Rene Redzepi, executive chef-owner at Noma in Copenhagen, was in the Coi kitchen Monday, picking his way through a bin overflowing with Bay Area citrus and tomatoes. His restaurant, named the world’s best this year in a San Pellegrino poll, celebrates locally sourced Nordic ingredients – musk ox, hay, Icelandic moss – but he and his friend Daniel Patterson were cooking a Bay Area-centric lunch while he was conducting interviews for his first book, “Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine” (Phaidon, 2010, $49.95).
Redzepi held an heirloom tomato to his nose and breathed in. “Never have I cooked a tomato in the history of Noma,” he said, putting it down before slicing it open. “Oh, wow,” he said. “Would you look at that? That’s beautiful.”
Redzepi spent much of this Bay Area jaunt with Patterson – he even forwent a hotel to crash at Patterson’s pad. The two are kindred spirits, though half a world apart.
“We have similar drives, similar intensity, a similar commitment to creating a cuisine without reference points,” said Patterson. “If we reference something, it’s intentional – we’re not referencing other chefs, we’re referencing the cultural understanding and history of each of our environments.”
Patterson has the luxury of using olive oil, tomatoes, citrus. The Nordic region does not naturally produce these products, so Redzepi doesn’t use them. Still, he managed to beat out El Bulli and the Fat Duck this year to earn the No. 1 title.
He is the Roger Federer of the culinary world – articulate even when speaking in a foreign tongue, classy, impeccably dressed and seemingly effortlessly skilled. It’s a pleasure watching him react to the produce that overflows North California markets.
Regional limitations notwithstanding, Redzepi created haute cuisine in the land of salted fish and pickles, and he’s not letting a tomato get in the way of his philosophy. “I don’t believe there’s a place where the ingredients are better than in another place,” he said. “It’s just a matter of determination.”
There’s not a morsel of foie gras or a shaving of Australian winter truffle to be found on Noma’s menu. Instead, Redzepi trekked his native land, with help from historians, botanists and philosophers, in search of ingredients. Now, with his restaurant’s philosophy fully realized, he combines Nordic products with intuition – a word he uses a lot – to create dishes entirely of Denmark.
Briefly working at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry helped him shape a cuisine tied to place. “Keller didn’t mock America,” he said. “He embraced it and made it a part of his restaurant.”
Last winter, Redzepi created “vintage carrot.” “We were rapidly running out of things to cook with,” he said, “which is a problem when you’re considered the best restaurant in the world.” He nestled old, unwanted carrots next to chamomile and basted them in goat butter over just the right heat for more than an hour, turning slowly and basting some more, until they took on a flavor he’d never imagined possible.
He believes haute cuisine is taking a turn away from the decadent.
“There was a period of luxury,” he said, “where truffles were baked in puff pastry, and souffles were served with the most expensive brandies. Now I feel we’re coming into a more natural period. Chefs are more knowledgeable, more thoughtful.”
Vegetables are the focus of his menu and “Noma: Time and Place,” and his recipes for them require painstaking preparation. Ever the polite young man, he’s careful never to insult another cuisine or technique (“I love gels! Absolutely love them! But …”), yet expresses concern when chefs manipulate a vegetable too much. Now he employs a “sous chef of product,” who is solely responsible for the ingredients – foraged and farmed – that come into the kitchen.
When he took fellow avant-garde chefs into the countryside around Copenhagen to forage at Cook It Raw 2009, an event that brought chefs back to their roots, literally, he spread his enthusiasm for a cuisine of place. “People became like kids,” he remembered. “Machinery doesn’t thrill chefs in the same way as when you see people in the early stages of spring, tasting the first glass of birch sap.”
Patterson and Redzepi were almost done with lunch at Coi. Redzepi had made a tomato vinaigrette and used it on a grilled cucumber dish, which he envisioned, cooked and constructed in less than 10 minutes. Patterson sliced up lamb he had seared off with herbs, and Redzepi took a bite, then squinted.
“Daniel, do you mind?” he asked, gesturing to the tomato vinaigrette. He drizzled some onto the meat, then tried it and moaned.
“You know what I’m missing at Noma?” he said. “I’m missing tomatoes. You put it on this meat, and it just lightens up your whole day.”