René Rezepi’s A Work in Progress begins with an essay by fellow Dane Lars Ulrich of Metallica, who wrote the following in response to the question “What is Creativity?”:
“René belongs to a very small group of unique creators. People who have turned their particular niches completely upside-down. Reinvented and redefined them. The Unafraid. Whether it be Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Charlie Parker, Beethoven, the Beatles, Cecil B. DeMille, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Jack Kerouac, James Joyce, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking, Marlon Brando, the list goes on depending who’s composing it…but no matter who’s on that list, or how long it is, René Redzepi BELONGS on that list.” [That rather white, sausage-laden list]
René Rezepi owns Noma, a two Michelin star restaurant in Copenhagen renowned for its earth-centric dishes and reinvention of Nordic cuisine. To the average American, he’s that leek-picking forager on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. To TIME, he’s a “God of Food.” To a chef and foodie fanatic, he’s the guy they’d blow to taste his coffee-roasted squash.
Despite my disdain for the fixation and partisan coverage of white male chefs, I admire René. The simple intuition behind his philosophies–investing in the staff, local sourcing, trash cooking– somehow translates into incredibly complex projects and ideas. Any chef wants to reduce kitchen waste, so René turns unpalatable cranium parts into brain spread and moth larvae into insect mousse. Many would, and have, decried this kind of experimentation (e.g. mummification of deer parts) as barbaric, but when does turns preposterous experimentation become acts of genius? When society popularizes it?
On Parts Unknown, Bourdain says that foraging is an affectation for many chefs, and like gastronomy, a discipline that only few have truly mastered. Rezepi replies: “The worst moments, the worst meals are when people are just following a sort of culinary trend. And they will say, there’s an edible. But it tastes like shit—but it’s edible and it’s foraged, therefore I put it on the menu.” Chicago’s Elizabeth Restaurant, which recently earned a Michelin star, employs a similar foraging concept called new-gatherer. Chef Iliana Regan reminds me of Rezepi—recognition or no recognition, she does her shit because that’s who she is.
I find that René’s intense media exposure somehow diminishes his innate abilities as a chef, especially since he seems to have embraced his celebrity image with relative eagerness. Shouldn’t he be dehydrating some fungus at Noma, not wooing prospective book buyers with deprecating humor and boyish features? But if you listen to René’s interview, he doesn’t seem to actually prioritize business before his craft. Even when I chatted to him, he seemed relieved that the event at Balena was “more intimate and less hectic.” Behind all the cocktail-schmoozing book events, the exclusive private dinners, the TV appearances, René possesses an unworldly imagination for inventing and combining flavors and techniques. Most chefs can only dream about that level of creativity, that kind of culinary transcendence which combines childlike magic, nostalgic practicality, and advanced science into one spectacular amuse bouche.