Rene Redzepi's cuisine is ambitious, technical, and impossible to replicate outside Denmark. But that's why it's so inspiring.
The deeper I delved into the pages of Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, the more depressed I became: You can't cook from this book--and what's more, you're not supposed to. Then, at some point--I cannot say precisely when--the revelation struck me like a boot to the head: Oh yes you can! And what's more, you must.
Noma, the cookbook from the renowned Danish restaurant of the same name, is an enigma, as unapproachable as its granite cover. The book itself is as beautiful as are the people and the landscapes of Scandinavia, yet, like them both, is slightly cold, or, maybe, aloof. One look at the book, and at the food within, and you know you are not looking at anything remotely Mediterranean. Noma's food is simultaneously enticing and forbidding.
After I absorbed the images, I began to pore over the recipes themselves. They require the same courage and skill it takes to navigate a longboat from Denmark to Greenland.
Noma chef Rene Redzepi's intricate plating and flawless, modernist technique call to me. But his intensely local cuisine is frustratingly impregnable. Each time I decided to attempt one of his dishes, I kept stopping short when it came to the ingredients. Apple balsamic vinegar. Rowan shoots. White currant twigs. Birch syrup.
Mind you, you are hearing this from a guy who doesn't blink when faced with many of Noma's other odd ingredients. Spruce tips? No problem. Musk ox loin? Not too different from venison. Wild wood sorrel? Easy-peasy. Dulse? Okay, so that one I may have to drive to the Pacific to obtain, but I can get it.
Get it ... Grok this book, Hank. Absorb its zeitgeist, or somesuch. Try to understand what's going on here. Focus.
At first I paged through Noma like an old Playboy--for the pictures. Redzepi's plating is some of the most beautiful I have ever seen in my life. Thoughtful. Balanced. Achingly aware of color, and texture, and temperature.
And the flowers! I have always hesitated to use edible flowers in my cooking because I remember the Great Flower Explosion of the 1980s. Flower salads. Flowers everywhere. Blech. Who the hell wants a giant orchid sitting next to your chicken breast? But I tell you folks, if you have this book, look at the dish on page 146. I couldn't stop staring at it. It is terrifying to imagine the thought that went into that plate. It is as unearthly as Lady Galadriel.
After I absorbed the images, I began to pore over the recipes themselves. They require the same courage and skill it takes to navigate a longboat from Denmark to Greenland. If you do not know the fundamentals of modernist cuisine, as well as advanced techniques in regular kitchen cookery, you will become bogged down in a morass of instant food thickeners and lost in a thicket of vacuum bags. Mercifully, I possess at least rudimentary competency with this sort of stuff.
But always it came back to those ingredients. A few, like Redzepi's grilled lamb shank with ramp leaves, golden beets and elderflowers, I can replicate--and plan to, once the elders around here bloom in six weeks or so. But most of his dishes can only be made where he lives, in Scandinavia.
That, in and of itself, is a towering achievement. Any halfwit can be fresh-local-seasonal here in Northern California, which is a fair approximation of the Garden of Eden. Something wonderful is always growing here, and in winter this place looks as green as Ireland. But to do seasonal-local in Denmark, now that requires a river of ingenuity and some deep meditation on your menus. Most importantly, it also requires a commitment to stretching your regional boundaries of what is and is not "food."
It is this last point that led to my epiphany.