Noma’s René Redzepi Talks Fermentation & the Joys of Rotting Meat
We chatted with the famous Danish chef about his new Noma fermentation book.
I’m on the phone with René Redzepi, who is at his restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, and for one disorienting second, I think he’s still talking to me. He’s not. He’s telling someone else in the restaurant that a group of Buddhist monks is out front, taking pictures of the sign.
“Show them around,” he says, “that’s so cool.”
We are on the phone to talk about The Noma Guide to Fermentation, which he wrote with the head of his fermentation lab, David Zilber.
It’s a fat book, with matte pages and generous instructions. Instructions that are meant to be followed. The last Noma cookbook was a piece of art, a record of a time and a place. When I mentioned to Redzepi that I’d cooked a couple of the base recipes in the back of his first book, he tells me that I am the only person, the single person that has ever cooked anything out of that book. (I neglect to mention that I don’t have an expensive Thermomix and I’m sure my herb oils paled in comparison. And that the one thing I want to do most of all, his Hay Oil, starts with toasting hay in the oven for 40 minutes, and I’m too afraid of starting a fire to do it.) Fortunately, in the detailed, intelligent Noma Guide to Fermentation, however, accessibility is the goal.
Redzepi explains to me that they had about 250 new dishes since the last cookbook was published and that they easily could have done another glitzy showcase, but that wasn’t what he wanted. The idea, rather, was to make his style of cooking understandable and relatable to even people without fancy lab-like gadgets.
“This is what we do at the restaurant. This is the base. It’s all about how we do things here,” he tells me. This book represents the flavors that they’ve been working on for a decade. Flavors that he believes we will all want and that he thinks we should all have in our kitchens. “This,” says Redzepi, “is what has made Noma, Noma.”
Most books on fermentation focus on pickles and kraut. (“Sandor Katz is the OG,” said Redzepi, with obvious admiration.) The recipes here are different. People already know how to make serviceable krauts and pickles, Redzepi thinks, and that makes them easy to understand, easy to desire, and a great way to start thinking about fermentation. What you see in his book are building blocks of flavor. Sauces, misos, koji, vinegars. Redzepi equates cooking to building with Legos—he has young kids and is, of course, Danish like the toys—in that you start with single bricks, and as you begin to combine them they become something substantial.
“You have to know how to layer things. It’s what we’ve been working on for eight years, a decade,” he says. But “we’re still very novice. You have to come to things with a beginner’s mind.”
It this sense of wonder, no doubt, that led the team to make a seasoning paste out of lacto fermented blueberries, and brush it over the kernels of corn on the cob. What’s astounding about this book, coming from Noma, is that the recipe for lacto fermented blueberries is simple, easy, well laid out, presented with options (like many of the recipes here) based on your preferences or available equipment. Most recipes are followed by suggestions that seem delicious, and again, astoundingly sane, such as “paint barbecued ribs or pork chops with lacto blueberry paste before or after grilling, or make a barbecue sauce by substituting it for tomato paste or ketchup in your favorite recipe.”
I point out that not all of the recipes in this book are what most folks would think of as relatable, accessible, or novice. There is an entire section devoted to garum. The book describes garum as follows: “Once a mainstay of European cuisine, they’ve all but disappeared from the recipes of today. In its purest form, garum is a chunky blend of fish, salt, and water that’s allowed to break down and putrefy (in a controlled manner, of course).” This is wild enough already, but Noma being Noma, they take garum a step farther. “We use the term garum somewhat more broadly at Noma, and expand the ingredients to include a lot more than just fish.” At Noma, they make garum out of meat.
Fermenting a pot of beef might put some folks off.
“Of course, we are talking about the controlled rottening of raw meat,” he tells me. (Rottening is my new favorite word.)
Redzepi suggested that a good place to start would be the roasted chicken wing garum. “Our goal for roasted chicken wing garum was to see what would happen if we fermented a meat product that was already at the height of its deliciousness.”
“If you have a bottle of this,” Redzepi tells me, “you will have a better cooking life.” I can hear the excitement in his voice, he really means it. “If you crack an oyster, put in a couple of drops. If you steam some spinach, put in a couple of drops. If you make soup. It’s like having a very intense stock. Look at it like a fermented chili sauce. You’ll want to do the beef.”
Game season has recently begun at Noma, and there’s a squirrel ferment in the kitchen now that came to them too late to make it into the book, and we joke about it a bit but I realize that really it’s just the natural conclusion of the same process of hanging and aging game that hunters have employed for centuries; it only sounds weird at first.
“Fermentation,” says Redzepi, “is arguably the first form of cooking.” It’s always been there. You have to be open to it.
And he insists “fermentation is gonna stay. It’s going to be an alive part of home kitchens.” He doesn’t know what aspect of fermentation will be the one that proves most popular, but he’s sure we are only at the beginning of the trend. It’ll hinge on what’s affordable, and what’s accessible.
It’s time for him to eat lunch—a big bowl of wild mushrooms, “maybe I’ll put a couple of eggs in it, and some chili sauce.” I ask what he had for breakfast, simply because I want to know what René Redzepi eats. He worked out in the morning, and he was fired up. “This is going to sound weird,” he laughs. “I had six oysters.”
Someone reports back that the monks were nice, and Redzepi says “Well, yeah. You never heard anybody say ‘Buddhist monks, such assholes.’”