Monday, October 8, 2012

Eating Bugs with Rene Redzepi

Noma is a restaurant in Copenhagen which has won Restaurant magazine's Best Restaurant in the World award three years in a row. It is owned and operated by Rene Redzepi. Tonight's New Yorker Fest event was an interview with him. I remember hearing about the restaurant three years ago and have tried to follow its progress and his rise in the culinary world. He is 34 years old, half Danish, and to say he is passionate about food would be a gross understatement. Although to be more specific, he's passionate about flavor and what can become food. He has taken foraging to new levels and sees nearly everything in the natural world as an ingredient in his next dish. He is a Nordic locavore in a place where the growing season is one of the shortest on earth; he cooks for the here and now, meals that can only happen in that specific place at that specific moment; he cooks of the sea and the soil; and he seemed like a super-nice guy.

And he brought us... samples. Not food, not dishes, not... snacks to speak of, but samples of things that he uses as flavorings in his restaurant. We were each given a little bag with four tiny containers and told not to open them until instructed. During the course of the interview we were asked to first open the container that appeared to hold a quarter teaspoon of some kind of black mush. It was crushed black wood ants with a drop of oil to bind it. I hesitated, I'll admit it, but I did muster my sense of adventure and scooped it up with the tiny spoon and stuck it in my mouth. Lemon. It had a sharp note of lemon-acidity. It was tangy and had a bit of a crunch - that would be the exoskeletons. It was interesting; not bad, not delish, but certainly interesting.

There is a staff of 70 at Noma, representing 22 countries. Rene has traveled extensively and takes inspiration from the world at large. He pointed out that bugs and grubs are eaten all over the world and he is trying to redefine "what is food and what is not food." He talked a lot about the flavors of other cultures while adhering to a menu of locally sourced products. He told us about a beach grass he found, sliced through, tasted, and discovered that there on his wind-swept, rocky, desolate Danish beach which was covered with rotting seaweed and flies, that this beach grass had a distinct back-note of cilantro. He spoke of this discovery with such delight and reverence - the idea that there was a cilantro-flavored plant in Denmark was to him like discovering diamonds in the backyard.

Our second container contained a sliver of something that looked a bit like a cherry stem but thinner and finer, and given the previous item, "please don't let this be a worm... please don't let this be a worm..." was the only thing running through my head. It turned out to be a fermented bit of mushroom. He said it had been soaked in a 2% salt solution and at the restaurant it was made into a paste to put on vegetables to make them taste meaty and on meat to make it taste meatier. It was good - salty and intense.

The third taste was a bright red dash of something wet. It was a rose hip soaked in vinegar. I love the scent of roses and I love the flavor of roses when used sparingly so it doesn't come across as too perfumey. My parents' backyard is lined with rose bushes and when I was a kid, I'd occasionally pop a petal in my mouth hoping it would taste as good as it smelled; it never did and I was always disappointed. This was sharp and acidic but once it was down my throat my whole mouth was encompassed with the essence of a rose. It was lovely and made up for all those rose petals I spit out as a child.

Ellen, being half Danish, and I have talked a lot about Noma and we've even talked about going there someday (if we could come to terms with the cost of a meal, which I'm not sure we could). When I spoke to her this evening I told her that I wasn't sure it was for us. The restaurant looks sublime - modern, sparse, and beautiful; the plates of food look gorgeous - so enticing. But as much as I love food, this is a game played at a different level - one that's essentially over my head, which would make such an expense just kind of wasteful and pretentious, I think. But I absolutely reserve the right to change my mind on that.

And then there was the last little capsule of pureed... something. It looked like a quarter-teaspoon of pea soup and tasted almost exactly like miso. It was crushed fermented crickets, which he told us after we'd eaten it. Crickets are a snack in many parts of the world. I know in Mexico they are fried and dusted with chili and lime and munched like popcorn. I'm sure I've seen them, also fried, at street markets in Thailand. They are plentiful, sustainable, and full of protein. I'll need some time before I start popping them like peanuts, though.

This talk was wonderful, I'm so glad I got to hear him speak about food and his restaurant and his philosophy of eating. He also showed a short video he shot with his iPhone of the restaurant's kitchen, lab, office, and staff eating area. He showed the grills and the smokers and the sheds where they store over 1,000 kilos of preserved ingredients. He was nice, he didn't seem to have the massive ego that often goes with famous chefs, and he seemed genuinely interested in sharing his ideas and of truly being a steward of what nature has provided. He's not trying to shock anyone by serving them bugs, he just really likes the way they taste.