Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
TORONTO, ONTARIO — The world knows Rene Redzepi can cook, but who knew he could write?
On Monday afternoon, Redzepi stood in front of 500 attendees at the Terroir Symposium in Toronto and read from a manuscript he prepared especially for the conference. Candidly, he detailed his passion for food, the roots of that passion that go back to his childhood in rural Denmark, how being true to his desires propelled his culinary success, and why losing sight of those desires led to standing on a beach in Mexico and contemplating running away from Noma and the mania surrounding it. His words about the dangers of burning out were a generous gift to chefs in the audience striving to attain what Redzepi has accomplished at his Danish restaurant. They were also extremely well thought out sentences, carefully chosen nouns and verbs that resonated with emotion.
Redzepi spoke about how so many people were advising him to go against the ethic of Noma, which has always been about food and flavours first and foremost. The restaurant, which has topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for three straight years, has never had the finest silverware or the most fashionable wait staff, but Redzepi has been encouraged in recent years to add such pretentiousness. Advisors told him to reach for more accolades and that meant more material luxury in his rustic dining space “as if a fucking bowtie would make the food taste better.” On top of those influences was the intense pressure of running a business that has faced more scrutiny in the culinary world than any other restaurant on the planet in the past four years.
“I said, ‘Why am I doing this?'” Redzepi said to the crowd at Terroir, an annual gathering that brings together international food industry professionals to discuss sustainability and better practices.
Afterwards, he told Vacay.ca and other media, “We got very confused at Noma when we first started having success. I went to cooking school to learn to whip a bernaise, not how to deal with the New York Times in a press conference.”
Like many accidental celebrities, Redzepi found himself performing tasks he never endeavoured to perform and, on top of 85-hour work weeks at the restaurant, the demands on his time resulted in a wish to escape. However, his drive to improve overwhelmed any thoughts of quitting. After introspection about how to deal with the stress and what it was doing to him, the 35-year-old said he chose to clutch onto the beliefs that made him so celebrated in the first place.
“I feel more energized than ever,” he said, explaining that any downbeat sentiments in his story were there as a cautionary note to other chefs. He urged them to not lose their vision, or allow it to be circumvented by people who feel they are better at business or public relations or management. “This was a story about memories and also a story about sticking to what you know.”
What Redzepi understands better than just about anyone is how to make the most of the quality of food within your grasp. When speaking about the use of unusual ingredients in his cuisine, he said, “It is all about a search for flavours, it has nothing to do with shock value.”
The ants that he uses in his dishes are “little tiny creatures” that have what he describes as an explosive taste exotic to Scandinavians. “Here we are in cold, grey, shitty, Protestant Denmark with our potatoes and our beet root, and suddenly you have the flavours of ginger and lemongrass to put on your beet root. That is magnificent.”
During his weekend stay in Toronto, Redzepi said he was struck by the togetherness of the city’s culinary community, which reminded him of Copenhagen.
“We came from nothing in Copenhagen. We were fighting for the same 300 guests who dine about in Copenhagen. Suddenly, we have this uprising and people travelling in from all over and we don’t want this to be a novelty,” he said. “You couldn’t have that kind of success without people sharing information.”
The restaurants he visited in Toronto included Edulis, Momofuku’s Noodle Bar and Hopgood’s Foodliner, where he ate a butter-poached snow crab with hand-picked leeks from Niagara that “was probably one of the best mouthfuls I’ve eaten anywhere in North America.”
Despite a well-documented case of food poisoning at Noma in February, the reputation of the restaurant and Redzepi remains high. “It’s like we are playing in the Champions League semifinal every day for lunch and dinner,” Redzepi said about the pressure he and his staff face. “My bones might be aching, but my mind is sharp and as long as that’s the case I’m going to keep doing this.”
Highlights of Terroir 7
Among the experiences at Terroir that I found delightful and noteworthy were:
- In an event filled with celebrating restaurants that cater to people who often drop hundreds of dollars whenever they eat out, Nick Saul of Community Food Centres Canada reminded attendees at the Arcadian Court that the average low-income Canadian — of which there are about 3 million — subsists on just $6 a day.
- Likewise, Toronto chef Joshna Maharaj was a source of inspiration, detailing how she revamped a hospital food program to include healthier options and did so with a cost increase of only 33 cents per meal.
- Jeremy Charles‘ fried cod tongue sandwich had me wanting to get on a plane and fly back to Newfoundland. The last time I had Charles’s food was at the Roots, Rants & Roars culinary festival in Elliston — about three hours west of St. John’s — and I had to wait 45 minutes for fried cod face and fries. That was delicious and so was this sandwich. Advice: If Charles is cooking, get in line. Any diner will be happy to wait however long to taste cuisine from Raymonds’ chef.
- I watched Langdon Hall pastry chef Sarah Villamere and three of her colleagues lovingly and carefully assemble a charming arrangement of cookies, muffins, macarons and jugs of milk. Everything was just so. (And then it was gone in a hurry as attendees dug in.)
- Atelier‘s Marc Lepine displayed his brilliance in a cooking demonstration that featured a plate of seared tuna accompanied by a beaver tail (and not the pastry kind). “It’s illegal to serve it at the restaurant, but I can do it here,” he said. Ontario law prohibits the sale of many game meats, including beaver, but chefs can cook it for events like Terroir as long as they agree to donate the product they make. The beaver was essentially fat, with the consistency of foie gras. Served with the tuna it was similar to so many of Atelier’s inventive dishes, hard to distinguish from anything you’ve ever eaten before. Oh, and delicious, too.
- Calgary’s Connie DeSousa deboned a pig’s head in 49 seconds (a personal record for her and quite possibly a record for any chef in Canada). Watch for video of that feat by the CHARCUT chef soon on Vacay.ca.
- The conference also featured industry awards. The GE Monogram-Terroir Awards winners were: DeSousa in the outstanding chef category; Jeremy Bonia, owner/sommelier of Raymonds in the outstanding beverage professional category; and Stephen Beckta, proprietor of Ottawa’s Gezellig, Beckta and Play Food & Wine, in the outstanding service professional category.