Books that cook have really evolved over the last few years. A few – like David Chang’s tale in the Momofuku cookbook of fighting anger and shingles – plunge even deeper into the cooking/storytelling vein, revealing the heart of the kitchen where memoir and measuring cup collide.
René Redzepi: A Work In Progress is teetering on that fine line as well. The Copenhagen chef’s latest release is a raw glimpse into a leader and chef, part cookbook, part year-in-the-life tale of its star player and his role within the greater team. Since studying under Ferran Adria and Thomas Keller, the 36-year-old Redzepi has pushed Nordic cuisine to the forefront during his decade-long reign at Noma. Showcasing a creative and innovative menu utilizing everything from insects to a great deal of foraged foodstuffs others would scoff at, awards and recognition began rolling in just a few years after the kitchen opened in 2004, with Noma hitting what many might consider the pinnacle in 2010 when they reached the top of the World’s Best Restaurant list.
“That was my whole motivation for writing for a year,” Redzepi explained to Daily Blender. “People around me were saying that we had reached the mountaintop – being crowned number one was it. It really took me by surprise, because when it first happened, I saw it as a great stepping stone, not as the crowning moment in the lifespan of our restaurant. That’s how I treat it now: our foundation as a restaurant, as a workplace is stronger than ever, and these accolades are not the end. They’re the building blocks. So, I stopped feeling the pressure of it and only saw it as something that helped us progress and open us up to opportunities. Let me just be very clear that I’ve never ever thought of our restaurant as being the best in the world.”
The chef’s latest publication is actually a grouping of three individual books, including a bound collection of snapshots – the chef’s participation in the annual MAD Symposium, the daily shuffle of Noma staffers, dishes in various states of progress – as well as a larger, proper cookbook filled with a year’s worth of ingredients and recipes from Noma. It is the center book, however, a journal – Redzepi’s personal log of day-to-day tasks, projects, and challenges – that holds the greatest reward. Rarely are you offered the opportunity to peer into a chef’s daily life, particularly one showered with such acclaim. Rarely is one – anyone, really – willing to be that candid for such an extended period of time.
“When it was put together, it was never intended to be published,” he said of the publication. “I wrote it for myself as a way of making sense of the sudden success, and seeing if I could learn something from trying to make sense of the everyday life of our restaurant. And it worked.”
“It positively changed our restaurant. During the year of note-taking, I changed so many things here to make our workplace a better, more fun, and more engaging place to spend your time in as an employee. Ultimately, this has resulted in happier guests. There are some interesting lessons to be learned from that – taking care of a team and finding creative energy, which I believe are some of the strongest aspects of the book. Besides that, there’s the bonus of over 100 recipes to be inspired from. This time, I even believe there are dishes you could cook at home. As a result of writing the journal, we’ve become more confident as a team, which has given way to “simpler” cooking.”
In flipping through “Recipes” – 100 of them, each corresponding to an entry in the journal – one can’t help but notice the book’s intro is penned by another popular Dane, Metallica guitarist Lars Ulrich. A star performance with a kickass opening band, in book form.
As the story goes, Ulrich became a frequenter of Noma and a friendship was formed. As the book progressed, Redzepi asked the rocker to contribute. “He had dined at the restaurant, and Metallica music is a favorite of mine to play in the kitchen here,” Redzepi said. “It all started approximately five to six months into the journal writing, when I experimented with putting music in the kitchen. Of course, the music was a positive influence from the get-go, but I also noticed that at the critical moments, when you really need a push, or to wake people up, Metallica does the trick. And then, at the same time, I was also searching for a creative energy in writing the journal and I thought it would be interesting to ask a person who has dealt with creativity over the past three decades what he boiled it down to be, to get a different take on it. I have to say, I love his essay and his conclusion: being unafraid.”
And afraid he is not. He admits to dreams of opening a restaurant in “San Francisco, Japan, or somewhere in the Yucatan”, and assures critics and diners that they can expect much more of the experimental dishes he and his team are known for. “But much, much better,” the chef confides. “There are a few surprises coming up in the next few years, but all in due time.”
*Photo credit: A Work in Progress: Journal, Recipes and Snapshots by René Redzepi £35.45 / €00.00, Phaidon 2013, www.phaidon.com
**Want to snag your own copy of A Work in Progress: Journal, Recipes and Snapshots by René Redzepi? Leave a comment below on what kind of music you cook to (if any!) and a winner will be chosen Friday, December 20.**
Thanks to all who commented below! Our winner of Rene Redzepi: A Work in Progress is Jeremy Winn!