Noma is the Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen that put foraging on the map for the high-end food scene. It’s been hailed as the best restaurant in the world four times over, and at its helm, the humble yet fiercely curious leader behind it all is Danish chef Rene Redzepi. Alongside co-founder (and co-experimenter) David Zilber, Rene has shattered the glass ceiling for conceptualizing — and actualizing — a new level of truly innovative culinary excellence.
The complex flavors and natural science behind fermentation have made ferments of all kinds a huge part of Noma’s success since day one, and Rene is the first to call it out. There is something fermented in every single dish of their daily, seasonal tasting menu. Naturally, we couldn’t have been more excited when Rene and David revealed that they were launching a series of cookbooks — starting with this giant, gorgeous guide to fermentation.
The Noma Guide to Fermentation , similar to Noma itself, is a major undertaking (10 years in the making) fueled by passion, practice and pure reverence for natural, native and hyper-seasonal ingredients. We recently had the thrilling chance to chat with the master himself — an intensely inspiring talk our team at TCM won’t soon forget. We asked Rene everything from his wildest fermentation experiments to the seasonal ingredient he wants us all to get excited about (and even a few restaurant recommendations in LA). Pick up a copy of the stunning book here, then get to know the man who is changing the way we think of fermentation…
TCM: The Noma Guide to Fermentation is the first release of a three-part cookbook series called the Foundations of Flavor. Why did you and David decide this was going to be the first one in the series?
Rene: Well, for a number of reasons. When we look at what has made Noma become what we are today, obviously the people are the first important thing. And then came foraging; stepping into the landscape and understanding seasonality. But the most important thing now is actually our fermentation world. In any menu [at Noma], in any part of the year, you always have a fermented item in every single serving — while there won’t necessarily be wild food in every single serving.
Fermentation is really our DNA and our underlying flavor profile. I say this, while I don’t want people to misunderstand this, that there’s always a taste of something funky because most of the time you can’t taste it. Most of the time, hopefully, when people eat something and say Why does this taste so good? It’s because of two drops of something fermented has been added.
That’s one part of it. Secondly, there’s also just something happening with fermentation in the world right now; people are really getting into it. And, while 10 years ago it was maybe more of an extreme connoisseur thing to do. It might even have been people that were only focused on health, not so much on flavor. But today it’s happening more and more and people are understand the potential for cooking in it. So it’s a perfect moment to do this.
And then, thirdly, it is also something that we actually believe in quite a lot. Fermentation has really made our cooking easier and more fun. I actually believe that people should be using an array of the products that are already out there, and also try themselves to make up more things (which they can if they have the book, for instance).
TCM: Touching on what you said about the rising popularity of fermentation, what do you think has initiated that shift?
Rene: I think, first of all, fermenting stuff is a very, very, very analog thing to do in a very digitalized world. I mean, on the cover of the book, there’s a hand because it refers to the idea of handmade — hand food. And so it is a thing driven by people and by actually doing things. I think there is a yearning for that intuitively. Also because everything is so readily available as a download.
You don’t need to go to store anymore and look at things. You just open your phone. And cooking is one of the ways to actually do things still. Fermentation has that aspect to it. It’s also something new, even though it’s as old as time — it seems new to people and it’s exciting.
There’s also a more and more, bigger and bigger, growing awareness of how some ferment can actually be good — beneficial for you as an individual. Eating more fermented foods part of a healthier lifestyle. We’re not specifically focused on that mindset here at the restaurant, but of course, we know that this is a big part of fermentation to a lot of people today — the idea that it can help maintain your gut flora health, potentially keeping you healthy.
TCM:How much of that health element is part of your interest in fermentation?
Rene: I eat fermented food every day. I particularly like the acid fermentation. I’m a fan, let’s just say that, in all aspects. I think it makes cooking easier and more fun, but I also think that it actually deserves some of your daily robustness. Of course, the reality is that you need to eat all of these things continuously. You can’t just eat it once a week, then take probiotics or whatever — you know what I mean?
You actually have to have it be part of your life. And I think that makes a big difference, I really do. It’s a daily thing for me, to eat this. Obviously, people’s lives already include fermented foods all the time. It’s not that all fermentations have the potential of doing something good for you. Coffee, for instance, is a beverage that comes through a fermentation process. A lot of people argue that it does wonders, but in terms of the wellness factor, I’m not sure that’s a proponent of it.
There are fermentations like wine and cheese, and so many other fermentations that we eat and drink on a daily basis, that we just forget are actually fermented products. So, fermentations are many things, and it’s not just like healthy-style kimchi that tastes delicious, but also gives a certain robustness in your stomach. It’s also coffee, wine, beer.
TCM: How would you describe your food philosophy in your own words?
Rene: What we do at this restaurant is, from the get-go, have a very clear idea that we wanted to serve a sense of time and place. That was always our main idea. What does that mean? Well, if you dine here in the very north of Copenhagen, or in the very north of Europe in Scandinavia, you should be able to feel where you are in the world and what time of the year you’re in. So that has always been the determining factor for how we serve. It’s a distill of the place, of the people, of our creativity and how we choose to view all of these factors, and that gets be one meal, every night.
TCM: How is this philosophy represented in your work with fermentation?
Rene: Traditionally, coming from a cold region, fermentation used to be a pivotal part of survival. It was simply a matter of surviving and making your family survive — to do that you had to preserve food for the colder months. So it’s ingrained into our DNA, to have these types of foods and flavors. But today, of course, nobody needs to ferment to survive winter. Today you do it for the flavor aspect of it. And, what it does for us, is a way of having a kitchen shelf full of all these magic building blocks. Well, I won’t say magic, but just a kitchen shelf full of building blocks. Let’s say you have a big bag of beets and you roast them up, they taste good. But how do they taste if you put fermented roses on it? Turns out it tastes pretty amazing and makes the beets become something beyond normal. So, for us, it’s a building block that we can add to a food to finish it off.
TCM: What are some common misconceptions people have about the fermentation process, and about doing it themselves, that you’d like to clear up?
Rene: I think it’s such a novel space with food that most people probably don’t even know what it is, to tell the truth. And the ones who do know a little bit about it think it’s more about soured cabbage, like sauerkraut or something — something very hardy that you eat during winter when there’s no fresh food available. I would say, throw that idea away because there’s a new wave of fermentation coming. It’s about adding power to foods, about freshness, and… how do you say it, it’s Danish. Well, I can’t really explain the word in English, but it’s about complexity. Maybe it’s about complexity, you know? It’s definitely not a simple thing, that it adds complexity. Maybe that’s the right word.
TCM: What would you say is the best recipe to begin with in the book?
Rene: The easiest ferment in my book is probably the lactic fermentation. They’re the ones that demand minimal ingredients. For instance, it’s apple season. Anyone can weigh out a kilo of apples and twenty grams of salt, mix it together in an airtight container, wait some days in room temperature and see the magic happen. And, there’s truly some magic that happens.
Once you have your fermentation ready, what can you use it for? That’s what I would say is probably the more difficult part, actually. It’s for people to open themselves up and see the opportunities. The fermented apple juice becomes part of the whole, and it’s still fruity — it has a savoriness to it that’s very unlike apples. It’s more than what an apple could be.
You can add that and have it as a vinaigrette. If you have liquid, pour oil into it and a little bit of lemon juice. It’s a fantastic vinaigrette. You can also add that into soups and sauces for stringency and a certain level of robustness. The taste is amazing. Particularly with roasted meats as a side garnish. I love that — a steak with a paste of lactic acid apples. I like to give the right balance, power and tartness.
I would say a lactic acid fermentation is a good way to start. But one of the most delicious ones in the book, which does take a little more time, is the roasted chicken wing garam. And I believe that anyone who makes it, whether you’re in a professional kitchen or a home kitchen, you will be hard pressed not to put it on almost anything — except your yogurt in the morning.
TCM: What are some of your favorite ingredients to work with lately?
Rene: Right now, mushrooms. Mushrooms are a superfood to us in the kitchen. And I don’t mean superfood as in goji berries — I mean it as a superfood for flavor, texture and diversity of cooking options. The mushrooms we have right now, when they come in, we’ve almost pickled 100 kilos. To me, it’s one of the magics of the wilderness, this symbiosis between what’s on the ground, the trees, the roots and the fruit of all this are mushrooms. They can range in flavor from tasting spicy-like to sweet and honey. It is a thing I think people should be eating much more of because it’s so delicious. Now button mushrooms from the local supermarket won’t necessarily have the same intensity, but still, if you roast them up, if you barbecue them and put a little of the chicken wing garam on, then it can be a steak. That can be a steak for the evening.
TCM: What is the strangest thing you’ve fermented?
Rene: The strangest thing, that also didn’t work out, was fermented blood. I mean, yeah. Sometimes when we mention these things it sounds like we’re freaks, and sometimes it even scares people off . But you have to imagine that we’re in a facility where we have product that has some sort of waste product. In this case it was a lot of blood — which we typically would make blood sausage from or something like that. We tried to see if we could make a ferment from it. It turns out that’s a bad idea so far. We haven’t been able to nail that one. That was truly special.
One of the most surprising things that really yielded so much flavor, and so much surprise (which is also a weird thing) is when we started fermenting grasshoppers. Grasshoppers, when you first get them in, the response is usually, what is this? In the Western world we have a taboo about eating them and we were the same. We were looking at these creatures like, what are we going to do here? It was basically a way to experiment more. One of the things we discussed was making the grasshoppers not look like grasshoppers. How do we do that?
And then, through a little bit of investigation, I realized (I can’t remember who said it, but someone did) that if you have a shrimp allergy, you typically also have a grasshopper allergy. Their whole structure is set up pretty similar, even though one lives on land and one is in water. We adapted the idea of a shrimp sauce — like a Thai shrimp sauce or fish sauce. And we tried that with the grasshoppers, and that became something we also use quite a bit in our kitchen today. It’s dark. It’s rich. It’s open, a mix of soy with chocolate. Maybe a hint of Mexican mullet in there, too. But, really, really an amazing ingredient. I mean, in the West, we’re so simple about our foods in many cases, right? If you go to a place like Mexico, they eat five different varieties — they grind them up into sauces and they figure things out.
TCM: How can a home cook learn to be more creative and intuitive in working with these ingredients?
Rene: People always ask, I want to start cooking, and how can I do that? And, to me, the idea of people starting to cook and be more intuitive with it, and be intuitive with fermentation, is simply starting. It’s like with running. If you want to run a marathon, and you’re not used to running, you don’t just say, ah, on Monday, I’m going to run a marathon. Right? You’re going to have to train for it. Unfortunately, I totally believe that cooking has that element too. I don’t particularly believe in the idea that cooking is easy. Cooking might be easy for the authors that made it, but if you’re not used to cooking at all, you’re going to have to go to work and start training for that marathon. How to find the intuition, as annoying as it is, is by cooking. Do it often and a lot. Then, suddenly, with time that’s what happens — I’ve seen it so many times. Then you start leaving the books behind, because you know what to do and you know what will taste good.
TCM: What is the easiest way to elevate a basic pickle recipe at home?
Rene: The best way is probably to spend just a little bit more on a better ingredient, to tell you the truth. It could be the vinegar. It could be a variety of sugar. I do believe that’s one of the first starting points, of course, is all the time with these ingredients. With a lot of these old pickle recipes, they can also be adjusted with the amount of sugar they have in them. Some are recipes from a different time when people ate more sugar. That’s one way to go about it.
TCM: Have you made any reservations in LA while you are here for the book tour?
Rene: You know what? We haven’t made any reservations at all because we, more or less, only have a couple of hours each day free. And, since we have a twelve-day trip to America to ten different cities, we’re trying to be very focused on work, actually. It’s a little bit boring, and I wish there was more time, but I mean, I could spend three days just going on a taco crawl and then going into Korea Town and figuring that place out. Then, going to all those modern type coffee bars and all those places you read about. Going to Jessica Koslow’s place. Going to Vespertine and all the fine dining places. One of the best cooks that I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Japan to see, he has a seafood restaurant in L.A. called Providence.
There are so many places but, unfortunately, with the time schedule that we have, it’s not possible. It’s so funny, because in between going from one interview to another, or whatever we’re doing, it says the time slots between is like from 25 minutes to one hour and fifteen. And, it says in parentheses depending on L.A. traffic. So, the reality is that we might be stuck in traffic, and then, suddenly, those two hours that we had as free time, they are turned down to 45 minutes, you know? And then, suddenly, you’re cutting in on sleeping. So, we’ve decided that we’re going to be very strict and keep it to work this time, because there’s just too much going on.
Rene might be the World’s Best Chef, but his wife, Nadine Redzepi, runs the show in their home kitchen. Check out our interview with her here!