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Wandering Chef: René Redzepi Takes Tokyo

Photo by Peter Brinch

In January, René Redzepi, the chef behind the world’s best restaurant (at least according to this list), will shutter Noma and export his staff to Tokyo for a three-week-long pop-up in the Mandarin Oriental. Tickets for the dinner series are long gone, but we caught up with the foraging chef to get the full scoop as he scoured Japan for local veggies, handcrafted tableware, and the most unusual shellfish (we’re still on the fence about whether we want to meet this one).

This is your first pop-up—why Tokyo?

It’s hard to come up with a response to this that does Japan and Tokyo’s food culture justice, because it’s truly mind-blowing. As a chef who comes from a region whose cuisine is only now emerging, seeing the depth of tradition, the dedication, and the variety of the various cuisines is inspiring and overwhelming. I don’t think there’s anything like it in the world.

To go there and dive into the restaurant world and agriculture will be a magnificent challenge for us, and the goal is to come out of the experience humbled, more informed, and inspired.

This sounds like an incredible amount of work. How are you prepping? 

Our plan is do as much homework as we possibly can before we arrive in Tokyo. We’ve been three times this year and will return four more times before the dinners kick off. The idea is to immerse ourselves as much as possible in the culture and landscape, and apply our sensibilities to a situation that is completely new to us. This won’t be a facsimile of Noma, but rather an all-new project.

It’s also the chance to give ourselves a life experience. The whole staff is moving to Japan, and we will have time to explore the region and learn about and enjoy one of the richest cultures on the planet. It’s going to be hard work, but it also has to be fun, inspiring, and enriching.

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“72 year old Asano-san will be our farmer while we relocated to Tokyo,” Redzepi said on Instagram recently. Photo by René Redzepi

People so often equate you with foraging. How are you sourcing local Japanese ingredients? 

That is something we’re still researching. We were just there and we were in the northern parts of Japan, where we found some stuff that we put into storage for the winter. We also made contact with a few farmers on the outskirts of Tokyo. It’s looking to be from the proximity of Tokyo, with a few specialties from the north sprinkled in.

We are wanting to employ foragers. If you go to Tsukiji, you’d understand that there is no point in hiring a fisherman. The diversity is unreal! Everything your fish-loving heart desires is already there. The quantities and quality are hard to match anywhere else in the world. I would go as far to say that if you enjoy food as one of your foremost ways of finding enjoyment in your life, a visit to Tsukiji is a lifetime experience.

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“Fresh, fat & lightly smoked over rice straw. What more you want from bonito?” Photo by René Redzepi

Traditional techniques too? 

Right now, we are influenced mostly by two styles of cooking: one being the kaiseki way of organizing the menu, in its length and depth. We’re also particularly inspired by the Shojin Ryori, the temple cuisine which is for the most part vegetable-based.

We’re not 100 percent there yet. But I can tell you what we won’t use, for instance: When I visited Tsukiji just last week, I was being shown around by one of the best chefs around. We visited the best tuna person in the whole market. He was showing us what had come in that morning, the variety of the fish, the different cuts, how to determine what’s exceptional (even though they all look exceptional). I asked him at one point during our conversation what other things he did. He said “Nothing, I’m a specialist in tuna.” It puzzled me. A specialist in one fish?

I asked him how long it takes to become a specialist in tuna. It turns out it takes 30 years. It was mind-boggling, that visit, and seeing the different ways of cutting that fish and the respect and rituals around all of it. It’s clear that a bunch of northern Europeans aren’t going to show anybody in Japan anything they haven’t seen ten times before, and definitely not with tuna. We’re not going to cook tuna.

You must be eating all the time. Any favorite restaurants so far? 

It’s a bit early for me to come with those responses, but of course, you won’t be disappointed visiting the well-known places—I can tell you that. But I’ve been to two that aren’t as written up as most—one is called Umi, which is a type of sushi counter (good luck getting a table) and the other is Den, which is from a young cook, more in a kaiseki style but is very personal and full of humor.

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Photo by René Redzepi

What about tableware? Will you source that locally as well? 

Yes, we will. In fact, we’ve already found most of it. One of my friends in Tokyo is helping us as a favor. Her name is Sonia Park. She also has some small shops around town (such as Arts & Science) that are really worth visiting. If you check out my Instagram, you can see the ones we’ve selected (also pictured above). In terms of cutlery, we’re looking at wooden spoons and a wooden fork, as well as chopsticks.

Are there more pop-ups in the works? 

I think there’s a difference between a pop-up, which usually is just about having a quick, small opening somewhere in the world, done by a small part of the team of the original restaurants. When we talk about this, I think we’re talking about a temporary relocation. That’s a whole different beast to organize. We’re bringing our whole team over, from dishwasher to head chef, and essentially opening a restaurant from scratch.

Let’s see how Tokyo goes, because it is a pile of work. Before we open in Tokyo, we will have visited 9 times, spent so many hours organizing this, that it’s unreal. We have one person full-time working on this for a year from Copenhagen. Like I said, we are more or less going through the same process as if we were to open a standalone restaurant. So, once we finish, we’ll see how the staff reacts and it indeed becomes the big life experience that we all expect it to be. In other words, we’ll find out if it’s worth all the work. Then we will go other places. And I have some places in mind that I’ll keep to myself for now.

Want to travel like Chef Redzepi? Check out his favorite places to eat, stay, and play around the world here. Or explore Tokyo’s bright lights here