Copenhagen and Manhattan collided last Friday when Noma chef René Redzepi, looking rather elfin in a rumpled blue suit and white sneakers, sat down with former New York Times critic Frank Bruni, sleek as a seal in an all-ebony ensemble.
Aesthetics mattered that night, so the contrast was fitting. Redzepi—designated the number one chef in the world this year by S.Pellegrino—is known not only for his masterful foraging abilities, but also for his vivid cuisine. A video gauzily showcased some of his more beautiful works—a tube of this, a flurry of that—and simpler plates comprising two colors, such as ivory and emerald, and no more. Even in the world of upscale dining, such avant-garde presentation is rare.
"My restaurant has a pact with nature," said Redzepi about his desire to create meals out of the bounty of Denmark's own shores, fields, and forests. We watched a video as he plucked white asparagus from the earth, bound the stalks to spruce boughs, toasted them over coals, and served them with a puddle of charred green asparagus sauce and sprigs of the tree—an elegant-but-homey presentation that would make a potpourri fiend break a sweat.
At times, the chef's stark style causes confusion at Noma: He serves a solitary langoustine on a rock, a nod to the fact that the creatures shelter there, but remarked, "You'd be surprised how many people try to eat the rock!"
The evening's chat at the TimesCenter was part of the New York City Wine & Food Festival. Redzepi spoke of his introduction to food and to what he called his Protestant countrymen's stoic, "cook to survive" approach to dining: "We had to sit like this, without saying anything, it was like, 'Eat all your food'—you were not supposed to have pleasure—it was like, you know, if you ate for pleasure it was like masturbating! ... Things have changed."
"Not in the state of Delaware," Bruni retorted, to roars from the audience.
Redzepi, the son of a cabdriver and a housecleaner, was not always on such an elevated stage. He got his big break cooking at El Bulli some years ago by walking up to Ferran Adrià after a brilliant meal—"the restaurant back then was actually half-empty"—and asking, "Can I get a job, 'cause I want to see more."
Adrià told him to send a résumé. He did. Weeks later a contract arrived in the mail.
"You just try," said Redzepi. "You walk straight up to people; this is the best recommendation I can give to young chefs, you just do it."
At the Q&A, a tremulous young man in a T-shirt took the mike with the evening's last question. Actually, it was two, if that was OK.
He asked about Redzepi's combination of French classical technique and commitment to Nordic cuisine. After a languorous reply from the chef, he cut to the chase: "This question is a little more direct: I don't know what the chance would be to ... work at Noma?" The audience burst into applause. "I really like what you're doing," he stammered, with Redzepi encouraging the flattery: "Yeah, yeah, keep going!" Finally the chef cut him off: "We'll talk afterwards." This brought down the house.
The gent in question? Wesley Roderick, who had attended the event with Pulino's chef and former San Francisco toque Nate Appleman. Appleman later admitted he had a hand in the affair: "He is one of my cooks, he's 20 years old, but he is what I believe I was at 20 years old ... somebody who was completely focused, somebody who has worked for great places already. I feel like it's my responsibility to push him and shape him into what he could be."
Did he encourage Roderick? "I pushed him out of the chair! 'GO up there and ask for a job right now, BUT ask a question about technique first.'"
We'll check in with Mr. Roderick next week ... if he's still stateside. As the evening wound to a close, we left him standing in a line full of fans, waiting to speak to the man who might be his next boss.