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Forage, pop-ups and unique menus

Celebrated international chef Rene Redzepi is on a mission to locate flavours from everywhere

brunch Updated: Jan 29, 2018 13:23 IST
Rupali Dean
Chef Rene Redzepi hard at work at his Noma Mexico pop-up
Chef Rene Redzepi hard at work at his Noma Mexico pop-up(Vincent Long)

For Rene Redzepi, flavours can be found anywhere. The much-awarded chef has been at the forefront of Nordic fare and foraging for years; his restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen, has four times been awarded the honour of being the world’s best restaurant – and countless times been talked of as the world’s most frustrating restaurant because it’s booked out years in advance.

So I was very fortunate to not only dine at his pop-up in Sydney, but to actually meet the man!

Rene’s culinary background was just the right recipe for his success. “I left school in Class IX, just after finishing basic studies, and very quickly realised that I wanted to be in this industry,” he told me. “Before Noma, I was a cook working at the French Laundry and El Bulli, which were considered the best restaurants in the world at the time. When I think back on my life, I am either a child running around in Macedonia or I am in a kitchen.”

Chef Rene and his crew taste the ingredients before making the meal (Vincent Long)
Mexican corn, a culinary essential in Mexico, is used in Noma Mexico pop-up (Vincent Long)

Quest for inspiration

A trip around his country educated Rene about its possibilities. Rene learnt he could use vinegar for citrus, and seaweed for leafy greens; his quest for new ingredients and flavours became his passion.

With an understanding of the terroir, he and his crew foraged not only for wild plants, but sometimes also insects, to amplify the cache of flavours accessible to his kitchen. He also brought back methods native to the region, such as preserving, pickling, fermenting and smoking. And now Rene was ready to try foraging in another country.

“When I think back on my life, I am either a child running around in Macedonia or I am in a kitchen”- Rene Redzepi

“Ever since we did our first pop-up in Japan we have had offers to go to many different places. But we do not choose where to go based on the best offers,” said Rene. “For instance, we were never offered Japan, Australia or Mexico. We pursued these locations on our own, based on where we thought the inspiration would be, and where the team would have an amazing time.”

The ‘amazing time’ is, of course, preceded by challenges. Doing a forage-based pop-up in an unfamiliar country is no joke. “You often ask yourself, why the hell are we doing this? This has been the same for all three pop-ups, though in Mexico we faced more obstacles than other places because of the simple fact that the logistics are not as well developed,” said Rene. “For example, we had a big problem finding schools for our children, because all the schools were full. Then there were a million small logistic issues, like having to physically pick up a special papaya fruit from 300 km away! And ‘normal’ restaurant problems, such as suddenly there is a northern wind in the Yucatan, and the boats aren’t out so we can’t get the octopus we planned, so we are forced to adapt the menu!”

Noma pop-up in Japan was done with local ingredients (Satoshi Nagare)
Elderflower, rose petals, chanterelles and gooseberries pickles at Noma, Copenhagen (Laura L.P./HdG Photography)

Away and home

There were more serious problems too, such as getting the locals to take them seriously. Though Rene always appoints local project managers when he does international pop-ups, the fact remains that for people in a country where food foraging does not equate to a fine-dining restaurant, there are issues of understanding.

Noma Australia serves unripe macadamia nuts with spanner crab broth and a dash of rose oil (Vincent Long)
Flower tart at Noma, Copenhagen (Laura L.P./HdG Photography)
  • Do you have an Indian chef in your team?Garima Arora is a former chef who now runs Gaa in Bangkok. One of the many talented Indian chefs we have had.
  • Does the family travel with you during your pop-ups?Yes. My family has joined us for all of our pop-ups and we enrolled our children in an international school.
  • Do you prefer any particular season?All seasons have their moments...
  • Juice or wine pairing?I enjoy a drink but I drink rarely. So if I really had to choose between juice and wine, I’d probably do a juice menu.
  • Your advice to budding chefs would be…? a)Don’t panic.b)You are going to have to live with the fact that you will always be working when other people are off. The hours are many and the pay is on the lower end. But you get to feel part of a team and make people happy every day. To be a successful chef, you have to surrender to that.

“Some of the small communities who grew produce for us are so unacquainted with orders like ours that they didn’t believe we really wanted or needed the amount of ingredients we asked for,” said Rene. “They almost didn’t believe that we were for real.”

For now, Rene’s travel travails are over. There will be no pop-ups for a while. Noma, his two Michelin, 40-cover restaurant in Copenhagen, served its last meal in February 2017, and now Rene is working on Noma 2.0 – a metropolitan farm and completely vegetarian restaurant.

Mango covered with green ants was the dessert in Noma Australia (Rupali Dean)
Noma, Copenhagen, creates world-class dishes presented in 20-course meals (Laura L.P./HdG Photography)

The new Noma will be opening this month, but reservations were opened since November last year!

From HT Brunch, January 28, 2018

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