What I Learned From Traveling the World With René Redzepi
In his book, “Hungry,” food critic Jeff Gordinier chronicles four years of travel with the acclaimed chef of Noma. Along the way, he learned a lot about life, travel, and where to find some of Mexico’s best mole—and he shares his reflections with AFAR.
Restaurant lovers are likely familiar with René Redzepi and his landmark restaurant, Noma, which opened in Copenhagen in 2003 and was deemed the best restaurant in the world four times. Redzepi’s approach to cuisine—ultra local, foraged, experimental—garnered critical acclaim for its creativity and clout.
It is Redzepi’s unending quest for inspiration that food critic Jeff Gordinier sheds light on in his 2019 book, Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World (Tim Duggan Books).
Over four years, Gordinier traveled to Mexico, Australia, Norway, and Denmark to go behind-the-scenes with Redzepi as he drew inspiration from global cuisines and took Noma on the road. Gordinier captures moments both intimate—like the final service of Noma’s first location—and frenzied, like running the team’s Noma pop-ups in in Sydney and Tulum. Driving the whole narrative is a portrait of René Redzepi himself, and his insatiable love of and curiosity surrounding flavor. We spoke with Gordinier about his adventures—here’s some of what he shared.
Spontaneity opens up a new side to travel
“Almost all of the trips I’ve taken with René Redzepi were on a whim. He did some planning, but I did no planning at all. When I left the New York Times and was free to write the book in any way I wanted to, I opened myself to this and I would get these random texts from him saying, ‘We’re going to be in Oaxaca, meet us there on Thursday,’ or ‘Are you interested in going fishing above the Arctic Circle in Norway?’ and I would just go. I found affordable ways to do it by using points or just using low fares. I opened myself to serendipity. When we desperately need a vacation, we start to plan and we always run the risk of overplanning. And there’s something quite lovely about just going. Going to the airport and flying to Paris or Lisbon and playing it by ear. I used to travel that way when I was younger, but as I got older I got more rigid. But René reawakened in me that sense of adventure.
“Now, we will just pile the kids into the car and drive somewhere. A few months back I decided I needed to check out some restaurants in Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia, for my job at Esquire. Without much planning at all we got the baby twins, my 13-year-old son, put them in the car, packed quickly, and just drove there. We made reservations in the car as we were driving.”
But planning is still important
“However, I learned through traveling with René Redzepi that it’s very important to do the research. To taste things that are local. Taste things that are rare. Taste things that you wouldn’t normally notice. This was particularly true in Mexico. I hear about people who go to Tulum and the Yucatán Peninsula and I’ll ask them, ‘Did you eat cochinita pibil?’ and they’ll say, ‘No, what’s that?’ and my heart sinks because cochinita pibil is one of the greatest dishes human beings have ever created and if you want the true version you have to go to the Yucatán peninsula. If you want the absolute version, you should go to the Mayan village where the pig is wild and wrapped in banana leaves and the women are making tortillas and you understand the cultural and historical roots of that dish.
“In my past travels I had been plagued by a touch of laziness. Go to the city, do some haphazard research, decide on a couple restaurants that seemed promising and go. But I think it’s important to dig deeper. What’s unique to this region? What are the fruits and vegetables and herbs and nuts you can’t find anywhere else but this region and how do I taste them?
“So, be open to whim and chance, say yes, buy a ticket, go, but on the other hand, as much as you can, use technology and connections to do a lot of research. If you go to Mexico and miss out on escamoles and cochinita pibil, it’s a shame.”
Find the marketplace
“Whether you’re in Portugal or Mexico or Senegal or Benin or Hong Kong, find the local marketplace and if you can, bring along a guide who’s associated with the local food scene. That can be a chef, a local food journalist, a farmer, an activist involved in local food ways. There’s something to be learned from tasting the food, but there’s so much more to be learned from asking questions about the food and learning the stories behind it and how it’s grown and how central it is to the local culture. I grew up eating Mexican food in southern California, but I feel like I was totally ignorant until I went through Mexico numerous times with René and the Mexican chefs who joined us. You learn, ‘Well, this is a kind of fruit that only grows for a few days and it comes out of this cactus and you have to cook it this way—here, taste it, prepare it this way. . . . You’re not going to find that in a restaurant, but in a marketplace.’”
It can be beneficial to travel with strangers
“In a way you’re on your best behavior. [laughs] Traveling with family can be a bit of an interpersonal nightmare at times—you’re all in each other’s business, there’s such familiarity that that leads to friction, so sometimes when you’re thrust into a situation with 5 or 8 or 12 people whom you’ve never met, you tend to be more polite. Or I do, I find myself feeling much more receptive to listening and observing in that situation. What was interesting traveling through Mexico with the Noma scouting team was that not only were they mostly strangers to me but they were from all over the world—one guy from Japan, one from Germany, a woman from Denmark, a Mexican American from Chicago—everybody had a completely different vantage point on Mexico and its food. I found it very eye-opening to watch the way they interacted with the country. I learned from my own experiences but I also learned from their experiences.”
Find a forager
“I haven’t done this with enough degree of intentionality but I want to in the future: find a forager. That sounds crazy but I have found in my travels lately around America that all over the United States there are foragers. The idea of going through the local landscape and changing your way of seeing with the help of a forager is extremely exciting. You can go through any landscape and he or she will help you see or taste things you didn’t know existed. Not just mushrooms and berries, but there are so many herbs and grasses, endless lichen, all sorts of things that are edible, and when you are done surveying the landscape of the forager you really know you have arrived in that place. When people ask me if I have been to Sydney, Australia, I am like, ‘Oh, yes, I have been deep in Sydney because I went around Australia with E.J. Holland [Noma’s Sydney pop-up forager] and he opened my consciousness.’ I mean there was this endless bounty of edible delights surrounding us on every block—even in suburbia! I have tasted indigenous ingredients in this city that are just sitting next to schools and police departments. Foragers are going to do their stuff anyway, so just call one or Google around and ask if it’s OK to tag along, because it’s going to change your world.”
Travel and creativity go hand in hand
“I think that René Redzepi felt his cooking would become stultified if he stayed in one place. His cooking originally was centered around the idea of this New Nordic philosophy that all the ingredients would come from the surrounding landscape. He continues to adhere to that philosophy but has shaken it up in his travels. I think he felt like he couldn’t remain fixed in Scandinavia anymore in terms of his mindset. He had to bring in ideas in other places; it wasn’t a way to make money, they were a creative experiment in team-building and in nourishing creativity through ideas that you encounter in other cultures. Through these pop-ups around the world he feels that he completely reimagined what Noma could be.
“Travel feeds creativity. There can be no other way of looking at it. The more we travel, the more we grow emotionally, intellectually, and compassionately. When I sign the book for people, I sign it with the phrase ‘Stay hungry,’ and I feel like that’s almost the message of the book, which is stay alive, stay hungry, keep seeking out new experiences, and keep being open to change.”
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