Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine by René Redzepi is the culinary equivalent of one of those books you find in a museum gift shop - impressive, beautiful, inspiring... but not likely to get opened much after its first reading. And yet, this book will fill you with hope in our culinary future, inspire you to expect more out of your local restaurants, and re-examine the food on your plate.
René Redzepi is the darling du jour of the culinary world with a restaurant named top in the world in 2010 (de-throning the icon elBulli), and a food philosophy that cries for widespread consideration.
Redzepi was raised from humble beginnings and a "I don't have anything better to do" start in the culinary landscape. But that quickly changed with a classroom cooking competition. A simple challenge led to training at Le Jardin des Sens, elBulli, The French Laundry and Kong Hans, and those experiences resulted in a partnership with media personality and entrepreneur Claus Meyer. Forced, contrived and restricted by concept, Noma didn't start out as the superstar it is now. In fact, it was a laughing stock and oddity in a region that few would consider a culinary mecca. But as Redzepi refined his philosophy and became unshackled by his past training experiences, a seasoned and focused chef emerged full of youthful vigor and idealism. The result is the top restaurant in the world.
Released by Phaidon Press (other titles include Coco, The Silver Spoon, A Day at elBulli), Noma is 365 pages with 200 photographs and over 90 recipes. [Editor's note: It follows Redzepi's 2006 Danish language book, Noma: Nordisk Mad, which the English language release appears to share a lot of content with.] The significance of Redzepi's book is not in the realm of cookbooks, however. When considering Noma in the context of other great restaurant and chef books such as Alinea: The Cookbook, A Day at elBulli, or any of Thomas Keller's books, Noma leans more toward the philosophy of the kitchen than preparation. Redzepi's philosophy of re-engaging indigenous Nordic ingredient and preparing and elevating them with a sense of renewed esteem infuses a transferable energy into any chef. Diners should feel the same energy. As Redzepi says, "Food is never `just food.'" Redzepi's youthful spirit is felt in each of his words, but his youth also comes through in his writings.
The book begins with a series of essays from Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, Rune Skyum-Nielsen and Redzepi himself including Redzepi's diary while conducting research for the restaurant. His diary ends abruptly. As Redzepi puts it, "Unfortunately, I have not kept a diary since, and over the years I have in some odd way erased three days from it." The missing days are not crucial to your appreciation of the book. However, entries such as "Sleep in, mainly due to the wild rolling of the boat. Do not make it for breakfast," and "Also Greenlandic post, a herb that can resemble rosemary or marjoram. Wow!" are interesting context for the reader, but as sparse as a Nordic skyline and left me feeling a bit hungry for details.
In many ways this book reminds me of Black Pudding and Foie Gras by Andrew Pern, offering a contagious enthusiasm for foodie passion, documenting important culinary anthropology, part dictum, part kitchen notes, but alas, unattainable because of the focus on local ingredients. The difference between the two is that Redzepi's passion remains in the mind, while Pern's permeates your soul. It would be interesting to see a 20 year re-issue of Noma if for no other reason than to read Redzepi's age-wisened thoughts on his place in time.
The only detracting element of the book is the incessant flipping required to read the recipe index, view the picture, and see the recipe itself. I found myself with fingers curled between pages to keep everything in order and captions properly aligned. But in a way that makes sense. This is a book about time and place, and begins with that context. Once context is established the reader is taken on a photo journey and only concludes with the recipes. The recipes are presented as secondary or tertiary to the book. Few will attempt to prepare the myriad of sea buckthorn recipes or will want to prepare the overflow of beet dishes. Only advanced cooks and professional chefs will have the skill and equipment necessary for most of the dishes, while a handful are adaptable to the home kitchen.
Because of its significance, Noma is a must-have book for collectors, and will certainly provide inspiration to professionals cooks and chefs, but buy it for its importance and not to make your Sunday supper.