Noma Restaurant in Denmark voted best restaurant in the world. Cooking without rules in Copengagen.
The chef René Redzepi’s restaurant is gaining global attention and acclaim.
By FRANK BRUNI
But on a recent afternoon on the seashore here about an hour’s drive from Copenhagen, the Danish chef René Redzepi was, quite literally, in the weeds. Up to his knees. And what he was doing was snacking. Browsing. Like a rabbit, albeit a rabbit in charge of a restaurant that has set the culinary world abuzz.
Treating the windswept brush as an unkempt salad bar, he plucked a thin green blade.
“This is how the Vikings got their vitamin C,” he said. “It’s called scurvy grass. It has a horseradish tone.”
So it did, and the wild garden sorrel that he found seconds later tasted every bit as sharp and lemony as he had promised. For 15 minutes he and a companion nibbled on various petals, leaves and shoots, attracting stares from onlookers in a campground nearby, who no doubt wondered at their sanity and zest for roughage.
“So much of what you see here, it’s edible,” said Mr. Redzepi, who regularly dispatches his staff to collect the scurvy grass and sorrel, as well as what he called sea coriander, beach mustard and bellflowers. All of these make their way into his dishes, along with puffin eggs from Iceland and musk-ox meat from Greenland.
He is omnivorous in his exoticism, but restrictive in his geography. If the Nordic region doesn’t yield it, Mr. Redzepi doesn’t serve it, with rare exceptions (coffee, say, or chocolate).
That approach might well seem a recipe for obscurity, which is what many chefs, diners and critics predicted for his restaurant, Noma, when it opened in Copenhagen in 2003.
“You have to understand how hard it was for them at the start,” said Daniella Illerbrand, the general manager of Mathias Dahlgren, a restaurant in Stockholm. “People didn’t understand what he was cooking. They wanted foie gras. He gave them cloudberries.”
Seven years later, Noma is an international sensation, as is Mr. Redzepi, 32. On a trip to New York early last month to promote his cookbook, “Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine,” to be published by Phaidon Press in the fall, he was treated to a hero’s welcome from some of the city’s most celebrated chefs: Dan Barber, Daniel Humm, David Chang, Paul Liebrandt, Wylie Dufresne. (Mr. Chang and Mr. Dufresne have, over the last few years, become close friends with him.) “Nightline” taped a segment with him, and he was invited to sit in that somber, ennobling darkness otherwise known as the set of “Charlie Rose.”
The following week, when he had returned to Copenhagen, the stream of visitors into Noma included the chefs of two restaurants in Spain with three Michelin stars apiece (Noma has two) and a sommelier from the Chicago restaurant Alinea. An assistant to the chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten called to ask if Mr. Vongerichten and three companions could come in for lunch the next day. Mr. Redzepi paced the Noma kitchen nervously trying to figure out some way to fit them in, but couldn’t.
“We have to come up with some kind of system,” he said, sighing heavily. Noma books up three months in advance, and with just 12 tables accommodating 40 or so guests, it doesn’t have much wiggle room.
A fair share of the demand and attention flows from Noma’s anointment in April as the best restaurant in the world, at least according to an annual poll of food writers, prominent restaurateurs and other industry insiders conducted by San Pellegrino, the Italian mineral-water company. Most years, the survey draws little notice. But when it lifts an establishment in tiny, wintry Denmark above legends like El Bulli in Spain and the Fat Duck in England, there’s considerably more chatter.
Denmark, after all, isn’t Provence or Catalonia. For a locavore chef, in particular, it has limitations. But Mr. Redzepi has air-dried, pickled, cured, foraged and researched his way around them. He has taken what could be a set of ankle weights and turned them into wings, his culinary accomplishments drawing all the more regard for the degree of geographical difficulty built into them.
“There’s so much more out there than we realize,” he said over a lunch after his nature expedition, referring to what can be harvested not just in Scandinavia but almost anywhere.
The lunch, it should be said, was in an old-style Danish restaurant and consisted of old-style Danish food: pickled herring, rye bread, smoked halibut, rye bread, smoked salmon and more rye bread, with beers and shots of aquavit liberally thrown in. Mr. Redzepi is no purist and no saint.
At Noma, he said, “We’re not trying to change the world, and I’m not being judgmental.”
He is, instead, acting on the premise that the most special, inimitable contribution a restaurant can make is to serve the food that is freshest and truest on its given patch of the planet, to sift through that region’s flora and fauna for unfamiliar flavors, to scour its forgotten traditions for ingredients that cooks have stopped using. (Mr. Redzepi works with two Danish food historians.)