Copenhagen’s Next Wave

<< Back to Robb Report, July 2014

Chefs who came up at Noma are opening inventive restaurants of their own and taking the Danish capital’s cuisine into adventurous new territory.

At 36, chef René Redzepi is far too young to be thinking about his legacy. But as he bikes through his native Copenhagen in white sneakers, hair flopping as he goes, such thoughts are almost impossible to avoid. A decade after Redzepi and his partner, Claus Meyer, opened Noma, Copenhagen has become home to a slew of ambitious restaurants, many of which are run by Redzepi’s former staffers. Although all of these chefs and sommeliers were changed by their time at Noma—a restaurant broadly considered to be the best in the world—in the past few years they have begun to deliciously transform the city’s dining scene in ways their mentor never could have predicted.

“I never thought these guys would stay,” Redzepi says of his former apprentices, some of whom came from as far away as California. “I thought they would all go home when it was time for them to open their own place. The fact that they haven’t makes you think that something is really happening here.”

Something, indeed. Copenhagen has become one the world’s top dining destinations—on a par with New York City, Paris, and Tokyo. According to Horesta, the Danish association for the hotel, restaurant, and tourism industries, one in three tourists now travels to Copenhagen for the purpose of visiting a specific fine-dining establishment. This development is remarkable, given that only a few years ago, the city—and, really, the whole of Scandinavia—was not even a blip on the gastronomic radar. With a native cuisine that revolved largely around pickled herring and the open-faced sandwiches known as smørrebrød, Danes—when they attempted anything approaching haute cuisine—typically looked to France and often slavishly copied that country’s classics.

By articulating the possibilities inherent in what he called a “new Nordic cuisine,” Redzepi changed this dynamic. Convinced that the bountiful ingredients to be found in his own country could be used to greater effect, the chef at first focused on local substitutes for the essential elements of French cuisine, using vinegar in place of citrus, for example, or musk ox for beef. Soon he was taking his cooks out to the woods to forage for wild herbs and cajoling farmers, fishermen, and artisans into supporting his vision with their gorgeous carrots, sea urchins, and “virgin” butters. He wanted diners to taste the place.

In addition to winning global accolades for Noma, including the No. 1 spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and completely filling the reservation book, Redzepi has made his establishment the destination for ambitious young chefs from around the world in search of meaningful apprenticeships. “It was such a special place,” says one of them, Samuel Nutter. “You were making genius food, and you weren’t stuck in a basement peeling potatoes. You were out there and could see how much people loved it.”

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