitchen: I put music into our kitchens, which was also something that was a huge hurdle for me. It was a huge psychological barrier because I'd always been told that music doesn't belong. That conviviality and good life in a kitchen -- "Nuh-uh. Don't do that."

It was a real moment for me when I put in the speakers on the ceiling and I put remote controls throughout the kitchens. That made a huge difference. It's just amazing.

Then you work with yourself a bit. Try to be cool, be concentrated, focused and deliver the messages you need to deliver in the best possible way. Don't freak out. Don't be angry, nothing good comes out of that.

I do still get angry, but nowhere like before. Once I stopped doing that it really positively changed our restaurant and the food.

RS: How would you say it changed the food?

RR: We have ingredients that come in every day. Hundreds of varieties of stuff. It's difficult to understand, but take watercress. You have it in one week, you do this new dish, you write a recipe for it and it's really good. The watercress is spicy. Then it rains two days later. The watercress is not so spicy. Then it's the cook at the section cooking that dish who needs to make the adjustment so that the magic can happen again in the flavor.

If people are in an environment where they're afraid of making decisions, making mistakes or speaking up, those decisions aren't made. They simply just follow the recipe. They become robotic. Our kitchen became less robotic, leaving more space for the individual. Because of that, the food tastes better.

Potato Chip and Chicken Liver
Redzepi's recipe: Potato Chip and Chicken Liver

RS: The cookbook has these stunning photos. It's organized by month to go along with the dishes mentioned in the journal. But the ingredients and the preparations are often very specialized in this cookbook. Do you really expect normal, everyday cooks to prepare most of these dishes?

RR: If you are in your kitchen next Tuesday evening and you just picked up your kids and you want to do spaghetti bolognese, then you don't say, "Let me just check what the Noma book has to offer."

If you are at the farmers market on a Friday, you think, "Tomorrow is Saturday. I want to spend the day in the kitchen, have fun with that, drink lots of wine at the same time and cook for my friends." Then there are plenty of recipes you can do that with.

The first book we did -- the previous one, which is 3 years old -- that was a different story. But in the past 3 years, we've become more confident. As a result, the food has become more simple. For instance, there's a recipe that is essentially just a roasted cauliflower. Then it's served with a dollop of whipped cream. Everybody can do that.

RS: But then, for example, is it a dessert that has the crème fraîche with the ants on top?

RR: No, that's not a dessert.

Ants are everywhere, so that one is easy. The only question is whether you get the right ants.

This was the first time we ever started implementing these very delicious, spicy, wonderfully citrusy ants on the menu. It was a bouquet of aromatic herbs, and in between was crisped-up kale and all sorts of leaves. It was like a bouquet of flowers. Then to go with it was a dollop of crème fraîche that was flavored with these ants to give that citrusy-, lemongrass-, coriander-flavored explosion. It was a huge success.

RS: These are Danish ants you're talking about. Here in America, can we just substitute them with our American varieties?

RR: In Denmark all the ant varieties are actually edible. Not all of them taste good, they vary from species to species.

RS: At this point, you may disagree with me because you're so humble, but you're super famous. Everybody knows you and your restaurant. You've got Michelin stars. You've consistently been on the very top of the list of the world's 50 best restaurants. How do you feel about that fame? What is it like being you?

RR: I have two kids. I deal with poop explosions.

One of the reasons why I wrote this journal was for that matter, actually. We were such a young restaurant and overnight, literally, we went from zeroes to heroes. Suddenly there was this newfound attention that I'd never had before. It started to almost change the decisions I made for the restaurant.

In writing this journal, I also came to have a little phrase that works well for me: "Consider it all a bank loan." You have to give it back. Don't get attached to it. It's not yours to keep. I try not to focus on it at all. I try to be the best boss, father and husband I can be. That's the important thing.

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