ANTWERP: As René Redzepi walked into the auditorium of the Flanders Meeting and Convention Centre in Antwerp he was anxious. Not because there was a possibility that he could end up on the podium of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the fifth (and last) time but rather because events like these have not happened for many months now and restaurants in part of the world are still struggling with COVID-19 outbreaks.
He had come prepared with a speech even if he said he was not aware that his team would clinch the top spot in the list. “Given we were second last year, we had to be prepared,” he said.
Eleven years since he clinched the first title for Noma in 2010 he attributes that success not to his creativity or to his leadership but to the 79 members of the team who work to make it happen. On stage, he paid tribute to the members of the team who could not be present in Antwerp as they were serving guests at the restaurant in Copenhagen.
“A lot of things passed through my mind in this moment. Going over the past two years, I realise how great it feels too feel good. And actually you feel guilty to feel so happy,” he said at the press conference just after the list was released in Antwerp on Tuesday afternoon.
He was already in the Best of the Best group having already made the top of the list four times but the fifth has really been special for him. “I feel like this is the best I’ve felt in the 50 Best restaurants list. With respect to the list, I do not even think we are the best. After all this period, being with all these people, even if I was a bit anxious at the start it is great to be celebrating together after all these ups and downs,” Redzepi said.
“The secret of this achievement is in the 79 names. We are a group of individuals that together create this energy and something special happens. That is our secret,” he said.
Now that he will no longer be eligible to compete in the list (since two years ago, winners of the list are put into a sort of hall of fame called Best of the Best) his main aim is to make Noma the best place to work in. That has been the focus since the restaurant became no 1 the second or third time. “With the pandemic and all its trials and tribulations what we strive for is how we can be the best in terms of work place and also have the most incredible creativity. How we can allow people to work and find balance, to raise families. It is very hard to achieve but we have put some things in motion already. There is no light switch, it is a long grind and we are working towards that and I am extremely excited about this,” he said.
Over the past months of the pandemic, René has had a lot of time to think. “What I realised is that what makes me happy is the feeling of not knowing what you do, of having creativity in your life, of needing the team around me. This is something that I have truly learned over the past months,” he said.
Asked where he wanted to be in 10 years he said that for this we had to wait and see. “We have thoughts but this is not something you build overnight. It is like building a pyramid, stone by stone, one step at a time.”
There was of course a question about whether this was a new era for Nordic cuisine after a decade. With two restaurants in the top 3 (Noma and Geranium) and Frantzen (Stockholm) in sixth place René said it sure is. “I really welcome this, I welcome change. It is really the time for the Nordics. Cannot wait to see what happens there over the coming years,” he said.
“It feels pretty wild for two Copenhagen restaurants to clinch the two top places. You need to understand that the city is small and that we need the support of one another in such a place. I am so happy and thrilled and this confirms something special has been happening in Copenhagen,” he said.
He reflected on the difference between taking top spot now and in 2010. “I had one child back then, I was 33. Now I am a father of three. I’ve learned a lot and understand things differently. Nothing can prepare you for the top spot. But the reality is that March last year, I was asking myself whether my career was over.”
For René, in the darkest and early days of the pandemic, the question was whether what had been created over many years of hard work would survive. “We had a plan that we would pool money and ensure that staff could be able to sleep on couches. We prepared a war chest to feed people. The reality, however, is that we live in the most privileged corner in the world and for this I am really grateful,” he said.
René said that slowly it became clear that they would be able to survive the problems created by the pandemic. “But what’s important ultimately is that you don’t get attached to things because these can really change from one day to the next,” he said.
He spoke of his challenges in the past. “Although we strive to be the best place to work at we are not there yet. I go to work wanting to be the best. When I was young and working for chefs who would throw a rage when things went wrong I promised myself I would not be like that. But for years, I could not control myself. I would hate myself for being a disappointment as a leader. I worked on this every day. But it is not simple. We have over 20 nationalities working in the kitchen. There are different cultures at play and in the fish room there could be a major argument on something like what to do with a cod head. It’s not as simple as you think,” he said.
Asked what legacy he would like to leave he said “I don’t think people will remember anything. Maybe, if you are Gandhi people might remember you. I am sorry to say but some of our younger cooks do not know who Ferran Adria is. I don’t work for legacy, I work for creativity. I work to be part of an energy, a team, that does something special.”
One of the criticisms faced by The World’s 50 Best was that of considering Noma as a new restaurant. René said he is of the view that the restaurant is completely new. “We also thought of not naming it Noma because for us it was a completely new restaurant but my business partner put his foot down. We considered all sorts of names including The Weather Restaurant because the weather dictates what is on our menu. It was a genuine consideration but people said it would be the dumbest thing to do to build a name and throw it away.”
Speaking about his three month sabbatical which he had to interrupt after two months because of the pandemic, Redzepi said this was something the restaurant wanted to continue. “I know our sommelier will do it next year. Already several people have done taken this opportunity and I also want to do it again because we had to cut ours short and head home a month earlier. If you do not allow yourself the time to take a vacation what the hell is it worth. That is basically the silver lining behind our decisions. When you have three kids you want to be with them as they grow up. Our daughter was passing through a tough moment, it was the moment to spend time together.”
Questioned about creativity and how he and his team get new ideas he said the formula in his opinion was simple. “Creativity starts with gaining knowledge. That comes from travelling, reading books, watching movies, being very present and observing everything. For every one idea we need ten ideas. This means that if you don’t allow the time to read books you quickly run dry and start repeating yourself. Then comes intuition. Intuition is about trusting yourself. It is that feeling like sportsmen who know where the ball will go before it gets there. It takes a lot of practice, a lot of training to get to that point.”
Asked what message he had right now he said that the big message is to stay positive no matter what. “We are going through a very tough moment. Even if everything is open in Denmark at the moment there are parts of the world where the pandemic is at its worst. Peace of mind is the strongest currency, even better than Bitcoin,” he said half jokingly.