NAME: René Redzepi
LIVES IN: Copenhagen, Denmark
JOB DESCRIPTION: Chef and co-owner of Noma in Copenhagen, named the World’s Best Restaurant by Restaurant magazine three years in a row, 2010–2012
You are the leading proponent of a style of cooking called New Nordic cuisine. But when you travel, you must be inspired by the new ingredients you encounter abroad. What happens then? Do you ever use them at home?
After I went to Japan, I wanted to try to create a Nordic version of miso. We took a legume that is native to Denmark, with almost the same protein content as soybeans, and inoculated it with bacteria similar to what is used in the production of miso and soy sauce. That experiment resulted in a magnificent new ingredient that has the texture of miso and the viscosity of soy sauce. It tastes very different, of course, but it has the same umami richness as its distant Japanese cousin.
You’ve become something of a poster boy for foraging. Outside of Denmark, what are the best sites for foraging that you’ve visited?
I have yet to visit a place that doesn’t have delicious flavors growing in the wilderness. I have been surprised a few times by the similarities between Scandinavia and the British Isles. In the British Isles, I met Miles Irving, who wrote The Forager Handbook. He took me foraging in Kent and introduced me to fool’s watercress, which I loved. And in the Yucatán, I found all these oddly shaped edible succulents. I don’t even know what they’re called, but they were spicy and really delicious.
You emphasize local ingredients and traditions in your cooking. Why is that important to you?
For one thing, it is very special to be able to serve ingredients such as carrots and asparagus or purslane and sea buckthorn that have been harvested that same morning. In most cases, they are of higher quality in terms of flavor than products harvested two, three, or more days earlier. But I also want to help forge a community where the relationships between the producer, the restaurant, and the diner can be both inspirational and educational for everyone involved. The support of that community fosters confidence and allows you to take risks that you wouldn’t otherwise.
What kinds of eating experiences do you seek out when you travel? And how do you know where to go?
I have a lot of friends who are chefs, so I ask them or other friends in the industry. I try to discover places that are generous, unpretentious, and fun. That could be anything from a taco truck in San Francisco to a big avant-garde meal at a restaurant like Attica, in Melbourne, Australia.
What food-related travel experience stands out in your memory?
I was in Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture recently with a bunch of other chefs who are also friends. We cooked a meal together, one course per chef. Young Japanese artists had designed plates for each of us, so each chef had a plate custom-made for his particular style and his dish.
What does food tell you about the character of a place?
I believe that when a culture allows itself to include food as one of life’s great pleasures, the people will find pleasure more easily and fully in other aspects of life. In the past, in our Protestant culture in Denmark, food was always about sustenance, not pleasure. You’d eat your meat and potatoes in silence, and go back to work. But then you go to a place like France. I know it’s romanticized, but I really feel that sense of life’s pleasures in the Loire Valley. You go to a farm there, and everything comes together: the food, the place, the setting, the people. The French are better than average at creating those beautiful moments.
This appeared in the October 2012 issue.