Saturday, 21 July 2012

Mashed: Rene Redzepi and the Joyless Division

John Banville's sombre fizzog stares up at me from the pages of the Independent on Sunday. He seems to be saying 'Don't fuck with me, I'm a heavyweight writer.' He certainly seems to be carrying a few extra pounds. I wonder if he practices the look in the mirror at home before photo shoots, while mouthing the words 'I, author' quietly to himself. Po-faced is not the word. Mother-Po-fucking fa-fucking-ced perhaps.   




Banville at least has the excuse of dealing with serious subject matter in his work. Ancient Light, the book under review by the Indy tells the fictional story of Cass Cleave who uncovers anti-Semitic articles by an acclaimed literary theorist who also happens to be the father of her unborn child. Suffering from a 'schizophrenic-like condition', Cleave kills herself. With hilarious consequences.

When it comes to the world of food world however, there really is no excuse for taking yourself too seriously. Yes, being a chef is a stressful job, it's hard work and kitchens can be dangerous places, what with all the testosterone, sharpened blades and illegal aliens around the place. 


But they're not artist's studios, or chemist's labs or philosophical summits. They are places of work and at their best, highly efficient businesses geared to extract as much money from as many people in as short a period of time using as few resources as possible. Simply adjust the variables to make the model work for selling hundreds of 99p burgers or a few dozen £180 tasting menus.    

There are however a band of chefs who would have you believe otherwise. They have taken the ludicrous hype surrounding the annual World's 50 BestRestaurants list (compiled it should be noted by a judging panel that includes chefs and restaurateurs who can vote for any establishment without having to prove they've actually eaten there) at face value and appear to believe they can heal the world with a nice bit of scran.

In 2011, a group of oh-so-serious minded chefs featured in that year's list issued a manifesto - not a recipe, not a cookery book, not a 10% off a main course on a Tuesday night if booking before 7.30pm voucher but a mani-sodding-festo - in the form of an 'Open Letter to Future Chefs'  saying among other things that chefs could' serve as an important bridge to other cultures'. The stunt was eloquently parsed at the time by Jay Rayner

The gang of nine (later reduced to eight when Heston Blumenthal, who hadn't even turned up for the public signing distanced himself from the document saying 'I'm just a cook' )  included Rene Redzepi, chef proprietor of Noma, Copenhagen which has famously topped the list for three years running. 

At the time of writing, Redzepi is in residence at Claridges, touting 'A Taste of Noma' for £200 a pop plus wine and service. According to Harden's, the event sold out within 2.5 hours and was over subscribed by a factor of 10. However, early reports on Trip Advisor seemed to indicate that not everyone feels like they've got a good deal, including one reporter who said 'This was without a shadow of a doubt the worst meal I have ever had in a Michelin starred restaurant , much of the food was totally under seasoned and tasteless and all of it was uninspired and dull.'    


I met Redzepi in 2010 when I joined the media scrum on Hampstead Heath that accompanied the diminutive chef's staged foraging trip. I was editing the Metro newspaper's food and drink pages at the time and wrote a double page spread covering the event and the lunch held at the Bull and Last pub where I sat next to Redzepi. I included quotes from my brief interview with him on the day and found him to be enthusiastic, eager to share his knowledge and unfailingly polite.

His media profile continued to build until the following summer when the hoopla surrounding Redzepi's first Mad Symposium food congress in Copenhagen reached fever pitch. Tweets from the event were hyperbolic to say the least and the whole thing took on the cultish air of a White Night in Jonestown.

Having endured a number of similar arse-achingly tedious events in Italy and London, I tweeted that I'd like to see 'a little less chin stroking and a little more cooking' from modern chefs. I would have forgotten all about it the second I'd pressed the send button, had Redzepi not responded directly on twitter, telling me to 'fuck off, and that's from all 300 chefs here.'

Was this really the same sweet-natured man who had patiently explained to how he used the various foraged plants we came across on Hampstead Heath in his cooking? I was shocked but was soon reassured by people in the know that Redzepi was no different from many of his peers and had a raging temper and ego to match.

But being a haute cuisine cook hasn't always equated with solemn preciousness.  Redzepi's humourless approach (summed up neatly in this tweet by Giles Coren. The celebrity journalist's outburst is explained by Redzepi calling Coren 'a really really nasty bastard' in an interview with American food website Eater ) is in stark contrast, for example, to the demeanour of legendary French chef Fernand Point.

Running the epoch defining La Pyramide restaurant in Vienne near Lyon between 1923 until his death in 1955, where he invented nouvelle cuisine and trained the likes of Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel and Jean and Pierre Troisgros must have kept him pretty busy, but he still found plenty of time to indulge himself.


According to Ma Gastronomie, his cookbook and biography, Point would rise at 4.30am everyday to phone is suppliers at Les Halles in Paris and then spend a few hours in his kitchen. At 9.00am, he'd crack open a nicely chilled magnum of champagne and be shaved by his barber. By the time his stubble had disappeared, so had the magnum. 

A lover to practical jokes, he would regularly transport a friend's fishing boat from its moorings to the branches of a tree or to the inside of a church; put a raw egg among hard boiled ones in customer's picnic baskets, and tease the tinker who relined the kitchen's copper pans by hiding his tools and getting him drunk on champagne.    

During the World War Two, Point fed refugees in his restaurant without payment but refused to serve Nazi army officers and received the Cross of the Chevalier and the Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts. As well as entertaining everyone from Jean Cocteau to the Aga Khan, he insisted that two truck drivers who had simply come to look around La Pyramide dined as his guests.

Renowned for his sense of humour, Ma Gastronomie includes witty aphorisms like 'Before judging a thin man, one must get some information. Perhaps he was once fat' (at six foot three and weighing in at over 300 pounds, Point once said of himself, 'My weight is confidential but if you wish to obtain my volume, you only have to multiply the surface of my base by my height and divide by three').

If Point, called 'Le Roi' by his peers and recognised during his lifetime as the best chef of his generation was able to retain a sense of humour and humility while simultaneously redefining an entire cuisine, it surely can't be beyond the current crop of top chefs to find a scintilla of self awareness and perspective about their day jobs. A picture from this years Mad symposium of Redzepi pushing an ice cream cart along Copenhagen's waterfront offers some hope, even if the chef's scowling expression makes him the most miserable Mr Whippy in history.

Why fun appears to be off the haute cuisine menu is anyone's guess. The relentlessly earnest food bloggers who justify the enormous sums they drop in expensive restaurants by pretending to themselves that they've had a life changing experience? The maelstrom of media bullshit surrounding the World's 50 Best? The self-aggrandising antics of Ferran 'I-invented-molecular-gastronomy-me' Adria whose ludicrously over the top cookery tomes cataloguing the great man's every culinary burp and fart have launched a thousand imitators (such as the recently released Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking by Andoni Luis Aduriz which, hilariously, includes a dish called 'Evoking the Work of Richard Serra' -  Pretentious, moi?) and have now hit the big screen in the documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress.  

Whatever the reason, it must have dear old Fernand spinning in his grave albeit, given his bulk, at a fairly sedate RPM.  I'm sure he'd tell them to relax and open a magnum or two of champagne; an idea that might even force John Banville to crack a smile.  


Mashed was a regular column created for egullet.org's The Daily Gullet webzine in the early noughties and will now appear from time to time on Kitchen Person