In a few days time, the restaurant Noma will be celebrating its 11th anniversary since it opened its doors in Copenhagen and changed the culinary world in Scandinavia. There is so much to say about this chef and it has taken a while to get down to writing about Rene Redzepi’s exceptional presentation on his food philosophy at Chef’s Revolution in Zwolle organised by Jonnie and Therese Boer of De Librije.
Rene Redzepi needs no introduction. His restaurant in Copenhagen is number one in the world and he is not only a chef but also a great innovator. Like many of the best chefs on the scene today, he also spent some time working at Ferran Adria’s elBulli, but while the latter was innovating with techniques when the restaurant was still open, Redzepi is mainly innovating with new flavours and also heavily experimenting with fermentation.
Last year, at Noma they invested in what they call “fermentation bunkers”. Instead of building a state of the art facility which would have cost 5 million euros, they wanted do it with 50,000 euros. What they did was buy five shipping containers costing 600 euros each and instead they built temperature chambers which are perfect for fermentation. One of the containers serves as the kitchen. It is here that most of the experimentation on fermentation is done.
A difficult start
Redzepi recalled how the restaurant had come a long way since it opened on a cold 23rd November night 11 years ago. “When we opened the restaurant we thought it would be simple but by 28 November there was snow and ice and we had no food stored. It was a very tough winter and we had to spend six months using pototes, onions, beets and cabbages. They might be great ingredients but it is tremendously horrifying to try and innovate with beets and potatoes,” he said.
They therefore realised that they needed to find a way to store food so that it tasted delicious in winter. “We have been spending the past 10 years working on how to preserve vegetables so that these are used during the cold months of Scandinavian winters. We are fermenting and pickling them.”
Redzepi said that a huge array of ingredients can be fermented. “It is just astonishing how fermentation can be the pillar of cuisine. There is a world of discovery around fermentation. Beer, wine chocolate and cheese are all the result of fermentation. All of these things are fermented foods that have gone from a process of bacteria. We need to work with bacteria to find the next beer, vinegar, soy sauce or butter,” he said.
Food waste is a horrific thing
One of the tasks we have set ourselves is not only to work on the next pillars of cuisine but also to ferment our way out of foodwaste. “Waste nothing is the catalyst to our cuisine,” Redzepi said.
He said that you can cut vegetables into perfect dice but if the rest goes into waste it is horrible. “40% of all food that is produced is wasted. We have an obsession with prettiness and don’t want crooked vegetables from farmers. This should not be the case.”
Redzepi then said that he wanted to present six dishes that come from the idea that nothing should be wasted (you can see the dishes he created at the bottom of this post).
For example, with rotten barley he makes a sauce by adding water and 2 per cent salt. The barley turns into a liquid and the broth is extraordinary in flavour. “The broth does not have animal protein and tastes delicious. At Noma we are trying to move away from the idea of a protein rich tasting menu and instead are moving towards a vegetable based menu. “The idea is to look at what is happening around us and also to take care of our guests long after the bill is paid,” he said.
Squid can be found everywhere in Scandinavia but it is not part of their diet. “It just does not exist in our diet. When we peel the squid from both sides the meat becomes so tender it is like butter. Not to waste anything, the waste of the squid is distilled and turned into a heavy concentrate of broth. The process takes over a year but the result is a depth of flavour which is extraordinary that only a few drops are needed.”
Redzepi said that even the stem of broccoli is used. “The idea is to have nose to tail cooking also for vegetables.” (Nose to tail cooking refers to the idea that every part of the animal should be used)
One of the things which ends up being wasted in restaurants is bread. At Noma they distill rye bread into a liquid. We fermented the bread and turned it into a paste. It has a rich, sweet and liquorish tone which when mixed with cream and sugar becomes a great sauce.
Serving ants at Noma
He then showcased a very unique dish which to a certain extent was shocking. It was a tartare of two animals (wagyu beef and ants). Speaking about how he introduced ants in the restaurant he said that he was listening to Alex Atala speak at the MAD symposium he organises in Copenhagen on a yearly basis.
“For many of us, insects are the scum of the earth. But then we find that people are eating them in Latin America and Asia. I thought to myself, wow, I have been a racist idiot thinking that people are poor and that was why they eat insects. In a way it all relates to our upbringing. So at one point I said, maybe we are the stupid ones for having such misconceptions”
At Noma, they use three varieties of ants and Redzepi says that they have a taste of citrus.
The following are a few snippets from the question time:
“Cooking nowadays is about studying new things. The field of knowledge is growing. One of my questions in our field is that the system of training chefs is not up to standard. Who cares if you need to know how to say ‘soft boiled egg’ in five languages. I only know it in three languages, does this make me a bad chef?” he asked to applause.
One of the best books on fermentation is The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. “This should be the starting point and from there you can go deeper. “Once you go deeper you understand that this is never ending. In a way this is chemistry. To get new knowledge you need to be curious. Academics are curious by nature and they are now also applying to join our restaurant. For them it is thrilling to be in a kitchen environment. Noma will be funding research on fermentation.”
“You have to search for new knowledge and remain curious. You cannot think that you know everything. Sometimes you work on an idea without investigating how difficult it is.”
Noma in Japan
Noma will be closing its doors and opening for three months in Japan. “This is a life experience for our team. It is incredibly difficult because we are moving 65 people to Tokyo for three months. We did not know how difficult it was going to be but it will open new horizons for us.”