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.
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.
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.
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, “Its 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 youre doing. Research your product. Always be happy that youre 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.