Special Sauce: René Redzepi on Apprenticeships, El…

Three morel mushrooms on white background

[Photograph: Laura Lajh Prijatelj. Mushroom photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.]

In this week’s Special Sauce interview with René Redzepi, he describes his journey from being a 15-year-old novice cook to culinary visionary, which started when he was an apprentice at Pierre André, a Michelin-starred, classic French restaurant in Copenhagen. “I spent four years with [chef-owner Philippe Houdet], and it was an incredible time,” Redzepi says. “I mean, I basically went from being a child to being an adult like overnight. Just like that you’re working 85 hour weeks and with responsibilities.”

Those four years were incredibly important to Redzepi. “I still think of him so much, when I think back to these moments that make you, and that give you the courage and the power to believe in yourself further on.”

But what really blew Redzepi’s mind as a young cook was a meal at El Bulli. “I was with a friend and Ferran [Adria] was there, we ate and it was just mind blowing to me at the time,” he recalls. “So different to anything. I thought everything was French food and suddenly you see yourself in Spain and it’s like, I cannot believe what’s going on here. What is this? It broke everything for me. So I went up to Ferran immediately after the meal and said, “I want to work here. Can I come and work here?” And, after writing Adria a letter, he did.

Following a stint at the French Laundry, Redzepi returned to Copenhagen and opened the original Noma in 2003. He believes that Noma’s location has played an important role in its development. “One of the reasons why I think Noma’s become what we are is we were lucky to be in a small town where nothing was really happening,” he says. “We were the last stop on the subway, culinary wise, and suddenly all this attention started happening and everybody sort of chipped in…the community sort of embraced it.”

Redzepi is candid about the fact that the restaurant’s original success was not due to his leadership skills. “I spent years being an outrageously bad leader,” he confesses. “I was a screamer for many years, I was. I just didn’t know how to handle things. You become so thin-skinned that the smallest problems become disasters and then at a certain point you’re like, ‘What am I doing? You go into work and you’re not even happy…You go to work and you’re angry. What’s the point?'”

Redzepi says that finding a way to become happier in his work played a crucial role in both his and Noma’s development, but to find out just how he managed to do that, I’m afraid you’re going to have to listen to this week’s episode of Special Sauce.

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Transcript

Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. This week we resume our conversation with René Redzepi, chef-owner of Noma in Copenhagen, which was named the best restaurant in the world four years ago. Now, there’s a new, re-imagined Noma.

René Redzepi: We have 11 buildings on property. There’s a department for fermentation, a department for creativity, a department for foraged foods, I have a department for daily mise en place, a department for service. We have a sauna for the team and it’s pretty amazing.

EL: And there’s a new book too that he and his fermentation lab director, David Zilber, have just published called The Noma Guide to Fermentation. Where we left off in our conversation, we just learned that René’s becoming a chef was a matter of chance. In high school there happened to be a cooking competition and out of the blue at age 15 when the high school really didn’t want him back there anymore, he discovered he cared intensely about how everything looked on the plate and tasted. So you’re 15, you’re cooking. You discover hey, this is cool. You’re asking questions that probably not a lot of 15 year old inexperienced cooks are asking, and 10 years later you open Noma.

RR: Yeah.

EL: A lot must have happened in those 10 years.

RR: Oh yeah. Many hours of work. I mean, at that time 25 years ago, the restaurant industry was a crazy place to be in. So I went out and I found myself a place to be an apprentice. It was a French restaurant, very classically set up. The chef in the back and the wife in the front, small team, both places, front and back of the house and the chef taking care of everything. Me as their apprentice and I spent four years with him, and it was an incredible time. I mean, I basically went from being a child to being an adult like overnight. Just like that you’re working 85 hour weeks and with responsibilities, and me and him, we really hit it off. His name was Philippe Houdet and he was an incredible cook and within a couple of years we had become friends and I was like a trusted member of the team.

He would even ask me sometimes, I will never forget the time that he asked me, “Can you do a dessert? We have some regulars and you can do whatever you want, but you have to be wild,” he told me. This was like three years in of my tenure there. So I did this caramelized endive in like a spicy caramel with some sort of ice cream, lemon ice cream actually. It was completely wild at the time to use vegetables like that into a desert, and he loved it. It went on for the evening, for the regulars.

I still think of him so much, in my mind, when I think back to these moments that makes you, and that gives you the courage and the power to believe in yourself further on. Those are the moments where you’re actually fueled. You don’t really realize it, but it helps you further on. That at that moment when you’re moving and growing up, somebody really believes in you and gives you the opportunity like that. So that was a pretty incredible moment for me, and then as my time was finishing there in Denmark, when you become a cook, you don’t go to school. At least you didn’t back then, you find yourself an apprenticeship. So my apprenticeship, I became a chef with him and then after that, of course you were on your way to France. That’s what everyone was doing.

EL: Sure. That was the standard.

RR: It was standard. He sent out my letter to … back then you faxed things and we faxed them to all the three stars in the south of France. I remember Philippe saying, “You know what? We’re going to fax it to this restaurant in Montpellier but we’re not gonna hear anything because they just got three stars. So that’s impossible.” Then within like five minutes a fax comes back and it just says, “si bon, Jaques” which means okay and then signed by the head chef.

EL: So you went there.

RR: So I went there and when I was there and it was summer and some vacation was coming up. I read in a French magazine about a restaurant across the border in Spain that was supposed to be super wild. It sounded really intriguing so I asked the chef to book a table and he’s like, “Where did you hear about this restaurant, because that happens to be my favorite restaurant in the entire world. I’ll book you the table. I think that you should really go.” And so I went and I didn’t know that El Bulli was to be the restaurant that … the phenomenon.

EL: Right. It became, right.

RR: And I was there and there was like two other tables in the restaurant. I was with a friend and Ferran was there, we ate and it was just mind blowing to me at the time. So different to anything. I thought everything was French food and suddenly you see yourself in Spain and it’s like, I cannot believe what’s going on here. What is this? It broke everything for me. So I went up to Ferran immediately after the meal and said, “I want to work here. Can I come and work here?” And he said, “Ah, it’s difficult but send a letter.” So I did, I sent a letter. I went back to France, I immediately sent a letter and about a month later a signed contract came in the mail, a full contract with a starting date and I was-

EL: This is a crazy story.

RR: … and I was accepted for the next season. Yeah. It was like that. Then following season I went there. It was like mind blowing. By that time, in that year, something really happened to El Bulli, it was in ’99, and it was really starting to happen for El Bulli. So you felt part of something truly special. You know when you’re on the plane and the stewardesses they have sat down and it’s like, you know that you’re going to go up now. That’s how it felt working there. You were on the up and I thought, “Wow, this is so crazy.” I almost stayed there.

And another lucky chance happened sort of halfway in the season. This very pale, very shy person walks in through the kitchen doors and you could see that he doesn’t speak a word of Spanish or French. So I go up to greet him and he’s American and his name is Grant Achatz and he’s the sous chef at the French Laundry. Today he has Alinea of course, and I had never really heard about it, but welcome, welcome. Can I do something? So we kind of hooked up for the time that he was there.

Then I got a book as a present, the French Laundry Cookbook, and I was flicking through the pages of this book and it was like … again, I was actually really mind blown, seeing the French Laundry Cookbook. It was so different. There was all these American pop culture references, their coffee and donuts and really super inspired. The season finishes, I email Grant, “Can you get me in?” He got me in. This was an internship at the French Laundry and I arrived in San Francisco. I took the Greyhound to Yountville and I stayed at something that was called the Pink Palace, which is a tiny little … can I say shit hole on the podcast.

EL: Yes, you can. It’s an appropriate description.

RR: Yeah, a tiny little shit hole of an apartment. Then two, three days later was supposed to go and have my first day at the French Laundry and it was such a culture shock to me. In Copenhagen we bike everywhere and the apartment was like 700 meters from the French Laundry, yet we drove there in cars and we would pass the French Laundry with 300 meters to be at the parking lot and then walk back. But still it was another of these outrageous experiences, you were so lucky to be at a restaurant that is really changing the game. And again, you felt you’re on the up, you’re on the plane and this is about to take off.

EL: It’s like you’re a frog that was going from lily pad to lily pad, but each lily pad was higher and higher on the food chain.

RR: Yeah. And you felt that, I mean, honestly, you felt that. So I finished my time there and by this time when I came back home to Denmark, it was very unusual for chefs to travel like that. So I was getting many offers. It’s a small, tiny place, Copenhagen, and I end up taking a sous chef for three years at a classic restaurant, but I thought it was good for me to learn how to maybe lead. Then at a certain point I start getting offers to be head chefs and to be owner and do you want to take over this place and that place.

Then Noma came up and I went to visit the space and I fell in love with the space. That’s why I ended up opening Noma was because of the space and that’s 15 years ago. Then in between those 15 years, a lot of things happened too. I have three daughters and I met my wife at the restaurant actually, 13 and a half years ago, and now we have a book on fermentation.

EL: Yeah. And now you have a book on fermentation and you have a new re-imagined Noma.

RR: Yeah.

EL: Where I presume there are things there that you wouldn’t have imagined being possible, right? When you first … Even with the old Noma, right?

RR: Oh yeah.

EL: This is quite a leap for you.

RR: It’s a big one. I mean, we are in this now and this is the property. It’s like a property and it’s a place that’s been hand-built from the ground up. There are 11 buildings, some of them are tiny, but we have 11 buildings on property. There’s a department for fermentation, a department for creativity, a department for foraged foods, I have a department for daily mise en place, a department for service.

EL: And these are things that you-

RR: We even have a workout area and we have a sauna for the team. I mean it’s pretty amazing.

EL: Yeah. And I assume some of these things are things you learned at El Bulli and some of them-

RR: It’s a mix of everything. Of your background, of my travels, of what you learn at all the different places you worked at. It becomes you and then somehow all of this gets distilled into your own experiences, and hopefully you take the good bits and not the bad bits because in any experience there’s also bad moments.

EL: Yeah. But I get the feeling that you are a searcher, that Noma today, the re-imagined Noma, is not going to be similar to the Noma in five years.

RR: Probably not.

EL: I would say that’s probably a safe bet.

RR: Probably not.

EL: How did you gain the leadership skills? Was it just something that you found out you had? Or did you-

RR: Oh no, no, no. Are you kidding me? I spent years being an outrageously bad leader. I mean, I remember when I was a cook and when I was a sous chef, I would always look at the … When I was a cook it was the sous chef and the head chef. When I was a sous chef, it was only the head chef. I would always look at them and say, “Why are they freaking out? I mean, can’t they see they’re doing no good.” Then I became a head chef myself.

EL: Were you a screamer?

RR: I was a screamer for many years, I was.

EL: Wow.

RR: Yeah. I just didn’t know how to handle things. You become so thin-skinned that the smallest problems become disasters and then until a certain point where you’re like, “What am I doing?” You go into work and you’re not even happy.

EL: Right, you’re screaming.

RR: You go to work and you are angry. What’s the point? And then you try, at least that’s what I did, try to figure out what is it that made you come here to this place? Why is it like this? Then slowly but surely I tried to take away the problems that made me angry and today I’m not angry anymore. It’s been awhile since I’ve been a shouter and one of the things that really made a huge difference was when you actually start delegating in a big way, actually trusting people and letting them do their job. Letting them do their job means that you also have a very clear idea of what the job is that you want them to do and you tell them beforehand, “This is what I expect of you,” but you also leave space for them to fill in the role themselves and make it better because that will happen.

EL: Not that Serious Eats is Noma, but I had to finally admit that I didn’t know a lot of answers and that it was okay to tell people that. I think that’s part of any sort of leadership narrative, and I’m wondering if you experienced that.

RR: I experience that much more now, where our restaurant is taken to a place that’s better than I could’ve hoped for and we have people in the different fields and within our kitchen that are specialized, that are so much better at what they do than I am. I’m still the one in the middle trying to make sense of it all. So that happens a lot now and I think if I wouldn’t have opened up to this, Noma would have been much simpler and we wouldn’t have been here today in your studio in New York. Actually, I don’t think so. It’s become that because of all the other people, that’s also one of the reasons why I’m so happy that this book, there’s a coauthor which is a team member. To really show that Noma is so much more than me.

EL: Yeah. It’s clear that it’s not a cult of personality.

RR: In cooking, that’s how it often is. I am very happy that the publishers were brave enough because frankly, I don’t think many people would have. To say, okay, here’s like a sous chef and the sous chef has to be on all the book tour and be part of everything and it’s as much his book as it is mine. But this is also to show that it’s impossible to define Noma just by me. You may have started something, but what really made it great and where we are today is because of a lot of other people too.

EL: Yes. I feel that way about Serious Eats. Serious Eats would be nowhere near what it became. It was a little $100 food blog when I started it in 2006 and now millions of people take pleasure from it and it’s launched-

RR: Amazing.

EL: … many, many careers and many best selling books. The United States is filled with people that started at Serious Eats and that gives you a unique pleasure, I think. I don’t know if you find that, like with someone like David.

RR: Oh yeah. Are you kidding me? I mean it’s one of the great things about it and luckily we are in Copenhagen. In a place like New York where the competition is so fierce, but also there’s so many people. So if you do well, there will be guests., Before like 10, 15 years ago in Denmark, even if you did well, it wasn’t guaranteed you were full because there weren’t many guests. It’s a tiny place and so to have a moment now in which there are guests, people are traveling in and if you do well you will be full. That’s the thing that people really still love and I think all of us, we remember how it used to be.

So we actually try to help each other and be supportive. I believe that what will potentially ruin the progress in our part of the world is if people start being sort of jealous of each other and entitled, then all the problems start happening. But that’s also one of the reasons why I think Noma’s become what we are because we were lucky to be in a small town where nothing was really happening. We were the last stop on the subway, culinary wise, and suddenly all this attention started happening and everybody sort of chipped in. So while everyone’s busy, it also helped Noma become who we are because the community sort of embraced it.

EL: It sounds to me like the first Noma was your idea of a idealized restaurant, but that the new Noma is almost like a fully realized village.

RR: Well, yeah, almost. I mean there’s a reason why it’s built like that because what if we want to change it into something in the future.

EL: Do tell.

RR: I can’t.

EL: You’d tell me, but you’d have to kill me?

RR: No, it’s not that. It’s just, it’s not 100% crystallized, but it’s almost there. Also this is my mother’s doing, but I believe in if I say it I’ve jinxed it.

EL: You’ll be jinxed.

RR: Yeah.

EL: I know. I know. So all right. So now it’s time for the Special Sauce All You Can Answer Buffet. We’ve cut it down to a few questions just for you because you do have a plane to catch.

RR: That’s it.

EL: So who is at your last supper? No family and no chefs allowed. Three people that you would love to break bread with.

RR: Could it be people that we don’t know?

EL: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Let your imagination run wild, and I know you have a fertile one.

RR: Ah, okay. Well let’s say Buddha.

EL: Buddha. I like this.

RR: Jesus Christ.

EL: Okay. Now you’re cooking.

RR: And the Prophet Muhammad.

EL: That’s so great. What are you eating at this amazing supper?

RR: I will be … We’ll be having dinner in September.

EL: Okay.

RR: Because it’s the moment where the forests are full of berries and the mushrooms are popping out. There’s a little bit of game meat, but there’s also crayfish and a mix of crayfish, wild game, mushrooms and wild berries.

EL: I like this and you’re gonna ferment something.

RR: I mean, it’s the moment where everything is so fresh.

EL: So you don’t have to ferment.

RR: So no, no.

EL: Yeah. So finally it’s just been declared René Redzepi Day all over the world. What’s happening? Every city-

RR: Everybody steps into nature and they’ll be guided and then they have to eat minimum five things from the wild.

EL: I love that. Thank you so much for sharing your special sauce with us, René Redzepi. If you’re interested in thought provoking writing about food, pick up a copy of the Fermentation Bible which you and your coauthor David Zilber, who couldn’t be with us today, have done such a brilliant job writing. If you ever find yourself in Copenhagen and it’s worth a special trip head to Noma, and if you do, poke your head into the fermentation lab, if René lets you. Anyway, so long Serious Eaters. Thank you René, it’s really been a pleasure.

RR: Thank you so much.

EL: We’ll see you next time, Serious Eaters.

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