I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Noma, but it’s reputedly the “best restaurant in the world,” located in Copenhagen, Denmark and run by a young chef named Rene Redzepi. My daughter, M., surprised me with a gift of his latest publications by Phaidon, a journal, photos and recipe book of a year spent developing new recipes for the restaurant after being named “the best. . .” for three years running.
His initial offering, a large album book called “Noma” was already in my bookshelves, my having opted to purchase it when it first came out due to the unusual and unusually beautiful photographs of food that you could not ever fathom tasting. Even so, I find it rather inspiring to read and look at, if only because it is so independent of mind in the development of flavor and taste which is supposed to equal, food.
Maybe it’s whimsical of me to partake in the experimentation that this kind of culinary pursuit takes, but it appeals to my sense of other-li-ness that I welcome in anything that is tried and true. I mean, of course, people can go and treat themselves to a tasting menu at Daniel Boulud’s restaurants in NYC. or, for that matter, go ramen tasting at Momofuku, David Chang’s hangout that is now being challenged by other ramen spring-ups all over town.
In fact, Redzepi writes fondly about a visit by David Chang to his restaurant when Rene’s second child was born–the very same weekend–and he seems much more interested in how Chang unpacks his cooking knives than belaboring the fact that he’s become a father of two at the same time. It’s an inside look at how cooks, or at least this cook, thinks, nay, is absolutely obsessed with developing something novel and delicious.
In the Journal that Redzepi keeps, he is alarmed that the restaurant is spending more than it is bringing in. For a few months in a row, the ink runs red. Then, he begins to gather the facts that:
a. They serve 20 dishes to each customer.
b. Each dish has at least five ingredients–most of which require advance preparation.
c. There are 111 purveyors from whom they buy supplies; keep track of, pay and store ingredients from.
d. They also forage, clean and store a huge amount of ingredients.
e. Sometimes they are surprised by their suppliers who bring in fresh snails or seafood on a Saturday that is inconvenient because it won’t hold until Monday and the menus are already set for the weekend.
f. Besides preparing menus of 35 plus dishes for 500 customers a week; there is a staff of 70 to feed and clean up after everyday.
One late night after the flow of new ideas from the 35 cooks has gone well, Redzepi noticed a foul smell in one of the rooms downstairs. Someone has neglected to clean fish remains in one of the sinks. Another area was unscrubbed. In a good mood, he starts to clean it up by himself and then blows a fuse, calling every cook at 1:30 in the morning to gather in the kitchens, the whole crew cleaning up EVERYTHING until the place sparkles. This kind of story about how nudging a group to a higher level of teamwork can at the same time also result in backsliding for the most basic of tasks (cleaning things up after yourselves) is apocryphal and amusing.
And Rene Redzepi is only in his mid-thirties. Honestly, I can’t see myself cooking reindeer moss. Or cooking something to resemble or remind one of reindeer moss. But the very stark, austerely beautiful platings that adorn his books, and that same aura which permeates his restaurant are a treat and a treatise for one’s imagination.
So, today, after my hospital ankle appointment when the cast was taken off so that the sutures could be removed, then a new cast put on for another three weeks, I was a little more restrained than usual when we went to do the grocery shopping afterwards. I picked out a couple of endives and a radicchio to make a bitter salad with a honeycrisp apple, walnuts and golden raisins. Maybe a little sour cream and honey in the vinaigrette. Bunches of beets to roast, leeks to cook with potatoes for a creamy Sunday soup; parsnips to accompany a small boeuf bourguinon cooked in the new pot that our friend, B. gave us last week, with some tiny yukon gold potatoes, boiled, sliced in half and slowly browned with a little garlic salt and dried parsley. These ideas are in no way anywhere close to let’s say, experimenting with lamb’s brains but, c’est la vie!
What I have taken away from these armchair adventures of food developed in the cold and wintry land in Scandanavia is to concentrate on flavors, small portions, beautiful settings, eating less, eating better, having fun trying new ways with old habits that still work. All this from reading a few books! Voila!