May you grow like an onion, with your head in the ground.
—Old Yiddish Curse
This is how you cook potatoes the Noma way: Find an organic farm in the Danish countryside. Persuade the farmer to leave a field fallow for a full year and then have him dry out the hundreds of kinds of grasses, plant tops and weeds that have grown in it in the absence of crops. Unearth a few new potatoes fresh from a neighboring field. Pack each one individually in the dried weeds. Then wrap them in salt dough. Roast. When they’re done, mash them lightly with a little bit of butter. Pack the mash in skins made of dehydrated milk, creating “ravioli.” Sprinkle with wild herbs, chickweed, yarrow and glazed snails. Add a sauce of buttermilk blended with newly cut grass. Prepared this way, the dish should allow the green flavors from one field to merge with those of the potatoes from below. According to René Redzepi, the chef who created it, the completed ensemble should taste “exactly like the wonderful, heartwarming scent of a freshly mowed lawn on a summer’s day.”
When Redzepi described this recipe in front of a packed audience at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre this past November, I found myself strangely moved. It sounds like a lot of work, but it contains a beautiful thought, of hay, herbs, sun, grass, earth, a particular season in a particular place. It’s like something out of a poem by Wordsworth or John Clare. It’s the kind of recipe that has lifted Redzepi to culinary fame. In the nine years since he opened his restaurant in a Copenhagen warehouse, Noma (the name is a combination of the Danish words for Nordic and food) has become one of the most sought-after tables in the world. Starting in 2010, it was named the best restaurant in the world three years in a row, a position it only lost this year, to El Celler de Can Roca in Spain.
Given these accolades, it’s perhaps no surprise that Redzepi could draw a crowd of over a thousand to a lecture and cookbook signing, or that he was introduced by his fellow Dane, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, as an artistic genius on par with Picasso and Pollock. (Ulrich collects art.) Still, I couldn’t help wondering what we were all doing there. After all, only a handful of people in the audience had ever eaten at Noma, and chances are only a handful ever will. Redzepi himself seemed a little shocked by the attention. As he writes in the journal that accompanies his new book of recipes, “No one cared what a chef had to say” in the past. “When did restaurant chefs leave the kitchen … to get projected into this?” he asked from the stage, before launching into stories about his decision to serve live ants to his customers (they taste like lemongrass) and his lengthy quest to make a worthwhile dish out of lamb brains.
It turns out that the trick with the lamb brains is to treat them as a spread and an accompaniment to bread. They have a difficult texture—“in between foie gras and fish sperm”—and you can’t overcook them (they fall apart) or let them dry out (the results are apparently too horrifying for words). The solution to Redzepi’s other question, of when chefs started to occupy a central position in the culture, is a bit harder to pinpoint. Though in San Francisco, at least, the answer is: some time ago. And not just because this is a city where no matter what else is going on—skyrocketing rents, police shootings, municipal corruption—the people you meet always want to tell you about their newest breakthrough with food.
The Bay Area is America’s incubator of utopias. And for the past forty years, one of the principal ways these utopias have articulated their vision of the world is through food. From the hippie communes of the Sixties and Seventies to the techno-futurist bubble cities of today, each utopia has developed a cuisine of its own and, usually, an ideology to go with it. But while in the past this often had to do with negotiating human relationships to nature, now it has more to do with technology. We’ve gone from back-to-the-land-ism and organic farming to software and engineering, with tech moguls and hackers testing the limits of food’s perfectibility.
Another way of saying this is that, in the Bay Area, an extraordinary number of millionaire geniuses spend prodigious amounts of money in pursuit of the perfect burger or cup of coffee. Jack Dorsey, the co-creator of Twitter, owns Sightglass, a South-of-Market coffee shop that used the latest in imported Japanese technology—halogen siphons—to make superior espressos before they switched to something even fancier. On Valencia in the Mission, two young tech multimillionaires have plowed their earnings into a tailor-made urban chocolate factory that crafts elegant (and expensive) bars from beans sourced from individual farms in Ecuador and Madagascar. Then there’s the recent Columbia graduate who almost started his own version of Facebook while in college. Even though his company didn’t go anywhere, he made a fortune and now roams the earth dining at the best restaurants and posting endless reviews and Instagram photos on his blog, which reads like a modern-day update of John Cheever’s Swimmer.
Of all the technologists trying to remake themselves in the food world, perhaps none have gone further than Nathan Myhrvold. The longtime head of technology at Microsoft, and now the head of a predatory multibillion-dollar patent farm, Myhrvold has devoted years—and millions of dollars—to remaking cooking along rational, scientific lines. The fruit of his labor is a five-volume, ten-pound book called Modernist Cuisine, in which hundreds of kitchen staples are reimagined as baroque marvels of techno-futurist cookery. They’re very hard to make. Take his burger, in which every component—including the bun and ketchup—is made from scratch, and whose ingredients are meticulously tweaked to achieve the laboratory-tested optimum flavor profile: The lettuce is infused sous-vide with hickory smoke, the cheese is aged in wheat ale, the tomato is vacuum-compressed, and the whole thing is covered in a glaze of suet, tomato confit, beef stock and smoked fat. The patty itself gets cooked sous-vide in suet, dropped in a liquid nitrogen bath, and deep fried.
However intense its flavors, the burger takes hundreds of combined man-hours to make and requires equipment not normally found in all but the most elite restaurant kitchens. Myhrvold’s work conjures a world in which comfort food is made with the same precision engineering and allowance for luxury that goes into the construction of rich-guy yachts and custom jets. It’s a perfect expression of his whole mode of life as amateur paleontologist, corporate raider, safari enthusiast, patent troll, eighties Bond villain and Willy Wonka.
Yet the scale of Myhrvold’s ambition pales beside that animating the makers of a new food substitute named Soylent, after the fictional food infamously made from dead humans in the 1973 film Soylent Green. A high-energy mix of nutritive powders—oat flour, tapioca maltodextrin, rice-protein powder and canola oil—boosted with a number of vitamins, minerals and other additives, Soylent has a “sour, wheaty” taste and, when combined with water, a texture like diluted oatmeal. But flavor isn’t the point. Soylent was developed by a young computer programmer named Rob Rhinehart who was frustrated with his body’s need to consume food three times a day. Soylent was his solution. It is supposed to contain all the vitamins, proteins, amino acids and sugars needed to sustain the body—indefinitely.
According to most who have tried it, Soylent is a bland, if not nauseating, gruel. It is non-food. But it carries with it a revolutionary potential: to liberate the mind from the tyranny of the body. It promises to be the last meal you ever have to eat (or drink). Soylent has proved to be remarkably popular, raising $100,000 in pre-orders in only a few hours online and eventually winning over $1.5 million in venture-capital funding. It seems especially popular with people interested in hacking their biology as if it were another piece of hardware. I recently overheard a young computer programmer say that he had purchased a week’s supply as an experiment. Talking to New York Magazine, Zach Alexander, a 30-year-old software developer and an early adopter of Soylent, explained its appeal like this: “For me cooking is like an art form. And it’s really frustrating how biology compels you to eat food three times a day even though you don’t want to.”
The same kind of scientific tinkering that went into the design of Soylent has extended into the upper reaches of haute cuisine. In new modes of cooking, food gets dematerialized, turned into distilled scents and pure flavors. You can ingest whole meals with an eyedropper or a straw. It’s almost abstract, and indeed the move in haute cuisine of the past decade or so has been a modernist one: to try to liberate what we eat from its connection to its origins. More and more, chefs have been trying to make food that doesn’t taste or look or otherwise resemble the ingredients it is made out of.
In this, they’ve been led by Ferran Adrià, the Catalan chef in charge of the recently shuttered elBulli, probably the most influential restaurant of the new millennium. Using techniques drawn from the worlds of chemistry, physics and materials science, Adrià invented a host of ways to distill properties from one ingredient and infuse them into another. His cooking uses centrifuges, atomizers and industrial coolants. With them, he infuses scents into sprays, makes oils and liquids into gels, and turns semisolids like cheese or chocolate into unrecognizable landscapes. When the art critic Jerry Saltz ate at elBulli, he said that “nothing looked like what it was; nothing tasted like what it looked like.”
In Adrià’s “molecular gastronomy” (a term he hates, but which has stuck), flavor, smell, color and texture all act as independent variables, and can be recombined at will. With Adrià, dining is surrealism: caviar tastes like melon juice; olive oil arrives in the shape of a loop of wire or a gelatinous “olive”; a volleyball of frozen ice cream tastes like gorgonzola; popcorn balloons disappear when you touch them. Adrià’s innovations have spread out across the food world over the years. It’s now not uncommon to find foams and gels on menus in fancy restaurants and unconventional thermodynamics deployed in neighborhood bakeries. One of my favorite examples of the new scientific cuisine comes from a “contemporary patisserie” in San Francisco called Craftsmen and Wolves. They sell a ($7) savory muffin called the “Rebel Within.” When you cut it open there’s a perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg inside. How did it get there? Why didn’t it set with the rest of the dough? I spent weeks trying to figure it out before someone told me the answer. (They supercool the egg in liquid nitrogen before they put it in the dough.) Knowing how it’s done removes some of the initial satisfaction, but that mysterious molten egg still seems to me to embody what the technological approach to cooking can do at its best. It’s a moment of domestic magic. That the ingenuity that goes into it so outstrips the result is essential to its charm; the pleasure lies in the conquest of the useless.
So where does René Redzepi fit in this new world of food? The nature-worshipping forager cuisine he’s perfected at Noma seems at odds with both Ferran Adrià’s scientific whimsy and Soylent’s austere post-humanism. In actual fact, Redzepi apprenticed for a long time with Adrià, but his cooking doesn’t feature many of his master’s characteristic flourishes. Which is not to say he didn’t learn anything from his time at elBulli: he uses gels and centrifuges, and engages in some elaborate deceptions, like making “twigs” out of deep-fried crisp bread coated with edible “lichens.” But these advanced techniques aren’t at the heart of his aesthetic. Rather, Redzepi’s focus is on ingredients and on dishes that evoke the sense of a certain place and time.
This insight—“the plate should reflect the where and when of the guest”—came about gradually. At first, Noma was a fairly standard haute cuisine restaurant, making classic dishes with a few substitutions to give them a local flavor—for instance by using sour apple wine to make stock or sea buckthorn in place of vanilla for a crème brûlée. This went on for a while, until Redzepi, stuck in Greenland after a hunting trip, had a breakthrough: he realized that by relying on wild ingredients foraged from the Nordic countryside he could create something new—cooking that, according to him, speaks to a “truly personal and inspiring relationship to nature.” From then on, his cooks took to scouring Danish beaches for aromatic sea grasses, searching hayfields for edible blossoms and interrogating farmers about individual batches of unripe strawberries. Soon thereafter, they started importing 200-year-old mahogany clams from Norway and edible lichens and mosses from the Swedish woods. Whole new categories of foodstuff came to their attention. The forest, especially, became Noma’s larder. In his Journal (one part of his new three-book collection René Redzepi: A Work in Progress) Redzepi explains that, although often overlooked, trees offer so much: “There are the tiny shoots, the needles, the delicious sap, the gelatinous layer between the bark and the tree, the mosses and not to forget the fruit: the chestnuts, hazelnuts and so on.”
The primal scenes of his creativity take place in the forest or on the beach. In the Journal, he remembers finding sea arrowgrass for the first time on a beach and being amazed at its bright, herbal flavor: “The juices burst into my mouth, salty like sea water and then an explosion of flavor, like the finale of a fireworks display: coriander … From that day on the world looked different.” Time and again he returns to the woods in search of inspiration:
I went foraging, sinking into the forest, tasting things, hoping to clear my thoughts and take that deep, relaxing breath that allows me to shrug off the bustle of the kitchen. I took a second and rested on my haunches, absentmindedly picking things up around me. A snail slowly wandered through the moss. I followed as it inched along, unaware that it was selecting its own garnish. Back in the kitchen, the snail was cooked very tenderly, glazed a little in a tasty, intense broth, then lovingly encircled by cooked and raw roots, plants, shoots and flowers: it was a small mouthful representing a few square meters of a particular Danish forest on that exact day. It felt so satisfying to use my intuition in that way.
He’s right—there is something alluring about all this: the silence of the forest, the coolness of the moss, the snail selecting its own garnish. But I don’t think it’s because of the suggestion of new flavors. Not many people yearn for the taste of yarrow, sea buckthorn and tree sap. And yet they flock to Noma, and, if they can’t make it there in person, to the idea of Noma. The appeal of Redzepi’s cooking has to do with a kind of pastoral dream. In a moment when haute cuisine has been summoned to arbitrate our position between technology and nature, Noma comes down firmly on the side of the wild.
It’s difficult—and perhaps irresponsible—to critique the food of a restaurant where I have never eaten, and the recipes in a cookbook I can’t cook from. (In the interest of service journalism I was going to try to make something from Noma Recipes, but without access to mahogany clams, desiccated scallops or reindeer blood, I had to give up.) But I do think it’s possible to ask some questions about the meaning of Redzepi’s food, especially since the Journal gets so deep into the thought processes behind it.
The Journal chronicles a year in the life of Noma. It’s a constant struggle to make new dishes, hemmed in by two constraints—each has to be both Nordic and seasonal. These constraints impose a series of daunting challenges for the chefs, chief among them the fact that not much really grows in Denmark in winter, and what does hasn’t typically been considered fit material for fine dining. In response, Redzepi’s team devises a series of inspired workarounds. They find ways to maximize the flavor and longevity of their produce through drying and pickling, discovering such unexpected ingredients as juniper-beech powder and pickled gooseberries. They also begin a whole program of “trash cooking,” in which they devise dishes out of fish scales and potato peels.
Redzepi presents cooking at Noma as a process of continual innovation and collaboration. Actually, it’s sort of intoxicating to imagine working there—the thought of showing up every day to think about the weather and the seasons, looking for inspiration in the crates of forest mushrooms and live shrimp gathered that morning by bearded fishermen. On Saturday nights, there are jam sessions where the whole staff gets to come up with dishes of their own, like kale ice cream or cucumber dessert (which Redzepi immediately puts on the menu). Not to mention the fact that Redzepi almost bankrupts the restaurant by spending all his profits on remodeling the staff kitchen. All in all, Noma seems like an open, interesting and progressive place to work, one with exactly the kind of internal culture tech companies dream of fostering.
The appeal of Noma as a workplace might actually go some way towards explaining why chefs have become such cultural icons in recent years. In the past decade or two, as Silicon Valley has emerged as the most dynamic sector of the economy, our ideas about aesthetic fulfillment have undergone a subtle transformation. Our models of creativity are no longer struggling loners like painters or novelists. They aren’t media figures, like pop stars or movie stars. They’re not performers of any kind, for the most part—definitely not dancers, stage actors or classical musicians. More than anything, they’re skillful managers and team builders—entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, architects like Zaha Hadid, chefs like Redzepi. Their mode of work—sociable, engaged, attentive to design, profitable—is immensely appealing, especially to those stuck alone at a desk or computer console.
What Noma doesn’t feature much of is actual Scandinavian cooking. Redzepi twice tries to make versions of dishes he remembers from childhood—his Macedonian grandmother’s stuffed grape leaves and a classic Danish dish of game with cream sauce—and both times faces deep skepticism from his staff, who warn him: “Are you sure you want to work on this, chef? It will never be as good as you remember.”
But Redzepi avoids direct imitation of classic Nordic fare, just as he approaches the dishes of his youth as obliquely as possible. Those rice-and-meat-stuffed dolmas he remembers from his childhood turn into roasted packets of cabbage leaves filled with pike fillet and verbena sauce. The first time he sees the dish, Redzepi says, “This doesn’t look like Macedonia.” What he is after isn’t an evocation of a memory or a recreation of a particular way of eating. It’s not really pastoral either, at its core—at least not in the sense of replicating the foodways of actual peasants or shepherds. What Redzepi is getting at is a vision that has proven to be remarkably seductive in our technological age. His cooking is an attempt to commune with nature in a primal way, to talk directly to the soil and the trees.
One of the most famous dishes at Noma is called Fjord Shrimp with Brown Butter. In it, several live shrimp are served live in glass jars full of ice. The diners pluck them out, dip them in butter and eat them alive. Eating Redzepi’s shrimp (or his citrusy live ants) offers more than a flavor or an experience: it offers contact with animality itself. Redzepi admits as much, writing that the butter is “really just for the timid, who want to cover the insect-like eyes and head with a quick nervous dunk”—the real point is the encounter, “predator against prey.”
But even more compelling than the animal world in Redzepi’s cooking is the idea of the earth. That bite of shrimp contains “an accurate representation of the flavors of the ocean at this exact moment.” Similarly, when Noma’s chefs prepare wild duck, they serve it covered in beech leaves: a way of imagining its last moments as it falls to its death on the forest floor. Which is what so much of Redzepi’s work returns to: the forest floor itself. Hence the attention to soil, grass, mushrooms and wood. In its refusal of culture in the name of nature, Redzepi’s cooking reminds me not so much of anything Nordic, but of Teutonic philosophy. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Martin Heidegger describes a pair of old peasant shoes vibrating with “the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field.” The earth represents, to Heidegger, a state of being before humans and before language. It’s a kind of philosophic no-place at the other end of an experiential abyss. The difficulty of thinking our way into it is the reason it’s so hard to answer the question of what it’s like to be a bat—or a toad or a rock or a clump of grass. Poets fascinated by the nonhuman realm, like Seamus Heaney and Francis Ponge, try to put this “silent call” into words. In his own peculiar way, Redzepi is attempting to do the same thing, only instead of trying to give it voice, he wants to put it on a plate.
At one point in the Journal, Redzepi imagines surprising one of his best customers with an ultimate dish. But it isn’t so much a dish as an experience:
that wonderful sensation of walking through the woods on fields of wet moss. I want to take these pieces of moss, cleaned, dried and simmered in juniper broth, and sprinkle them with dried berries, forest plant, juniper oil, cep oil, thyme oil—anything delicious from the woods. I imagine Ali, looking down into the bowl at what looks like wet moss, then at his spoon, back to the bowl, and glancing up with a scared look, asking “what should I do?”
So this is Redzepi’s wish: to put a piece of ground in front of a diner and have him figure it out. And once you got over your dismay at being served moss on a plate, maybe you would. His cooking is an attempt to go beyond the world of language and culture and into the world of pure things. And like any real artist, Redzepi articulates desires we didn’t even know we had—not for nutritive powders or engineered foams, but for contact with another way of being. To taste the essence of rocks and trees, to creep through the forest like a snail, to sleep in the earth like onions, with our feet in the air.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy Gordon Arlen’s review of Charlie Trotter.
Art credit: Noma photos (CC BY / Flickr)