So British foodies experienced a shock this spring, when they heard that Noma had been named Best Restaurant in the World in the high-prestige San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants Awards. "Noma?" they thought. "Noma? What the hell's that? I know about Nobu in Berkeley Street, and Nozomi in Chelsea. But Noma? Is it outside London? Is it that chap in Barcelona?"
It took a while to discover that the world-beating Noma was a modest, stripped-down eaterie in the Christianshavn harbour district of Copenhagen, and that it apparently specialised in new-wave Scandinavian food, served on local rocks instead of plates, to be eaten with the fingers by the lucky patrons.
It sounded awful. Memories of the Swedish chef in The Muppet Show ("Yerrrrb-a-dinky-doo...") filled a thousand aghast foodie brains. Thoughts of Viking delicacies such as skyr and marinated whale steak, and hakarl, the fermented shark dish which smells of Jeyes Fluid and is the most disgusting edible thing in the world, made their senses reel. It took a while to register that Noma was a legend in local and seasonal cooking, that its staff and suppliers were dedicated to finding new or long-forgotten ingredients from all over the Norse regions, from Bornholm to Greenland, that they employed the most sophisticated cooking techniques in the world; and that behind it all lurked a scarily young chap called René Redzepi.
By this autumn, foodies were throwing the names "René" and "Noma" around as if they'd been patronising both for ages. This month, he appeared on MasterChef: The Professionals. The final trio of cooks journeyed to Copenhagen, to face the challenge of cooking dishes in the Noma style. By all accounts, they were dumbfounded.
"It was funny," Redzepi said when we met at a trendy canteen in Shoreditch, east London. "I think they were terrified to be cooking, a long way from home, with ingredients they'd never seen before. We brought them to the shoreline, and to a farm, and picked ingredients there. One guy tasted an asparagus just out of the ground. Everyone's tasted asparagus – but usually, they're a couple of days old and the water has evaporated. He tasted it absolutely fresh, and was blown away. It was very satisfying."
Did he enjoy MasterChef? "I thought they were a great group of people," he said politely.
Redzepi, 32, boyish and hyper-articulate, is taking the world's adulation in his stride. He talks with absolute conviction about foraging, researching, experimenting, making connections, trying things out. He calls himself and his staff "gastronomic explorers". His passion for discovering food sources has led him into new disciplines, such as botany ("I've found 54 types of edible berries. I used to know only about seven") and meteorology ("If Noma weren't called Noma, it would be called The Weather Restaurant, because we cook what the weather brings. Who interprets the weather? Farmers. They say, 'The rains are coming, let's plant this. Now it's hot, let's put that in the ground.' And the foragers know that, if it rained yesterday, the chanterelles will be out tomorrow...")
The recent publication of Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine did nothing to banish the image of a driven man, committed to cooking only what's authentic, earthy, autochthonous, sprung from the regions where it's eaten. Its 360 pages are mainly devoted to beautifully photographed dishes, in which it's almost impossible to tell the main ingredients. It is fascinating to discover that a tiny smear of green liquid beside a spoonful of white granita on a plate is Danish squid with green strawberries and verbena oil, or that a couple of house bricks covered with powdered flowers is herb toast with turbot roe. Many pictures show simply the raw ingredients – "egg yolk" potatoes, ramsons leaves, fiddlehead ferns – and the woods and fjords where they were found, and the weather-beaten farmers (many resembling Ibsen's granddad) who grew or picked them.
Redzepi's childhood offered two radically different approaches to food. He was born in Copenhagen in 1977, to an Albanian cab driver and a Danish cleaning lady. Danish cuisine in the 1980s was not a subtle affair. "You ate ready-made food," Redzepi says. "It was the time of the microwave. You chucked a box of chicken and spices in the oven and cooked it." By contrast, family summers with his father's relatives in Macedonia were early exercises in ingredient-sourcing: "You learnt to forage in Macedonia," he says.
At only 15, he went to cookery college. Why? He was, he says, bored with school and wanted to be a craftsman, working with his hands. "I didn't have any standpoints, except girls, soccer, basketball and hanging out. I just followed a friend into cookery school, my friend who really wanted to be a chef."
It was Redzepi's life, however, that was transformed. "The teacher said, 'Find a basic recipe and cook it.' I thought, OK, what do I like about food? Answering that question, and the chain reaction that followed, changed everything. "I went to the library and looked up recipes in books, magazines, everything I could find." What did he choose? "A roast chicken – in Macedonia, it was a special occasion when chicken got roasted. I remembered it roasting in the fireplace, the juice dripping down on spiced-up rice. Then I found a recipe for cashew nut sauce and had to try it. Nobody'd ever eaten cashew nuts before. I thought, why is it important to me to have cashew nuts? Why do I care? And I never looked back. I started reading about French cuisine, Carême, Escoffier, how restaurants were organised. I took the rock-star posters off the wall and put up posters of Robuchon and Ducasse."
His first restaurant was the Pierre André in Copenhagen, serving traditional French cuisine. "There were only 30 covers, but every day you made puff pastry, you learnt how to tell if a piece of meat is cooked." The place received a Michelin star while Redzepi was there. "It was nothing to do with me," he says modestly, "but I got some of my own dishes on to the menu, which was a very big deal."
After stints in El Bulli near Barcelona, and The French Laundry in California, at only 24 he was approached by Claus Meyer, the Danish television personality and host of television's New Scandinavian Cooking. Meyer had been asked if he wanted to turn North Atlantic House, a cultural centre for the North Atlantic region, into a restaurant. Did Redzepi fancy running it? He was 24, and receiving offers to run restaurants all over Denmark. Perversely, he chose an 18th-century warehouse with huge, lofty rooms, and with the stipulation that it had to reflect North Atlantic or Nordic cuisine.
"Noma" is a portmanteau word, running together nordisk ("Nordic") and mad ("food"). "We weren't very strict at the start. We said, let's rule out luxury ingredients like foie gras or Iberico ham or olive oil, and try to work with our own ingredients. But if we needed some aubergine or courgette, we said, we'll import something." The restaurant opened in 2004 with Redzepi as head chef. "We were a success," Redzepi says, wryly. "We got decent reviews – not ecstatic, but enough to fill the place. Michelin inspectors came. But it was the most unsatisfying period for me – because we were cooking what we already knew, cooking existing stuff, just replacing products. We hadn't understood anything."
Then fate, or at least the weather, intervened. On a trip to Greenland in May 2004, Redzepi had an epiphany. He'd gone to shoot musk oxen with the hunters who supplied his restaurant with game. When the weather closed in, he found himself in an existentialist limbo. "We were in west Greenland. I had suicidal thoughts of being stuck there in the cold, white north. I wanted to leave. The restaurant was about to reopen. But there was nothing to do, so I started thinking, why are you doing this? What are we offering our guests? All the questions had one small answer: time and place. We had to give people a sense of where they are and what time of the year it is. This is the core of what we do. So we decided to work only with our own ingredients because we needed to go in deep with the job."
Six years later, he's the king of the gastronomic world. And despite the battery of fancy devices and ingredients his kitchen boasts (see Box), he remains almost sentimentally attached to simplicity. I swear there were tears in his eyes during an extended riff on a single mushroom: "Out there on a farm with the people who grow it, you follow, week by week, what it takes this little mushroom to come forward, and when it's in its most perfect state, you taste it and it becomes your reference point for how mushrooms can taste. It's a perfect moment. That's the real luxury, much more luxurious than getting foie gras or caviar. You're in nature, and you pick this thing and come back with it to the kitchen, and think, am I going to blend this, and boil it, and jellify it? And you can't. You've watched it until it's become part of you."
Part man, part mushroom, all genius, Mr Redzepi is a true original.
First, feed your snails: cooking with René
* It helps to have the right equipment: Thermomixes, Pacojets, dehydrators and water baths, vacuum packs, Superbags, instant food thickener.
* You may have to travel some distance for some ingredients: isomalt, acidic mead, woodruff, bleak roe, skyr.
* Rethink your normal prepping strategies. The recipe for snails and moss begins: "Let the snails live off the salad leaves for 2-3 days to clear out their systems..."
* Rethink your preparation times. Many recipes begin: "Wash the buds and leave them in the salt for three weeks."Reuse content