Danish Cuisine redefined.The restaurant which conquered the world.
Text FREDERIK BJERREGAARD Photography CAMILLA BRYNDUM & PHAIDON / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.5
Not since the 1960s, when Copenhagen was a free-spirited safe haven for every prominent jazz musician, has the Danish capital been riding as high as it is today. Today the musicians have made way for talented chefs, and with Noma the brightest star on the international circuit, Copenhagen has become a magnet for curious, sophisticated diners from all over the world.
Since 2010, when Noma came top of Restaurant magazine’s influential list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants – beating such legendary institutions as The Fat Duck in England and the Spanish El Bulli – the Danish capital hasn’t been itself. Or to put it more accurately: it has been a better version of itself.
The success of Noma has seen an inrush of international gourmands to Copenhagen, people who follow the recommendations of the brightest stars on the international restaurant circuit made by Restaurant magazine and the Michelin Guide. But it has also been of great importance for Danes ourselves, because all this praise has boosted our confidence and more or less changed our way of thinking.
To be honest, 35-five-year-old René Redzepi, the man behind Noma, doesn’t look anything special when you see him on his way to work on his bike, or drinking coffee at his regular café Sweet Treat near the restaurant in Christianshavn. He has – like many other Copenhageners his age – longish hair and stubble. He is a squash-playing father of a young family, far from the flamboyant attitude you might expect from a head chef and co-founder of one of the world’s most talked-about restaurants.
René is the man behind the New Nordic Cuisine – Noma comes from the joining of the words for “Nordic” (nordisk) and “food” (mad) – whose dishess range from the more traditional white asparagus with poached egg yolks and woodruff sauce to a minimalistic pike perch with dill, and last but not least live ants.
It’s his sublime ability in the kitchen that has made food critics compare his beautiful offerings with the artist Cy Twombly’s floating, calligraphic works and the band Sigur Rós’s characteristically poetic sound. That might sound weird, so let’s dispel the myth that René Redzepi’s cuisine is avant-garde for its own sake. We are talking about intelligent, delicious Nordic food here: a welcome modern replacement for the so-called molecular cuisine that dominated the largest restaurants in the 00s. It has been called honest and intuitive; but again, it has to be said that it relies on methodical studies of every culinary possibility. “We are trying to build a bridge between science and cooking,” René told the New York Times, ”not for the sake of science, but for the sake of deliciousness.”
René is the son of a Danish mother and an Albanian father, who lived in Macedonia when it was part of Yugoslavia. He grew up in Copenhagen and started cooking when he was a teenager. Later, he travelled the world to improve his skills, and among other places he came across the chef Ferran Adriá’s challenging restaurant El Bulli on the Spanish west coast, on a similar pilgrimage similar to the one that now leads hundreds of young, talented chefs to Noma every year. Unlike other head chefs, René has been able to create a kitchen without the hierarchy typically found in restaurants. He goes to work around 10 am and says hello to everyone from the youngest apprentice to the kitchen manager.
However, adventurous apprentice chefs aren’t the only ones who come to Noma and Copenhagen. An essential result of the restaurant’s success is the rising number of wealthy people that visit the city. If you have the financial resources and a love of luxury, you have to try the Danish gourmet miracle – even if it means chartering a private jet just to be able to drink a cup of coffee in Noma’s lounge. Copenhagen has become a leader in the Nordic food revolution that was brought to life by focusing on regional produce and keeping up with the demands of sustainability. And Noma has played a key role in the transformation of Copenhagen from an insignificant capital to an aspiring, original one.
This international allure is part of the new Copenhagen, where the focus is no longer on nostalgia but on the future. That’s true for Noma, and it’s true for other areas as well. Newer initiatives like the street festival Distortion, the creative Meatpacking District, the charming Værnedamsvej at Vesterbro and the Berlin-like street Jægersborgsgade at Nørrebro have all created new variations on the idea of the good life, adding to the classical attractions such as Louisiana in Humlebæk and Tivoli Gardens. The list of international media that keeps emphasising Copenhagen as a unique, vivid big city is long, and people are lining up to praise the Danish capital. One the of world’s leading trend forecasters, Li Edelkoort from the Netherlands, is renowned for her ability to predict relevant trends. Her verdict? “Copenhagen is a cosy and easy-going nest for creative people. The city is viewed as an exciting destination, where you can enjoy cool restaurants, shops and bars. Danish models and musicians are highly admired by international crowds, and that is definitely helping brand the city as being cool.”
Copenhagen is a city that has changed drastically for the better. It used to be historical and beautiful, but now it’s also a dynamic, fun and eclectic city. “The momentum in Copenhagen isn’t just because of the new wave of talented designers, architects and chefs, but also a dedicated redevelopment of the city by the public sector,” Tyler Brûlé from the agenda-setting lifestyle magazine Monocle has stated. “The fact that 35 per cent of the population is between 20 and 34 years old makes Copenhagen a young city, which creates modern, dynamic ideas and gumption.”
The collective success of the projects in Copenhagen is a burning desire to improve and transform. That goes for the music festival Distortion, which over the years has caused increasing chaos in the streets, just as much as for the menu at Noma. “I don’t regard what we’re doing at Noma as the absolute gastronomic truth,” René has said. “We haven’t found the recipe for success; we’ve just tried something new. Who knows, in five years’ time there might be a completely genius chef taking things in an entirely different direction that makes so much more sense. Or it might die, and we’ll stop eating ground elder. But I don’t think so.”
The foundation for Noma was laid in 2004 when a group of leading Nordic chefs created a kitchen manifesto, with Denmark represented by René Redzepi and grand master Erwin Lauterbach. The first commandments in the manifesto were as follows: 1. Must express the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics that we wish to connect with our region. 2. The food must reflect the changing seasons. 3. Must be built on produce that is extraordinary because of our climate, landscapes and waters. 4. Must unite the demand of taste with modern knowledge of health and well-being.
The gastronomic entrepreneur and co-owner of Noma, chef Claus Meyer, is deeply involved in the Nordic food revolution. He believes that the merging of Danish core values, the foundation of the new cuisine and the global zeitgeist we have witnessed in recent years all play a big part in the current success of Noma and Nordic food in general. “In an age when everyone is a little bit more careful when it comes to nature, we’ve rediscovered that we can’t take the earth for granted,” Claus has stated. “It’s necessary to change our focus to kitchens that work with the natural world nearby. You have to be able to taste and smell what time of year you eat the food and where you are in the world. And that’s very appropriate for the Nordic kitchen.”
According to Claus, the new Nordic cuisine is democratic, because much of the produce this new cuisine relies on is either cheap or free; the produce is readily available compared to French foie gras or caviar, for example. It also sets out to to solve other problems via gastronomy. And maybe that’s the point: if you compete internationally, you can’t win by trying to make better Italian food than the Italians; you do it by inventing your own cuisine with an attachment to your own region. Just as the free town of Christiania is a Danish experiment, so is Noma, which besides attracting wealthy people from all over the world, reminds the Danes of their quality of life. The question today is: what would Copenhagen do without Noma? •