Every morning René Redzepi, his wife Nadine, friends and colleagues work out among the apple trees in the communal garden behind their house in Christianshavn in Copenhagen. After exercising, the atmosphere relaxes as everyone pitches in to help with breakfast. Johan Andersen, the personal trainer, separates egg yolks and drops them into soy sauce; Nadine carries a pot of steamed Japanese rice to the table outside the back door. These are followed by butter, sliced avocado, fruity-flavoured Mexican chilli flakes and a huge crusty chunk of sourdough bread – made by Richard Hart, former head baker of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco who has spent the summer perfecting his loaves in a test kitchen at Noma, the restaurant opened by Redzepi and Claus Meyer in 2004.
“We eat whatever is left over in the fridge for breakfast” explains Redzepi, opening a small box. “We discovered these [Australian black truffles] when we had our pop-up in Sydney and now we use them as a flavouring at Noma.” They’re scattered over a tasty slice of celeriac shawarma from his summer vegetable menu.
It’s an energising start to the day. As Redzepi explains, “exercising for me is all about flexibility and energy. I want to feel as though I could do anything – climb, crawl or walk on my hands.”
That attitude simmers through his cooking. At 40, he has long been regarded as one of the most talented and influential chefs in the world. Thomas Rode Andersen, who employed him as a sous chef in the Michelin-starred Kong Hans Kaelder in Copenhagen in 2000 says, “René approaches exercise like he approaches everything. He knows it’s going to be hard, but he never gives up, never complains and tries his hardest to achieve his goals.”
It’s 15 years since Redzepi and Meyer, an entrepreneur, opened Noma in an old warehouse on Strandgade, a bleak waterfront in Copenhagen. Its name was a portmanteau of Nordisk (Nordic) and Mad (food) and it had one defining rule: only Nordic produce was to be used. Working with the seasons, this created a new lexicon of wild and cultivated ingredients. Redzepi’s aim was to convey a sense of time and place with each dish. Summer meadows might be evoked with tartare of musk ox with wood sorrel and tarragon emulsion; winter woods could be tasted in finely sliced chestnuts, walnuts, bleak (a small type of carp) roe, birch wine and rye crumbs. What is now known as the Nordic food movement had begun.
Accolades followed. Noma was awarded two Michelin stars and voted number one in the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list four times. In a restless search for perfection, Redzepi sought new projects and fresh ideas, which included pop-up restaurants in Japan, Australia and Mexico, all keeping with his mission of using only local food that would represent a time and place to the eater. In Japan, he served live prawns; in Mexico, ant larvae and jackfruit. As Rode Andersen says, “what’s amazing about Noma is that you never know what is going to hit you when you go there.”
Now Redzepi has reinvented Noma itself. In 2017 he closed the old restaurant and, together with the Bjarke Ingels Group, Copenhagen-based architects, transformed an old, listed, naval-mine store into the new Noma which opened last year. They created a modern space that has the look and feel of a community of long, low-built Danish farmsteads – but is equipped with specialised fermentation rooms, test kitchens and Mexican-inspired barbecues.
We set off by bike to visit Matt Orlando, an American who was head chef at Noma before leaving to open his own restaurant, Amass, in a semi-industrial wasteland by the harbour. We chat on the way. “The profession has changed a lot,” Redzepi says. “When I started it was not a glamorous thing to do; the attitude was if you failed as a Hell’s Angel, you could always become a cook.” Redzepi became a chef on a whim after being kicked out of school when he was 15. “My best friend started culinary school here in Copenhagen, and as I didn’t have any other plans, I decided to join him.”
Sitting in the organic vegetable garden at Amass, we chew peppery green radish pods plucked from a nearby plant and ultra-sweet Sungold cherry tomatoes. Small finches flit between spikes of yellow-seeded dill flowers.
Orlando says “there was a time when it was considered sacrilegious to have tomatoes on your menu, but not now – if they’re grown here. It’s the same with eggplants, lemongrass and ginger”. Redzepi adds: “Yes, there is a big organic movement here now and the farms are much more diverse. For the last six years I’ve been asked ‘is the Nordic Food Movement over?’. But I think it has a new energy because, as more foreigners settle here, Nordic food is becoming richer with influences coming in from all over the world.” His cooking at Noma reflects this change, with new dishes like chilli-spiked, rosehip-leather “chorizo” with quail’s egg.
We move on to visit another alumnus, Rosio Sanchez (pictured main image), a Mexican-American pastry chef who has converted Copenhagen foodies into loving Mexican food with Sanchez, a restaurant, and taco stalls. The dishes she creates include elements of locally grown food – from her lightly salted, sliced raw brill served in a rhubarb and habanero juice with currants and physalis, to beef sirloin with pasilla-chilli salsa wrapped in blanched cabbage. “There is a feeling of generosity and honesty about Mexican food” enthuses Redzepi, “it gets straight to the point.”
The concept of using every part of food, in particular by pickling, fermenting and drying, is integral to the Noma psyche. Redzepi is always challenging himself with questions like: what culinary techniques make cucumber skin taste exquisite? Would wild rose petals augment an amazing blackberry kombucha? How best to preserve the morels each summer? What can be turned into miso?
Even traditional ideas of seasons have been challenged. Noma divides food into three menus: October marks the start of the Game and Forest Season, and when I visit in the summer, “Reindeer feast” is scrawled on a white board in the test kitchen above a list of every potentially edible bit of the reindeer, including heart, tongue and penis. The Seafood Season follows in mid-January, followed by the Vegetable Season in June.
I ask Redzepi what inspires him when formulating the dishes. “It starts with the question: how do we want people to feel? In winter it’s about freshness, plunging into the ocean, salt crackling on the skin. In summer it’s about eating small things, nibbling, using your hand and foraging. In autumn we think about people gathered together to feast with platters and animals on them.”
Later, we cycle through the leafy paths of Dyssen, part of “the Free State of Christiania”, an independent commune founded by free-minded squatters in an abandoned military area in 1971. “I often come here to forage for onion cress in the spring and blackberries and elderberries in the autumn.” Redzepi says. “It represents what happens when people commit to a community with a vision. To me Copenhagen without Christiania is impossible.” Soon we’re passing through its colourful streets. “I used to come here a lot when I was younger, there were great parties, and that’s the best sauna [Badehuset] in Copenhagen.”
Foraged ingredients are integral to his cooking. The King’s Garden, a park in Copenhagen, is a fertile ground for Noma chefs who pick beech shoots in spring and mulberries in summer. When we pause by a mulberry tree, Redzepi shins into its boughs to collect some fragrant fruit. “This was my childhood. I’d climb up into my grandmother’s cherry tree and just eat cherries for two hours.” The mulberries make an appearance later in a ceviche of grilled cucumber and summer berries with arbol chilli oil and sea buckthorn.
The following evening I gaze out of Noma’s huge windows at the drifts of wild flowers, reed beds and dark rippling water that lies beyond. My senses have been pulled this way and that through the course of an extraordinary dinner. I have tasted wild greens, pickled pinecones, plankton-dusted seaweed, woody barbecued onion, fragrant bee pollen with summer flowers and tofu-like pumpkin-seed curd with grilled rose. I have tasted a Danish summer.
Sybil Kapoor stayed at the Radisson Collection Royal Hotel, Copenhagen