The Nordic Food Revolution: Foraging in the Forest with the World's Best Chef

By Claudia Voigt in Copenhagen

Part 2: The Challenge of Scarcity

And then there were the many summer months he spent in Macedonia as a child. His mother is Danish and his father is Macedonian. Every year the family visited relatives who lived in a village at the foot of a mountain. There was no running water, no refrigerator and no supermarket. The children spent the entire day playing outside and eating with their fingers, and when they were thirsty they drank water with pickled rose leaves. He used to envy his friends who vacationed with their families in France. But, these days, the Macedonia of Redzepi's childhood seems like a paradise to him.

The Noma cuisine is often praised for being unique without deriving its references from other famous role models. But Redzepi has his references. They include Denmark's long winters and the memories of carefree summers in Macedonia, the hidden treasures in the gray north and the unfettered enjoyment of life in the south.

"By the way, I have no idea where we are now," he says after two hours in the woods. There are worse things than getting lost with the world's top chef, especially at the beginning of spring. But because this forest is only a small recreational area, all paths eventually lead back to the parking lot. Redzepi places a few branches from the aromatic conifer next to the squash racket in the trunk. "There are so many other plants like this one," he says, "with the aroma of bergamot and citrus fruit, and in a tree that grows everywhere. When I smell something like this," and he rubs a few needles between his fingers once again, "I'm convinced that we are on the right track at Noma."

No Tablecloths

The restaurant is in a large warehouse on the edge of downtown Copenhagen. The Nyhavn tourist district is on the other side of a wide canal.

The atmosphere in the restaurant is reminiscent of the mood in the forest. There are lots of browns and grays, with a little green sprinkled in. The room feels airy, with its large windows facing the water and its wooden tables spaced far apart. There are no tablecloths, no napkins and no complicated arrangements of cutlery and glasses. Clarity.

It is 11 a.m. on the morning after our walk in the forest. It smells of freshly baked bread at Noma. Redzepi patrols the restaurant and monitors his employees' hand movements as they cut chestnuts into paper-thin slices and sort cress. He seems like a different person -- a chef with a stern gaze who does not tolerate mistakes. When he notices that someone has dropped some grease on the stairs to the kitchen on the second floor, he says sharply: "Someone could slip here. Wipe this away immediately!"

The pressure is enormous, as he said in the forest. The restaurant serves 80 guests a day, 40 for lunch and 40 for dinner, and most of them expect one of the best meals of their life. The chefs at Noma have had a lot of discussions about how to handle these expectations. The answer is simple: They do their best, every day, nothing more and nothing less. Success is also liberating. Nowadays Redzepi only cooks what he wants to cook.

He would never call himself an artist. But anyone who has eaten in his restaurant ends up with a slightly altered view of the world, of everything that ends up on our plates, of the food sold in supermarkets -- and even of spring.

Twigs, Mushrooms and Dusty Moss

There is a connection to the work of artist Olafur Eliasson, whose installations reflect the natural phenomena of his native Iceland. Eliasson and Redzepi are friends. The difference between his work and Eliasson's, says Redzepi, is that Eliasson can take a break when he has a bad day. Breaks at Noma are not an option.

At 11:30 a.m., the team gathers for a meeting. It consists of 46 people, most of them not much older than 30, many with wild haircuts and tattoos. They are about to amaze 40 guests.

Redzepi gives a short speech. He says that today is a good day because he won his squash game. He says he received an e-mail from a friend who heard from another friend that France's top restaurant critic was sitting at table number four in Noma last night. The man was stunned, according to the e-mail. "Well done," says Redzepi. "Special thanks to the table four team."

An employee vacuums the restaurant again -- the third time in an hour. When the first guests arrive at noon, the room looks calm and inviting. All the effort that went into making this meal happen seems to have evaporated into thin air.

"Welcome to Noma," says the waiter. Except for two glasses and a vase, the table is empty. The waiter pushes the vase in our direction and says: "Enjoy your first course." There are fresh juniper branches and delicate brown twigs of crispy dough in the vase. Both are dipped in a light mayonnaise. And as we eat the contents of the vase, still incredulous, the next surprise arrives: an earthenware plate with a marinated porcini mushroom and small baked clouds of moss on a bed of moss and stones. The moss tastes slightly dusty. In addition to wine, the waiter serves us water with sweet and nutty overtones, derived from the spring sap of birch trees.

It's as if an orchestra were playing the overture to an opera. Before the meal, Redzepi had asked: "How much do you want to eat? A normal lunch menu?" The more courses we try, the more amusing the word "normal" sounds.

'Giving'

There are eight so-called "snacks" brought to the table in rapid succession. Most are eaten by hand: a paper-thin square of jellied sea buckthorn juice with marinated rose leaves; a sort of sandwich made of crunchy chicken skin, smoked fromage frais, caviar and herbs; a wafer of aromatic pastry with a dried black cherry filling served in an old cookie tin; a porcelain egg that exudes the smell of hay and contains a smoked quail egg. Nothing tastes the way one expects it to taste. Herbs blend with fruity sauces, while mild acidity complements crispy and crunchy textures.

Then the waiter brings a flowerpot filled with green leaves that seem to protrude from brown soil. When the guest pulls one of the leaves from the pot, he finds himself holding a radish with spicy fromage frais and a malt-nut mixture sticking to it: edible earth.

Eating at Noma is like going on an expedition and attending a child's birthday party at the same time. Restaurants should be subsidized, says Redzepi, so people can experience this form of enjoyment three or four times a year. It's the sort of idea that would only occur to someone in Scandinavia, with its generous approach to welfare.

Like all other cooks at Noma, chef Redzepi serves guests at their tables. When he does -- and notices that they are cheerful and able to talk to each other for hours -- he knows his work has a purpose. "That's probably at the core of everything: giving," he says.

Part of a Bigger Story

After 12 meatless courses, the waiter places a sheath knife on the table. The next dish is elk tongue with variations of apples. Redzepi likes to include historical references in the staging of his meals. Many Scandinavians used to carry sheath knives to defend themselves against animals and to harvest fruits and vegetable at any time. He chose the apples because their flavor complements the meat, but also because elk eat apples. The knife, the meat and the side dish are part of a bigger story.

Redzepi consults with historians and food scientists. The more extensive and experimental his research trips become, the more he enjoys them. Perhaps he will truly change Scandinavian food culture or, as many gourmet critics believe, the entire field of international cooking.

And then? "It'll take a little while longer," he says. He likes Denmark, and as long as the country doesn't drift too far to the right, he says much remains for him to discover.

But Redzepi can also imagine exploring another culture. His wife is having their second child this summer. Redzepi, who was exposed to two cultures while growing up, wants his children to live in another country at some point. In the south, perhaps? "Not exactly on the Côte d'Azur," he says. "There wouldn't be enough of a challenge for me, given all the olive oil and fruit down there."

Until then, Redzepi will continue to roam the austere Scandinavian countryside, using it to create culinary diversity that's exhilarating. And smart. Can food be smart? It can at Noma.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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