René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma has changed the way chefs everywhere think. But as writer Anya von Bremzen explains, his influence goes far beyond food.
The 37-year-old chef René Redzepi is a powerful storyteller. When he communicates, the world listens. I’m particularly struck by a story of his about growing up in Copenhagen and going to Danish friends’ houses for meals. “The food was set on the table,” he recalls, “and we ate in total silence.” Only after the dishes were cleared did conversation and fun resume, “like there was this Protestant ban on food being enjoyable, like food was just sustenance.”
Equally memorable are Redzepi’s tales of his annual visits to rural Macedonia, his father’s homeland. There, milk came right from the cow, and chickens were slaughtered for dinner; kids foraged for berries and chestnuts while women made refreshing drinks out of rose petals. The visceral physicality of it all—plus the generosity at the table—represented another reality. It’s one that Redzepi embraced when he opened Noma in 2003 and became an obsessive nourisher.
Seven years later, when Redzepi was just 31, Noma grabbed the number-one spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list from Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli in Spain. Redzepi went on to transform Scandinavia from a domain of herring, meatballs and plain Protestant meals into the gastronomic epicenter of the new global zeitgeist. Today the Noma effect is a given in its Scandinavian vicinity, where a celebration of local foodstuffs (perhaps meant to exorcise all those sad, silent meals) has led the whole region to embrace cloudberries, ramson, yarrow and elk’s tongue.
But while Redzepi has single-handedly empowered high-end cooking in Scandinavia, his influence around the world is unprecedented. Says Swedish journalist Mattias Kroon, “Most enduring has been his international effect— the Nordic-style bistro with wooden tables, ceramic plates, natural wines and short seasonal menus.” We all recognize that Noma-esque restaurant. The organic design and laconic menu language (carrot, licorice, mustard oil). The flavors that lean strongly umami, with cooks doubling as waiters, Metallica in the kitchen and a dude-chef who communes with wild things in the woods and lacto-ferments—that is, pickles—ramps. From Bar Sajor in Seattle to Luksus in Brooklyn and Asta in Boston; from Manfreds in Copenhagen to Volt in Stockholm; from Septime in Paris to Lyle’s in London: “The Noma spirit,” says Kroon, “is changing global restaurant culture.”
Cloudy wine and fermented kohlrabi fatigue can set in. Two summers in Copenhagen have left me ready to fling the Noma-knockoff charred onions and hay-roasted celery roots back at the copycat chefs. Yet is this the full measure of Redzepi’s influence? Not at all, argues the thoughtful American chef Ryan Poli, who recently worked atNoma. “Chefs copy René’s plating—the flowers, the twigs, the free-form composition. But they don’t get the essence of Noma or the depth of René’s scientific research.” Ultimately, it’s his philosophy that inspires, rather than any particular dish. Ferran Adrià handed chefs technical and conceptual tool kits to become instant auteurs. “René,” says Poli, “showed us that the tools are around us, in nature.”
Zeitgeist, of course, is all about timing. Redzepi’s first 50 Best win in 2010 came at a perfect moment to position him as a generational leader. That year, Adrià had announced that El Bulli was closing just as a backlash was brewing against all the hydrocolloids of so-called molecular cooking. As everyone wondered, “What’s next?” Redzepi appeared—a young, handsome, socially committed, unstoppably creative love child of Alice Waters and Adrià, able to gracefully unite the socially charged farm-to-table approach and science-driven, high-concept modernism, two previously irreconcilable movements. Suddenly, the whole world was abuzz about Noma’s farmers and foragers, about the extraordinary sense of place conveyed by dishes like radishes growing from a pot of trompe l’oeil soil.
Since 2010 Redzepi has appeared on Time’s 100 Most Influential People list—he’s also graced the cover—and topped the 50 Best list three more times. And to think that the world’s most relevant chef doesn’t have a restaurant empire or a TV cooking show—which, of course, lends power and authenticity to his unique indie brand, paradoxically cementing his influence.
Although Redzepi’s hyper-naturalist style strikes many as radical, aside from its far-out Nordic-ness, it’s not exactly trailblazing. Long before journalists went foraging with the wunderkind from Copenhagen, they picked wild edibles with the flamboyant three-Michelin-starred French chef Marc Veyrat of Auberge de l’Eridan. Alain Passard of l’Arpège in Paris has been shifting the spotlight from animal protein to vegetables since 2001; Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz, near San Sebastián, has been distilling Basque landscapes into dishes of stunning metaphysical depth for just as long. Not to forget Michel Bras, the French terroir-modernist worshipped by countless chefs‚ including Redzepi himself. Bras’s profound meditation on nature in the form of a multi-ingredient salad called gargouillou—conceived in 1978, way before Instagram—might be the most imitated dish on the planet. Yet, the monk-like Bras and the cerebral Aduriz weren’t destined to become the faces of a movement. It was Redzepi, says Stockholm-based food and wine writer Per Styregard, who was able to define and articulate a compelling vision of locavorism, to practice it so uncompromisingly—and to so effectively communicate it to others.
Redzepi’s own influences are intriguingly diverse, and he embraces them readily—from The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller (“I was amazed you can incorporate pop food into fine dining”) to the Swedish army manual on how to survive in the wilderness. A season at El Bulli in 2001 taught Redzepi that everything’s possible. During a stint at the French Laundry the following year, he had his “mind blown” by California’s farmland and got to eat the “best-ever” lamb chops garnished with wild thyme flowers at Chez Panisse. “The exchange rate was brutal. I hyperventilated over the prices,” he says. “But I caught the farm-to-table bug almost subconsciously. I guess I’m pretty good,” he admits, “at looking back at experiences and absorbing the best.”
It’s worth noting that Bras and Passard operate very haute dining establishments that serve ingredients like foie gras. As Swedish journalist Kroon points out, Redzepi redefined the notion of value and luxury the way midcentury Scandinavian designers did 50 years before him: “He asked the world why a tin of caviar should be more precious than a basket of rose petals that takes 10 people to forage.” What’s more, without dogma or preachiness, Redzepi has shifted the conversation from aesthetics to ethics. His interest in the ants you might have seen on countless Instagram feeds crawling up still-twitching shrimp at Noma’s Tokyo pop-up earlier this year? It’s as much for the possibility of feeding the planet with alternative proteins as for the citrusy flavor. (In 2013, Redzepi’s Nordic Food Lab got a major grant from The Velux Foundations to research edible insects.) As for the work of Noma’s fermentation lab supervised by PhD candidate Arielle Johnson: The grasshopper garum and “peaso” (pea miso) open up a universe of accents and seasonings deployed in so many dishes at Noma. But in his typically rational-romantic way, Redzepi talks of his quest for a magic bacteria that will help convert tons of global food waste into something delicious.
And what about charisma? “When I first met René, I was totally energized,” recalls Noma alumnus Blaine Wetzel of Willows Inn on Lummi Island in Washington state. “I could listen to him forever, even if he didn’t cook a thing.” During my own first encounter a few years back, Redzepi struck me as the epitome of a leader: driven, eloquent, passionate, able to couch his social vision in story form, to appeal on a deep emotional level. Two decades ago Adrià galvanized the world with his own brand of charisma, but his intense, mad-genius persona may have been too foreign (he never learned English) to inspire a personal, emotional bond with young chefs.
If Adrià was an exotic prophet, the young, approachable Redzepi with his sneakers and jeans and expletives is a buddy-evangelist. He’s an infinitely relatable role model for a generation of chefs seeking deeper purpose—plus a cool global food party to join. The son of a Danish mother and Macedonian father, who drove a cab for a living, Redzepi also bridges different worlds as a person. He’s both Nordic and Balkan, with an immigrant’s outsize generosity and a Scandinavian’s common sense and social awareness. Even Redzepi’s flaws make him more human: his outbursts of temper, his dogged competitiveness that might come from memories of being a “scruffy, short, aggressive Macedonian kid in a school full of athletic, supertall Danes.”
“René is genius at building a team and spreading leadership spirit,” added Brazilian chef Alex Atala. We were all gathered in Copenhagen for MAD, the annual food symposium that Redzepi founded in 2011 to foster a new kind of food community. “Isn’t MAD proof that René is the most influential chef in the world?” chimed in Spain’s Albert Adrià. “Look! We’re all here together,” he added pointing to Atala, New York City’s David Chang, Italy’s Massimo Bottura and San Francisco’s Daniel Patterson.
First-generation chef conferences like Madrid Fusión resembled medical congresses where new techniques were exchanged through demos. MAD reacted against the narrow focus and format, and the corporate sponsorship, convening under its red circus tent a heterogeneous group—a Zimbabwean mushroom forager, a Swiss climate scientist, Alain Ducasse—for a weekend of TED-style inspirational storytelling. At last summer’s MAD (where I was a speaker), 6,000 aspirants competed for just 400 tickets. Backstage, I watched older celebrity chefs prepare for their talks. Jeremiah Tower seemed white as a sheet. Fulvio Pierangelini, a former Italian superstar now trying to reinvent himself, conspicuously addressed his talk just to “dear René.” It was curious to see this reversal of traditional age hierarchies, to watch gray-haired industry titans trying so desperately to fit in with the tattooed generation. But it was also a testament to Redzepi’s role as a uniter.
Ultimately, social action dominated last year’s MAD agenda. Among the Brazilians invited by cocurator Atala was a judge who crusades for better prison food. Californian guerrilla gardener Ron Finley and Lisbon-based activist Isabel Soares, who promotes “ugly fruit” to combat food waste, were the talk of the weekend. I reflected on how drastically the role of chef has changed in Redzepi’s lifetime. “Did anyone ever ask Antonin Carême, Auguste Escoffier or Alexis Soyer their opinions on the environment or social issues?” asked Yale history professor Paul Freedman, a fellow MAD participant.
These days, Peru’s top chef Gastón Acurio is rumored to be contemplating a bid for presidency. Massimo Bottura told me that he’s constantly being approached to run for mayor of Modena. Redzepi is the only chef ever to be included in the World Economic Forum of Young Global Leaders in China, which he attended last year. Catching Redzepi, Atala, Patterson and Bottura together, I asked whether they’d consider running for political office. “No!” Redzepi replied. “We can do more for the planet as chefs.” His friends nodded vigorously.
Yet Redzepi isn’t terribly interested in discussing his influence. “All this talk about legacy,” he told me later with a rational Scandinavian grin, “it muddles your creativity, stops you from having fun. Will anyone give a shit about you 20 years from now unless you’re Gandhi?”
Anya von Bremzen is the author of six books. Her most recent is Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.