Foraging for Creativity 

A short review of René Redzepi’s “A Work in Progress“

This entry is the first part of my New Year’s resolution project. I am finally starting to write — one thing a month that inspires, intrigues or shocks me. This month I will focus on the new book by René Redzepi — A Work in Progress.

René Redzepi

René Redzepi was just 25 years old when he opened his first restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen. By some, the best restaurant in the world. Noma, which stands for nordisk mad, or Nordic food, serves a strong seasonal menu of local and foraged ingredients. Redzepi has given Nordic cuisine an identity it hadn’t have before, but he has also climbed to the top of today’s international gastronomic scene. He uses his influence and status as a god of food, to promote innovation and discussion about food.

Noma and me

A confession is in order — I’ve been in love with Noma for a while now, and here are three events that boosted that:

  • Visiting Copenhagen in 2012 for a Physical Computing workshop at the CIID. Reading the guides and researching what the city has to offer, one can not avoid Noma. In so many ways, Copenhagen is Noma.
  • Reading the first edition of a local gourmet lifestyle magazine (which I’m really fond of) called Mrvica (Crumb) which features an article about Noma.
  • Watching the episode Let’s have a bite of flowers of Anthony Bourdain’s travel and food show, in which he visits René in Copenhagen. Watch the show and you will fall in love with the city, with Anthony and especially with René.

A Work in Progress

A Work in Progress

A Work in Progress is really three books in one — Recipes, Journal and Snapshots. They can be read on their own, or as a complete meal with three courses complementing each other. Recipes, the biggest one, collects a hundred different Noma recipes. Snapshots, the smallest, contains Instagram-like photographs of René and staff’s everyday life and work. The third one that glues them together is René’s Journal. He was writing it (more or less) every day of 2011 — and for me it’s the most valuable takeaway.

Let me tell you why.

The Journal

How to read A Work in Progress

The Journal gives the reader an honest insight on everyday René & Noma — his daily thoughts, the restaurant business, the winter in Copenhagen, redecorating the staff room, etc… But more importantly, there is an inspiring second layer that focuses on three key points:

  1. Creativity
    Foraging, investigating and processing the ingredients is a story about respect, creativity and curiosity.
  2. Motivation
    How to manage a business, motivate employees and be truly happy at work — especially since we spend a significant part of our lives surrounded by the people we work with.
  3. Inspiration
    Anyone can write — it’s about practice, routine and remembering one’s ideas later on. And having a great editor.
I never intended it to be a book, actually. I did it for myself, to see if I could find some sense of who are we, why are there good days, why are there bad days and what type of restaurant are we, basically. Then my book editor read parts of it, she liked it and then it became a book.

These key points make the Journal a valuable read for almost anybody — the words from a restaurant chef resonating even for me, an interaction designer.

Since René’s focus has always been on creativity, lets try to deconstruct some of his methods.


Crispy Reindeer Moss, Cep Powder and Crème fraîche

One of my three resolutions for this year is — being more self aware. Being aware of every moment, and more importantly, the choices available at any given time. Being able to choose wisely.

Redzepi’s definition of creativity correlates perfectly with my resolution.

Creativity is the ability to store the special moments, big or small, that occur throughout your life, then being able to see how they connect to the moment you’re in.
When past and present merge, something new happens.

Although some chefs say creativity is something you can’t control, here are some tricks that René uses in his quest to understand creativity and find out where it comes from:

  1. Courage
    René started Noma when he was 25 years old, with no experience as a head chef.
  2. Limitations
    Noma’s food philosophy requires the ingredients to come from a 50 km radius. This fact motivates the chefs to be creative within certain restraints defined by their location and seasonality.
  3. Team work
    Stop being a control freak, and start being a team player. Surround yourself with a versatile A-team. For instance: an ex-banker, a Hollywood dropout, a lawyer and others who didn’t come in with sufficient culinary experience. It was a crazy thought just ten years ago, but people are now willing to move to Denmark just for the gastronomy.
  4. Rhythm
    The restaurant and the menu both require a daily rhythm. A constant that needs to endure all of the changes that occur on a daily basis.
  5. Accolades
    Accolades are a great stepping-stone but not the mountain top. …So writing the journal, the conclusion was let’s just play around again, be fearless. There’s nothing to lose; don’t get attached to the thing. That’s the most important thing I got out of it—just being open to breaking the mold that made your success…
  6. Fun
    …But once you go back and read everything [that happened] during a year, you can see that what really makes the good days good is when you actually feel good. When there’s fun involved…
  7. Guts
    …Gut reactions are just as important in discarding an idea as they are in generating one. The answer that appears milliseconds after a question is posed is likely to be the purest, most honest answer you have…
  8. Work hard
    …I don’t think there’s any way around it — you have to work your ass off to be creative, and sometimes you wear your spirit thin doing so… But the gods wouldn’t have spoken to us if we hadn’t been hard at work, if we hadn’t surrendered to the task…
  9. Positive mindset
    …In fact, there seems to be a pattern in our creative momentum. We only really progress when we’re in a positive state of mind…
  10. Side projects
    Side projects built around his philosophy, enable him to shift the focus, yet stay fresh. The chefs at Noma present their new creations each week at the Saturday Night Projects. Once a year chefs, farmers, butchers, writers and others meet up in Copenhagen to speak about the way we think and discuss food at the MAD Conference. Nordic Food Lab explores the raw materials of the Copenhagen region and the foods we eat with a connection to our place and our time.
For Redzepi, creativity, constant innovation, and imagination are fundamental to how Noma functions and the key to its success. The projects have become one of the major catalysts in the restaurant’s process.

Respect what has been given to you. Create a lab. Experiment. Innovate, inspire. Give back. Cook. Love what you do and enjoy life.

Most importantly, do it each day.

This article was edited by Marko Dugonjic.

Update › This article was turn into a presentation held at the World Information Architecture Day 2014, Zagreb Croatia. Watch it here.