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

The appetizer consists of juniper twigs in a flower vase, and a main dish of elk tongue comes to the table with a sheath knife. Copenhagen's Noma is one of the world's most unusual restaurants. For many gourmets, it's also the world's best.

René Redzepi pushes the dried leaves aside with his foot to reveal small, succulent leaves. They could be crocus sprouts, or something completely unpalatable. "Give it a try," he says, twisting a plant out of the earth with a practiced hand. "The roots are often the best of all at this time of year," he says, blowing off the dirt and serving up the small, wrinkled plant on his palm. It tastes onion-like.

We are on a parking lot a few kilometers outside Copenhagen, next to the kind of recreational area often seen around major cities: a muddy patch of grass, three cars and a few paths into the woods. Redzepi wants to see how far along things are in nature on this March day, and whether young dune grass, wild horseradish or fresh moss is growing yet. He suggests we take a walk.

The man digging for greens on this early spring day has a hands-on attitude and an expectant look in his eyes. He is 33. Some 800 critics, chefs and restaurant owners have just voted him the world's best chef -- for the second time. This honor was long bestowed on Spaniard Ferran Adrià and his restaurant El Bulli near Barcelona, but in 2010 Redzepi's Copenhagen restaurant Noma moved into first place on a list of the world's 50 top restaurants.

Redzepi tries to remain modest. "Do I believe that I'm the best cook in the world? No. Do I believe that you can determine which restaurant is the best in the world? No. But it was a democratic election and, hey, I'm thrilled to accept the results."

Nordic Mad

Gourmets from all over the world make pilgrimages to Noma in Copenhagen. The name stands for "Nordic mad," Danish for "Nordic food." The prix fixe lunch menu costs €150 ($218), and the dinner menu is €50 more expensive. Reservation requests are accepted on the website only once every three months. The last time, 24,000 requests were received within a few hours.

The miraculous cuisine at Noma is created exclusively with Scandinavian products, including fish, mussels and meat from the Nordic countries. Most of all, the chefs at Noma work with vegetables and herbs that grow wild in the region. Redzepi is something of a druid in the world of haute cuisine.

Noma serves such oddities as live crabs, deep-fried roots, the dried "skin" from sauces and strawberries with hay and chamomile. Many items are served raw. Anyone craving foie gras or entrecôte will be disappointed at Noma, where the accent is Scandinavian instead of French. But Redzepi's cuisine does not adhere to any traditions. Instead, it reflects raw Nordic nature -- for which Redzepi has been showered with awards. He is said to be the greatest talent since Paul Bocuse, one of the inventors of nouvelle cuisine.

As we walk through the woods, Redzepi suggests leaving the path because that way there will be more to discover. He's wearing white sneakers, gray jeans and a comfortable jacket. He wears his hair long and parted on the side. He could just as well be a musician or an athlete. His squash racket is in the trunk of his car. He plays squash every morning.

Redzepi keeps his eyes on the ground, searching for edible plants. Small dandelion leaves catch his attention. They have a nutty flavor, but the moss is dry and from last fall. We walk through a mixed forest not unlike the forests of northern Germany. The dominant colors are gray and brown, interspersed with the occasional green of a fir tree.

No one but Redzepi would think of searching for culinary delights in this forest. "Take a taste of this evergreen," he says. The scent of tangerines rises from the needles when they are rubbed between the fingers, and the light-green tips taste lemony. Redzepi explains how his chefs at Noma cover cauliflower with these branches and cook it in the oven at a low temperature, allowing the oils and aromas of the Danish forest to infiltrate the vegetables.

159 Kinds of Horseradish

He discovers the richness of an Arabian bazaar in the deserted wilderness of the north. "There are 159 varieties of horseradish in Denmark alone," he says. "Some taste as spicy as wasabi, while others are as mild as milk." This year, he says, spring is coming at least two weeks late. He yearns for the green colors and freshness of the season.

For decades, Danish cuisine was notorious for things like boiled pølse sausages, Danish pastries and perhaps for Swedish meatballs, like the ones served at Ikea. So how does someone hit upon the idea of opening a restaurant in a country not known for its cuisine? Particularly a restaurant that utilizes the most outlandish local products? And how does he manage to turn it into one of the world's best restaurants?

When Noma opened its doors seven years ago, crème brûlée was on the menu. But crème brûlée, even if it's made with Danish cream and Danish berries, says Redzepi, is still a French dessert.

At the time, Redzepi was working 80 hours a week -- and asking himself what for. The money? Not enough to satisfy him. A Michelin star? Okay. Two or three Michelin stars? Even better. But working for the recognition of others seemed superficial to Redzepi. Success, he says, is too fleeting.

Northern Cuisine

Redzepi has an ambitious goal: He wants to change the food culture in Scandinavia. He's made great strides in that direction, now that international gourmets have started to rave about the new "northern cuisine." Other young chefs in Copenhagen, Århus and Stockholm are following his lead, using local products and creating dishes unique to the European north.

Farmers in these regions are growing heirloom varieties of vegetables again and trying to offer a wider range of products. In addition to selling their products to expensive restaurants, farmers also sell directly to consumers at local markets. The Noma cuisine, with its highly nutritious ingredients and inventiveness, is even catching on among amateur cooks because it satisfies a desire to eat healthy food that isn't as boring as traditional organic food -- and because, in a globalized world, it creates a connection to the places where we live.

Before Redzepi opened his restaurant in 2004, he worked for a time at the French Laundry in California and under Adrià at El Bulli. Adrià still writes him the occasional e-mail today, to ask how Redzepi is doing and how he is coping with success.

"My experiences in California and Spain inspired me to let me inspire myself," he says. The sentence sounds tailor-made for his memoirs. And how is self-inspiration accomplished? There were many impulses, Redzepi replies, starting with his dissatisfaction with the Danish-French crème brûlée. And then there was a trip to the beach just after he'd opened his restaurant. Redzepi, who is constantly trying out plants to see what they taste like, was chewing on a blade of dune grass. It tasted like coriander. How is it possible, he asked himself, that a wonderful spice has been growing here for centuries and no one knows about it? What else is just waiting to be discovered in this gray country? Exactly how blind has everyone been?

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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