There may be rows of empty seats at Olympic venues, but there was one which was full to bursting point yesterday. Is cooking an Olympic sport? And if not, why not?
If you can get a gold medal for beach volleyball (as much of a sport as sunbathing or disco dancing), why can't chefs compete against each other, given that theirs is a discipline requiring creativity, hand-eye co-ordination and physical prowess? Were that the case, Rene Redzepi would be the oven-baked favourite to hear the Danish national anthem played as he stood on the podium. Redzepi is recognised as the greatest chef in the world, and, for 10 days over the course of the Olympic Games, he has recreated his Copenhagen restaurant, Noma – voted world No 1 – at Claridges Hotel in London.
Reservations have been as hard to come by as tickets for the 100 metres final and I was among a capacity crowd to bring you a despatch from the frontiers of gastronomy. I am well aware that what I'm about to write may be considered elitist nonsense. It costs £195 a head to sample the delights of Noma which, of course, is an obscene amount in these straitened times. But what is the Olympic Games if not a celebration of the elite; a recognition of true greatness? And a ticket for the 100 metres can cost a lot more than 195 quid and my lunch lasted a good couple of hours rather than 9.58 seconds.
Redzepi, whose cooking is characterised by taking seasonal and local produce and turning it into dishes of visual brilliance and remarkable complexity, began planning for his London venture six months ago when he instructed a farm in Lincolnshire that he wanted them to grow celeriac of exactly 150g each, and a stables in Greater London to advise him on the right sort of hay to serve with his Romney Marsh lamb. The end result was a nine-course meal of such interest and diversity that it made those of us who don't spend our lives foraging wonder whether we are worthy. There are things you don't believe possible – a flowerpot with nasturtiums and edible soil, scones with clotted cream and caviar, and an oyster in buttermilk that tasted like a week by the seaside. And then there are live ants. Or, as the menu would have it, ANTS. A small Kilner jar contained leaves of Savoy cabbage, a small dollop of creme fraiche and a few ants wriggling around. I had been warned, and wondered whether, as someone who doesn't eat meat, I could get an exemption. My friend texted his girlfriend – a vegetarian – and said: "We're just about to eat ants. Wish you were here". But I adopted the spirit of the Bushtucker Trial and got on with it. "Loved the citrus taste of the ants," said Mark Hix, i's resident chef, on a neighbouring table. It was then that I knew this world is too beautiful for me.Follow @Simon_Kelner Reuse content