Few chefs can claim to have shaped the culinary panorama of the early 21st century like René Redzepi. His unique take on Scandinavian cuisine took locally sourced, caught and foraged ingredients, and presented them as an artful expression of the Nordic region’s culture, landscape and seasons.
As such, his Noma restaurant in Copenhagen became the benchmark for a kind of localism that showcased the very best of the environment, using a stripped-back aesthetic. Voted the World’s Best Restaurant for a total of four years, and winning two Michelin stars, Noma and Redzepi have helped elevate Danish food to a par with any world cuisine.
Born in Denmark in 1977 to an Albanian muslim father and a Danish mother, Redzepi honed his skills in some of the world’s most celebrated kitchens – from Ferran Adria’s El Bulli near Barcelona, to The French Laundry by Thomas Keller in California’s Napa Valley – before returning to Denmark and reinventing a cuisine.
In 2003, he opened Noma with Claus Meyer and the New Nordic Cuisine was born. Early critics dubbed it ‘the stinking whale’, but Noma and Redzepi persevered with the courage of their convictions, shunning non-native ingredients such as sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil, and embracing the natural larder of the Nordic region. Soon foraging was cool. Wild ingredients like wood sorrel and beach-mustard, ants and live shrimp became sought after delicacies. And Noma was being talked about in the same breath as Redzepi’s mentors’ restaurants in Spain and the USA.
The plaudits began to pile up. In 2010, Noma clinched the number 1 spot in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list – an achievement it was to repeat another three times. But it was the cultural impact of this little restaurant in Christianshavn that resonated far beyond any awards ceremony. A generation of chefs began to explore and expound the natural attributes of their own local cuisines. They embraced preserving and pickling, and sought to join the conversation around sustainability and sourcing, and diversity and equality, that will shape the future of the industry, and the planet.
In 2011, Redzepi founded MAD (Danish for ‘food’), a non-profit organisation that brings together chefs and food professionals from around the world. With ‘a social conscience, a sense of curiosity, and an appetite for change’ the annual MAD Symposium continues to assemble hundreds of diverse personalities with the intention of forging new relationships, spreading ideas and discussing the most pressing topics, from the global to the personal.
MAD’s core principles and spirit of collaboration have followed Redzepi around the world. He opened Noma pop-ups in London, Sydney, Tokyo, and Tulum in Mexico. In each location, rather than recreating Noma classics like grass with edible soil, or fried reindeer moss with cep mushrooms, Redzepi and his team explored the local cuisine and set about to create something new and memorable.
Equally memorable are Rene Redzepi’s books. The most recent is ‘The Noma Guide to Fermentation’, an in-depth guide to one of the most misunderstood disciplines in gastronomy. Fermentation is at the core of Redzepi’s philosophy of ‘deliciousness’, and in 2014 the chef and his team built their very own fermentation lab to explore the possibilities of this distinct science, from lacto-fermented blueberries to various misos and garums.
The original Noma, and its fermentation lab, closed in 2017. It was time for Redzepi to start again with a new restaurant premises, lab and garden in 2018. The new Noma has a seasonal menu that changes three times each year, with a spring-summer menu that focuses purely on plant-based dishes. In autumn and early winter, foraging and hunting comes to the fore, with wild mushrooms, berries, nuts and game. And the third iteration features locally caught fish and seafood, which are at their peak in the coldest winter months.
Noma regained its two Michelin stars at the first time of asking. But for a chef who insists on challenging our preconceptions about food and fine dining, it would be foolish to speculate what comes next. Only that it will be delicious.