Oct 06 2010

Thoughts on Copenhagen…and Rene Redzepi

If you were suddenly asked ‘what’s the most influential experience on your life so far?’, what would you say? I may not have quick answers for other similar beauty pageant questions (World Peace!), but this is one question where I have a ready-made answer: living in Copenhagen for 5 months when I was 20. This was seven years ago and regrettably, I haven’t returned--though I hope to correct that soon. I’ve carried my memories and the city’s influence with me since returning.

While in Denmark I lived slightly outside of the city with a host family, using Copenhagen’s excellent train and subway system to get into school everyday. Once I was in the city proper, I walked everywhere, though if I had had a bike, I would have joined the hundreds of thousands of Danes who bike every day. I’ve yet to be in another city where it seemed like bikes outnumber cars 5:1.

Beyond my love for public transportation (a big factor in my move to New York, but lately…what has been happening!? I digress.), Copenhagen was clean, green, progressive, and the Danes were genuinely polite. Much of the Danish culture centers around a concept known as hygge. Hygge (roughly, hyguh) doesn’t have a direct English translation, but basically translates to coziness and tranquility. Danes work hard while at work, but put much of their daily focus into fostering and nurturing relationships. Basically, hygge is the presence of friends and anything comforting and soothing (candles, long dinners, warm cups of drink, no agenda). As an American in a Type A society, this concept wasn’t just unfamiliar to me, it was difficult to comprehend and adapt to. Language barrier aside, you all sit around for 2-3 hours after dinner and just relax? Don’t you have things to do?! Several months into my stay, I not only appreciated the concept, but envied it, especially during my transition back to the States.

While I was in Denmark, I was a stereotypical poor college student. I think I bought two items of clothing the entire time I was there and rarely went out to expensive dinners, though I did enjoy a daily soft ice on the walking street (Stroget). That daily icecream and my host mother’s incredible cooking contributed to returning home to the States 10 pounds heavier.

So, at the time, I knew that Denmark had an interesting culinary scene, but I wasn’t able to take advantage of it. Recently, one particular restaurant in Copenhagen has received an inordinate (and entirely justified) amount of attention: Noma.

Noma is the brainchild of Rene Redzepi and  was named the world’s best restaurant in the 2010 S. Pellegrino Awards. It’s a huge draw for locals and visiting foodies: in fact Michelle Obama tried to get reservations during her visit last year - and couldn't! Noma books up three months in advance, and seats about 40 guests at just 12 tables.

Housed in a converted warehouse, Noma serves reinterpretations of classic Nordic Food. When I hear the phrase Nordic Food, I think herring, salmon, pate, and lingonberries. Redzepi, while refusing to use olive oil, foie gras, sun-dried tomatoes, serves dishes like ‘deer, wild thyme, red beets, and red fruits’ and ‘dried scallops, watercress, biodynamic cereals and beech nut’.

NY Times writer Peter Meehan describes Redzepi as serious, but not self-serious (and links to this video by Mark Bittman to demonstrate what he means). Frank Bruni’s recent profile of Rene really helped me understand his vision and style, including the initial confusion he faced when he first opened Noma: “[People} wanted foie gras. He gave them cloudberries.”

Frank Bruni captures Noma’s mission much better than I can, as I’ve never met Rene nor dined at Noma:

Redzepi is acting on the premise that the most special, inimitable contribution a restaurant can make is to serve the food that is freshest and truest on its given patch of the planet, to sift through that region’s flora and fauna for unfamiliar flavors, to scour its forgotten traditions for ingredients that cooks have stopped using. (Mr. Redzepi works with two Danish food historians.)

This was an incredibly long way of sharing that I’m seeing Rene Redzepi tonight, in a panel discussion with David Chang and Ruth Reichl at the New York Public Library. He’ll also be signing copies of his new cookbook tomorrow at the Columbus Circle Barnes and Noble. I’m incredibly excited to be in the presence of Danish culture, if only for a night!