A Work in Progress

Redzepi- occidental square

A few weeks ago, Danny and I ate dinner on the street, in the rain.

We planned it that way. We were under a clear plastic tent, in Occidental Square, with 158 other people, eating one of the most astonishing meals we have ever shared.

I don’t think we’ll ever forget that evening.

Redzepi- place setting

I’ve never checked into a dinner before and been handed a small vegetable or herb on a card. We were instructed to find our place at the table by searching for the farmed or foraged ingredient to match the one in our hands.

I loved the stumps, the lichen and moss, the red berries and twigs, the meticulous planned beauty of bits and leaves, running down the center of every long table. I loved the curl of that long carrot frond, slithering into itself on a white plate.

Look, I know that some people might have walked into this dinner and thought, “What the heck is this?” I would imagine it might make some people uncomfortable, this formal setting with food from the woods on a cobblestoned street under a plastic tent on a normally busy street in Seattle. But that’s just what I loved about this evening. It was ridiculous.

Redzepi- the dinner table

We were there with a group of like-minded people to celebrate the publication of Rene Redzepi’s new book, René Redzepi: A Work in Progress. If you don’t know Redzepi, he’s head chef of NOMA, considered by many to be one of the most extraordinary restaurants in the world, and named the best restaurant in the world a few years ago.

It was that distinction that drove Redzepi to create René Redzepi: A Work in Progress. Thrilled at the honor, he was simultaneously terrified. What do you do if you are named the best in your work? If you are a creative person, you can go two ways. You can chase after success and take the path of least resistance to calcify your work into recreating what brought you there in the first place? Or you could say “Oh f– that. It’s the creativity, the chance to play, that wakes me up in the morning. I’d rather we were ourselves and never be that successful again.”

Redzepi chose to grapple with all this in a journal he kept after NOMA was named best in the world. To his own surprise, he found the experience exhilarating. (Most chefs don’t choose writing as their first means of creative expression.) He kept a year-long journal of the daily kitchen routine, the memory work his team did in trying to create their ideal bread, the cleaning of the walk-in, but mostly the constant questions of how to be truly creative and not merely imitate and fit in with other people’s ideals. And to his even bigger surprise, he decided to publish that journal. It’s one part of three parts of René Redzepi: A Work in Progress, the other two being a pocket-sized collection of photographs that might have showed up on Instagram, to accompany the thoughts and messy process of creating the restaurant every day. And one simply gorgeous cookbook, with the meals Redzepi and his team created that year he wrote his journal.

There has never been a cookbook like this one.

So of course, the dinner to honor Redzepi was unlike anything Danny and I had ever experienced.

Redzepi- Matt Dillon

The dinner was in Redzepi’s honor, so he didn’t cook it. Instead, this multi-course meal was imagined and prepared by a seamless team, run by two chefs, Blaine Wetzel and Matt Dillon. Before that night, I had never eaten Wetzel’s food, but I have heard copious praise about his menus at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, where he tells a story about the land and sea around him with the dishes he sets before you. (Also, he worked with Redzepi at NOMA. That’s him on the far left, in blue with the dark hair.) Someday, we’ll go.

But Matt Dillon is one of my favorite chefs in the world. (That’s him up there, directing the kitchen, his back slightly turned, in denim blue.) His restaurant, Sitka and Spruce, is one of my favorite eating experiences anywhere. As I wrote last year about it, “It’s daily food, the ingredients fresh that day made with focused attention, and a few ingredients you might not have in your home. When I sit with friends talking, we share small plates of sliced roasted beets with soft cheese, pistachios, and argan oil. Or juniper-cured steelhead with kohlrabi, black radish, and tarragon. Or thick yogurt with winter squash, pumpkin seeds, and Oregon honey. We always sigh happily when the empty plates are taken away.”

I also love Dillon because he feeds all his customers well. Danny and I told him one time how grateful we are that his staff knows exactly what is gluten-free and how to make sure I am safe there. He said immediately, “Well of course! I mean, I don’t get these chefs with their sh-t, saying ‘This is my art. I don’t want to be disturbed and make the food differently for you.’ This is our job, to feed people. To make people happy with our food. And if you come in and can’t have a certain food, I’m going to make you the best meal of your life.”

And he does, every time, including that night.

Redzepi- in the middle of the table

So we sat the table, listening to rain splatter against the plastic tent above our heads, and ate our first course. There were fresh smelt, so subtly brined that they tasted as though they still dripped ocean water, on a bed of kelp. The proscuitto-wrapped fruit turned out to be pickled quinces, startling our minds that expected melon. I couldn’t eat the smoked yogurt on crusty bread but Danny spontaneously said, “Smoked yogurt!” for days after. (We’re making smoked yogurt soon.) There were oysters topped with sauerkraut that had been fermented in beer. (I had a plain oyster. No problem.) There dozens of other bites that surprised.

Everyone gathered at the table was there for the surprises.

Redzepi- the menu

I stopped taking photographs of the food after that course. What was the point? The darkness precluded a great photograph without a lot of fancy equipment. And I wanted to set down my phone and just experience it. An experience it was.

Elk tartare on a bed of fresh craime fraiche.

Goose butter, rosemary duck fat, and sea urchin butter.

Leg of lamb roasted to a dusky pinkness with all the vegetables that made us realize it had turned winter, that precise minute, and honeycomb on the side.

Salt-roasted pear with black cod and a tiny drizzle of walnut oil.

I’m telling you —— my mind is still reeling.

Redzepi- himself

That’s Redzepi, with the beard, looking relaxed in the kitchen, standing and watching, appreciating, instead of directing. He said repeatedly that night he couldn’t believe so many of us came out in the rain to eat sea urchin, trumpet of death mushrooms, and flaxseed caramels. (I must make those flaxseed caramels.) He’s a gregarious man, funny and earthy and earnest. I can’t even write some of the stories he told us, since enough people expressed horror the last time I used the F-word in a post. (Guess what? Chefs swear. A lot of creative people do.)

And oh, Matt Dillon and Blaine Wetzel. You made something extraordinary that night.

Redzepi- empty plate

Here’s the thing. It was a tremendous experience. It was ridiculously expensive. (Danny and I decided not to buy Christmas presents for each other. This was it.) But this dinner of raw elk and curled carrot fronds left us with more inspiration to cook and create our food than any dinner we can remember.

It’s partly because it was a night about creativity. The creative act, the endless questions and exhilaration of putting something new into the world, is the true story of Redzepi’s book. I admire him deeply for making the decision to not paralyze himself to keep the top title. As he wrote, “Success is a marvelous thing, but it can also be dangerous and limiting. Suddenly we’d become a fine-dining establishment and had begun listening to questions about whether we needed real silverware, or if the waiters should wear suits. Like the food would improve with a bow tie. Those things had never been important to us; we’d always put all our efforts into people and creativity, not commodities…We were too worried about what people expected of the so-called ‘world’s best restaurant,’ rather than focusing on what we expected of ourselves. We had stopped following our natural instincts and trusting that our memories are valuable enough to shape our daily lives at the restaurant. No way — I won’t let questions like that distract us anymore.”

Redzepi read that portion of his journal at the dinner and it reverberated so deeply with me that I am still softly ringing with it now.

This experience reminded me and Danny of what we love most about being here in this site, or in front of the stove, or in these words pounding down from my fingers. That’s what we want to follow, that soft solid sound we hear in us and between us.

As Matt Dillon wrote, “Be aware. Love what you’re doing. Research your product. Always be happy that you’re cooking.”

And oh, we are.

 

Thank you to our friends at Book Larder, who put on this magnificent event. They have a wonderful online store of some of the best cookbooks you’ll find for inspiration these days.

20 comments on “A Work in Progress

  1. Naomi Devlin

    Wow! What a great night! I can imagine you two rolling those flavours around your tongues for months to come. I’m thinking Parma wrapped pickled quince might just make it onto my Christmas Eve table this year. Who needs presents when you have an experience like this to salt away for later eh? X x x

  2. Monique Houle

    What a wonderful experience ! So happy for you both.
    I know a few chefs here in Montreal (Quebec) who share Redzepi’s philosophy to put creativity and love of what they’re doing before honours and success. Eating at their restaurants is always a great pleasure and a source of inspiration.
    The “salt-roasted pear with black cod and a tiny drizzle of walnut oil” really caught my attention. I’m definitely going to try that one.
    Thank you for sharing.

  3. Jennifer

    Your posts makes me so happy. That’s all. Oh, and eagerly looking forward to any notes you have on flaxseed caramels. I might have to do some experimenting.

  4. Tom | Tall Clover Farm

    Shauna, what a lovely recollection of an evening and meal that led the reader down a table of delight no less magical than Babette’s Feast. Thank you for sharing this and reminding us of the power of creativity, originality and following your own path.

  5. Kathleen

    Thank you for sharing this. I wanted to go but it wasn’t in this year’s budget. I feel like I just got a little taste! What a gorgeous experience– way better than a Christmas sweater! :)

  6. Ginny

    There are always things in your blog that make me think, “Yum,” and other foods that make think, “Huh?” Thank you and Danny so much for what you do — the world of food opened up for me when I went gluten-free and started reading your blog (and your books).

  7. Bee

    Wonderful post, Shauna! I was salivating over the pictures filling my Instagram feed that night from the event. Wish I had known about the event earlier! Thank you for your lovely, and thoughtful, take on the event. I’m even more sad now that I missed out on it. And, yes, Book Larder is a great store! Lara and her team are doing amazing work catering to us food and cookbook lovers.

    1. Pat

      Oh my, what a wonderful experience. Thank you for sharing it. It took me a long while to accept that the experience and memories of this kind of event are worth the price as much as vuying things, because you can’t go back and do them another time. So while I passed up being in the ocean with sting-rays in the Cayman Islands (too expensive I said) I did go zip-lining in Costa Rica and swimming with — well near — dolphins in Hawaii.

  8. Daytona

    Shauna, I’ve been reliving details of that event for the past three weeks, and each time I think about the warmth of the mood combatting the cold of the November night, the essence of the Pacific Northwest distilled into every bite, and the glow in my heart as I shared such a remarkable–and, yes, ridiculous–meal with my husband, I return to a bit of the glee I experienced that night. I loved reading your take on the evening and remembering all the little details again. Thanks for sharing! Once again, it was a pleasure meeting you and Danny that evening. Keep in touch!

  9. Natasha

    I read — I held my breath, and I died a slow death (happily) romanticizing at the mere thought of how incredible that dinner would have been for you both.
    Down to the finest detail of the blankets covering the chairs for you to keep warm…the centre (I’m from Canada that is how we spell “Center”)pieces…
    That to me is what I would call “Rustic Opulence”.
    I die.
    Again.
    So grateful…ever so grateful for you sharing all that your life entails.…esp. this night.
    Must try to recreate and post — please.
    xo
    Natasha