Rene Redzepi Masterminds A Cook-Off With The World's Best Chefs
Writer Jeff Gordinier recounts a day spent with Noma's Rene Redzepi and the best chefs in the world for a wild cooking competition
Esquire’s food editor Jeff Gordinier follows the meteoric rise of Noma, widely acknowledged as the best restaurant in the world, and its mastermind Rene Redzepi, one of the most innovative chefs, in his new book Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World. In this excerpt, Gordinier recounts a night in 2016 with some of the most renowned chefs of our time, who Redzepi gathered in one place to compete over dinner.
"Welcome to heaven,” Rene Redzepi says.
Evening is falling in slow motion over Copenhagen and Redzepi’s backyard is aswarm with people. It looks like Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte crossed with the bacchanalian inside sleeve of the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, the one in which Mick and Keith and company lounge like Renaissance noblemen around a table piled with meat and fruit.
No wonder Redzepi’s workout is so important to him. Without exercise, chefs are basically counting the days until the onset of diabetes and gout. We sit at long tables where bottles of wine and platters of food jostle for space. Some of us sit on the lawn. Redzepi is addressing the crowd. “Just be here,” he tells the assembled group. “Just be. The best restaurant in the world is actually here. Tonight.”
It’s hard to argue with him on that point. Gathered in his yard — summoned together like the Avengers of cuisine — are famous chefs from around the world. Alex Atala from Brazil and Jose Andres from Washington, D.C. (by way of Spain), Kylie Kwong from Australia and Jessica Koslow from Los Angeles, Jacques Pepin and David Chang, Danny Bowien and Bo Bech, Michel Troisgros and Daniel Patterson. It is a testament to his status that Redzepi has been able to persuade these people to travel to Denmark from as far away as Sao Paulo and Sydney for what amounts to a picnic.
Tomorrow brings the kick-off of the MAD Symposium, an annual convergence of chefs and food media illuminati who are intent on chewing on and hashing out the most pressing issues of the moment, but for sheer exuberance nothing under the MAD tents is likely to top the Valhalla-ishness of this under-the-radar A-list cookout.
Redzepi being Redzepi, it has been deemed insufficient for these chefs merely to meet up and eat. It’s not even enough for them to cook. What transpires instead is a Battle of the Network Stars-style showdown with the chefs divided into pairs in the afternoon and instructed to deliver a delicious dish for the picnic by sundown. Go.
“Everybody cooks,” Redzepi says in the courtyard before it gets rolling. “That includes you.” He means me. I can’t imagine what soupcon of expertise, or even basic competence, I bring to the party, but I work up my courage (I don’t want to be forced to do any burpees) and volunteer as a deckhand for the coolest duo in the arena: Jessica Koslow, the Southern California pioneer whose restaurant, Sqirl, serves the most distinctive breakfast in America, and Kylie Kwong, whose flagship in Sydney, Billy Kwong, has won global praise for incorporating indigenous Australian ingredients into the Cantonese recipes of her heritage. That aha moment — the realisation that you should use what grows around you — can be traced, for Kwong, to a single, specific moment.
In 2010, Redzepi travelled to Sydney and gave a speech. Kwong was there, and she left with the flush of energy that accompanies any creative person’s visualisation of a breakthrough. “That’s when I started using them,” Kwong tells me, while holding a bowl and whisking a mix of white miso and cherry blossom vinegar. “The next day. The next day! Rene prompted me to create this revolution at Billy Kwong. It was a lightbulb moment for me — ‘Who is this guy?’.”
In Copenhagen, Kwong tells me she is third-generation Australian but 29th generation Kwong; she can map her lineage back to the Song dynasty. The moment of clarity at Billy Kwong came down to an embrace of these interwoven threads of identity. “Rene has really inspired me to open up so much, discover my Australian-ness and my Chinese-ness through food,” she says.
That means stuffing dumplings with warrigal greens and fashioning savoury cakes out of saltbush instead of turnips; it means dishes like red-braised, caramelised wallaby tail. She uses these ingredients because they’re local and they taste good — because the John Nash-ish insight into Rene Redzepi could be described as a kind of Magnum Terroir, the concept that the foods that grow near you are the foods that are the most desirable for this place and time. “To quote Rene, it’s actually delicious,” Kwong goes on. “From a gastronomic perspective, it actually works.”
Kwong may be a visionary chef, but I am not. Before long it becomes clear that my primary role in this makeshift al fresco kitchen is to commit mistakes that amuse everyone else. Brisk, clear, and patient — up to a point — Koslow comes across as the consummate professional in the kitchen, at least based on my couple of hours of nodding and chopping at her side.
She decides on her dish — a salad — gathers her ingredients from a game-show display a few yards away and tells me what to do. Which should be simple enough: grab these clumps of mint and thyme and strip the leaves from the stems. I do this dutifully, if clumsily, for a while, until a question percolates in my mind. Koslow is standing to my right.
I should point out here that I tend to have an unruly habit of gesticulating. My arms, at times, weave and bob like snakes. “Chef?” I ask, and I turn to ask Koslow the question, and some bizarre quantum alignment of space and time brings us to a rare and sudden intimacy: because of my flailing forearms, my herb-scented right index finger has gone sailing right up into her left nostril. I will forever admire Koslow for the kind look of forgiveness in her eyes as I extract my gesticulating digit from her nose. She must be a nice person to work for.
Bo Bech, a lumberjack-proportioned flavour virtuoso in Copenhagen, indulges my blundering with similar elan. (Being a food writer for the New York Times and Esquire means when it comes to the possibility of being on the receiving end of a fiery kitchen tantrum, I am my own human shield.) Bech has teamed up with Atala, meaning the most overtly macho duo in the bunch — Bech with his supersized Viking scaffolding, Atala with his tattooed forearms and feral Amazonian gaze — are working alongside two women, Kwong and Koslow, who keep their mise en place theatrics to a minimum.
Maybe it says something about the implied droit de seigneur of male chefs that after an hour or so, Bech makes it clear to me that I am now staging with him and Atala. “Jeff, I need you,” he says. I can’t tell whether some kind of negotiation has gone down. Maybe I’m being stolen. Or maybe Koslow, in the wake of my nose-probing mishap, has quietly traded me to the rough boys. (Take this amateur off my hands, I imagine her whispering. He’s slowing us down.)
Either way, Bech will soon sour on my apprenticeship. As I click into my servitude with the Bech-Atala crew, I see before me a plastic tub full of celery greens. Bech is pouring a glass of water on the pale green leaves to wash them. Easy enough, I think — I grab a glass and do the same.
The look in Bech’s eyes as I pour his portion of nicely chilled white wine all over the celery greens is something I shall not forget. Bech is, as I have indicated, a large man, yes, but in this instant he appears mountainous, King Kong-like, capable of swatting me across the face with a paw that would most likely contribute to early-onset dementia.
Bech does not hit me, of course. “No, no, no,” he says as if scolding a toddler. He tells me to start over. He points toward a sink, and to that sink I haul the tub of celery greens and wash the wine off them. Bech rewards me, when I return, as if he’s tossing a treat to an obedient dog. He is known in Denmark for creating complex bites composed of no more than three or five ingredients.
He creates one of these on the spot. He takes a knife and cuts a slice the size of an anchovy from the uncooked carcass of a lamb that is being dressed for its date with a roaring fire. Bech curls the sliver of raw lamb on top of a green, unripe strawberry and pixie-dusts the bite with sea salt. Then he places the bite directly on to my tongue.
“Jeff,” he says. “Raw lamb. That’s Denmark.”
There is a thing you learn about chefs when you spend time with them: Even though they may cook complex food, they revere simple food. The word “simple” is an incantation, music to their ears, and they long for anything that doesn’t seem fussed over or full of itself. For Redzepi that simplicity was expressed through a pot of beans or a plate of tacos.
After enduring a tasting menu in Copenhagen, David Chang would predictably head straight for a late-night dive called Kebabistan for a gooey, salty heap of shawarma. Francis Mallmann, on his island in Patagonia, relished a simple repast of Persian rice saturated with butter and crusty from a cast-iron skillet. Massimo Bottura might be spotted walking a block away from his Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, so that he could refuel with prosciutto, parmigiano-reggiano, bread and wine.
The same principle is at work here in the Redzepi courtyard, with twin sets of toques marinating and chopping and spatchcocking dishes at whim. Nobody pays much attention to what has been cooked, and most of the dishes (a roast lamb, assorted salads) wind up reflecting that longing for simplicity. It’s like a jam session at which famous musicians cover a bunch of folk songs. It’s not really a competition. There is no prize at the end. Redzepi hands out no trophies.
The dish that “wins”, by informal acclamation, is the simplest one: a turbot, properly seasoned and grilled whole, cooked without fanfare by Olivier Roellinger, a French chef and gentle leftist known for having forfeited his three Michelin stars, in tandem with his son, Hugo. Redzepi grabs my arm and nods toward the fish.
“That’s what you don’t want to miss,” he says. He’s right — the flesh of the turbot is firm, light and steamy from the fire — and as night falls I wonder whether someday Redzepi will be like Roellinger, a man who has bypassed fame and found contentment on the sidelines. No one can be hungry forever, after all.