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A few years ago, all the chefs I talked to were hunting down René Redzepi's book. That's how I first heard about the young Danish chef rebelling against the Eurocentric culinary scene in Copenhagen, getting back to his Nordic roots.
Some of them likened Redzepi to a young Michel Bras, a reclusive French chef with an almost spiritual connection to his regional ingredients. These chefs hadn't visited Redzepi's restaurant. They hadn't met him or seen him on TV. Sometimes, they didn't know the guy's name, only the name of his restaurant, Noma, which had opened back in 2003. But they were fascinated by Nordisk Mad, which was, and still is, damn near impossible to find in English (it's out of print, unfortunately).
Courtesy of Phaidon Press
Redzepi was already a star within the industry, respected among chefs for doing his own thing, when this year, his restaurant climbed to the number one spot in Restaurant Magazine's annual 50-best list (which Spain's elBulli had previously topped for four straight years).
So, the second book has benefitted from really good timing. In early October, Phaidon will release NOMA: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. Simply, it's a gorgeous cookbook, well worth its price tag of $49.95—a dense journal of the restaurant's culture, philosophy, and food with beautiful photography and design.
Though the book is set in a cold place, with tales of freezing journeys into the Scandinavian underbelly to root around for edibles, the book's warmth is palpable—with one exception. The story of Noma, written by journalist Rune Skyum-Nielsen, is in dry and at times awkwardly clinical prose. The language seems unreasonably formal for a restaurant that deviates in so many ways from traditional, formal fine dining. (At Noma, the cooks who prepare the dishes serve them to guests, tables are free of tablecloths, Icelandic sheepskins cover the backs of diners' seats, and the knives at a table are often mismatched).
But Redzepi's story is tucked in this chapter. And it's good.
René Redzepi grew up bilingual, with a Macedonian father who worked as a taxi driver, a Danish mother who worked as a housekeeper, and a twin brother who was generally better at stuff than he was. Because they weren't well-off, the frozen food aisles of the 1980s were off-limits to the family, who ate simply cooked foods, killing their own chickens for dinner and milking cows to make butter at home.
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At 15, following a friend, not knowing what else to do with himself, Redzepi went to a year-long restaurant school, apprenticing after graduation at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen called Pierre André, Le Jardin des Sens in France, elBulli in Spain, and The French Laundry. By the time he was 25, Claus Meyer approached him to open Noma in a converted warehouse at the end of a dock in Copenhagen.
The goal: build a great restaurant that celebrates Danish cuisine. Step one: Figure out Danish cuisine.
Danish fine dining existed. It just wasn't very Danish. So much so that Redzepi's unnamed peers mocked the idea, apparently nicknaming the restaurant "Whale Penis" and "Seal Fucker" (one imagines there's no worse insult for a Nordic bully to dish out on the playground). Traditional local ingredients were considered of much lower quality than say, imported French ones. Not by everyone, though—Meyer had been championing Danish cooking culture for 15 years with books and a long running cooking show.
The story of the restaurant has a happy ending, of course, and it's followed by pages from Redzepi's journal, the one he kept leading up to the opening of the restaurant as he traveled for inspiration and ingredient-sourcing. Here, he documents the train rides and the snacks, the experimental tastings of wild roots and berries, and the meetings along the way with fellow chefs, cookery teachers, and guides. Bonus: You'll probably learn the days of the week in Danish by reading this section.
A fold-out treasure map plots these characters on the region's islands, forests, coasts, and plains. Even for those familiar with Scandinavian geography, it's nice to get a sense of the restaurant's place (on the edge of an island between Denmark and Sweden). Also, it's adorable, like something from a children's adventure book.
An armchair chef might dreamily flip through the photos and read the essays, absorbing the instructions from the recipes, imagining the flavor combinations.
In addition, the images by Ditte Isager, a Danish, New York-based photographer, are spectacular. Isager had previously worked with John Besh, Gordon Ramsay, and Padma Lakshmi on their cookbooks, and took the photos for Redzepi's first book. The photos, styled by Christine Rudolph, have a clean, simple aesthetic and a natural palette of wood, stone, and iron.
The oversized captions for the pictures of ingredients, dishes, portraits, and landscapes appear indexed in six-page clusters, and even those are a joy. Ingredients have brief notes on where they were found or how to eat them, while some have dorky little food facts about things like mussel eggs or carrot colors. Every photo is marked with a page number for the corresponding recipe, and vice versa.
It's a professional cookbook, so measurements are precise, in grams, and instructions are minimal but clear. Meat appears somewhat rarely, and when it does, like many fine dining restaurants at this point, Redzepi favors sous-vide cooking (in which the raw meat is sealed in plastic and poached in hot water). Though in his case, the meat is more likely to be musk ox than beef.
There's special attention on fruit vinegars and pickles of all sorts, which, jarred in season, are especially important for the restaurant in the winter, when very little is growing outside.
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Since Redzepi's ingredients are collected from another time and place than your own, it will be difficult in some cases (not all) if you're looking to actually replicate dishes from the restaurant. While a simple dish like poached eggs with radishes might inspire something similar in your kitchen, you might not be able to procure the sea lettuce that finishes the plate. But that isn't the point!
A book this personal, this generous, isn't for duplicating. It's for inspiring. For playing. An armchair chef might dreamily flip through the photos and read the essays, absorbing the instructions from the recipes, imagining the flavor combinations. An adventurous cook might apply that sea lettuce technique—pickled, protected with baking paper and heated until translucent—to the greens he can find.
A good restaurant cookbook offers more than recipes and a peek into a kitchen. It gets across a complete vision, a story, a sense of style—something deeply personal. I think this book will fit into the heavyweight category with classics like Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras, published nearly a decade ago and still sought out for its clear vision of the chef's intimate culinary universe in the mountains of southern France.
Like the first Noma book, Essential Cuisine is out of print (a good copy can sell for hundreds of dollars) and like Redzepi, Bras is inspired by his exact time and place. Bras flavors ice cream made with the wild buttercups that grow near the restaurant, for example; Redzepi makes his own beer for cooking with dregs of sweet birch sap. Everything—ingredients, silverware, design, architecture—is informed somehow by nature.
Time and Place is going to impact another generation of cooks, most of whom won't actually dine at NOMA, though it's hard to say how (philosophy? technique? plating?). After all, it's expensive to get to Copenhagen. But this book, unlike a meal at the restaurant (and unlike Redzepi's first book) is easily attainable and totally affordable. I expect that even the jerks who called the restaurant "Whale Penis" have been unable to resist pre-ordering a copy.
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