Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All With Celebrity Chef René Redzepi
An inside look at cooking, eating, and traveling with the world-famous chef from the renowned Copenhagen restaurant Noma.
I wake up with sand in my mouth and a glare in my eyes. A man is speaking Spanish and waving a flashlight. I try to remember where I am and the details wobble into place, like a wraith making its form more visible. I hear the lapping of waves. I grope around for my backpack and my shoes. I arise from slumber on a dark beach in Tulum, the Mexican resort town. That body of water a few yards away is the Caribbean.
I have been dropped here in the middle of the night at a languorous caravansary called Nueva Vida. Unable to locate my cabana, and unable to find anyone who could provide me with a key to the cabana, lost in the darkness and bereft of a phone signal and exhausted by a day that has involved a morning flight from Mexico City to Oaxaca, lunch in Oaxaca, the tour of a sprawling marketplace in Oaxaca, dinner in Oaxaca, significant quantities of mezcal, a flight from Oaxaca back to Mexico City, another flight from Mexico City to Cancún, and then a three-hour drive through the Yucatán Peninsula to this yoga-matted magnet for man-bun-and-matcha devotees, I have surrendered to fatigue and fashioned an al fresco bed for myself in the dunes. I am within spitting distance of a sanctuary where sea turtles clamber up on shore to lay their eggs.
The man with the flashlight turns out to be merciful—at least as soon as he realizes I am not there to interfere with the sea turtles and their ancient rituals. I pour the sand out of my shoes and grab my backpack and the man leads me to a stark white room with a sea breeze ghosting the curtains and a canopy of mosquito netting over the bed. Never has a bed looked more inviting. I climb in and try to sleep, but it’s only a matter of minutes before sunlight starts asserting itself through the doorframe. The only choice I have is to greet the day.
I have landed here in Tulum because of the stubborn coaxing of a man named René Redzepi. Within the close-knit world of global gastronomy, Redzepi is a figure whose influence might be compared to that of David Bowie’s in music in the 1970s, or Steve Jobs’s in technology in the 1980s, or Beyoncé’s now. He is the chef behind Noma, a restaurant in Copenhagen that has—for those who follow and chronicle these things—changed the way people think about food. Writers have a habit of referring to Noma as the best restaurant on earth. That may or may not make Redzepi, by hyperbolic extension, the greatest chef alive.
It is not every day that one is summoned to coffee by a cultural figure of that stature, but just such a twist of fate came to me one winter afternoon in 2014. I was working as a food writer on staff at The New York Times when an email arrived in my clogged in-box from Peter Tittiger, an operative at Phaidon, the publishing house that had put out Redzepi’s cookbook and journal—books that were studied and parsed by chefs the way that songwriters and rock scholars had once geeked out on lyrics and liner notes. Redzepi wanted to meet me.
My inclination was to say no. I can’t explain why a food writer from the Times would feel compelled to decline a face-to-face conversation with a man reputed to be the greatest chef alive, but the older I get, the more I find it liberating to say no. Most of the existing self-help literature seems to nudge us in that direction, doesn’t it? Learn how to say no. But really, I was just busy. There were multiple deadlines to juggle, there were staff meetings to endure, there were baseball games and piano recitals and family dinners to race home to. Some part of me thought, God help me, this Danish guy is going to hector me for two hours about the principles of the New Nordic movement.
The New Nordic movement was the culinary juggernaut out of Scandinavia that claimed Redzepi as its chieftain. In 2004, Redzepi and his comrades, like agents of some French surrealist collective, had released a gastronomic manifesto, outlining the rules and aspirations that would govern their cooking in the years to come. Among its objectives were “to express the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics we wish to associate with our region,” and “to promote animal welfare and a sound production process in our seas, on our farmland and in the wild.” In the early phase of his kitchen career, as the journalist Tienlon Ho has written:
Redzepi was expected to fall in line with his mentors and cook French classics, and for a while he did. Soon, though, Redzepi had the epiphany that his food should not only be made with but entirely shaped by what he found in the forest, on the beach, and in the hands of local farmers. In practice, this meant that berries ripe for a mere two weeks a year and plucked by a Swedish farmer uninterested in selling them were more luxurious than imported caviar; he served them in a bowl with minimal adornment. He made terroir—the soil, the climate, and the land that shape the flavor of the plant and the animal that eats it—more than jargon. He made it the entire point of his cuisine.
The impact of these ideas had escalated during half a decade, moving from the margins to a position of pulsing centrality. Pretty soon the de facto boondoggle for an American food writer was a trip to Copenhagen to go foraging on the beach with Redzepi, nibbling inquisitively on snatches of scurvy grass and sorrel, bellflowers and beach mustard. “Denmark, after all, isn’t Provence or Catalonia,” Frank Bruni wrote after one such reverie on the dunes. “For a locavore chef, in particular, it has limitations. But Mr. Redzepi has air-dried, pickled, cured, foraged and researched his way around them. He has taken what could be a set of ankle weights and turned them into wings, his culinary accomplishments drawing all the more regard for the degree of geographical difficulty built into them.”
Inspiring stuff. Noble stuff, especially for a planet on the brink of ecological catastrophe caused, in part, by the industrial rapacity built into our food supply. I just wasn’t in the mood. My marriage was falling apart. Two weeks earlier I had moved out of the house where my two children lived. Depression rolled into my days like a toxic fog. On a cold day in February I didn’t think I had the patience to conjure up a rictus grin of pretend curiosity while I listened to a visionary from Copenhagen prattling on about his manifesto.
Making things even more complicated, I had sort of made fun of Redzepi’s ethos in the pages of the Times, even though, up until that point, I had never spoken with the man or eaten his food. In the winter of 2014, Noma’s influence was running rampant in New York City, with restaurants like Aska, Acme, Atera, and Luksus promulgating their own interpretations of the New Nordic ideas that were spreading outward from Copenhagen like invasive scurvy grass. Nordicness was the new hotness and that made it a ripe target for dismissal. Noma veterans had begun colonizing the city, smoking everything with hay and garlanding plates with kelp and edible sidewalk sprigs. The chef at Acme, Mads Refslund, had even founded Noma with Redzepi—the two cooks had come up together in culinary school—while the chef at Luksus, a bearded Nova Scotian philosopher named Daniel Burns, had been the pastry chef at Noma for a few years. Merely having the name Noma on your resumé́ seemed to entice investors to throw money at you. Everybody wanted in—except me. Up until that winter, I had not eaten in any of those restaurants. I didn’t want to. My life was a mess. I felt adrift and I sought comfort in hot bowls of cacio e pepe—starch and cheese. I wanted dumplings and bibimbap and shawarma. What did I not want? As I wrote then, “For months, I dodged the question. Now and then someone would tap me on the shoulder and ask for an opinion on the latest New York restaurant that embodied the spirit of the New Nordic movement. Had I nibbled on any lichen lately? Had I dunked my spoon into a brimming bowl of barley porridge speckled with globules of pig’s blood, sea buckthorn and the fermented scales of a creature found in the deepest crevasses of a fjord? The answer was no, but I felt too much shame to admit that.”
I was reluctant to rendezvous with this Redzepi character. My state of mind made me allergic to posturing of any sort, and I had snarked off the guy’s precious movement in the world’s most influential newspaper. I braced myself for a dressing-down akin to the notorious Ned Beatty scene in Network. I imagined Redzepi scowling as he leaned across some faux farmhouse picnic table at a Greenwich Village caffeine dispensary and yelling, “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature!”
Nevertheless, I said yes. It was better, I figured, than milling around the office. And saying yes to the primal forces of nature, as I would come to learn during the following four years, was what René Redzepi was all about.
Suffice it to say that the man who walked through that door in downtown Manhattan was not what I had expected. Of all the gifts that human beings are born with or learn to develop, charisma has to be the most mysterious. Several things about Redzepi struck me right away: (1) His command of English was better than that of most Americans. (That singular advantage had obviously helped him in getting across his message to British and American food media. Now if you told me that he actually spoke 25 languages, I would not be shocked. I’m guessing he could negotiate a meal in at least seven.) (2) He seemed to be personal friends with half the chefs in New York. (3) Like me, he didn’t want to talk about his movement, or any movement, or at least he appeared to have grown weary enough of the topic that there would be no Moses-on-the-mountaintop soliloquies about the soul-nurturing ecstasies of foraging while I counted the minutes until I could catch the Metro-North express back to my sad, cramped, post-separation apartment in Westchester County.
No, it turned out that Redzepi wanted to talk about tacos. This brightened my day. As a kid in Los Angeles, I had grown up on tacos. In fact, something about Redzepi struck me as temperamentally Californian. I was taken aback by this. He disarmed me with an easy laugh and a sort of barefoot-on-the-beach demeanor that seemed antithetical to his status as an avatar of stark Scandinavian mission statements as well as his reputation as a restless, hot-tempered taskmaster in the kitchen. As I would come to learn, Redzepi’s identity as a Dane didn’t conform to some Viking stereotype. Growing up in Copenhagen, he had been a migrant kid. His mother, Hanne, was a Dane who had worked cleaning houses and hospitals, but his father, Ali-Rami Redzepi, was a Muslim and ethnic Albanian from Macedonia who had sought citizenship in Denmark to get a foothold as a cabdriver and fishmonger. When Redzepi was a boy, his father had shepherded him and his twin brother to sleep by reading passages from the Koran by their bedsides. The family had endured the constant grind of bigotry from anti-immigrant Danes. Sometimes Redzepi and his brother had gone to bed hungry. The seed of the New Nordic movement could be found in his desire to subvert the Danish establishment, not to enshrine it. By now he came across as the food world’s consummate insider, but, as so often happens, what had gotten him there was an outsider’s hunger to rise up and take charge.
Anyway, Redzepi had an idea. It seemed innocuous. It seemed impossible, too, or at least unlikely to lead to anything real. The years to come would teach me that Redzepi was always dreaming up ideas. These ideas usually came across as impossible, and their very impossibility fueled him.
“We should go to Mexico,” he said.
“Sure, sure . . .”
I humored the guy for a while in that coffee shop on Greenwich Street, but I never believed that Redzepi and I were destined to head south of the border, no matter how contagious his enthusiasm. I listened and let my thoughts drift.
Mexico. Right. “Yeah, man, that would be cool.” I murmured something like that—something noncommittal. I detected a rising intensity in his voice, a feverish élan that called to mind Peter O’Toole before he set out to make his sprightly slog across the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. Was I being summoned? Was I being inducted into a cult? Did Redzepi, his brown eyes unblinking and trained upon me, sense that my depression made me vulnerable? How was I going to break it to this Danish chef that slashed-to-the-bone media budgets meant that I might never find an editor willing to pay for this trip? Why even try?
I figured I’d just go back to the office and let this electric Kool-Aid taco quest of a whim gather dust in the cobwebbed cellar of my Gmail account. Little did I realize that Redzepi viewed the word “no” as a minor impediment—no more of an obstacle than the buzzing of a mosquito, barely worth a swat. His brain appeared to be missing synapses that would help ferry “no” to the proper cognitive checkpoints. Maybe he had an enzyme that blocked it. Later, after we met, he emailed me. He texted me. He reassured me. He kind of badgered me.
This was going to happen, he said. I just needed to get an editor on board. I needed to find a way.
Excerpted from HUNGRY: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World by Jeff Gordinier. Copyright © 2019 by Jeff Gordinier. Excerpted by permission of Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.