As we walk from Penn Quarter to the Ripley Center on the National Mall, where he’s scheduled to speak, Rene Redzepi makes a small confession: He’s cold. He says this despite wearing a thermal coat that girdles his midsection like puff pastry around a cocktail frank and despite being 4,000 miles from Noma, his celebrated restaurant in Copenhagen, where winter sends locals into hibernation.
The small posse that keeps pace with Redzepi — including Lars Williams, head of research and development for Noma — finds the chef’s chills slightly amusing. How many Danes would actually admit to being cold in a city south of the Mason-Dixon line? Undaunted, Redzepi presses on. He has a theory about cold weather: He says the sub-freezing air in Denmark is drier; the weather doesn’t seem to settle in your bones like the wet arctic winds blasting through Washington on this unseasonably cold evening in November.
“Winter’s really coming, yeah?” Redzepi says to no one in particular, his words ripe with imagery. “Winter’s just gnawing on your shoulder, telling you, ‘I’m here!’ ”
In just a few words about the weather, Redzepi, 35, exhibits almost everything I like about his recently released collection, “Rene Redzepi: A Work in Progress”: a gut-bucket honesty; an outer fragility that conceals a rock-solid intellect; and an unwavering commitment to all things Danish, even the lousy, largely sunless winters.
“A Work in Progress” is a trio of books — cookbook, journal and photo collection — that range from pocketbook-size to coffee table-esque. The three volumes are held together with a thick, two-strap yellow band; it may be the first bra-like contraption ever employed in the history of culinary publishing, which surely must be a metaphor for the chef himself. Redzepi has stood out from the pack for years.
Noma, of course, has been a presence on the arbitrary-but-influential World’s 50 Best Restaurants list since 2006, capturing the top spot for three straight years (2010-2012) before dropping to No. 2 in this year’s survey. But such lists don’t get to the heart of Redzepi’s originality. In person, he has a calm, center-of-the-universe way of interacting with those around him. He doesn’t appear to be at war with the world, like some chefs are, trying to bend every element to his will. Rather, he exudes a kind of faith: in his instincts and in his ability to coax the best out of those things around him, whether cooks or ingredients.
Perhaps that was a hard-earned lesson. If you read his “A Work in Progress” journal, you’ll bump into entries in which Redzepi feels he has ignored his internal compass. After a long vacation in January 2011, the chef returns to Copenhagen and writes in his journal:
“One month in Mexico and I’d realized the truth — I was scared, scared of losing the precious worldwide attention we’d stumbled into. All of us were. We were too worried about what people expected of the so-called ‘world’s best restaurant,’ rather than focusing on what we expected of ourselves. We had stopped following our natural instincts and trusting that our memories are valuable enough to shape our daily lives at the restaurant.”
Out at the FreshFarm Market at Penn Quarter, Redzepi looks in his element as he shops at the request of the Food section, which asked him to cook a pair of dishes. In a sense, we wanted Redzepi to apply his famous foraging skills to an easier target: a farmers market rather than, say, Rock Creek Park, where he might compete with deer for local ingredients. It struck us as a reasonable request; Redzepi’s cooking philosophy, after all, is broader than the “new Nordic” cuisine label that everyone hangs on him like a convention name tag. As Food & Wine noted last year, the chef finds inspiration in the entire natural world, including, presumably, the mid-Atlantic.
Interestingly, Redzepi thought our challenge would be an ideal time to introduce us to “classic Danish home cooking,” perhaps even the food his Danish mother taught him before he trained under Ferran Adrià at El Bulli in Spain or Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in California. Some of what he has purchased at the market, however, could be considered foreign objects in Denmark: The chef says he has never cooked with cilantro, chili peppers or eggplant.
Redzepi clearly has decided to venture outside his comfort zone but still remain close enough that he can see its borders. He has opted to limit his palette to vegetables and cheese only: Aside from the foreign items above, he has bought Brussels sprouts, onions, kale, feta and tomme cheese. It’s a grocery list that apparently wouldn’t look out of place in Redzepi’s home, where he often cooks vegetarian meals.
When I ask why he avoided buying meat, Redzepi stammers. “I wasn’t too. . . ,” Redzepi says, then trails off. “The meat stuff here. . . .” He searches for the right, perhaps most diplomatic, words.
“There just wasn’t that much meat,” offers Peter Tittiger, executive marketing manager for Phaidon Press, coming to the rescue.
“There wasn’t too much,” Redzepi repeats. “I didn’t explore it enough to really see if it really blew my mind.” Then the chef turns to survey the farmers market.
“How many stalls are there? 15?” he asks. “And 12 of them are about vegetables. So that’s a sign.”
“A sign they need more meat producers?” I suggest.
Redzepi allows himself a microscopic laugh. “Or,” he responds, clearly regaining his footing, “that you should cook vegetables!”
The next morning, Redzepi and Williams arrive at CulinAerie, the recreational cooking school on 14th Street NW, where they will transform those market ingredients into two improvised dishes. After a talk and book signing at the Smithsonian, the Noma chefs spent the previous evening at Minibar, where José Andrés’s team entertained the visitors with playful, modernist twists on dishes both familiar and foreign. Redzepi was impressed with Minibar’s coconut cuttlefish, a dish that toys with a diner’s expectations: At first glance, many mistake the coconut for the cuttlefish or vice versa.
Despite the trickery, Redzepi found the dish accessible. “Simple, but very clean,” he says.
Redzepi’s own approach to modernist cooking is, like the chef himself, more reserved, employing the tools of his trade to create dishes that, while dazzling to the eye, are not typically trying to entertain diners with campy cultural allusions or optical illusions. His “A Work in Progress” cookbook, although more approachable than the earlier “Noma” collection, features ingredients that look as if they have been barely altered from their natural state. That is Redzepi’s gift: His high-tech manipulations have an organic air about them.
On this morning, however, Redzepi is flying blind, working in CulinAerie’s classroom kitchen with no knowledge of what ingredients or equipment lie in the school’s pantry or closets. If he’s sweating, Redzepi isn’t showing it. He’s dressed casually in a navy blue shirt, untucked, over jeans; his brown hair falls loose over his forehead and ears, while a full beard hugs his face: Nordic outerwear for the head. As he calmly peels the leaves off a dozen Brussels sprouts with a paring knife, Redzepi shares stories of his Muslim father, who lived in Macedonia when it was still part of Yugoslavia. Dad was the cook of the family, he says.
“He always did this tomato salad in summer. Everybody loved it, and my father would say, ‘But it’s nothing. It’s just tomatoes, salt, oil and vinegar.’ Then he’d let it stand on top of the oven for a day to marinate,” Redzepi remembers. “Today, it makes no sense to talk about it, because everybody makes” something like it.
Those Brussels sprouts in his hand are something of a personal dare. “Brussels sprouts were the one thing I truly and utterly hated as a child. I understood later on . . . that they were just cooked bad,” he says. “If they’re cooked right, they’re great.”
The funny thing is, Redzepi will barely cook the Brussels sprout leaves, which will ultimately garnish a shallow bowl of cilantro sauce topped with the sweet inner flesh of the eggplant. Redzepi gives the leaves a brief turn in a dry saute pan, just long enough to add a little char.
Charring turns out to be one of Redzepi’s favorite tricks. It’s not for the faint of heart. Williams, for instance, chars those eggplants until they look like bricks pulled from a three-alarm fire. The technique offers two benefits: It steams the flesh to a lush consistency and imparts a slight smokiness. It’s like baba ghanouj without the tahini, and it pairs wonderfully with the aromatic cilantro sauce, spiked lightly with mustard and with balsamic and cider vinegars.
Redzepi also chars the onions, but only after giving them a brief dip in barely boiling water. “The sweetness is more clean when you cook [onions] in water,” he says. The onion char provides a secondary benefit beyond its smoky flavor: It lends a striking visual to the finished dish. Redzepi meticulously disassembles the onions until each layer looks like a miniature cup, its “rim” outlined in char. When the individual cups are placed in the bottom of a shallow bowl, their black rims appear to float on the surface of a cheese sauce that Redzepi builds from smoked feta, tomme and water. The dish’s last touch are drops of intense kale oil, blended from leaves that are, once again, charred first.
Not once does Redzepi saute any ingredient in a pan with butter or oil. Nor does he season as he goes. “I like to season at the last minute, especially with vegetables,” he says. “Just a little.”
The only problem for Redzepi concerns what he was told were fresh cayenne peppers. They have none of the heat he expected. He decides to trash the chilies, robbing his eggplant and cilantro dish of the fiery element he desired. Perhaps it’s just as well. I recall the encounter we had the day before at the market when I asked a vendor if she had super-hot peppers.
“No, no, no, no!” Redzepi protested.
“No?” I asked.
“No,” the chef said, “I’m from boring, gray Scandinavia.”
Sure, the same boring, gray Scandinavia that produced a chef who has just improvised two kaleidoscopically colorful dishes, one coaxed from ingredients apparently alien to him. As modern as these plates look, they may actually incorporate an element of classic Danish home cooking. You could argue that all those charred and smoky flavors channel a smoking tradition that dates back centuries in Denmark. Rene Redzepi has just found a way to make that tradition his own.