Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Time and Place for everything: Noma

Rene Redzepi steps out of the darkness following a stylistically shot, several minute montage to haunting acoustics, in a blue suit, untucked shirt and casual white shoes.

It all fits insanely well. If there was a time and place for the head chef of San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant to be in Sydney, it would be for the Crave Sydney International Food Festival and it would be at the Sydney Opera House.

Redzepi was in town to address a 1300-strong foodie crowd, including Matt Preston and “Mr Rockpool”, Neil Perry in the middle of the second row, at the most Danish of Sydney landmarks on Friday night. And in no minor coincidence, Redzepi is launching his new book Noma: A Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine.

Noma 'newsletter' and locally foraged leaves, from Rene Redzepi
at the Sydney Opera House
Story time

To Redzepi, food is more than just flavour – it needs to tell a story. More gorgeous montages show picturesque fields and nature, Redzepi and Noma staff foraging for wild ingredients and then turning them into unexpected, but natural, combinations of dishes that epitomise their ‘locavore’ ways.

Asparagus and spruce, for example. They pull out white asparagus from the ground and find spruce growing nearby. “They are neighbours,” says Redzepi, “They live with each other and belong with each other on the plate.”

The white asparagus spears are tied to branches of spruce and grilled, with the flavours of the latter infusing into the asparagus. It served simply with green asparagus juice with garnishes of spruce twigs for a dish that looks nothing like a pre-conceived fine dining dish.

Two year-old vintage carrots, left in the ground way too long, close to black, and as Redzepi calls it: “Old, shitty, starchy, mealy carrot.” It’s cooked for two hours in a pan basted with goat’s butter, taking on an almost meaty texture, and is served with nearby grown chamomile.

This is an example of how Noma works with the time and place; that being Denmark in two months of frost day and night, with a severe lack of ingredients outside of onion and cabbage.

Cuisine and culture

Redzepi is big on the notion of cuisine, which he defines as “a palatable experience of your culture”. But he acknowledges that there is no absolute truth as to what Nordic cuisine should be. Traditional Danish food has lots of salt, smoke, and loads of pigs, says Redzepi, with most items cooked for long periods of time. This compares with nature, which he sees as light and untouched.

Leafy tops from a goodie bag - of sorts
Redzepi’s aim for the Nordic cuisine of his establishment was to “put a sense of place onto the plate” – one that belongs only to a specific place. In this case it was the “untouched, unspoilt land” of Scandinavia that Redzepi wanted to plate up with all its “nature, wildness, naturality”.

He wanted to take a journey beyond “carrots, cabbage… herring” for food that the local diners had not seen before but would recognise in some sense, even if it was just a childhood memory of a taste.

Vegetables - a gift from Rene Redzepi
Redzepi quotes German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s three stages of truth as a fairly true timeline in Noma’s short 7-year history. “First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Noma’s route to the world's best restaurant began from Redzepi’s interest in culture as a frame for a national cuisine. Firstly, he says, one needs to understand their own culture and from that, an idea of ingredients out there and then the sourcing of these ingredients.

He started reading about Danish culture and food history. A few calls and ten emails later, he had at his ready a range of diverse ingredients and suppliers. He has contacted books’ authors, historians, other writers and other chefs, now culminating into a vast network to which he can send out a group email and be almost guaranteed a respondent with an answer or a lead.

New ingredients and discoveries delivered to his kitchen are like “coming to work and receiving presents” for Redzepi. He admits this doesn’t happen as much anymore. The Noma kitchen has foraged and discovered 59 types of edible berries, more than 1000 edible mushrooms and more than 60 types of shellfish within its region.

Redzepi finds the diversity of his foraged ingredients satisfying, with the result that his kitchen is not cooking with the same items, and hence producing the same dishes, as others. He warns, though, to be aware of the poisonous stuff when foraging for new ingredients: “Don’t kill your customer – that’s really important. Unless they’re real bastards.”

Time and Place

It’s not just the title of his book; time and place are what inspires Noma’s dishes; the former being the time of year, and the latter being where in the world they are. Redzepi sees the restaurant as having a “pact with nature… working with nature’s forces, rather than against”, with his role to keep “the link from origin to plate as unbroken as possible”.

Redzepi believes Noma had a trial and error period of several years, which continues but with more successes than mistakes these days. He admits his kitchen has sent out plenty a “stupid dish” in the beginning, food that probably couldn’t be considered Nordic cuisine – crème brulee with a Nordic berry? The diners weren’t convinced and neither was the kitchen.

There are about eight staff members who have been there pretty much from day one. He uses an analogy of an orchestra about his staff and teamwork, saying it’s “not right without the drummer”. He also believes that chefs and cooks are one of the last craftsmen in the modern world that can not be replaced by machines.

Redzepi tries to be diplomatic, but I sense his dislike for the traditional, white tableclothed fine diner, in his region anyway. The “fine dining act” he calls it where diners and waiters alike “pretended they were part of a social layer they weren’t”.

For Noma, he wanted to remove “the pompousness” of fine dining which he says doesn’t make sense in his region where “there is no big difference in social levels”. The vision was for it all to be about the dish, so for the restaurant space he wanted to strip away all else, with the focus left on the plate, people and place.

It’s serious stuff, but Redzepi certainly has a sense of humour. Aside from spruiking his new book throughout the night, he also detailed a dish at Noma called The Hay and the Chicken.

Diners served a pile of wet hay with a hot dish/pan atop are told to crack an egg into the dish. Encouraging customer interaction, diners have a timer – at a certain point, they add green leaves and grasses to the egg; greens that a chicken would be foraging and eating itself (the egg is, of course, free range and maybe even a little wild). Redzepi wants diners to “become the chicken”, eat what the chicken eats, before eating the representation of the chicken (the egg) – all very at one with nature.

Forager beware

If the foraging movement can happen in the often sub-zero climates of Scandinavia, it can happen anywhere, Redzepi claims. He suggests it could be – should be – Australia’s cuisine; being so delighted with what he’s already come across in his few days in Sydney.

There are samples of foraged leaves for every attendee on the night to scratch and sniff, including lemon myrtle. On edibility, Redzepi reverts to trial and error, saying almost nothing is lethal; mostly just unpleasant.

He’s particularly excited at the 20 types of plants “smuggled” from Victoria by Ben Shewry of Attica for show and tell. Shewry forms a panel with fellow chef from the San Pellegrino top 100 World’s Best Restaurants, Mark Best of Marque, as well as restaurant critic Terry Durack from the Sydney Morning Herald. “Isn’t it funny seeing the food critic trying to handle food?” laughs Redzepi at Durack.

Snow peas
Redzepi was like a kid in a candy store with the plants, proclaiming that he wouldn’t need anymore presents for the year. A wild pea sourced from coastal Victoria was “surreal” and much like the version he uses at Noma. A “salty” saltberry that none of the audience of “native Australians” had tried, unsurprisingly.

He could visualise seven or eight degustation menus from the table on 20 plants alone – vision, I think, not everyone has. But as Best put it, Redzepi’s vision and philosophy is just one way of approaching cuisine and just one culinary opinion.

Best called Redzepi’s approach “the antithesis of the Spanish movement,” while Durack noted that the focus on equipment (for gels, foams and other gastronomic nonsense, led by notable Spanish restaurants) is now moving to a focus on produce. Redzepi says he is about understanding the place, its history, terroir and microclimate; and learning from that.

Is Redzepi bored with French cuisine taking over Scandinavia? After a pause, yes, he says, mindful of a room full of chefs, including Best on the panel with him. But he’s keen on changing the paradigm; if only the mindset of some. He says encouragingly, if not pleadingly, “Plant the seed, and see what comes up”.

And that seems to be what he’s done in his short stint in Sydney. The room full of chefs were talking about it and everyone else was thinking about it. Indeed, there’s probably a time and place for foraging for our food – the trouble is working out when and where.

Vegetables gifted from Rene Redzepi at the Sydney Opera House


Nugmeg said...

Wow! This's brilliant. Reading y'r post transferred me back to that night :D

Tina said...

Thanks Nugmeg - I hope you did something fun with your vegies :)

Anna (Morsels and Musings) said...

hope you don't mind but i included your post in the crave week 1 food bloggers round-up

Tina said...

Hi Anna - What a great idea! Great work rounding it all up too!

Forager @ The Gourmet Forager said...

Great write up! Felt like I didn't miss out on the night!

Tina said...

Hi Forager - Thanks! Glad you "made it" too :)


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