Special Sauce: René Redzepi on Opening Noma at 25 [1/2]

It was a thrill to sit across the table from René Redzepi to record this episode of Special Sauce. The pioneering chef-restaurateur is the force behind Copenhagen’s Noma, which has been declared the best restaurant in the world no fewer than four times. As you might easily imagine, our conversation was far-reaching and revealing.

Redzepi and I started off by talking about his new book The Noma Guide to Fermentation, co-authored by Noma’s fermentation lab director David Zilber. Fermentation, he told me, is “basically adult Legos you play with. And then as we started fermenting, it was like two basketfuls of them and it’s up to us as cooks to figure out how to build with them and what goes what, where, and how. And once you figure that out, cooking becomes easier and more delicious.” René is a true believer in experimenting with fermentation, and recommends home cooks give it a shot. He told me that he thinks once people “discover and figure out how to use fermented products in their daily lives, [their experience] cooking will be better and easier.”

Our conversation transitioned from fermentation to Redzepi’s childhood, which was partially spent in Macedonia. “It was a very rural lifestyle,” he explained. “If you wanted to visit a neighbor, you went on a horse….No refrigerators at home, every single meal was cooked. They were farmers, they worked the land. If you wanted a glass of milk, you milked the cow. If you wanted butter, you had to churn the cream.” Redzepi said his extremely modest childhood helped fuel his passion, adding that “the reason why I have had the drive that I have is because when you grow up with nothing, and even going hungry to bed often as a child, this urge to make it was just a really, really powerful urge I had when we first started. I wanted to make it no matter what.”

How did that drive propel him to open Noma 15 years ago, at the tender age of 25? And why did he close up shop at the height of the restaurant’s acclaim? To get the answers to those two intriguing questions I’m afraid you’ll have to tune into this week’s Special Sauce. You’ll be glad you did. I promise.


Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life.

René Redzepi: I used to despise those stories when I would read about the great French chefs and they all had this story, “Oh, I used to watch my grandmother cook.” I was like, “Come on, man. How can all of you have the same story?” You know? It simply can’t be true. But then, it started to dawn on me that this is my own background.

EL: Today on Special Sauce we have a very special guest, René Redzepi, chef owner of Noma in Copenhagen, which was named the Best Restaurant in the World in 2014. Nonetheless, René and his crew closed that Noma and opened a spectacular re-imagined version of the restaurant very recently, right René?

RR: Mm-hmm.

EL: How many months has the new place been open?

RR: 10 months.

EL: 10 months, wow. Anyway, welcome to Special Sauce, René. It is really a pleasure to have you here, really.

RR: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

EL: And congratulations on you and your fermentation lab director, David Zilber, just published The Noma Guide to Fermentation.

RR: Yes, we did.

EL: So you’re like a multi-faceted dude. Big props to you for the new book, for the recently reopened restaurant. I have so many things I want to talk to you about. So let’s get right to it.

RR: Yes.

EL: First, tell us about your fermentation lab. Many people listening will want you to define, first, fermentation, and then a fermentation lab. So what is fermentation? And how did you come to have a fermentation lab at Noma?

RR: Well, on a very basic level, fermentation is the altering of an ingredient through microbes. And we have fermentation in our daily lives all the time. A cup of coffee, that’s a product of fermentation. A glass of beer, wine, cheese, bread, but fermentation also so much more. It’s also soy sauce and misos. It’s drinks, meditational drinks like a cool glass of white wine, and there’s also food. And particularly in food, it is building blocks for how to make dishes.

RR: And so that’s how we stumbled into cooking with fermentations because we figured out that through fermented foods, we could make more building blocks for our cuisine. So many years ago, when we opened 15 years ago to be exact, November 23rd.

EL: Who’s counting?

RR: Yeah, I am. I was 25 and we stumbled into nature searching for ingredients. And there, we discovered what came to be the beginning of Noma, particularly all through all the foraged foods. We discovered a wilderness that yielded so much flavor and potential. What happened soon after that is that we wanted to bring those ingredients into the next season and particularly into the dreaded winter.

EL: Right, where the growing season is nonexistent.

RR: Nothing grows and we would have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of kilos of say, wild rose petals. And how are we going to bring that into the next season in a way that’s beyond drying rose petal leaves? And so we stumbled into fermentation. We started reading about the idea of fermentation. We discovered that it used to be a part of our region. We used to do this to survive the cold winters, but of course with Scandinavia becoming as rich as we are right now, it just disappeared. All that disappeared. We forgot about it. Today in the supermarket, it’s spring every day if you want it to. We don’t need to do these things anymore, but we can do it for flavor and to root us in a place.

So we started reading up on that and we also discovered that in the world, particularly in Asia, there’s an incredibly active community of fermented products and fermentors that is so sophisticated and very active. You can find artisanal miso makers that’s like 17th generation and it’s unbelievable quality.

So inspired by all of this, we at one point decided, let’s take the role of preserving food i.e. fermenting and simply remove it from the daily chores of the kitchen. We won’t be standing chopping onions and sort of with our backhand also throwing yeast and molds to the foods and hope it goes well. So we built a space for it and we hired people for it. The idea was, if we find the right people and we just leave them alone, what can come out of it?

EL: Did you look at the University of Fermentation in Copenhagen? Where do you find people to do this?

RR: That was the thing because it doesn’t really exist. You will have people that are specialized fermentation, but they’re like in medical. They’re fermenting specific things for medicine.

EL: Or body parts or whatever.

RR: Yeah, stuff like that. For food, it was very hard. Basically, you start searching within like hippie communities. The first time we found a scoby for a kombucha, to make kombucha, we had to go to the freetown of Denmark of Copenhagen, which is called Christiania. It’s a bunch of hippies that live in a community there. And that’s where we found it, of course.

But for us, we first hired a PhD in flavor chemistry. She’s American, her name is Dr. Ariel Johnson. She’s not with us anymore, she’s now at MIT. And then there was a bunch of cooks that were particularly science interested and had a knack for these things. And so we just put them together in what was first four shipping containers that we bought dirt cheap. They were like 20 years old. And then we combined that with the second cheapest kitchen from Ikea, actually. Really. That’s how we-

EL: We did that at the first Serious Eats kitchen too.

RR: Well, we had the same club then. And then we built these chambers of fermentation where we control the humidity and the temperatures. And then we started growing molds, yeast, and bacteria. And suddenly, we didn’t have just five, 10 different things to use in a kitchen. We started having like 100 different fermented products.

EL: Wow. It’s crazy because you said in the book that people have always associated your restaurant closely with wild food and foraging. But the truth is, is that the defining pillar of Noma is fermentation.

RR: It’s our bloodline. It’s in everything from dessert to starters to main courses, even in drinks. It is such an incredible practical way to be cooking and that’s why we put it in a book because I believe in it so much. I believe that people, when they discover and figure out how to use fermented products in their daily lives, cooking will be better and easier. It’s like having, to us, we always describe it as before fermenting, we had like a handful of Legos.

Fermentation is basically adult Legos you play with. And then as we started fermenting, it was like two basketfuls of them and it’s up to us as cooks to figure out how to build with them and what goes what, where, and how. And once you figure that out, cooking becomes easier and more delicious.

EL: That’s interesting. Did your cooks know how to utilize it when they first started?

RR: No, and honestly, we’re still learning how to do that. The fermentation lab, they keep producing all these things. What was it lately? It was a chocolate vinegar.

EL: I’ve been making chocolate vinegar, actually, for about 20 years.

RR: Oh, man.

EL: You just didn’t know it. Could’ve saved you a lot of time and energy.

RR: We should call you up next time. Is that for real?

EL: No, totally made that up.

RR: This was a chocolate vinegar with the best chocolate I’ve tasted from Mexico. It was this clear liquid that tasted like chocolate and then with vinegar and it was unbelievable. Honestly, it’s unbelievable. And how do you use that? Where? Is that with fish?

EL: Are we talking salads, fish, or dessert?

RR: We’re not 100 percent sure. That’s the thing about new stuff and newness, is that you’re paving the road as you walk. There’s nothing laid out in front of you. So we figured these things out all the time and I guess that’s also what we enjoy and that’s also sometimes the problem of working at Noma.

EL: You like being confronted by the unfamiliar.

RR: I don’t know what it is.

EL: That’s what I’ve concluded after reading about you. You’re not comfortable with comfort. You don’t want people to be comfortable in terms of their work in the kitchen. You want your guests to be comfortable, obviously, but I think you thrive on, not chaos, but pushing the envelope.

RR: Organized chaos.

EL: Yeah.

RR: You know, as we were closing the old Noma, we were about nine years and this is six years ago we made the decision to close Noma. And we were very successful.

EL: Yeah, you were crazy successful. Why did you close Noma?

RR: Well, we closed it because have you ever gone to work and feel like it’s starting to be a routine?

EL: See, you hate routine more than anyone I know. Maybe except for me, I hate routine too.

RR: Yeah. So this was a thing. You start going to work and we had all this success. And success is amazing, but the problem with it is that it somehow limits you. Somehow you start only looking at those exact things that made your success or the most visible parts of your success.

EL: And you’re a searcher.

RR: And that becomes who you are. You become defined by that. And suddenly you’re moving those same pieces around again and again and again. And the decision was sort of made, just a gut instinct. Okay. We’re young. Let’s do it again. Why don’t we just close up? And then we’ll see what happens. So we put all the wheels into motion and we decide to close. And honestly it was no more than two weeks after that we found this incredible space that’s not very far from actually the old Noma. And it’s on a lake. It’s surrounded by the fortification of Copenhagen that’s built 400 years ago, which means everything is listed. It’s in the community of Christiania, the old hippie community. So there’s a-

EL: So you found a lot of fermentation people.

RR: Fermentation. And it’s fairly quiet, actually, and green, the neighborhood. It was perfect. And we fell in love with it and then we just start planning for a big move.

EL: But you were starting from scratch, right? I mean there wasn’t a building. There was nothing, right?

RR: We built everything. It was from scratch. Oh, yeah. From scratch. I mean there was one old building that was made in 1939, due to the pending Second World War. It was made as a bomb storage.

EL: Wow.

RR: Actually mines, ocean mines. And it was derelict. It was ruined. There was graffiti. People used it as a drug den.

EL: Wow. Did you keep that structure?

RR: That’s there. Yeah. That’s there. I mean we cleaned it up. The fermentation lab is actually in there today. Funny story, when we were starting to dig on the property, at a certain point one of those big diggers, I don’t know what you call them, hit a piece of metal or so they thought. And it was actually an old mine they hid in the ground.

EL: Wow.

RR: And I like that story, the fact that there was a bomb right underneath or feet. And that’s where we’re moving in.

EL: I can sort of figure out why that story.

RR: So we started planning for this, well like I said, almost six years ago and it’s been a crazy ride to open this place. And 10 months now we’ve been open.

EL: I read a piece about the reopening and there were many struggles that you didn’t think you were going to be dealing with that you had to deal with because you’re building something from the ground up, right? You’re not superimposing your will on an existing structure.

RR: Yeah. That was the thing. And then because it’s sort of a historical … It’s a historical site, so it will always be a problem in Copenhagen. It’s an old town. So every time you dig in a historical site, you have to have an archeologist next to you.

EL: Wow.

RR: And if the archeologist sees a little bit in the ground, it could be whatever, everything gets halted and the archeologist jumps into the ground and starts will the little broomstick actually figuring out if there’s anything. At a certain point they found an old wall in the ground. And the whole build was stopped for like three months. But at that time we didn’t know what it was. If it was something important, it was over.

EL: Wow.

RR: But because of that we were also ended up being delayed almost seven months and we had the entire team on staff.

EL: You’re going through a lot of cash because you’re paying those people, and you at some point you started taking reservations.

RR: Yep.

EL: But you were taking reservations without the restaurant being open.

RR: Oh, yeah. You can see many, I guess, reality shows about, oh, the day before they’re painting. But two weeks before there was no roof in the buildings, really.

EL: I don’t mean to laugh.

RR: There were 80 craftsmen building 20 hours a day. It was insanely expensive. Plus the 100 team of Noma were on the building site helping, carrying, cleaning, building. I mean we were there doing stuff, so it was almost 200 people for one month straight.

EL: Working day and night.

RR: Day and night to finish this project. And then the builders were like so tired as we’re done. “We’re done,” they said. But we’re just getting started. That was time for us to actually do the work. It was a crazy time. Honestly, it’s the craziest I’ve ever tried.

EL: Do you think you might have pushed the envelope a little too far?

RR: Possibly yes. Possibly yes. But I mean as you’re building everybody’s saying, “Oh, this is no problem. We’ll make it.” And then they find an old wall and then this and that. And then the glass shatters. And I mean suddenly you’re seven month delayed.

EL: People must be very loyal to you. One of the things I’ve noticed about the people that you hire and that spend time at Noma and then when they leave they do really interesting things. And there’s a guy that’s trying to help serving healthy school lunches. I forgot, he was your executive chef, right?

RR: He was. Dan Giusti.

EL: Yeah. Then he moved to New London, Connecticut, to try to figure out how to serve good school meals for a dollar and a quarter. And now he’s in the Bronx, right?

RR: He’s in New York now.

EL: So how do you hire?

RR: I mean I don’t know. Again, it’s one of these gut feelings. The most difficult thing is figuring out what people are good at, because in a kitchen you might have somebody that’s excellent at frying fish or cooking fish, but doesn’t mean that they can actually lead people. And the person who was not very good at frying fish might be amazing at organizing a crew. And because you’re very creative doesn’t mean that you’re a good leader. And so figuring all these things out, that is I think my biggest role today, actually, being in the middle of all this. For instance on the book cover there’s a person called David Zilber. He’s Canadian. And I mean he’s an incredible, incredible cook. His mind is like unlike anyone’s. And he’s taken this fermentation program to a place where I could never have hoped for.

EL: And he says that he wrote you a blind letter. And he said he wrote a letter to three I think, Eleven Madison Park and Alinea and you, and you were the only one that responded.

RR: Well, it was like a 32-page letter, something like that. And it was filled with all of these references.

EL: No wonder they didn’t answer. Who wants to read a 32-page letter?

RR: We did. I mean it wasn’t 32. Maybe it was like four or five, but still, most people are like when you hire cooks they put where they worked and explain tiny bit about themselves, typically full of spelling mistakes and then that’s it. This was a different story. And he was a sous-chef at the best restaurant in Canada at the time. He wanted to come and just take whatever job there was available. And as soon as he arrived at the restaurant, it was clear this guy was special. In the break when people were sitting having some dinner and they might be on Instagram checking up on all the socials and stuff, he’d be reading books about quantum physics. And honestly-

EL: Fascinating.

RR: … his mind is just set up in a different way to what we usually see in a kitchen.

EL: Yeah, someone once described him as the Wikipedia of chefs.

RR: Yeah, that’s true. He has the answer to most things that you don’t know about. He will know or he will find out about it. I mean every day of the restaurant we have this educational moment. So before each service we have like five minute moment in which a team member, but typically it’s David that does it, comes and explains to us a topic that one other team member have requested. So for instance, it could be anything from where do oceans come from? And then that person is to investigate and read and compile it into like a five minute …

EL: Presentation.

RR: … presentation. And then we go off and we go into service. And David, he’s extremely good at doing those. Like extremely good.

EL: I bet.

RR: We learn about the world in an incredible way.

EL: And he has this fascinating background because he’s half Afro-Caribbean and half Ashkenazic Jew, I believe I read.

RR: It’s true. Yeah, when he talks about food, he talks about gefilte fish and Jamaican patties at the same time.

EL: That’s probably one of the coolest things ever. Talking about gefilte fish and meat patties in the same sentence incredibly, right?

RR: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely, that’s him.

EL: Did he ever make meat patties for family meal?

RR: No.

EL: Oh, come on, man. I want to talk to him about that.

RR: Yeah.

EL: So I want to talk to you a little bit about the origins of Noma and your story because from what I’ve read you grew up … Your dad was an Albanian-born Macedonian.

RR: Back then it was called Yugoslavia.

EL: Yugoslavian. And there wasn’t a lot of money in your house. You very movingly answered a question by saying often you were eating toast when you were waiting for his next paycheck and yet somehow you … just imagine yourself being somewhere else. How did that come about? Do you think that being an outsider in a relatively homogenous country like Denmark was an inspiration to you?

RR: Could even have been the decisive factor actually. I mean yes I grew up in … to Denmark, a mixed background. And my father, he was a Muslim, he passed away recently and I grew up eating predominantly Turkish type food, Albanian Turkish food. I never really grew up with the traditional Danish staples. Even here in the Danish stores and stuff like that. When it was time for Noma to open, it was actually amazing because you’d go on research trips and you taste the flatbread, and I’d be like wow this is amazing. And then the person next to me would say, “It’s just flatbread I ate that yesterday.”

EL: And you didn’t.

RR: And I didn’t, so you saw it in a different light. You didn’t have that upbringing where it was just the daily stuff. And so that helped me tremendously. What also helped me in my background was, we grew up partially in the old Macedonia. And it was a very rural lifestyle, if you wanted to visit a neighbor you went on a horse. Water would be sometimes three, four hours in the day that you have running water. If you showered, there was no hot water by the way. If you showered it would be, you put this heater thing in to water and as this tub of water would be hot you would bathe in it. No refrigerators at home, every single meal was cooked. They were farmers, they worked the land. If you wanted a glass of milk you milked the cow. If you wanted butter you had to churn the cream.

EL: Which is sort of got you to what you try to do at Noma.

RR: I guess so, I used to despise those stories, or read about the great French chefs and they all had this story, oh I used to watch my grandmother cook, and I was like come on man, how can all of you have the same story? It simply can’t be true, but then it started to dawn on me, this is my own background that’s happening right now. This is the reason why I have had the drive that I have is because when you grow up with nothing, and even going hungry to bed often as a child, this urge to make it was just a really, really powerful urge I had when we first started. I wanted to make it no matter what.

EL: I could tell, you had a Madonna-like focus. I did a little bit of work in the music business and I met a very young Madonna, and what you could tell is how focused she was on getting where she wanted to go, not that what you do is anything like Madonna. But I do feel that sort of intensity and focus and where did it come from? Did it come from either of your parents or …

RR: No my parents they were super cool always, they were like we don’t care what you do. If you want to sweep the streets, as long as you’re happy with that, they … there was never any pressure, I mean often with immigrant families in Denmark there would be these unrealistic expectations to the kids. You have to be an engineer, you have to be a doctor or something like that. My parents never said that at all.

EL: Really?

RR: No, never. So I don’t know, I think I just wanted to succeed. You just wanted to make something more out of yourself and make sure that somehow the sacrifices they made, because they made plenty would be put in to good use. That I would make sure to grab this opportunity. And at first it wasn’t in the cards that I was going to become the chef that I’ve become, or the Noma to become the restaurant that it has become. Because I left ninth grade in school, and it was in dishonor.

EL: You mean they left you?

RR: They left me, and what do you do when you’re left with nowhere to go? Back then in Denmark they checked a box whether you were eligible for high school or not. And if you weren’t eligible for high school you were not going to high school. And I was not eligible for high school. This is the Danish style of high school, it’s called gymnasium.

EL: Right.

RR: And so there was nothing to do but take a craftsman’s education. And luckily for me my best friend at the time, he always wanted to be a cook so I just tagged along.

EL: Really?

RR: Yeah.

EL: That’s how it happened?

RR: That’s how it started.

EL: So you really didn’t have any idea that would be your path. It was a path that presented itself.

RR: Completely, I feel like that’s been the story of my life, and then even more luckily when we went in to the school and the first week there was a competition in school. And we joined up in teams, me and my friend, it was teams of two. And we had to cook a dish to our liking, and it had to be judged on the flavor and also how it was dressed on the plate. And that moment for me was pivotal, I’m 15 years old, I never thought about food before.

EL: Right.

RR: I didn’t even know what I liked.

EL: Food was fuel.

RR: Food was just something that you did, I was worrying about girls. But suddenly there’s this competition happening, and then you’re there and you’re like, what do I select? What do I … you’re asking yourself the question, what do I like about food?

EL: Right.

RR: And that question was a big moment for me. So as you think you start flicking through magazines and books, and you used to go to the library, you couldn’t google anything. And I flick these pages of magazines and books and suddenly there’s this image of a roast chicken. And to me it was like, wow this is it. We have to cook the roast chicken, because suddenly I remembered the roast chicken is actually one of my favorite things to eat when we had that as children. And it was a rare thing, a rare treat for us to get. And I suddenly started remembering all these things from my childhood that in Macedonia when we had guests suddenly, then you’d have meat.

EL: Right.

RR: Typically it’s just beans or lentils or something, and sometimes the door would knock and there would be guests. And my aunts they would then catch a chicken and chop the head off and pluck the feathers and roast it in the wood fired oven. And we’d watch it as it went from pale to golden. And you could remember all these sounds of the crackling chicken, and the steam that rises and it would cook the chicken. We cooked it with a cashew nut sauce, and I remember to me thinking, even as we chose the cashew nut sauce, why the cashew nut sauce? Because I had never heard of cashew nuts before, but I loved nuts. But we did it because it was something new. And I was like, why do I suddenly think like this? I couldn’t even understand myself, you know why does this matter?

EL: Right, so interesting.

RR: And then we cooked it, and I remember also as we were dressing the chicken, my friend Michael was his name, he was about to put the sauce on the chicken and I stopped him. And I still remember that feeling of thinking, hang on. In myself this goes on in like a second. Why does it matter where the sauce is? Why am I stopping him now, I don’t know myself. Where does it … I really remember all this.

EL: That’s so crazy that you really don’t know any better or any different but you’re still asking the question.

RR: I just in myself, I just said Michael can we put the sauce right here. And I thought there was a perfect little spot in between the rice and the chicken where the sauce could be, so you could see all the ingredients and then we did that. And then we won for best plating, but we were number two in taste because there was a trained butcher who went on to be a cook, and he did a ham salad that was unbeatable apparently.

EL: Well you came in second though.

RR: Yeah we came in second, I was 15 at that time. And this was a complete transformation for me, from not caring about school. Not really considering anything other than …

EL: And not thinking about what you wanted to do in the future.

RR: Not at all, I didn’t even consider it.

EL: So Noma in a way was a happy accident.

RR: Yeah.

EL: Thank you so much for sharing your Special Sauce with us, René Redzepi. If you’re interested in thought provoking writing about food, pick up a copy of the fermentation bible, and if you ever find yourself in Copenhagen head to Noma. So long Serious Eaters, thank you René it’s really been a pleasure.

RR: Thank you so much.

EL: We’ll see you next time.

RR: Yeah.

EL: I have so many things I want to talk to you about.