Jeff Gordinier, food editor at Esquire and New York Times contributor, was at something of a personal turning point as his marriage dissolved. In a depressing-sounding state, he accepted an invitation from world-renowned Danish chef René Redzepi to accompany him on his ambitious culinary travels. Redzepi is the mind behind Noma, a pricey, innovative restaurant then occupying an old warehouse space on the Copenhagen waterfront. Noma’s aesthetic draws from Nordic cuisine but reinterprets classic dishes using seasonal and local ingredients with an upscale twist. Reservations book years in advance, and it consistently hovered near or topped lists of the world’s best restaurants.
But in 2013, Redzepi experienced a fall from grace of sorts. A bout of norovirus in Noma’s shellfish turned the dining sensation on its head. It was unavoidable, and not Redzepi’s fault, but it inevitably tarnished the restaurant’s reputation. Refusing to wallow in the negative publicity-filled aftermath, he chose to keep moving, setting out to learn in different ways from world cuisines. This included what constitutes a big portion of the book: indulging his fascination with traditional Mexican cooking and ingredients. Gordinier joins his entourage for the ride.
“The years would unfold and I would awake to find myself in a series of unexpected situations: making tortillas with Mayan women in a Yucatan village, bobbing in a fishing boat above the arctic circle in Norway, harvesting watercress from a hillside next to Bondi Beach in Sydney, tracing the neural and molecular pathways of flavor with a pastry chef in the Bronx.”
Part of what drew Gordinier to Redzepi is the difference in how the two handle sticky life and work situations. Gordinier identifies himself as easily stymied, prone to lingering and stalling instead of moving forward. “Redzepi, in contrast, was all about moving forward. When it came to escaping from ruts, the guy was Houdini.” Gordinier provides a camera-like view of travels with Redzepi’s entourage, which includes other chefs of the moment, and distills insights from Redzepi’s explorations of cuisines and techniques.
He doesn’t make it uncomfortably about himself, instead he carefully chooses what to tell of his own life troubles and how to fold them into the story he’s telling about Redzepi. This kind of thing doesn’t always work, but he pulls it off marvelously.
Topics range from Redzepi’s ruminations about possibilities for using ingredients and their significance in the far-flung locations they’re sourced from (throughout the Mexican countryside and markets, on a Norwegian fishing boat) to his dealings with setbacks and the clean slate that can provide. It ended up being deeper than it first appears. It also includes a look at Noma’s changing position in the restaurant world, and how Redzepi could bend misfortune into reinvention.
“Restaurants give cities their hum. Restaurants are the ventricles through which the lifeblood of a metropolis pulses in and out.”
Redzepi is near-obsessive about authentic Mexican food. It’s amusing because Europe is notorious for its inability to master authentic, or even just good, Mexican food. I would imagine his region in particular might be lacking here. The pinnacle of the narrative is the opening of his Noma pop-up in Mexico, a controversial move because of the cost of producing the dinners he’d painstakingly planned (more than $600 per person) compared with Mexico’s economic situation. Redzepi partnered with nonprofits and employed local talent, seemingly doing the best he could to boost the region’s economy despite the juxtaposition.
As with another recent book from inside the elite world of haute cuisine, I don’t particularly care for much of what’s unique about the food at the heart of the story, yet I enjoyed the book anyway. I don’t care much about fancy dining that’s more about “experience” than the food that actually is enjoyable, and I got a sense of that from descriptions of Noma. And I don’t like weird things that don’t sound like they should be edible. Some of the foods or ingredients don’t sound appetizing at all — Gardinier even comments that “It’s a fine line between delicious and disgusting,” and I would add that considering the insects involved, it gets crossed.
And yet I still got so much out of the book and the stories. It was a fun adventure to go on, and the writing was exceptional, the kind that transports you completely and reveals so much about locations and personalities. Gordinier’s descriptions are priceless. A favorite: “Los Taquitos de PM was tacky as hell —garish— with plastic chairs and corporate cola signs and the sort of lighting that induces migraines and instant hangovers.”
Intensely enjoyable, often gorgeously poetic musings offering a glimpse of haute cuisine and how it develops and changes under global influences, with a resonant message of continuing past failure. 4/5
Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World
by Jeff Gordinier
published July 9, 2019 by Crown
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.