Recently I attended a public conversation between famed Noma chef Rene Redzepi and local chef Daniel Patterson. The well attended event was held in conjunction with a book tour for the magnificent Phaidon publication about NOMA, Redzepi’s restaurant in Denmark, named top restaurant in the world. The audience was filled with young chefs waiting for revelations and revolutionary ideas.
Redzepi is a charmer, articulate, upbeat and unpretentious. I was interested in his decisions and thought processes. Yes, it must be very difficult to cultivate ingredients in such a challenging climate and environment, especially if you want to serve great food all year long. So you have to be resourceful and become a forager. This expands the repertoire of what you have to cook with and creates new and unusual harmonies on the plate.
Those expecting radical ideas may have been surprised with how un-radical many of his practices were. First he followed the old Mediterranean tenet that says “what grows together, goes together.” So oysters are paired on the plate with greens that grow near the shore and sea water used in the cooking. If spruce trees hover above the ground where asparagus grow, they are cooked together. Not a new concept but with such a limited larder, now see4mingly revelatory. His terroir is not our terroir.
Next Redzepi talked about how important it was to set up relationships with local farmers. Again, hardly a new concept here. In California we have been doing that for over thirty years. But we have it relatively easy. Unlike Denmark, California has a Mediterranean climate. We have a long growing seasons and a vast selection of ingredients at our culinary disposal. In fact some might say it has become a bit too easy and that there is danger of similarity of menu concept and all of the food tasting the same. Our chefs can source pretty much everything they need to create delicious food. To distinguish themselves from the pack some have started their own gardens so they can customize their produce. Even that may not be enough to get noticed. Other to seek differentiate themselves by making a show of adding foraged nuts, berries, native plants and roots on their menu, acting as if they too were stuck in the wilds of Denmark with not much to cook. Some might consider this sort of an affectation to get attentions.
Redzepi talked about involving his chefs in farming and foraging. We have restaurants doing that now. He talked of the practice of having the cooks come up with ideas for new dishes. This seemingly revolutionary concept is not new, except maybe to the men who have trained in the traditional European style hierarchical kitchen. Women chefs started doing this over thirty years ago. Now this idea of letting the cooks have a say in the food has trickled down to such formerly hierarchical chefs as Thomas Keller and Michael Chiarello. They learned it was lonely at the top and that collaboration promoted creativity.
After poking fun at excessive mechanical techniques like gelling, he got around to talking about the importance of a personal cuisine. Making traditional dishes as crème brulee with local wild berries did not make a new cuisine. It was still derivative of a Mediterranean culture. But what about those chefs in California living in a Mediterranean terroir ? Are they to throw it all away to be new? What about all of the melting pot cultural influences of Asia and Latin America? Are these to be disregarded as derivative, too? Do chefs have to imagine or pretend that they are living in the tundra or desert to create an original cuisine? This was the most provocative part of the evening and one that we will have time to ponder as we cook our way into the Twenty first century.