Monday, 15 November 2010
NOMA - Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine - Rene Redzepi Talk
I first heard of Rene Redzepi and his restaurant Noma early last year, as the gentleman who had won MasterChef in 2009 had undertaken one of his final challenges at Noma in Denmark.
At the time, I thought Redzepi seemed a breath of fresh air, simply because he seemed kind and understated, yet at the same time joyful about food (and his looked incredible).
What was even more incredible was that Noma uses only food from Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Finland, and employs a network of foragers to achieve as comprehensive a culinary canvas as possible.
Right then, I decided that at the earliest opportunity I would save some pennies and visit Denmark to see for myself.
And then Redzepi's Noma was awarded first place in the World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards this year, toppling Ferran Adria's El Bulli, and I wistfully thought, "Oh, I'm never going to get to eat there now - it'll be booked up for ever".
But both Noma and Rene Redzepi became a little bit more accessible, when on Friday he appeared in London as part of his tour for his first English language book "NOMA - Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine".
A thousand of us gathered in Freemasons' Hall to listen to the Great Dane speak, like vacant youths to a Justin Bieber concert.
He'd brought some of his team with him including Ben Greeno to help him demo some of Noma's latest dishes, as well as his best regular - a guy called Ali who'd been there 14 times in the past year.
In front of the stage was a table of 41 types of locally foraged food that had been gathered by Miles Irving, which we pored over.
Sealed Noma goody bags were handed out to each of us, and biodynamic carrots from Denmark were passed around for us to munch making us giddy with excitement.
Then Redzepi began to speak and we all fell silent.
That first impression I had of Redzepi being a breath of fresh air was compounded when, rather than coming on like a superstar to a fanfare (which some chefs are wont to do), he mentioned that the last time he had been here Noma had been voted Best Restaurant and then self-deprecatingly read out a complaint letter from one of his diners. Listen to the AudioBoo below.
He then took us through the creative process which drives Noma - a sense of wonder and a willingness to think outside accepted conventions.
For instance, in the dish Asparagus and Spruce, Redzepi noticed that spruce trees grew right next to a field of asparagus so he wondered whether they'd be equally companionable on a plate.
This led him to tie asparagus spears to small spruce branches and to grill them so the spruce scent infused the asparagus and it turned out to be a happy combination.
Necessity also drove Redzepi to be imaginative - in Vintage Carrot and Camomile, when fresh produce was scarce, he and his team discovered that ancient, frankly manky-looking carrots could be braised in goat's butter to become almost meatily delicious.
His Sh*tty Potatoes (sic) were a similar innovation springing from a lack of decent produce - tiny, stunted potatoes which could be cooked for mere seconds so they retained their bite and then cooked with cream and a form of milk yuba to become nutty and seductive.
Then Redzepi prepared several of these dishes for us to see - giving commentary as the beautiful plates took shape before us. There wasn't a dish which didn't sound, smell and look mind-bogglingly good.
And just as we were beginning to get hungry and lustful, they began to pass round pickled rose petals for us to try (beautiful) and Redzepi asked us to open up our Noma goody bags and to try the treats inside.
I'd had hogweed before at The Wild Garlic, so recognised its warm, peppery savouriness. The Douglas Fir was resiny as expected, but also surprisingly similar to kaffir lime leaf - astringent and citrussy.
The melilot was bitter and aniseedy, the sea buckthorn sweet and sour. My favourite was probably the sea purslane which was a little like bladderwrack - succulent, moist and briny.
Redzepi's enthusiasm was infectious - as he talked us through the different herbs and leaves, you could understand his sheer delight when, for example, he discovered a type of grass near his restaurant which tasted just like coriander, or that the service berry tastes just like tamarind - thus ensuring he could stick to his policy of local foods only whilst expanding the food he could create.
At the end of the talk, Redzepi was led off to do a book-signing for his multitude of avid fans - I on the other hand made a beeline for the stage to try to get a taste of the dishes that he'd made. Alas, the throngs were too great, though I did manage to get hold of one dried scallop sliver which was intensely umami.
The book itself looks brilliant and is definitely on my Christmas wishlist. Whether or not I'd recreate any of the dishes, I cannot say, but I think it's worth buying for a piece of genuine, innocent genius.
Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine
by Rene Redzepi