René Redzepi didn’t come half-way across the world to serve Australians reheated dishes from the Noma Copenhagen menu.
“What’s the point of us going to Australia and cooking carrots when we do that all year at home?” he says. “Travelling across the world to do exactly what we do at home would just be so silly and we wouldn’t get the learning experience we were out to get.”
Suffice to say, Redzepi and his team learned plenty during Noma Australia’s 10-week pop-up in Sydney. While some 130 Noma employees and family members made the journey from Denmark to Australia, the restaurant’s New Nordic cuisine remained in the northern hemisphere, forcing team Noma to embrace native Australian ingredients. Redzepi couldn’t be happier. So how does one of the world’s most influential and inquisitive chefs teach himself about a country’s food?
“It starts with first delving into ingredients and seasons and reading books and papers,” he says. “You start planning a journey. You start getting a base understanding of something, and then you travel and meet the people. You explore the flavours first-hand and not just through a book.”
According to Redzepi, it was French chef Michel Bras who introduced him to the idea of thinking of ingredients as an alphabet: the more letters you have, the easier it is to express yourself. Or, in Redzepi’s case, a new country. Rather than the berries, root vegetables and reindeer mosses of Nordic cuisine, team Noma found themselves working with the unfamiliar likes of lemon myrtle, quandongs, finger limes and other native Australian foodstuffs.
He admits that as a chef, finding wild ingredients can be “very difficult and super annoying”.
“It’s much easier not to do it. But if you succeed, it will yield you an incredible new opportunity and also an incredible network and community as well. But you’re going to have to do work that’s much harder than usual.
“I thought it’d be easier to get all these ingredients that are in the wild and those specialty flavours that, to me at least, are really Australian. I was a bit surprised that whole scene and supply line were so underdeveloped. I genuinely feel that there’s incredible potential, not just for chefs, but also for some sort of business model.”
When Redzepi spoke at the Sydney Opera House in 2010, he suggested Australians needed to learn from its original people. Six years on, does he think we’ve done that?
“Australians are much more open to the ingredients and knowledge that exists in Aboriginal Australia. I know what I would do if I were to stay in Australia full-time. I would have multiple Aboriginal Australians as part of the team to help develop the flavour profile and find the ingredients and connect to the seasons. To me that is where I find something extra special. There’s a lot of things that are already very, very special about Australia, but that extra element of surprise, that extra element of flavour, of newness, of feeling connected to a place, I found specifically in my interactions with Aboriginal Australians.
For noma australia, the restaurant’s “alphabet” was developed over the space of year with Redzepi and sous chefs Thomas Frebel and Beau Clugston making multiple, long-ranging trips across Australia in the name of research. Developing an alphabet, however, is one thing: how do you turn it into a menu or something even bigger?
“You start cooking and prove these flavours belong in a quality kitchen,” says Redzepi. “You start building yourself a little network and community of people you work with. With time, that grows. And if you cook properly and you surprise and delight your guests, you get busier and you get sous chefs and they will start to be excited and want to open new places and they’ll bring some of what you taught them to their place. Suddenly the community is growing and within a decade, you can really transform something and have a whole new scene. But you have to start with exploring. That to me is the number one thing: to really go off the grid and make a good plan and then just do it.”
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