COPENHAGEN (Reuters Life!) - When Rene Redzepi quit jobs at famous Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain and the United States to revitalize Nordic cuisine in Copenhagen some of his friends laughed at him and said he would bury his career.
Now the 30-year-old chef is the one laughing. Only four years after opening his restaurant Noma it is the only one in Denmark to have won two Michelin stars.
The place is so busy now that one must book three months in advance for a weekend dinner table. But more importantly for Redzepi, he is inspiring other young Scandinavian chefs with tasty and inventive Nordic dishes like musk ox steak or monkfish in truffle sauce.
Q: Why did you become a chef?
A: One of my friends told me about the Copenhagen chef school. I tried it out and I was hooked. I actually trained first as waiter. I wanted to have a broad overview of the whole restaurant scene and learn how to read guests. A lot of chefs miss this because they are in the kitchen all the time. It’s helped me a lot.
Q: Is there somebody you consider your mentor?
A: I worked as chef apprentice at Pierre Andre, a small classic French restaurant in Copenhagen. This is what made me ambitious. My mentor is the chef from there, Philippe Oudet. I learned how to develop, flavor and taste food and how to be critical. The most important thing as a chef is to be critical about what you do all the time.
Q: Where did you get the inspiration for Noma?
A: I went to El Bulli in Catalonia to eat in 1998 and it was a major changing point in my career. At that point, if you wanted to do a gastronomical restaurant, it was French cooking. El Bulli had their own style. I was very struck by it. You can say that one of the reasons why Noma started as a restaurant doing Nordic food was because of my experience there.
Q: How did you prepare for the restaurant’s opening?
A: I did research for six months, traveling around the Nordic region to see if there was enough produce to actually create a kitchen. We only use fresh seasonal produce from our region. Suddenly you say no to iberico ham, foie gras, truffles from Alba, caviar and all these unique, luxurious goods. But in my travels I found out that in the Nordic region we have our own unique produce that’s just as good in its own way. All the fish, the shellfish, the wild herbs, the berries, the mushrooms, are in abundance here.
Q: Why is Nordic cuisine generally considered bland?
A: Of course it’s considered bland, because that’s what Nordic people think themselves. Nordic people have the lowest self-confidence in Europe when it comes to their regional cooking. Even Poland is more proud of what they do. We’re so eager all the time to find new things and say they are better than what we have ourselves.
At Noma, I took everything straight to the core. There’s a wild, untouched nature in the Nordics and that was my starting point for the kitchen. The cuisine should not be boiled, heavy-based with cream and butter. It should be a pure and light kitchen where you work with respect for seasonality and fresh produce. Drying, salting and smoking are traditional techniques we use in a modern setting.
Q: Do you have any tips for home cooking?
A: I don’t have a favorite dish or a favorite knife, but I would say don’t be afraid of eating white bread and all these things as long as you eat what’s in the season. I have no scientific basis for this, but if you eat natural you’ll never get fat. Of course you shouldn’t eat burgers every day, but use your common sense. Use produce as close to naturally made as possible, free-range or wild. Don’t support asparagus from Thailand in January.
RECIPE - ASPARAGUS IN DIFFERENT TEXTURES (serves 4 people)
White asparagus mousse:
12 white asparagus stalks, peeled
1/4 liter heavy cream
1 liter milk
4 sheets of gelatin, soaked and tenderized in cold water
1 delimiter whipped cream
Sautéed raw green and white asparagus:
The tops from 12 green asparagus (save the stalks for juice)
The tops from 12 white asparagus, peeled
A bit of oil and a dash of salt
Butter toasted hazelnuts:
100 g hazelnuts
150 g butter
Green asparagus juice:
12 green asparagus stalks, without the heads
Lots of fresh beech shoots
Lots of small leaves from fresh beech shoots
To make the mousse, boil the white asparagus in the milk and heavy cream until they are slightly tender. Mix them with a little bit of the cooking liquid and strain. Measure the liquid and dissolve the gelatin in this. Let the mousse cool down a bit and blend in the whipped cream. Distribute the asparagus mousse in bowls and put them in the refrigerator.
Then, cut the green and the white raw asparagus in half and sauté them quickly in a bit of oil. Season with salt. Lay them on fat-absorbent paper. Save the green asparagus stalks for later use in the dish.
Roast the hazelnuts in a pan over a low flame in the butter until they are golden brown and crisp. Season with salt and lay them on fat-absorbent paper.
Put the asparagus stalks in a juicer and strain through a fine-mesh. Season to taste, with salt.
Distribute three spots of hazelnut puree over the gelled asparagus mousse in each of the bowls. Toss the sauteed asparagus heads with the beech-tree leaves, creating a small salad, and lay this over the mousse. Sprinkle with the hazelnuts and pour the green asparagus juice over the dish when serving at the table.
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