There are the cookbooks you use every day, and then there are the ones that may not spend much time on your kitchen counter, yet can profoundly inspire the way you view food and the world around you. A member of the latter tribe, René Redzepi’s new A Work in Progress is in fact a collection of three books: a stunningly beautiful collection of recipes, a pocket-size book of behind-the-scenes snapshots, and an intimate journal written by Redzepi over the course of a year. It would be enough for the journal to offer a glimpse into the process of one of the world’s most important chefs. But its themes — creativity, collaboration, success, failure — transcend the restaurant world. Redzepi’s insights are, I think, useful for the home cook as much as the Noma groupie.
I recently sat down with René Redzepi in Los Angeles on the last day of his American book tour. He was eager to get back home to Denmark and his daughters, ages 2 and 5, yet was gracious enough to spend some time talking about home cooking, foraging, and what it means to nourish family and friends.
Find the book at your local library, independent bookstore, or online: A Work in Progress: Journal, Recipes and Snapshots by René Redzepi
What was your childhood experience of food at home? Did you learn about cooking or foraging from family members?
I grew up partially in rural Macedonia, or Yugoslavia as it was back then. Food was something that you cooked three times a day. You grew your food, and what you didn’t grow you traded. Markets were too expensive for small farm families like ours. I never drank soft drinks because nobody could afford it. But the women there loved growing roses and when the flowers were about to drop their petals, the women would gather them and pour sugar water and lemon juice over them. We’d drink that ice cold and it was one of the most refreshing drinks you could have. I still totally love rose — not rose essence, but real rose.
I remember watching the adults working the field, the skin on their backs burned, while we kids were running around picking chestnuts. The best was finding a berry bush that was like the size of a house and we just stood there for hours eating berries. I guess what we were doing was foraging.
I had always rejected the idea that my childhood experience influenced my professional life because I was tired of those typical chef stories. But it directly influenced me and I can see that now that I have kids of my own, that what you feed them from an early age will influence them forever. I think it’s so important that you eat well, and by that I don’t mean complicated, but well. Using fresh, seasonal produce when things are in abundance will make your household cheaper and more delicious. But you’re going to have to start cooking.
Do you involve your kids in cooking?
My wife cooks a lot at home and the kids love being a part of it. I make their breakfast and lunch and they always want to be involved. For breakfast I generally make them a big pot of steaming porridge that warms them inside. I always use oats as a background and then add different grains. I hate the thought of giving my kids cold milk and sweet cereal for breakfast. In China people eat congee, in Japan miso soup with steamed rice and an egg — a hot breakfast makes total sense in the morning.
Besides oats, what are some must-have ingredients in your home pantry?
Simple stuff like mustard, olives, miso, cornichons, oil, butter, dry grains. You can always do something good with these things. Steam a bowl of rice, drizzle some olive oil, mix in miso, add some salt and you almost have a dish.
One of the things you write about in the journal is exhaustion. At times like those, how do you find the motivation to cook at home?
When I’m the most exhausted at the restaurant, what fuels me the most is actually cooking at home. It gets to the essence of feeding somebody. There’s that magic moment when you’re cooking for your kids and family and friends, and thinking about how you can make them happy. That honesty and generosity is what I hope to be able to put into Noma.
When a home-cooked meal is at its best, when you sit at the table and everybody’s happy, music is playing, the kids are wonderfully easy, and the dishwashing doesn’t seem too daunting ... when the spirit is high like that, it's very inspiring. That’s the spirit I want to have at the restaurant, not a fancy experience.
You also write about “trash cooking" at Noma. Will you tell us more?
Trash cooking came about because we were desperate during one of those tough winters, looking for things to cook with. We started thinking, “Okay, what do we throw out, and why?” And we discovered we just hadn’t used our imaginations enough. For instance, if we had a fish we’d throw out the head and skin. In our culture you learned those parts weren’t to be eaten, that the best part was the filet. Now I think the head is actually the best part.
It really showed us that all ingredients have the same cooking value. Your imagination and your skill as a cook determine how great it will taste, not the price point. If you want to make a fish head taste delicious, you have to clean it, fix it up as opposed to just buying a filet at the fishmonger. It takes more effort. As a cook, I love that.
How might someone take this approach at home?
If you have bones or scraps from a chicken or a leg of lamb, you can extract a lot of flavor from them. Cover the scraps with water, add a few spices, boil it and let it simmer. Turn it off when you go to bed and let it cool down until the next morning, then strain it. You have the start of your next meal.
At home if we have a roast chicken for dinner on Sunday, I’ll make a stock from the carcass. The next day I’ll add grains, vegetables, a bit of chile, fresh herbs, and make a sort of minestrone for dinner on Monday. I also make my kids’ lunch boxes, so if it’s chicken for dinner, the next day I might give them a little container of rice with a bit of olive oil and shredded chicken on top, and some tomato pieces mixed in. Anybody could do that.
Many of the dishes at Noma are vegetable-based. What are some essential things to consider when cooking vegetables?
At any given point, between 70 and 80 percent of the menu at Noma is vegetarian. I want people to eat the best of what’s in season, a snapshot of that season, and vegetables are a good way to do that. Vegetables leave you feeling like you had something that nourished your body.
Although produce might be cheaper than meat, it takes double or triple the effort to cook. It’s easier to fry up steak than to scrub and cook a carrot that’s covered in dirt. But you can actually make a carrot taste as good as a steak if you have the time, commitment, and skill.
Stop seeing vegetables as garnish, and stop trying to mimic meat. Play around with the nature of the vegetable and find ways to add natural umami-ness. For example, take a good quality aubergine [eggplant]. Slice it in two, salt it to draw out some of the water, then put a thin layer of miso on top and broil it under the oven. To me, that’s as delicious as a steak.
Can you share some more tricks for adding umami flavor?
Umami is what people look for when they eat, that satisfying richness that a steak gives you as you bite into it. But there are many vegetarian ways of doing this. Dried mushrooms like shiitakes have a lot of umami. Soak them in water and the water becomes a rich stock that you can use to flavor things, boil things in … add a touch of butter to the stock and glaze your vegetables with it. Very good dried tomatoes are another good way of adding umami. The world of fermentation is where you’ll find a lot of flavors that give that richness, the effect of, “Ahh, I feel like I’ve eaten something.”
How can someone become a more creative and intuitive cook?
It’s like exercise. Let’s say you haven’t exercised in 10 years and you’re a bit overweight and you’ve been sitting in your car the whole time and then you say, “I’m going to run a marathon.” You’re determined, but then you start running and you’re like, “This is too painful. Why did I do this? It’s not fun.” Cooking is similar. You’re always told that it’s so fun and easy but it might be really complicated at first.
I believe you need to start by following recipes, and you need to cook, cook, cook. I’ve seen this in my wife; she cooks totally intuitively and doesn’t follow recipes anymore, but it took years of cooking every day. Eventually it gets easier and cooking becomes a part of you.
You also write about failure, even showing photos of failed dishes. What would you say about failure to a new or timid cook?
Failure is a part of the process. If you’re out to learn something new, you will inevitably fail tremendously. Don’t panic, stay cool. Then you eat it, move on, and next time you won’t make the same mistake. It’s not the end of the world, you just messed up a meal. Tomorrow there’s a new one.
What would you tell someone who would like to start foraging?
Take a course with someone who’s knowledgeable and read books so you understand what you’re doing. Don’t go out and just chance it; you might be eating poison ivy or poison hemlock or something.
In the beginning I stumbled onto an army manual on how to survive in the Swedish wilderness in case of war. That was a good start. Now we work with professional foragers who know their stuff, but it's still a new thing, discovering how things taste. The wild plant kingdom is now being recognized for being delicious as opposed to just medical use. Traditional ethnobotany books will tell you if something will cure diarrhea but what I want to know is, What does it taste like? What’s the history of cooking it?
The more people connect with the wilderness, the more they will want to take care of it. You start to see the whole cycle, you’re more informed, and you make better decisions. I think it’s very important for a professional cook, too, to have this be part of the education and training beyond basic technique and French culinary history.
What else can home cooks can take away from A Work in Progress?
As opposed to the previous book, there’s more that people can cook. In writing the journal we became more confident, and with more confidence you actually cook more simply. So there are simpler recipes in the book.
Of course, if you’re looking for that replacement for the Monday night taco and you’re thinking, “Let me see what Noma has to offer…” then you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re willing to spend a Saturday going to the market, seeking ingredients, and cooking for your friends, you’ll find joy in these things. No matter what, the book will challenge you to explore a bit more than you’re used to. It’s not the everyday cookbook, it’s the special meal one, where you experiment and are willing to have a big pile of dishwashing to do afterwards!
What are you looking forward to cooking or eating when you return home to Denmark?
Rye bread! The rye kernel is to Scandinavia what the rice grain is to parts of Asia. It has fed generation after generation, and it’s still a staple. Rye bread is sort of sour and dense and you can feel that it’s healthy. I’d encourage anybody to cook a real rye bread — not the kind you buy at the grocery store that’s like a dark version of white bread, but a genuine, old-school, Eastern/Northern European bread. Toasted, buttered rye bread is almost the ultimate to me.
Thank you, René!
(Image credits: Peter Brinch; Phaidon; Ditte Isager)