René Redzepi: a work in progress

Jay was stressed out. I could see it, feel it, understand it. He was overworked and didn’t feel like giving up his all-too-rare downtime for a weekday event. What did a book promotion have to do with him?

It was Tuesday night and we were going to see René Redzepi speak about his new publication, René Redzepi: A Work in Progress, at Castro Theatre. René is the chef of Copenhagen-based Noma, only the “the best restaurant in the world.” Part of the “new guard” of the culinary world, René brings thought-provoking, boundary-pushing, artistic sensibility to food. Perhaps more recognizably, he is also the sole subject of an entire episode of the food-culture series, The Mind of a Chef. But again — what did one of the most famous chefs in the world have to do with us?

As the lights dimmed in the theater, we had no idea what to expect. We certainly didn’t anticipate Lars Ullrich, drummer of Metallica, to take the stage. His presence made perfect sense once he explained food and music’s unexpectedly shared connections to creativity and courage. Lars, who had written the foreword to the recipe book, then introduced his fellow Dane.

René walked onstage with his book in his hands, paused, and stared at the audience. He took a few deep breaths and uttered: “By the way, you’re all naked right now.” We laughed.

For the remaining hour and a half, René read passages from his book, often pausing to play illustrative video clips. He, of course, discussed his revolutionary work: serving insects and foraged ingredients in a Michelin-starred restaurant; putting on the incredible MAD Symposium for food experts; and searching for inspiration in surprising places. He also discussed the grim truths of his passion: his meteoric rise from a very disadvantaged, immigrant background; the intensity and sacrifice involved; the pressure and joylessness of success; the fear and claustrophobia of failure; and the never-ending quest for authenticity and energy. The presentation was absolutely fascinating, due in large part to René’s compelling stage presence, expletives and all. He even put on a hilariously bad Irish accent when imitating his colleague (and apologized for it, bless him).

After a quick Q&A with the editor of Lucky Peach magazine, René signed copies of his book — or, rather, one of a set. He had actually published a set of three tomes: Snapshots, a mini-photo album; René Redzipi’s Journal, consisting of passages from his private records; and Noma Recipes, a gorgeous coffee table book. It’s important to emphasize that I don’t consider the last a proper cookbook, since I don’t reasonably expect anyone to recreate avant-garde dishes like “trash cooking with leeks.” Regardless, the set is a masterpiece, showcasing food and cooking in all their artistic power.

Throughout the talk, I turned over to look at Jay and saw a man transformed — enraptured. As the lights came on, Jay leaned over and happily exclaimed: “That was so inspirational!” His smile said it all. René’s message had, most certainly, extended beyond the food on our plates, beyond the walls of his restaurant. René had pursued his passions fully and fearlessly, and that has everything to do with anything.

Note: It feels almost serendipitous that I had scheduled this post about one inspirational figure on the same day another passed away. Judi Rodger’s food, philosophy, and legacy will live on.

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