Redzepi: ‘I think the restaurant staff in Japan are some of the best on Earth’


Special To The Japan Times

Last year, while still only halfway through the extensive planning process, Noma chef Rene Redzepi sat down with The Japan Times in the extensive test kitchen above his Copenhagen waterfront restaurant and outlined his reasons and vision for Noma in Japan.

You’re closing your Copenhagen restaurant for three months to come to Japan. Why are you doing all this?

It started basically like this: I wanted to visit Japan more, I want to stage (intern in restaurants) a bit. But it was getting impossible because of children and my responsibilities here at the restaurant. So I thought, “OK, let’s just all go and have a life experience.” That’s the basis of it. That’s the motivation.

It’s a thing for the full Noma staff, a life experience that we are giving each other, and it’s also a team-building effort. We’re all going to be staying in the same place, wake up in the morning, eat breakfast at the same place . . . it was very important that we try this experiment. It’s a moment to try something new.

How many people is it in total?

I think 66, plus six or seven children.

When did the idea of Japan first pop into your head?

It was when I did my (top Kyoto kaiseki restaurant) Kikunoi internship in 2009. Before that, I knew nothing about Japan. Just the bad sushi in Denmark.

So why did you go in the first place?

I was intrigued. I’d started reading — and it’s evident that for a layman, even though I’m a chef — that Japan has a history that is so rich. I was curious, I wanted to know what was going on. I didn’t know I was going to have my mind blown.

I went to Japan, spending time in kitchens — Nakamura, Hyotei (other top kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto), but mostly Kikunoi as Murata-san (Yoshihiro Murata, owner and head chef of Kikunoi) was my host. He took me to his pristine, state-of-the-art yuzu farm. I was blown away by the quality of his ingredients, and a small yuba (soymilk skin) maker, a tofu maker with unbelievable history.

And the diversity of the foodstuffs! We went to tonkatsu (pork cutlet) restaurants, with 200 other Japanese customers, and it was just so good. From the very highest level, right down to a family tonkatsu restaurant — I was blown away that it could be so good.

Has Japan had any direct influence on the way you cook at Noma?

I’m intrigued by fermentation. We’ve always had to do fermentations and pickles at Noma, ever since we opened. But seeing how they use it in Japan, where fermentation is a way of adding a richness to an otherwise simple ingredient, that’s probably one of the most profound impacts it has had (on me), for sure.

Another thing that has influenced me is the whole concept of omotenashi (Japanese-style hospitality). I’d heard about it, and we’d talked about it, but I only fully understood on my last trip what the whole thing was about.

What culinary parallels do you see between Japan and Scandinavia? There is fantastic seafood in both regions . . .

It just doesn’t compare to Japan. We can get high quality as well, but not the same range. We don’t have the diversity. But we do have extremely high quality of the stuff we have. Besides that, it’s very different here. Japan is a mountainous country; people live on the edges. But Denmark is a flat country and people live all the way inland.

And also the use of wild plants in the diet.

That’s true. And that is still part of the culture here, families go mushrooming, pick berries and make cordials.

So you’re going to be using all local stuff?

We will try to grow some beets in Japan that work particularly well in Denmark. We’re going to see how it works . . . I don’t think it’s going to.

Anything else you’re bringing with you?

Maybe some dried herbal teas, instead of serving green tea. I really like the tea in Japan, but I’d like to surprise guests a little bit. And I won’t serve rice as a main course, because that’s not Noma, but we will use rice in the dessert. Especially seeing as we have so many Japanese people — like 90 percent of the customers will be Japanese.

Are there any restaurants in Japan that have particularly impressed you?

There’s no question that my first meal at Kikunoi was an eye-opening experience. That was, if you will, my virginity taken. It was fall in Kyoto. The leaves were falling and everything was red. I remember steamed tofu and the yuzu-miso sauce. They make their own tofu, with fresh soy milk using a wooden spoon. You know when you’ve never had tofu like that before, which I hadn’t — it’s revelatory.

And since then?

I’ve had many, many meals at all sorts of restaurants. From very traditional nigiri-style sushi at Jiro (Sukiyabashi Jiro in Ginza, Tokyo) to more “wild” sushi at Umi (in Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo). And also Den (Kanda-Jimbocho, Tokyo): the chef there, Zaiyu Hasegawa, is young and pushing (boundaries), with lots of humor. He’s less rigid, and that was really extraordinary. He’s going to teach me how to cook turtle, I’m going to try to put turtle on the menu — to me, (his is) the best turtle dish I’ve had in Japan.

After all this effort, do you have plans for opening a full-fledged restaurant in Japan?

I’m intrigued with Japan, with the produce, with the restaurant staff — in fact I think the restaurant staff in Japan are some of the best on Earth. The simple fact of having a connection with Japan and having a place to crossbreed staff, that intrigues me. But as for a restaurant, there’s nothing we are planning.