Rene Redzepi should have been grateful. He should have been exulting at his great fortune from all the hard work he and his staff had contributed to making their restaurant the best in the world. But, instead, he began to question what was next. Reaching the “top of the mountain” at the age of 31 can leave a person to wonder, if they’ve already hit the summit, is the only next move to descend or stay stuck in a formulaic response to whatever components brought the initial success? Instead, in Redzepi’s case, he started journaling what made the good days good and the bad ones unpalatable. He detailed to a rapt audience how this practice changed him and his restaurant Noma for the better.
I must admit, Redzepi caught me off guard and completely shifted my thinking with admitting the depth of this quandary. In his TED-esque delivery at the Castro theater this fall while promoting his book collection, “A Work in Progress,” I listened to his story become my own. And, since I’m not the chef of the most celebrated restaurant in the world, that might seem like a simplification that doesn’t live up to what it purports. But, understand, I went into that old theater that night with a certain set of biases (a bit perplexed by the recent Time Magazine article, including Redzepi praising the “gods of food” with no women included or the Instagram comment to my mobile snapshot of the marquee with Redzepi’s name simply stating, “Hype!”). What propelled me to buy tickets had everything to do with Redzepi’s approach to food: foraging, discovery, highly creative food, the artistry of color and texture on a plate. I could quiet the voices vying to coax me into what I should think about this chef.
Lynda and I set out for the theater ready to hear from Redzepi, but not quite expecting to be dazzled by the humanity of the chef / founder of Noma. We sat transfixed as he read from his journal on-stage, pausing at intervals as visuals projected onto the giant screen illuminating what he had just read.
He grappled aloud with food waste and wanting to use as much of “trash food” as possible. Sometimes this failed miserably, as he recounted the incident with attempting to make brain bacon. From his journal, “failure- it’s a simple word to say but it’s so hard to fucking deal with.” He followed this up by admitting, “If we’re not failing, it means we’re not pushing hard enough.” I wanted to run up on stage and give him a high five for that statement. His conundrum with food waste went beyond a cool idea to one of great importance. Since Noma sources their ingredients from only a 60-mile radius from the restaurant, winter month sourcing can be challenging, making food waste a big issue.
That sense of discontent drove him to start Mad Festival, a food festival that turns on its head the typical associations one might think of food festivals as these glorified tented affairs of clinking wine glasses and amuse bouche bites. While he spoke about the tenacious spirit of the cooks in attendance who helped hoist the giant festival tent back up after it had fallen, he recounted a story that put him on edge, starting with a simple question: “Why don’t we eat bugs?” from a Brazilian cook. That question coupled with distribution of bugs for Mad Festival-goers to eat propelled Redzepi to consider the dramatic, “why don’t people eat bugs?” This embodied Redzepi’s insatiable curiosity and spirit, and why a dessert of Crème Fraiche… with Ants is on their menu (which tastes of lemongrass and ginger).
Quickly into the evening, I knew that this was not just another chef talk, and really, this was not just any chef. Who would perceive that the chef, at the top of his game, would pen a stack of books called “A Work in Progress?” Celia Sack of Omnivore Books welcomed Lars Ulrich of Metallica on stage to introduce Redzepi. What struck me right away was Ulrich’s admission that in writing the foreword to Redzepi’s book, he had been asked to write about creativity (and because Redzepi would blast Metallica in the kitchen). He was speaking my language. Ulrich described Redzepi as “an artist who creates, is curious, goes on a journey with a sense of discovery.” As someone who has never been to Noma and has not even ventured to Scandinavia yet, what Ulrich described of Redzepi and then later what Redzepi read from his own journey resonated with me, a passionate home cook, summed up in statements like this- “Putting yourself out there is hard; not trying is always the easiest thing to do.”
In pushing his team to keep the culinary conversation going, he described their Saturday Night Project wherein each Saturday night at 2 a.m., the chefs would gather in the kitchen to present and sample ideas of what they had been thinking about food. Their enthusiasm and nervousness depicted on the video screen likened this to a workshop on steroids, as everyone huddled around the kitchen table tried the food and then gave feedback. One chef served a dessert of kale and hazelnuts, and Redzepi praised her for putting herself “out on the limb” and succeeding. That collaborative approach to discovering new ways to use similar ingredients seemed like a very forward-thinking approach from a chef that doesn’t need to quarterback each idea as his own. It was quite refreshing really.
And so, Redzepi kept a journal during a period of his life that required the exquisite examination of gathering thoughts to keep moving them forward and out of stasis. If you’ve ever written a journal, you might understand his statement that “Writing in a journal is fucking painful.” I can say that in my career of journaling over the years, I always abandon it because it feels too keenly all-seeing and too excruciating to put those feelings to words, taking them from the internal landscape into the world of the page. As we left the Castro theater under a sky with the faucet turned on, I began considering the possibility of journaling again. I began to feel the creative juices percolate with a desire to continue to push myself forward, out of success or malaise to achieve what has yet to be.
And for that, I thank you, Rene Redzepi.
Photo by Renee Suen