Q&A with René Redzepi: the “world’s best chef” leaves Toronto with a good taste in his mouth

Q&A with René Redzepi: the “world’s best chef” leaves Toronto with a good taste in his mouth

René Redzepi in the courtyard of Victoria College, University of Toronto (Image: Taku Kumabe)

René Redzepi, chef and co-owner of the world’s best restaurant (at least according to San Pellegrino’s 2010 rankings), was in Toronto over the weekend to promote his new cookbook, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, at the Isabel Bader Theatre. His Copenhagen restaurant, named Noma, has taken the global culinary community by storm despite being a small operation (40 seats) that uses ingredients from the Nordic terroir (98 per cent are foraged from within a 100-kilometre radius). We caught up with the 32-year-old chef as he sipped a double cappuccino from Manic Coffee—he liked it so much that he returned for more before his flight out—to discuss why he hates being labelled “new Nordic,” how the Ontario pawpaw is a revelation, and how Canada and Denmark are really alike.

Some call your cooking style “new Nordic” cuisine. Is that how you would describe it?
No, that’s just boxing it in. It’s a term that has been brought forward by the industry with no knowledge supporting it. The philosophy is like, if you incorporate all the cultures in Canada into a restaurant here in Toronto. What do you call that? The things you have in the supermarket or the food that you serve in restaurants here are the exact same things found in Scandinavia. So what are we? It’s just a name that can be sold—that creates an atmosphere. That’s why I don’t want to be associated with it.

What has been the reception for Noma back home in Denmark?
In the beginning, it was a problem. I don’t know if you’ve heard the term “small country syndrome”? Maybe you have it in Canada, even though you’re such a big land mass. People think you cook with whale, seal, reindeer, you know? Then we started getting recognition from abroad. Then, after a few years, we got a Michelin star, and then we entered this list of the world’s best restaurants.

Many of our readers will not have access to the same ingredients you write about in this cookbook. Would you say this is more a general guide than a series of recipes? Something to inspire cooks and chefs because it breaks through the limits of what they know?
We can call it an atlas of Nordic and Scandinavian ingredients—there are a lot of photographs of the individual items and an explanation of what they are. It’s also an inspiration for people to get a feel of how we put food together on a plate in a way that’s modern. For me, it’s an opportunity to open gastronomy, to make the product range wider. I think most people think of Scandinavia, and perhaps Canada, and say that there are not a lot of foods that can be cooked with because the climate is colder than most places. This cookbook is a way to open that view. To say, look what we have in our region; imagine what you have in yours, where perhaps it’s hotter.

How should people approach the challenge of cooking with wild foods?
Just by using your indigenous ingredients with ones that are already known. It’s not just what to cook, but a deeper understanding of why it is you’re cooking it and what its purpose is. You have to have a narrative in what you’re doing, and you have to study more than just the ingredients. I think that’s very important. Just take these ingredients and cook them in another gastronomical context, like Italian, French, Korean, or any of these cuisines that have travelled around the world.

We introduce Redzepi to the pawpaw—an indigenous fruit found in Ontario—from Forbes Wild Foods. To say that he enjoyed it is an understatement (Image: Taku Kumabe)

This is your first time in Canada, but you seem to be quite familiar with our country. Is it because Canada and Scandinavia have a lot in common, at least climate-wise? What are your impressions?
Canada is difficult because it’s a big melting pot of cultures that come together to form the country. Of course you can learn from the original people, which I think is very important, and the starting point of somehow getting to know what could be Canadian. I’ve worked with so many Canadians over the years. Honestly, most of the things we have in Scandinavia, I have heard you have in Canada, as well. It’s super-shocking for me—I don’t even know why I’m surprised, I shouldn’t be surprised—that you get pawpaws. They don’t look like something you’d get in a northern climate. They look and taste like something from Mexico or from the Caribbean. I wish we could have shown this onstage. People would have been shocked to know that here there is a local fruit that nobody knows about, other than a small group of people.

Would you be interested in returning to explore what else Canada has to offer?
I’ve always wanted this, because everyone knows that Canada is a big country and you only have 33 million people. So there is a whole country to be discovered. But the time to do that is a little restrained. If I did it, I would have to have several weeks off to come here, a few weeks beforehand to study, and you have to be in contact with the right people. I’m always on the lookout for new indigenous foods. The important thing is to explore the diversity. I think there’s so much out there to be discovered.