Gathering force throughout the first two decades of the 21st century, an epochal change radically remade the dominant paradigms of the highest end of the food industry.
Previously, luxury restaurants were all about the ethics of deliciousness: spare no expense to serve up decadence. But now more complicated moral questions are reckoned with: location, sustainability, appropriateness and appropriation.
There are good historical reasons for this shift, from the inexorable logic of climate change to social justice movements galvanising so many different parts of the world.
Yet it’s also undeniable some of these issues fast-forwarded into our consciousness from an unlikely source: the half-Albanian/Macedonian-Muslim Danish chef Rene Redzepi, whose Noma in Copenhagen emerged from nowhere to become the most influential restaurant of the new millennium.
“Redzepi is a figure whose influence might be compared to that of David Bowie’s in music in the 1970s, or Steve Jobs’s in technology in the 1980s,” writes Jeff Gordinier in his hugely absorbing Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World (2019, Icon Books).
Apt comparisons. It’s almost entirely due to Redzepi’s influence that ambitious restauranteurs now apply the previously exclusively oenological concept of “terroir” to all their ingredients. In fact, when his restaurant opened in 2004, the intense young chef (he was 26) was labelled outlandishly eccentric for foraging in his neighbourhood, and eschewing imported delicacies for those considered unforgivably quotidian.
Examine the 50 Best Restaurants in the World rankings that year, and its pinnacle is occupied by restaurants within the established traditions of haute cusine (“molecular gastronomy” changed the sensations, but not the ingredients): Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in California, Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck outside London, Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli in Catalonia.
Redzepi, scrambling in city hedges for his appetizers, was nowhere on the scene.
But in 2006, his restaurant showed up at 33. The next year, it was 15, and, not coincidentally, the “2007 Oxford word of the year” was “locavore”, defined as “using locally grown, seasonally available foodstuffs.” In 2010 (and 2011, 2012, and 2014) Noma reigned number 1.
A trip to Mexico
At the peak of that dominance, Jeff Gordinier writes, “Redzepi wanted to meet me.” It was bad timing for the food writer (then at the New York Times) because “I just wasn’t in the mood. My marriage was falling apart. Two weeks earlier I had moved out of the house where my two children lived. Depression rolled into my days like a toxic fog…I didn’t think I had the patience to conjure up a rictus grin of pretend curiosity while I listened to a visionary from Copenhagen prattling on about his manifesto.”
Happily (for us) the two did meet, ending with an unexpected invitation. Redzepi told Gordinier, “We should go to Mexico.” Then, “he emailed me. He texted me. He reassured me. He kind of badgered me. This was going to happen, he said. I just needed to get an editor on board. I needed to find a way.”
Hungry is above all the story of compulsion and extraordinary will. Gordinier winds up flying constantly to track Redzepi: at the original restaurant, and its reinvention in another location in Copenhagen, on many trips to Mexico culminating in Noma’s famously extravagant $750 per head “meal of the decade” pop-up in Tulum, and another pop-up in Sydney (at the barely less eye-watering price of $500).
All the while, he put the pieces of his personal life back together, as the two quests are revealed intertwined. “The glow of some ultimate goal gave everything that sense of meaning that felt so comparatively elusive in the crushing grind of trying to stay afloat and serene in twenty-first-century America,” Gordinier writes. “To watch the Noma crew at work was to come to understand why otherwise intelligent people join religious cults. It’s not for the free love and cathartic dancing, although those early enticements have their appeal. It’s because a cult tells you: We have the answer.”
This is terrifically insightful, and it is these passages of thoughtfulness and compassion which elevate Hungry amongst the best contemporary food books, alongside those by Bill Buford, Fuschia Dunlop, Gabrielle Hamilton, and the now-sainted Anthony Bourdain (alas, we as yet have no worthy contenders from India). It’s expertly crafted, mercifully free of the overblown cant that too often bogs down the genre, and packed with pleasing writerly devices (for example, sections are named after Talking Heads songs, because Gordinier compares Redzepi to its lead singer, David Byrne).
A time capsule
Yet, even as I devoured all this with great enjoyment in lockdown Goa, the world depicted came through as acutely shadowed by saudades. Even though it describes what is effectively the present, Hungry seemed to read like an elegy. To find out if he agrees, I winged an email to Gordinier, and was delighted to hear back from his home next to the Hudson river in Westchester County, New York, where he lives with his new wife and their twin toddlers.
Gordinier told me, “I imagined Hungry as a time capsule – a chronicle of a really exciting period in culinary history that was bound eventually to end. But who knew it would end this quickly?! Decades end. Culture shifts. Music is always changing, film is always changing, art is always changing. It’s the same with this high-stakes, globetrotting manifestation of gastronomy. Change is inevitable, but I guess we didn’t realise change would be this sudden and drastic.”
What about his subject, the chef at the top of the world? “The place is wired to adapt to whatever comes its way, and René Redzepi rolls with change the way a surfer learns to read the contours of the surf on any given day,” Gordinier said.” But it could be a few years before the international gastronomes get back to their practice of flying all around the world to eat dinner. Or maybe that whole thing, which was central to the food scene in the decade that has now passed, will never happen again. Maybe it’s already just a memory.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.