René Redzepi on 10 years at noma - the interview

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 11th November 2013

Today sees the release of René Redzepi’s new book, A work in Progress, a trio of books including a cookbook, a photo diary and a journal – an intensely honest account of a year in the chef’s life.

This month also sees the ten-year anniversary of René’s restaurant, Noma, a culinary phenomenon that changed the face of international cuisine and reigned as the best restaurant in the world for three years running.

The Staff Canteen caught up with René in London for an extended interview looking back at his experiences writing the Journal, the last ten years of Noma and looking forward to the next ten (or five) years at one of the world’s greatest restaurants…

When you decided to write the journal did you envisage that one day it would become a published book?

Rene Redzepi's new book: A 

Work in Progress

No, it was a journal for myself. I needed to do something to get into that rhythm again and get out of that funk, you might say, that I was in. It was around April of that year, when I was making some big decisions about the restaurant, that I realised that it really mattered to do this.  Emilia [Terragni], who at that time was the food editor at Phaidon, read parts of it and thought it would be cool as a book. The idea was to use the journal to help people to understand more about creativity and also to use it as a kind of gateway to the recipe book.

You mostly wrote the journal in the early hours of the morning after a long day at work; how difficult was that?

It was a very painful experience to write it because first of all, coming home at night and thinking like that instead of just drinking the obligatory beer and then crashing on the sofa  - or, hopefully, making it to bed! – it just took so much discipline; that’s why at times there’s these gaps in the journal because I just couldn’t handle it and then I would try to recap two or three days. It’s also a very lonely thing and as a guy who’s used to working in a team my whole life, that was a weird thing. Sometimes I would sit down and think: okay what do I want to say about today but nothing would come out; it’s weird.

In the journal you talk about the failures with dish ideas as much as the successes; is failure an important part of creativity as a chef? 

Rene Redzepi

Yes, the funny thing is that before this journal I regarded every failure as being something wrong with me or us, the team, that somehow we weren’t good enough. But after writing this, I’ve come to the conclusion that if we’re not failing, it means we’re not pushing hard enough. The end product of a dish is a result of how well you handle the start to the end of the process. In the middle are all these gazillion failures. Failure is a natural process, which is easy to say when you look back on it but at the time it was so painful.

You started the journal because you felt run down and uninspired and you wanted to re-examine what gave Noma its creativity; do you think there are many modern chefs who are in danger of being in the same sort of position?

It’s funny you mention it. I don’t know if all chefs feel like that but there’s a few chefs who’ve read it already and some of them are world-famous and they’ve contacted me and said “you too?” I think that’s the point – there are these moments when things are not great and everybody has that. I have that still; it might only be for two or three days, but you still get these kind of mini burn outs where you think: what the hell am I doing?

But I think we’re also in a new era of cooks, having gone from the tough, rough cooking environment to a new environment where you still have to do the hours and work like a maniac, but where there’s a totally new attention to chefs and cooking. One of the points of doing this book was to send out the message to other chefs that although success is great it can be very limiting and not to let it change you or take over your life.

You talk a lot about your team in the book; what is the closest way to describe that relationship – is it like a family?

It’s weird; we need to invent a new category. Obviously my sous chef is not like my wife or my brother! But they’re not like friends either. They’re

Rene Redzepi Noma
Rene Redzepi Noma

certainly not just colleagues because some of them I‘ve worked with for ten years now, which is a lot of hours spent together! There’s a definite affection for the team and when you see someone leave it’s one part terrifying because you’re losing someone you like and depend on, and one part exciting because your friend – or more than friend – is going out there into the world.

Looking back at the journal, do you think you worry too much about the restaurant or is that a natural corollary of success?

Everything can become blurred in that way – when is it work and when is not work? To me the vital question is: do I like it? If I like it then I’m not even going to make the distinction. I’m not going to bother worrying about questions like: is this my spare time? Should I not be thinking about work? If I like it, I do it.

You mention sometimes feeling envious when you see Middle Eastern or Asian markets with their huge range of spices and ingredients; could you ever see yourself working somewhere else with access to different local ingredients?

I could definitely imagine it. I’ve done it just for the odd weekend as a pop up. Could I make the big leap and go somewhere else and really submerse myself? Maybe, it’s interesting to think about. It would have to be a place where the food and culture has something you could really learn from and let the food influence your own cuisine.

Copenhagen
Copenhagen

So much of what you do at Noma is immersed in the region; would you be able to immerse yourself as fully in another place?

Yes I think I could. You have to remember my father is a Muslim immigrant and my wife is half-English with a Jewish background. I love being in Denmark, don’t get me wrong, but I see myself as more of a global citizen today.

The main theme of the journal is creativity. You talk about the most creative moments coming when people are having fun and almost feeling like they’re not at work; how do you create that kind of environment in the kitchen?

It’s about having enough space and having the right people. A big change for us was when I decided to close the banquet room and rebuild it into a staff area with a huge canteen, offices, an espresso bar, a library and a test kitchen as an open space where people could pop in. Then I changed the opening hours from six to seven so that we would have an hour and a half of dinner time – just things like that. Another thing is the ‘Saturday night projects’ which is a moment of real fun, where [every Saturday night after service] young chefs really put themselves out there and cook something for the rest of the team. It’s very scary for them but they also gain confidence and have fun and there’s a real atmosphere of mutual respect.

You talk about success as being a real limitation to creativity and about trying to ‘break the mould of success’. Would you say that success is the hardest mould to break when it comes to taking new and bold creative decisions?

noma
Noma

Yes, at first it was. Suddenly at Noma, from one night to the other, there was this overwhelming success, and we weren’t prepared for it. El Bulli had been the World’s Best Restaurant for so many years and then suddenly this tiny little restaurant from Copenhagen came along and we went from zeroes to heroes overnight. But that success started to influence our decisions because we felt we had to do what people expected of us. It started to tear at me and I stopped being confident. I started thinking: what’s wrong with me? Why am I so frightened of making decisions that I wasn’t afraid of three months ago? That’s when the funk arrived and I started thinking: what am I doing here? What’s the purpose of this restaurant? That’s when I decided to write this journal to see if I could figure out what to do to find out how we could just relax again and not become so attached to all this attention.

A lot of people have a romantic notion of modern chefs being totally  in harmony with the seasons but in the book you’re often raging against the seasons, particularly winter. Do you think a chef’s relationship with the seasons is as complicated as with a person?

Yes totally, at Noma we are totally dependent on the weather and the seasons and it changes day by day sometimes. Sometimes you’re just like: “Please work with us to not change things for the menu; we’re so happy with the situation at the moment; please give us one more week of this.” I used to fear winter, genuinely fear the snow and frost because there would be so few ingredients to work with. Every year was the same around February; we’d be walking around in circles, trying to squeeze out the next idea with beets, and it would be painful. The journal really made me understand that there’s a natural process here throughout the year that made us what we are. I’m a lot more relaxed now and winters aren’t so bad.

Noma

You said a long time ago that you would do ten years of Noma. It’s ten years now so…?

I said after ten years that I would give it a long hard consideration. You could say that that process started with the writing of this journal, even though that was a few years ago. It was a process of deciding: is this still fun and do we have content in terms of the people working for us as well as the food? If you had asked me three years ago, I would have said: maybe we’re here one more year, maybe two; I never would have thought that on our ten-year month, I would be having this much fun. I can’t remember having this much fun at the restaurant.

So the whole project of the journal has been massively important and massively successful?

It’s been amazing. I see now that Copenhagen is suddenly this place where there’s a huge influx of people and they’re opening restaurants; food writers are moving there; so it’s still very much a work in progress and it’s very thrilling to be part of. We may be ten years old, which to some extent means matured, but as a dining culture in Copenhagen we’re like infants.

Do you feel like you’re starting a new journey?

Yes, it’s a new journey that’s much more intense. At first it was a real sense of discovery; everything was so new and fresh and you just fooled around with these ingredients based on your intuitions, whereas now the work and knowledge we’re putting into these ingredients is layers deeper and now we’re starting to think how can we create pillars of cuisine that will help us with the future – that’s where we are now and that’s very exciting.

Will you give Noma another ten years?

Noma

Now let’s say I’ll take it every five years.

Are you going to focus more on the wider Copenhagen food scene over the next few years?

Now we have Noma but we also have Nordic Food Lab and the MAD symposium and those are powerhouses of new content. The Nordic Food Lab started out as one person, Lars Williams; now it’s a place where there are ten people – young scientists, students from Yale and UCLA – studying these long-term projects within food. There’s so much to be learned and gained there, it’s incredible.

The symposium started out as a side project which I did by myself; now there are three people hired there full time, so there’s so much to build on. I like to be in Copenhagen and feel that atmosphere; it’s almost like a gold rush. There’s this huge sense of optimism from all around the trade that something big can happen, and that big thing has not happened yet, but it can happen and that makes it so much more exciting.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 11th November 2013

René Redzepi on 10 years at noma - the interview