November 14, 2013
Rene Redzepi was 25 years old when he opened his first restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen, and 32 years old when it was crowned the best restaurant in the world. Noma, which stands for nordisk mad, or Nordic food, held that title from 2010 to 2012, serving a scrupulously seasonal menu of local and foraged ingredients including sea buckthorn, ramson flowers, puffin eggs and ants—a far cry from the meatball platter at Ikea. Redzepi is singlehandedly responsible for putting Nordic cuisine on the map, but after ten years at Noma, his influence extends much further than that. He has used his worldwide celebrity as a platform to promote innovation in food, from new culinary techniques developed at the Nordic Food Lab to shifts in food policy discussed at the MAD Symposium, an annual gathering of chefs, farmers and food professionals. In 2012, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world—and just last week anointed him a “god of food,” alongside his friends and fellow chefs Alex Atala and David Chang.
Tonight, Redzepi speaks at a Smithsonian Associates event about his new book, A Work in Progress, which documents one year behind-the-scenes at Noma. We asked the chef about creativity, the role of food in society, and the state of female chefs in the restaurant industry.
The new book includes a copy of the journal you kept in 2011, your daily recap of how things were going at Noma. What was your process in writing that journal?
It was quite a painful thing. In an everyday life that’s filled with so much discipline—waking up and cooking breakfast and lunch for the kids, and then going to work and being organized and being disciplined, and then coming home—you really just want to have a drink and go to sleep. But then you had to be disciplined again. I never intended it to be a book, actually. I did it for myself, to see if I could find some sense of who are we, why are there good days, why are there bad days and what type of restaurant are we, basically. Then my book editor read parts of it, she liked it and then it became a book.
At the same time, it was also a weird experience because I’m used to working in teams, and doing this thing, you’re all alone. It was a very lonely thing to do. It’s tough, standing there at the end of the night, looking at a screen, just waiting for the words to come out. But it really did give me a lot of new insight. This idea of coming home and being able to distill the day, understanding what made it a good or bad day, really has given me a better understanding of why I do the things I do.
You’ve said that you felt “restricted” after Noma was crowned the world’s best restaurant and that this journal was a quest to understand creativity and where it comes from. What were some of the conclusions you drew from writing the journal?
One of the conclusions is that success is a fantastic, smashing thing, especially accolades—but the accolade is not the mountaintop. It’s not the highest thing to achieve. That was what I needed to shed off in the process of writing the journal—that it’s a great stepping-stone, something you can use on the way. But if your only goal is to achieve accolades, you will quickly find yourself out. I thought maybe we had reached that mountaintop. That’s what people were telling me: “What now?” And there I was, 32 years old, thinking, “What do you mean, what now? I’m 32 years old!” To me, it wasn’t the mountaintop that everyone was telling me [it was]. But it confused me for a while. So writing the journal, the conclusion was let’s just play around again, be fearless. There’s nothing to lose; don’t get attached to the thing. That’s the most important thing I got out of it—just being open to breaking the mold that made your success.
How do you stay creative on a day-to-day basis?
Today it’s very much team-minded. Before the journal, it wasn’t so much; it was mostly decisions that I made all the time. But in trying to understand the process, I could see that the team was a good way of exhilarating everything. You’re also making it easier, if you have people to rely on and sort of comfort you at bad moments. It’s very much built on team effort now—conversations, brainstorm sessions. And, of course, ever-changing seasonality and weather—that’s also a big guiding force.
How would you describe your management style in the kitchen?
I used to be a control freak. I grew up thinking that as a cook, you are the big control freak who doesn’t care about anything besides the prosperity of your kitchen—and anybody who doesn’t follow along, just fall behind and leave. But once you go back and read everything [that happened] during a year, you can see that what really makes the good days good is when you actually feel good. When there’s fun involved. And the bad days are always the ones where you don’t handle situations well. There will always be bad moments. There will always be big failures. But you just need to deal with it well, as opposed to being a little angry idiot. So the journal made me change my management style quite a bit. It was a big step to me, from being trained in a very old way of cooking and stepping into a new thing. But it changed the restaurant, and I could never see myself going back to the traditional kitchen style.
You have a lot of career changers on your staff—an ex-banker, a Hollywood dropout, a lawyer and others who didn’t come in with culinary experience. What do they bring to the table?
There are so many fantastic aspects to gain from people who are somewhat involved within food culture. Right now, in the Nordic Food Lab, we have a graduate of the Yale Sustainable Food Project. It’s certainly not cooking, but his understanding of issues that surround the meal adds different layers to the research and to our base understanding of what food can be. It makes our restaurant better. The way I understand innovation today is that the more we are open to new, valuable information, the more we study history, memories or these new experiences, and bring them into the now—that’s when something new really happens. I try to be as open to all these factors as possible.
Food seems to be everywhere these days—in TV, politics, symposia like your own. Is it possible to take food too seriously?
No. I don’t think we take it too seriously at all. On the contrary, sometimes the discussion is a little bit stupid and not serious enough. But the thing is that food is not just food. If you want to say that, you’re kidding yourself. It’s a bit of an old-fashioned statement, even—a classic, Westernized, Protestant statement [of] food as sustenance and please don’t try to make it anything more than that. If that’s the level we choose to look at it, then what do you really need? To me, food is one of the things that makes life most livable—just like having a comfortable place to live in. Do we really need it in order to stay alive, in the same way that we just need to food to sustain us?
At the same time, there are so many critical issues, such as sustainability and agriculture, that surround food all the time. I think we are also realizing, more and more, how important the meal is. I know that now that I have a family. It’s easy to come across as some sort of romantic, when you talk about the importance of the meal and the family aspect, but I really believe that it’s important and I can see that it is.
So I don’t think it’s a bad thing that you take food seriously. When it’s treated as a fashion or as a way of generating huge revenue through bad TV programs, then it’s probably a bit too much. But putting food in a cultural light and valuing it as an important part of our cultural upbringing, I think that can’t be taken too seriously. I think it’s a good thing.
What are some of the ideas and innovations in the food world that you’re most excited about right now?
In the past five years, the exploration within fermentation is definitely the most exciting thing. That’s going to continue for a long time and maybe just become a natural, integrated part of any cuisine in the future. We forget bread and brewing coffee are fermentation. There are new explorations happening that might give us some new flavors on par with those.
I want to ask you about the Time magazine story in which you were named a “god of food.”
Yeah, I haven’t even seen it yet!
But you’ve heard the criticism?
No, I haven’t! Ever since I arrived in America, people have been talking about it. But it’s a typical American thing that everybody in America thinks that everybody [else] understands what’s happening in America. But no, I haven’t. I actually saw [the issue] on the airplane coming here. I arrived here yesterday and then this morning somebody said that there’s been criticism of it. But in Denmark they didn’t even talk about it, nobody wrote about it. What’s going on? I’d love to understand what’s going on.
Basically, the article profiles important leaders and innovators in the food world—people who are changing the way we eat and think about food worldwide. The controversy is that only four of the people profiled are women, none of them chefs, so people are asking, where are the female chefs? I know you weren’t involved in writing the article but—
I didn’t even know they were going to put us on the cover! They don’t tell you these things. They say, “Ah, we can see you [and Alex Atala and David Chang] in town at the same time, can we take a picture of you? We’re writing about friendship.” And then, two months later, you’re on an airplane and somebody tells you you’re on the cover of Time magazine.
Which female chefs do you think should have made Time’s list?
I can tell you that I met yesterday, for the first time, Alice Waters. I was totally starstruck. I was almost—I didn’t know what to do. To me she is a definite food “hero,” food…god, if you will.
But there are so many extraordinarily powerful women who deserve credit and attention. Last year at the MAD symposium, we had Vandata Shiva [who was featured in the article], but of course she’s not a cook. Then there’s Margot Henderson, who runs very quietly a restaurant called Rochelle Canteen in London, but she gave a very powerful talk. And I read the memoir by Gabrielle Hamilton but I’ve actually never visited the restaurant. Every time I come to America, it’s always an in-and-out trip. . . . If there’s one girl who will be [a “god of food”] in the future, it’s my pastry chef, Rosio Sanchez [also briefly mentioned in the article], who’s from Chicago but of Mexican descent. She’s extremely good.
When I started 21 years ago, women in kitchens were a total novelty. Now, 8 out of 24 chefs in our kitchen are women. I’ve stopped thinking about it so much. Although if there are periods where we get too male-dominated in the kitchen, I always try to create a balance and get more women in the kitchen.
Because they add something different?
Yeah, there’s no question about it. It’s very important, that balance. In many ways the style of cooking that we do fits more with the sort of delicate touch of a woman as opposed to this big, rumbling male with his big, clumsy hands. I’m exaggerating here, but you know what I mean. And the sensibility in flavor—women are a bit sharper in finding these small, delicate tones here and there, when tasting stuff. Kitchens are also notoriously macho. It’s a good thing to have more females in the kitchen to add balance and to take that a bit away, not to soften things up but to bring the discussion to a more serious tone.
Do you think there are more women now because the culture in the kitchen has changed, or because there are more opportunities for women? Why do you think it’s changed so much in your lifetime?
I don’t know. I think there are more opportunities. It’s not so much of a blue-collar trade that it used to be, ten years ago. When we started operating Noma, it wasn’t unusual that at least once a year, somebody would come to me and say, “Hey, I’m not coming to work for the next six months, I’m going to jail.” It sounds crazy, but that’s the way it was. It was like seeing one of those old-fashioned movies of steel plants, where men were working with fire and shouting dirty jokes at each other, fighting and drinking. Not that long ago, kitchens were very much like that. I think things are slowly changing—from guys leaving to go to jail, to having a Harvard dropout in our cuisine. So I think the whole environment has become more friendly—for anybody, really. It used to be you’d become a cook because you can’t be anything else.
Now that you’ve met Alice Waters, do you have any other food heroes that you still want to meet?
One that made me very sad that I never met was Charlie Trotter [who died last week]. I never got to meet him; I only texted with him. That’s another thing about the trade that we’re horrible at—celebration of icons and people who really did something. If they don’t have the latest, freshest new thing, then they just get forgotten. I remember in the 1990s there were two things you read. One of them was White Heat, by Marco Pierre White. The other was books by Charlie Trotter.
Where will you be dining while you’re in the U.S.?
I’m going to Alinea for the first time. [Alinea owner Grant Achatz] and I are actually old-time pals, but we never visit each other’s restaurants, so I’m an Alinea virgin and I’m really looking forward to it.
Redzepi will speak at the S. Dillon Ripley Center on Thursday, November 14, at 6:45PM, with book signing to follow. The event is sold out, but tickets may become available. Visit smithsonianassociates.org for more information.
October 1, 2013
Pizza has come a long way since the 18th century. This winning combination of bread, tomato and cheese, which food writer Alan Richman dubbed the “perfect food,” is said to have originated in Naples, but today it claims admirers the world over, inspiring endless variations, effusive odes and even, in Philadelphia, a pizza museum. It was only a matter of time before the humble pizza pie got the fine art treatment.
“PIZZA TIME!,” the inaugural show of Manhattan’s Marlborough Broome Street Gallery, features more than 25 works of pizza-inspired art. It’s a playful take on pizza as food, as consumer brand, as cultural icon and, perhaps most importantly, as common denominator. Curator Vera Neykov calls pizza a “metaphor for community,” something that is “not too fussy” and brings people together.
That sense of community animates John Riepenhoff‘s conceptual piece, “Physical Pizza Networking Theory,” which debuted on opening night as a 38-inch pizza topped with miniature pizzas. Riepenhoff hired a local pizzeria to cook up the largest pie its oven could hold and then custom-built the box in which the pizza was delivered. On opening night, visitors were invited to dig into this edible artwork, leaving an empty pizza box in the gallery. Riepenhoff describes the work as a recursive “collage” that “address[es] the ontology of the social as material in art,” and Neykov was struck by its temporality, as visitors came, saw and ate the artwork—“there it was and now it’s gone.”
Michelle Devereux’s “Caveman on Pizza” and “Dude on Pizza #6” couple pizza with other pop culture icons. The irreverent colored-pencil drawings imagine a Tron-like grid world and hovering pizza crafts topped with a surfing Neanderthal and a reclining “dude.” In “Dude,” pastel dinosaurs cavort before an airbrushed aurora borealis, while in “Caveman,” the Bat-signal looms over the cityscape in the background.
Other works are more evocative. Andrew Kuo’s “Slice 8/23/13” and “Piece/Peace” render the pizza’s familiar triangular form in geometric shards and colorful smears, respectively. Will Boone’s “Brothers Pizza” series shows the spooky outcome of photocopying a pizza; these images feature red pockmarks, presumably pepperoni, on black backgrounds.
Neykov, who started working on the show last fall, was surprised by how much pizza art is out there. “I feel like this show can be done three more times with completely different artwork,” she says. The variety makes sense to her because pizza is itself a “canvas”: “There are so many different levels, from super cheap sliced pizza to fancy restaurant pizza to frozen pizza to make-it-yourself pizza. You can dress it up or you can dress it down.”
Some of Neykov’s favorites are Oto Gillen’s photographic still life, “untitled, (Vanitas),” and Willem de Kooning’s pencil drawing, “Untitled Circle.” Although it’s unclear whether de Kooning had pizza in mind, Neykov observes that shadowy circles on the work suggest toppings and thin lines seem to cut it into slices.
For Neykov, PIZZA TIME! is not so much a response to foodie culture as it is a reflection of globalized, digitized, mash-up culture generally. Pizza has “come into [popular] culture in a way that people no longer look at it and think it’s absurd,” she says; it’s a product of culture just as worthy of study and artistic exploration as any other. “It may be silly,” Neykov says of the show, “but it’s not dumb.”
August 30, 2013
Cocktails are having a moment right now, but they’ve been iconic motifs in literature for the past century. They define characters, offering a window into their tastes and personalities—who could picture James Bond without his “shaken, not stirred” martini? Cocktails drive storylines, clearing paths toward delight, despair or some combination of the two. In some cases, they come to represent the authors themselves, whose lives were as colorful as their prose. And of course, each cocktail has a life of its own—the more obscure the origin, the better. Drinking might not make a great writer, but it does sometimes make a great story.
Read on for five famous cocktails and the literary moments they inspired:
Ramos Gin Fizz
The Ramos gin fizz is a New Orleans classic invented in 1888 by Henry C. Ramos of the Imperial Cabinet Saloon. The recipe calls for egg white, flower water, dairy and vigorous shaking for three to ten minutes. The drink became so popular in the 1910s that Ramos had to employ 20 to 30 “shaker boys” to keep up with demand. Despite its long prep time, the gin fizz is meant to be consumed quickly, especially as a cool refreshment on a hot summer day.
On one of histrips to New York, Louisiana “Kingfish” Huey Long had a bartender flown in from the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, he said, to “teach these New York sophisticates how and what to drink.”
Watch a bartender make the Ramos gin fizz:
In Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, Dr. Thomas More defies his egg white allergy by downing gin fizz after gin fizz with Lola, his lover. “These drinks feel silky and benign,” he muses—until seven fizzes later, he breaks out in hives and his throat starts to close. More’s brush with death mirrors Walker Percy’s own: the writer once went into anaphylactic shock after drinking gin fizzes with (luckily for him) a Bellevue nurse. Percy later wrote in his 1975 essay, “Bourbon”: “Anybody who monkeys around with gin and egg white deserves what he gets. I should have stuck with Bourbon and have from that day to this.”
(The recipe below, along with all the others in this post, is courtesy of Philip Greene, co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail and author of To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion. Greene recently hosted the Smithsonian Associates seminar, “Literary Libations.”)
1 ½ oz Citadelle gin
½ oz fresh lemon juice
½ oz fresh lime juice
1 tsp sugar or ½ oz Fee Brothers rock candy syrup
1 oz half and half or cream
3 drops Fee Brothers orange flower water
1 egg white (pasteurized optional)
Place ingredients in a shaker with cracked ice. Shake vigorously for 2-3 minutes. Strain into a chilled Delmonico or short Collins glass. Top off with 1-2 oz seltzer water.
“Mad Men” fans may recognize the gimlet as Betty Draper’s drink of choice, but her own generation likely knew it from Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel The Long Goodbye. “A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else,” Terry Lennox tells the detective Philip Marlowe. “It beats martinis hollow.”
Lennox’s one-to-one ratio is too sweet for most modern drinkers. These days, gimlets are typically made with fresh lime juice instead of Rose’s syrupy cordial (and with vodka instead of gin). But Rose’s did have an edge in shelf life: as seen in Green Hills of Africa and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, Ernest Hemingway opted for gimlets on safari, probably because Rose’s was less likely to spoil.
Legend has it that the gimlet was named after Dr. Thomas Gimlette of the Royal British Navy, who used the citrusy drink to stave off sailors’ scurvy—or after the device, called a “gimlet,” used to bore holes in lime juice casks.
2 oz Hendrick’s gin
1 oz Rose’s lime juice
Shake on ice until well chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wedge or wheel.
Few cocktails are as maligned as the brandy Alexander, a rich concoction containing cream and chocolate liqueur. The drink is believed to be a Prohibition innovation, made with “enough sugar and cream to mask the foulest of bootleg hooch,” writes Wall Street Journal cocktail columnist Eric Felten. Since then, this “milkshake,” as John Lennon liked to called it, has acquired a reputation of femininity and ostentation. In Ian Fleming’s short story, “Risico” (later adapted into the 1981 film, For Your Eyes Only), the drink is used as a “secret recognition signal” between James Bond and a CIA informant, Aristotle Kristatos. Fleming writes: “The creamy, feminine drink was so much cleverer than the folded newspaper, the flower in the buttonhole, the yellow gloves that were the hoary, slipshod call signs between agents.”
The brandy Alexander also figures in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee’s nightmare portrait of marital dysfunction. The drink takes George and Martha back to a more innocent time in their relationship, when the latter would order “real ladylike little drinkies” including brandy Alexanders and gimlets. “But the years have brought to Martha a sense of essentials,” says George, “the knowledge that cream is for coffee, lime juice for pies … and alcohol pure and simple … here you are, angel … for the pure and simple. For the mind’s blind eye, the heart’s ease, and the liver’s craw. Down the hatch, all.”
1 ½ oz brandy
1 oz cream
1 oz crème de cacao (brown)
Shake with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a sprinkle of nutmeg.
To make a real whiskey sour, ditch the sour mix for fresh lemon juice and simple syrup. This cocktail, first described as a “whiskey crusta” in Jerry Thomas’s 1862 book How to Mix Drinks, was a favorite of Ernest Hemingway’s—and made for one eventful night with F. Scott Fitzgerald, recorded in A Moveable Feast.
Hemingway was an up-and-coming writer, and Fitzgerald a literary star, when the two first met in France in 1925. According to Hemingway’s memoir, Fitzgerald became hysterical one night after having too much wine. He worried that he would die from “congestion of the lungs” and wondered aloud who would take care of his wife Zelda and daughter Scottie. Hemingway recalled trying to calm him down: “If you want to do the best thing to keep from catching cold, just stay in bed and I’ll order us each a lemonade and a whisky. . .” Hemingway was irritated by the whole “silliness,” but said that “you could not be angry with Scott any more than you could be angry with someone who was crazy. . . it was hard to accept him as a drunkard, since he was affected by such small quantities of alcohol.”
Whiskey sours also make an appearance in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). The novel opens with Oedipa Maas going through the motions of her dull life as a housewife—Tupperware parties, Muzak, lasagna making and the “mixing of the twilight’s whiskey sours against the arrival of her husband.” But it’s the whiskey sour that makes the cut in John Crace’s satirical “digested read” of the novel, indicating that the drink was especially emblematic of Maas’s domestic malaise.
1 ½ to 2 oz. Wild Turkey bourbon
½ oz Fee Brothers rock candy syrup
½ oz fresh lemon juice
Shake well with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
H.L. Mencken once wrote that the origin of the Bronx cocktail was “unknown to science” (“all that is known is that it preceded the Bronx Cheer”), but a popular story credits Johnnie Solon, famed bartender of the Waldorf-Astoria, with inventing the drink circa 1900. Solon reportedly named the Bronx cocktail after the Bronx Zoo: “I had been at the Bronx Zoo a day or two before, and I saw, of course, a lot of beasts I had never known. Customers used to tell me of the strange animals they saw after a lot of mixed drinks. So when Traverson [head waiter of the dining room] said to me, as he started to take the drink in to the customer, ‘What’ll I tell him is the name of this drink?’ I thought of those animals, and said: ‘Oh, you can tell him it is a “Bronx.”‘”
The Bronx cocktail caught on in the 1910s and ’20s, rivaling the Manhattan and the martini in popularity. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, orange juicing is mechanized at the Gatsby mansion to keep up with Bronx cocktail demand: “Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York—every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.” And in This Side of Paradise, Amory Blaine consoles himself with a round of Bronxes after getting dumped by Rosalind.
In his 1940 autobiographical work Dusk of Dawn, W.E.B. Du Bois draws a caricature of a hypocritical white minister as a well-bred man in Brooks Brothers clothes who “plays keen golf, smokes a rare weed and knows a Bronx cocktail from a Manhattan.” For the record, the main difference between the two cocktails is the liquor—a Bronx is made with gin and a Manhattan with rye. But, according to the 1934 film version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, the “important thing is the rhythm. . . . a Manhattan you always shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time. . .”
1 ½ oz Citadelle gin
½ oz Martini sweet vermouth
½ oz Noilly Prat dry vermouth
½ oz orange juice
Shake well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Thirsty for more drink-related programming? Check out the upcoming Smithsonian Associates seminar, “Mad Men Style: Janie Bryant on Fashion and Character,” on September 9, 2013, which will feature a tasting of Mad Men-inspired cocktails.