Rene Redzepi was 25 years old when he opened his first restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen, and 32 years old when it was crowned the best restaurant in the world. Noma, which stands for nordisk mad, or Nordic food, held that title from 2010 to 2012, serving a scrupulously seasonal menu of local and foraged ingredients including sea buckthorn, ramson flowers, puffin eggs and ants—a far cry from the meatball platter at Ikea. Redzepi is singlehandedly responsible for putting Nordic cuisine on the map, but after ten years at Noma, his influence extends much further than that. He has used his worldwide celebrity as a platform to promote innovation in food, from new culinary techniques developed at the Nordic Food Lab to shifts in food policy discussed at the MAD Symposium, an annual gathering of chefs, farmers and food professionals. In 2012, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world—and just last week anointed him a “god of food,” alongside his friends and fellow chefs Alex Atala and David Chang.
Tonight, Redzepi speaks at a Smithsonian Associates event about his new book, A Work in Progress, which documents one year behind-the-scenes at Noma. We asked the chef about creativity, the role of food in society, and the state of female chefs in the restaurant industry.
The new book includes a copy of the journal you kept in 2011, your daily recap of how things were going at Noma. What was your process in writing that journal?
It was quite a painful thing. In an everyday life that’s filled with so much discipline—waking up and cooking breakfast and lunch for the kids, and then going to work and being organized and being disciplined, and then coming home—you really just want to have a drink and go to sleep. But then you had to be disciplined again. I never intended it to be a book, actually. I did it for myself, to see if I could find some sense of who are we, why are there good days, why are there bad days and what type of restaurant are we, basically. Then my book editor read parts of it, she liked it and then it became a book.
At the same time, it was also a weird experience because I’m used to working in teams, and doing this thing, you’re all alone. It was a very lonely thing to do. It’s tough, standing there at the end of the night, looking at a screen, just waiting for the words to come out. But it really did give me a lot of new insight. This idea of coming home and being able to distill the day, understanding what made it a good or bad day, really has given me a better understanding of why I do the things I do.
You’ve said that you felt “restricted” after Noma was crowned the world’s best restaurant and that this journal was a quest to understand creativity and where it comes from. What were some of the conclusions you drew from writing the journal?
One of the conclusions is that success is a fantastic, smashing thing, especially accolades—but the accolade is not the mountaintop. It’s not the highest thing to achieve. That was what I needed to shed off in the process of writing the journal—that it’s a great stepping-stone, something you can use on the way. But if your only goal is to achieve accolades, you will quickly find yourself out. I thought maybe we had reached that mountaintop. That’s what people were telling me: “What now?” And there I was, 32 years old, thinking, “What do you mean, what now? I’m 32 years old!” To me, it wasn’t the mountaintop that everyone was telling me . But it confused me for a while. So writing the journal, the conclusion was let’s just play around again, be fearless. There’s nothing to lose; don’t get attached to the thing. That’s the most important thing I got out of it—just being open to breaking the mold that made your success.
How do you stay creative on a day-to-day basis?
Today it’s very much team-minded. Before the journal, it wasn’t so much; it was mostly decisions that I made all the time. But in trying to understand the process, I could see that the team was a good way of exhilarating everything. You’re also making it easier, if you have people to rely on and sort of comfort you at bad moments. It’s very much built on team effort now—conversations, brainstorm sessions. And, of course, ever-changing seasonality and weather—that’s also a big guiding force.
How would you describe your management style in the kitchen?
I used to be a control freak. I grew up thinking that as a cook, you are the big control freak who doesn’t care about anything besides the prosperity of your kitchen—and anybody who doesn’t follow along, just fall behind and leave. But once you go back and read everything during a year, you can see that what really makes the good days good is when you actually feel good. When there’s fun involved. And the bad days are always the ones where you don’t handle situations well. There will always be bad moments. There will always be big failures. But you just need to deal with it well, as opposed to being a little angry idiot. So the journal made me change my management style quite a bit. It was a big step to me, from being trained in a very old way of cooking and stepping into a new thing. But it changed the restaurant, and I could never see myself going back to the traditional kitchen style.
You have a lot of career changers on your staff—an ex-banker, a Hollywood dropout, a lawyer and others who didn’t come in with culinary experience. What do they bring to the table?
There are so many fantastic aspects to gain from people who are somewhat involved within food culture. Right now, in the Nordic Food Lab, we have a graduate of the Yale Sustainable Food Project. It’s certainly not cooking, but his understanding of issues that surround the meal adds different layers to the research and to our base understanding of what food can be. It makes our restaurant better. The way I understand innovation today is that the more we are open to new, valuable information, the more we study history, memories or these new experiences, and bring them into the now—that’s when something new really happens. I try to be as open to all these factors as possible.
Food seems to be everywhere these days—in TV, politics, symposia like your own. Is it possible to take food too seriously?
No. I don’t think we take it too seriously at all. On the contrary, sometimes the discussion is a little bit stupid and not serious enough. But the thing is that food is not just food. If you want to say that, you’re kidding yourself. It’s a bit of an old-fashioned statement, even—a classic, Westernized, Protestant statement food as sustenance and please don’t try to make it anything more than that. If that’s the level we choose to look at it, then what do you really need? To me, food is one of the things that makes life most livable—just like having a comfortable place to live in. Do we really need it in order to stay alive, in the same way that we just need to food to sustain us?
At the same time, there are so many critical issues, such as sustainability and agriculture, that surround food all the time. I think we are also realizing, more and more, how important the meal is. I know that now that I have a family. It’s easy to come across as some sort of romantic, when you talk about the importance of the meal and the family aspect, but I really believe that it’s important and I can see that it is.
So I don’t think it’s a bad thing that you take food seriously. When it’s treated as a fashion or as a way of generating huge revenue through bad TV programs, then it’s probably a bit too much. But putting food in a cultural light and valuing it as an important part of our cultural upbringing, I think that can’t be taken too seriously. I think it’s a good thing.
What are some of the ideas and innovations in the food world that you’re most excited about right now?
In the past five years, the exploration within fermentation is definitely the most exciting thing. That’s going to continue for a long time and maybe just become a natural, integrated part of any cuisine in the future. We forget bread and brewing coffee are fermentation. There are new explorations happening that might give us some new flavors on par with those.
I want to ask you about the Time magazine story in which you were named a “god of food.”
Yeah, I haven’t even seen it yet!
But you’ve heard the criticism?
No, I haven’t! Ever since I arrived in America, people have been talking about it. But it’s a typical American thing that everybody in America thinks that everybody understands what’s happening in America. But no, I haven’t. I actually saw on the airplane coming here. I arrived here yesterday and then this morning somebody said that there’s been criticism of it. But in Denmark they didn’t even talk about it, nobody wrote about it. What’s going on? I’d love to understand what’s going on.
Basically, the article profiles important leaders and innovators in the food world—people who are changing the way we eat and think about food worldwide. The controversy is that only four of the people profiled are women, none of them chefs, so people are asking, where are the female chefs? I know you weren’t involved in writing the article but—
I didn’t even know they were going to put us on the cover! They don’t tell you these things. They say, “Ah, we can see you in town at the same time, can we take a picture of you? We’re writing about friendship.” And then, two months later, you’re on an airplane and somebody tells you you’re on the cover of Time magazine.
Which female chefs do you think should have made Time’s list?
I can tell you that I met yesterday, for the first time, Alice Waters. I was totally starstruck. I was almost—I didn’t know what to do. To me she is a definite food “hero,” food…god, if you will.
But there are so many extraordinarily powerful women who deserve credit and attention. Last year at the MAD symposium, we had Vandata Shiva , but of course she’s not a cook. Then there’s Margot Henderson, who runs very quietly a restaurant called Rochelle Canteen in London, but she gave a very powerful talk. And I read the memoir by Gabrielle Hamilton but I’ve actually never visited the restaurant. Every time I come to America, it’s always an in-and-out trip. . . . If there’s one girl who will be in the future, it’s my pastry chef, Rosio Sanchez , who’s from Chicago but of Mexican descent. She’s extremely good.
When I started 21 years ago, women in kitchens were a total novelty. Now, 8 out of 24 chefs in our kitchen are women. I’ve stopped thinking about it so much. Although if there are periods where we get too male-dominated in the kitchen, I always try to create a balance and get more women in the kitchen.
Because they add something different?
Yeah, there’s no question about it. It’s very important, that balance. In many ways the style of cooking that we do fits more with the sort of delicate touch of a woman as opposed to this big, rumbling male with his big, clumsy hands. I’m exaggerating here, but you know what I mean. And the sensibility in flavor—women are a bit sharper in finding these small, delicate tones here and there, when tasting stuff. Kitchens are also notoriously macho. It’s a good thing to have more females in the kitchen to add balance and to take that a bit away, not to soften things up but to bring the discussion to a more serious tone.
Do you think there are more women now because the culture in the kitchen has changed, or because there are more opportunities for women? Why do you think it’s changed so much in your lifetime?
I don’t know. I think there are more opportunities. It’s not so much of a blue-collar trade that it used to be, ten years ago. When we started operating Noma, it wasn’t unusual that at least once a year, somebody would come to me and say, “Hey, I’m not coming to work for the next six months, I’m going to jail.” It sounds crazy, but that’s the way it was. It was like seeing one of those old-fashioned movies of steel plants, where men were working with fire and shouting dirty jokes at each other, fighting and drinking. Not that long ago, kitchens were very much like that. I think things are slowly changing—from guys leaving to go to jail, to having a Harvard dropout in our cuisine. So I think the whole environment has become more friendly—for anybody, really. It used to be you’d become a cook because you can’t be anything else.
Now that you’ve met Alice Waters, do you have any other food heroes that you still want to meet?
One that made me very sad that I never met was Charlie Trotter . I never got to meet him; I only texted with him. That’s another thing about the trade that we’re horrible at—celebration of icons and people who really did something. If they don’t have the latest, freshest new thing, then they just get forgotten. I remember in the 1990s there were two things you read. One of them was White Heat, by Marco Pierre White. The other was books by Charlie Trotter.
Where will you be dining while you’re in the U.S.?
I’m going to Alinea for the first time. and I are actually old-time pals, but we never visit each other’s restaurants, so I’m an Alinea virgin and I’m really looking forward to it.
Redzepi will speak at the S. Dillon Ripley Center on Thursday, November 14, at 6:45PM, with book signing to follow. The event is sold out, but tickets may become available. Visit smithsonianassociates.org for more information.