“Five years ago the thought of people traveling to Denmark to eat would have been a SNL joke. It’s like going sunbathing in Baghdad.”
That’s what René Redzepi told me in the spring of 2012, shortly after we first met. At that moment, Noma was on the verge of being named the so-called World’s Best Restaurant for a third straight year, solidifying the kingdom of Denmark as the new dominion of fine dining and Redzepi as its benevolent king.
Redzepi’s Baghdad joke was no exaggeration. Everyone I spoke with during the trip—farmers, fishermen, chefs, bloggers—echoed the same sentiments, namely that before Noma, Denmark had no established dining culture, making the impact of Noma’s ascendance all the more improbable and resounding. (That impact, which I called “Nomanomics” in an old Roads & Kingdoms’ story, has continued to trickle down to the entire food chain across Scandinavia.)
In the wake of Noma’s outsize success, you couldn’t drop a fork in Copenhagen without piercing a ramson leaf, a foraged herb, a root vegetable baked in hay. It was easy to imagine the so-called New Nordic movement turning into a one-dimensional caricature of itself, that when the food world’s attention moved on to the next big destination (the Amazon! the Far East! the Moon!), Denmark would be left with a pile of withering ramps and a heap of smoldering hay ashes.
But an extraordinary thing happened: The seeds that Redzepi and his crew at Noma planted grew into a full-blown garden. Not a monocrop, but a world of diverse flora living in a largely symbiotic environment. Copenhagen suddenly has a deep dining culture, forged from the success of a juggernaut, but built to last well beyond the lifespan of a single institution. Five years later, with the roots firmly established and Noma on the verge of its own massive transition, I reached out to Rene to talk about the future of food in Denmark and beyond.
Goulding: Do you think that the general level of cooking and connection to food is going in the right direction?
Redzepi: I think people are eating much, much, much, much, much, much better. Does that mean that the world is better off? That’s a different story. And obviously something is not adding up; on the one hand, people eat so well, but everyone talks about food waste and we have also lost the value of things. That’s why we throw so much of our food away—I mean you only throw things away when there’s no value—so there’s a problem that we need to understand: what food is and where it comes from and what is happening when you just throw that carrot away. I think connection to the natural world or to farming or to everything you put in your meal—people just don’t get that anymore at all.
Goulding: Do you think there are any potential perils to this newfound culture of global foodie-ism? Sometimes I feel like it’s a new form of conspicuous consumption, this idea of checking off restaurants, moving around the world, as an expression of who you are.
Redzepi: I think that’s always been there, to tell the truth. There’s no question about that. Back then, people simply did it with Michelin three-stars; it was just sort of gastronomic temple to temple, ticking them off, but for a much smaller elite than it is today. Here we see all sorts of people and we see more and more young people. Today for lunch we had a table of six boys just finished at university, just regular Danish boys, middle-class, saving up, wanting to celebrate the end of their long college degree. You know? Maybe there is a new group of people growing up for which food is an analog experience that very few other things give them. You don’t collect records anymore, you stream things and it’s one of my theories that food is such an analog experience—it’s why people are drawn to it, especially younger people. So maybe dining at the best restaurant, knowing a little bit about food—is that how knowing about jazz used to be? Clever or something—maybe there is a part of that in it. But I think it’s always been around; it was just a smaller elite and now this mass is much bigger and not reserved only for wealthy people. It’s not only wealthy people that eat at expensive restaurants.
Goulding: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about Copenhagen specifically. You once told me: to travel to Copenhagen to eat was like going to Baghdad to sunbathe. How has that changed over the years?
Redzepi: Oh man, it’s changed completely. Copenhagen has been accepted on the culinary map. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Copenhagen is at all as amazing or as diverse in its offerings for food compared to say, San Sebastián, because we are an insect compared to that, but it’s moving along, and it’s getting better and better.
Goulding: It’s been remarkable. For a while there was a concern—I think it was that maybe it would only be the white-hot heat of Noma and a handful of Noma imitators. But it seems like everybody has really paid attention to the sort of global food interest and metabolized it and turned it into something totally unique and diverse and diffused here.
Redzepi: I think it’s happening slowly. It’s the beginnings of these things that are happening. I don’t see it disappearing but all of these broader actions are taking place and that makes for something much more interesting than just the white heat of Noma. Also more interesting to visit. I mean, Copenhagen is much more interesting to visit today than it was five or six years ago when you could say Noma was at its most popular. I think as long as people keep exploring and find joy in what they do, and we don’t start feeling entitled and working against each other, then I think it’s just gonna keep going, but you have to keep pushing it and keep exploring and initiating conversations and ideas. I do think that the biggest thing that would fuck this up for us is if we fuck ourselves up by working against each other as opposed to with each other.
Goulding: It seems like there’s a pretty collaborative atmosphere in Copenhagen, no?
Redzepi: Yeah but you know how it is—someone gets a taste of success and they don’t want to share it, you know? That’s very common. I do think in most general cases, if people keep working together in Copenhagen, keep sharing, exploring, high-fiving, pushing, being generous to one another, then it’s just gonna keep growing. I do not even doubt that.
We have people coming in from all corners of the world.
Goulding: Where do you see it going? Is it moving into different international cuisines or is it deepening the Nordic language? What’s the future in Copenhagen?
Redzepi: It’s gonna do both. I think what’s gonna happen in the restaurant scene is we’re going to deepen the language of the Nordic or northern Europe which is also a term that’s being passed around these years, because you’re also starting to define that maybe Denmark doesn’t belong to Scandinavia as much as it belongs to northern Europe—so there’s a new language being talked about a bit. Meanwhile, because of its interesting dining scene, because of its relatively high paychecks and work status, we have people coming in from all corners of the world to all the good restaurants and some of these people are staying in town and actually helping develop the scene even further. There’s a ramen shop opened called Slurp, and you know there are other stories like this. So those two [things] I think are going to happen in parallel. I think it’s also very interesting that on a general population level, there are more markets opening, and this whole food conversation is growing and broadening. It has more attention, in media, in television, in newspapers; people are developing programs where kids learn more about food where food is a part of their education.
Goulding: That’s amazing. One thing I noticed—there’s a real change in just sort of the fact that there’s a local restaurant culture—the Danes are out eating during the week, filling the restaurants these days.
Redzepi: They are eating in a way that I’m happy about, and I keep reminding myself—once in awhile when I’m tired, or there are 40 guests for lunch and someone wants to say hello—man, 10 years ago, you’d be lucky if you had 10 guests for lunch. Twenty years ago, it would be normal to have five guests on a Tuesday dinner for a majority of restaurants; fine dining restaurants in town would be fighting for the same two or three hundred guests. And today, to see a place like, for example, 108—yesterday they did 120 guests on a Wednesday. I think it’s a mega change; it’s not only that people are traveling to eat, it’s that Copenhagen is out and enjoying what’s going on.
Goulding: So let me ask you: where do you go on your day off? When you go out where do you go?
Redzepi: Right now, I think the best restaurant in town is probably Amass. I actually think what [chef Matt Orlando] is doing is like a little crystal ball. A lot of people right now—they don’t really understand it, they don’t take note of it. This restaurant that is 100 percent certified organic, this restaurant he wants to be completely neutral in his energy use, and he has all these things that he works on and a lot of people will say—oh, you should just be working for flavor. But I look at my children and I think to myself what are they going to choose when they are 25 and they have a choice of three restaurants, all of them equally good, but one of them has the ethos of Amass— not as one of these holy conscious choices but just as this is what we do, you know what I mean? I think in the future people will choose what Matt’s working on right now. I think it will be the norm in the future and I like that.
Goulding: Where else do you like to go eat?
Redzepi: Hija de Sanchez, the taqueria. I love going to Bæst. It’s one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had in my life actually. What I also like about that place is that—for me, a pizza doesn’t constitute a full meal—they also have other things like meats roasted in the pizza oven.
Goulding: How was filming with Bourdain?
Redzepi: Oh come on. Nothing compares to it. I’m not even trying to blow smoke up Anthony’s ass because he is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most famous person in the food world; filming a show with Anthony Bourdain is a landmark in your career. I didn’t know that as we were doing it, but I can honestly say that I wasn’t hungry for it; I’ve never been hungry for anything like that. He’s coming, cool, great, but after it actually happened, you realize, it’s one of those things that people keep referring back to—it’s unbelievable. All the time we hear it from guests—the Anthony Bourdain show, the Anthony Bourdain show. He’s white hot. Let’s put it like that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.