Dessert is a five-course affair at Noma and ants are on the menu this season. Not the live chilled ants with creme fraiche served by Rene Redzepi during a stint at Claridge's in London for the Olympics - it was reported 22,000 were brought in from Denmark- but ant paste with a drop of oil and blueberries.
"Actually, it's one of the after- desserts we are doing at the moment," Redzepi says down the line from Copenhagen, in between lunch and dinner.
He has a thing about ants. His last OMG food moment was ants.
"Yes, wood ants, I ate a few months ago; they were harvested in a forest 20 minutes out of Copenhagen and tasted like coriander."
And no, it's not a good idea to let them crawl around your mouth. Even Redzepi acknowledges the sensation can be a little weird. Apparently, they nibble.
Arguably, the world's best chef has made foraging fashionable and drawn on Nordic influences to redefine a cuisine that was as tragic as Hamlet before he came along. Think pickled herring, meatballs and gravy.
Redzepi has added unlikely delicacies, like shallow-fried reindeer moss (it's actually a lichen), beach dandelions (they taste of fresh hazelnuts and roast almonds), sea lettuce, rose-hip flowers, bear meat, "vintage" carrots and live shrimp served squirming on ice straight out of a fjord - they're available only in spring.
"We're rediscovering ingredients that, for the most part, have been used before," he says.
"The difference is that before they would have been used to sustain life; not celebrate life, and it's the conviviality of eating that we're trying to capture by putting together ingredients in new ways that are delicious and bring pleasure."
Noma - the name combines the Danish words for Nordic (nordisk) and mad (food) - in a converted 18th century harbour warehouse where trading ships once unloaded fish and skins, snatched first place from Spain's legendary El Bulli in UK-based Restaurant magazine's Top 50 list in 2010, and has held the title of Best Restaurant in the World for three years running.
It opened in 2003 backed by gastronomical entrepreneur Claus Meyer and is Redzepi's dream. For the moment. "I'm where I want to be but I can definitely see myself using my skill set and what I've learnt here to adapt to a new place and culture and start all over."
On an average Saturday night the wait list can run into a 1000 - it seats 40 - and reservations are three months down the track. The next round opens on October 29 for January.
Neil Perry had dinner there 18 months ago and loved it. "It's a unique experience that captures the precision and passion of Redzepi; his sensitivity for texture and flavour in a simple setting that's the essence of Danish finesse," he says.
Redzepi, 34, is a flash of brilliance; the son of a Macedonian Muslim taxi driver of Albanian descent and a Danish Protestant mother who worked as a cashier at an espresso bar when his parents met. He followed his best friend into culinary school at 15 because his grades weren't good enough for upper secondary education and he didn't know what he wanted to do. "I didn't want to be a chef or a cook, or work in restaurants," he says.
But it was his father's influence on summer holidays to the family village in Macedonia that stayed with him when it came to cooking. The chickens they caught, slaughtered and roasted on an open fire with the juices dripping on to a bed of fragrant rice inspired the dish he prepared for his first assignment - and won second place.
"You know, in my early years, I thought I didn't have any grand stories about how I became a chef, but now, nine years into having Noma, I see that my experiences in Macedonia left their mark - the village grew most of its own food, killed animals, harvested berries, and processed everything from scratch so there would be something to eat in winter. In this way, my upbringing and memories are part of who I am and I have brought them into my adult life.
"Take the vintage carrots. These came about a few winters ago when we ran out of food - the type of food we do at Noma to have enough variety - so in desperation I called one of our farmers and asked him to give us everything he had, including these very old carrots.
"They were just horrible; soft, crumbly and a bit starchy. But we kept going and thought 'OK, let's not look at these as a cheap commodity; let's look at them as a piece of wagyu steak'. So we put the carrots in the pan with goat's butter and roasted them on a low heat, while continuing to baste with butter and adding spices and herbs. Suddenly, after an hour or two of constant dedication, the skin had transformed into a crunchy- like texture and inside, there was this very fragrant and potent carrot paste. It was like striking gold."
He never made it to university but has lectured about his long romance with food at Yale and holds 33rd place - in between Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat and Bridesmaids' actress Kristen Wiig - on Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World List. It's no big deal for low-key Redzepi, who rides an old bike and lives in a rented apartment with wife Nadine and two young daughters.
"Actually, my mother thinks it's great - and she loves my food but my father's not a fan. He grew up on stews with white beans, tomatoes and spices; then suddenly there's this waiter asking him to dip reindeer lichen into creme fraiche. So no, he doesn't like it."
He doesn't believe Noma is for high rollers - there are no tablecloths or fancy silverware. A 20-30 course degustation menu, depending on season, is $235 plus $150 for matched wines, or $85 for juices.Rene Redzepi will make his fifth trip to Australia to take part in the Margaret River Gourmet Escape food and wine festival with Heston Blumenthal, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, Matt Moran and more than 20 other food and wine experts. The Festival runs from Thursday, November 22, to Sunday, November 25. Redzepi will appear on the Saturday and Sunday. Tickets from Ticketek.
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