Copenhagen

Credit: The New York Times
‘It’s gonna be here now. Just wait and see’

I’ve been thinking a lot about Noma lately. I think it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard of.

I’m serious.

Before I went to Europe I heard of Rene Redzepi’s odd project in Christianhavn. About how he’d make such a big fuss about herbs, purees, putting a single ramson in his grilled asparagus juice. Booo. Yawn. Pretentious. In Rene’s appearances he’d drone on and on about vague details of some esoteric idea that would suddenly end up being a finished product before there was any pizzaz, inspiration, or *spark* that I’d expected the World’s Best Restaurant to have. Really Rene? You’re picking so many different flowers and fermenting new vinegars to serve just one half-steamed oyster? Is your pine-asparagus dish just going to be a plain soup? What the fuck is a perfectly unripe strawberry? He’d explained the idea and development of each dish, but those explanations were so unsatisfying, a bad excuse for holier-than-thou cuisine. Where was the exquisite foie gras? Where were the magical creations of molecular gastronomy? When was my mind going to be blown?

But those things were never what Noma sought to be or do. It’s not what makes it great.

Noma is Rene Redzepi’s attempt to create an elevated and high cuisine for his native Denmark. While Spanish, French, and Chinese have long been revered as the classic greats of cuisine, Denmark’s cold winter and humble Protestant work ethic had prevented it from ever progressing past open-faced sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs. Rene set out to change that, creating a restaurant where he’d only serve ingredients harvested from and inspired by Scandinavia, for the whole world to watch. And he took the world by storm. Noma was voted the Best Restaurant in the World some five years in a row.

Noma was supposed to have changed the world of gastronomy. Made Copenhagen, of all places, the center of the culinary world. I was skeptical. Even the guide on my walking tour was skeptical. How could you make a world famous restaurant serving ants and moss? How do you get people to accept that, let alone enjoy it? How do you even think of that?

But Denmark works differently from the way we do in the rest of the world. Instead of the rumble of the rush to work, Danes exude the calm thoughtfulness of a people who know that it’s not the end of the world if you slow down and picnic with your friends once in awhile. Compared to London, where speeding cars dare you to cross in front of them, and scowling businessmen mow you down as they walk in their suited packs, Copenhagen’s like the artsy uncle who’s not as wealthy, but makes you realize that it’s not the end of the world, since it’s got scenic harbor walks with trampolines built into the ground, fresh air from the nature that grows freely around and in the city, and the open cafe culture where people just seem to chill outside in the afternoon.

Jægersborggade

Copenhagen can be exciting and electric, but underpinning all of it is a subtle calm that permeates the whole city. I once had breakfast at a popular cafe that had exactly one employee and one menu — a beautiful leather bound booklet printed on thick bamboo paper. People waiting to make their order weren’t expected to crowd around the menu to be ready to order when their time came. They stood back, waited their turn, and had a charming conversation with the patient barista at the front, who would then serve up a sandwich of the finest rye bread, aged cheese, and perfectly brined ham. And that was so representative of the rhythm of Copenhagen. Thoughtfully simple food. Patiently served. With no rush and no hurry. I mean why would you ever want to be anywhere else?

Which brings us back to Noma. Redzepi’s food somehow captures the essence of the city and distills it into food. Each dish — each idea is simple, but thoughtful. Patiently cooked, but full of life. In one of their celebrated dishes, they sauté a carrot that has been left in the ground two years past its harvest date for two hours, basting it in fresh goat butter and chamomile until it relents and tenderizes. Though the kitchen is a tightly run operation, each dish comes out without any sense of rush, without fluster. In a video, Redzepi talks about the inspiration behind one of Noma’s dishes, where they instruct guests to fry an egg, before the kitchen staff arrives to garnish the frying egg with various juices, flowers, and pickles, explaining that he “wanted to show how easy food can be when you have a thought behind it… and timing.”

“Thought and timing” perfectly sum up the vibe of Copenhagen. The layout and look of the city are simple but thoughtful. The designs aren’t flashy like Coca-Cola or McDonalds. They’re quiet, but subtly perfect. The buildings have unassuming facades often hiding shops of vintage posters or artfully made furnishing that would make Walter Gropius cry. Copenhagen is what happens when hipsters learn to calm down. The people dress fashionably and artistically, but they don’t try — or need — to make you notice. Everything is easy, but done with thought and timing.

Meyers Bageri, on Store Kongensgade

Noma only serves food harvested from — and inspired by — the Danish countryside. Rene grills asparagus tied to pine leaves before juicing it and serving it with fresh cream because he found the asparagus growing next to pine trees, and because they taste so damn good together. He cooks with unripe strawberries, because sometimes that’s all the Northern European climate leaves you with. He’s the master of taking whatever agricultural challenges Denmark’s environment throws at him, and finding a way to take inspiration from it. Redzepi often talks about genuinely fearing the Danish winter, not knowing what to do when the whole country freezes into a block of ice. But he relentlessly tries new techniques, new flavors, whatever overripe or preserved flora he needs to make it work. And in the 13 years that Noma’s been around, he’s discovered thousands of formerly overlooked ingredients, new combinations, and inspired so many chefs who’ve flocked to Noma to be a part of his New Nordic cuisine movement. Copenhagen is now considered a mecca of the culinary world, and if you look at its top 15 or so restaurants, they’re all run by former Noma chefs — Redzepi’s proteges.

It’s this unrelenting celebration of Rene’s homeland that I find so inspiring. In music, we’ve made people like Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt into gods for elevating their native Polish folk dances and Gypsy songs into the concert repertoire. I think Redzepi has done the same with Danish food. He’s taken the calm dance and surrounding nature of his hometown, and elevated them into something greater.