TORONTO — Rene Redzepi, chef of the world’s best restaurant, was in Toronto October 14, to speak about his newest book called The Noma Guide to Fermentation. More than 500 people attended the event, presented by Indigo Books at the Isabel Bader Theatre.
Written in collaboration with David Zilber, director of fermentation, Noma, the duo shared techniques for making Noma’s extensive pantry of ferments at home. Redzepi began the discussion explaining how the restaurant’s focus on fermentation began in earnest after the chef closed his original restaurant, which first opened in November 2003. Looking back on his restaurant’s beginnings, Redzepi now admits “it was a dumb idea opening the restaurant during November. What’s available at that time?” he asked rhetorically. “We were in the weeds,” he stated. “I thought we would fail.”
The opposite actually occurred as the restaurant gained instant success based on cuisine that focused on local food and foraging. “We started investigating what was around us and we stumbled on the wilderness and the idea of preservation,” recalls the chef, pointing to new discoveries such as a wild plant that tasted like coriander. “It was a defining moment for Noma,” stated Redzepi, “It fuelled us to investigate more.”
As part of that investigation, Redzepi and his team of chefs started looking into the idea of preservation, which he said could also be called pickling or fermentation. “We stumbled on these things by blindly finding them,” pointing to gooseberries as another example of an item that became even more complex and interesting when fermented.
In his quest to be unique, Redzepi admitted he was looking to find what could become the restaurant’s pillar. Six years ago, when Redzepi closed the successful original restaurant looking to break the sameness of his culinary routine, fermentation became that pillar. After stints doing pop-up restaurants in Australia, Japan and Mexico, Redzepi returned to Denmark ready to set up shop in a new restaurant setting (a former two-acre military compound near the water), dismantle his tasting menus and turn his focus to producing seasonal menus but, underpinning each of those seasonal menus, he decided to dedicate the restaurant to fermentation. “This is our soul today,” he said, comparing it to Legos, with fermentation being the building block needed.
With the help of Zilber — who Redzepi referred to as one of the most important people in the culinary world — the restaurant’s focus on fermentation is evident in every dish, “whether it’s a bright hit of vinegar, a deeply savoury miso or the sweet intensity of garlic.”
The book features 100 original recipes and more than 500 step-by-step photos and illustrations illuminating the process. Divided into nine chapters, the guide starts with the basics of fermentation and the science behind what makes it delicious, and even walks readers though how to use the necessary equipment. In fact, Zilber spent a few minutes onstage Sunday night demonstrating some of the equipment cooks could use to start the process, warning future fermenters “the payoff is in the patience. It’s like watching paint dry,” quipped the Toronto native, “but once you see the power, that’s when it gets exciting.”
Redzepi added, “This has truly become our lifeblood. We’ve written books before, but none where the main goal was to translate what we do in the restaurant to a home kitchen…I believe in fermentation wholeheartedly, not only as a way to unlock flavours, but also as a way of making food that feels good to eat.”
Noma has been named the world’s best restaurant four times and Redzepi is the only chef to have appeared on the cover of Time magazine twice. In addition to being the director of Fermentation, Zilber is also a chef and photographer. He has worked at Noma since 2014, with previous stints at Colborne Lane in Toronto and Hawksworth Restaurant in Vancouver.