Even as a food writer for Esquire, Jeff Gordinier found himself hungry for something more. Enter René Redzepi, the innovative chef behind Noma in Copenhagen, which has held the number one spot on the World’s Best Restaurant list four times since 2010, and which has possibly had more of an impact on the world than any other restaurant in history. Reluctant at first, Gordinier was asked to tag along with Redzepi in search of flavours around the world. It turned out to be just what the author needed, to fill a void and find the creative inspiration to write Hungry: Eating, Road-tripping and Risking it All with the Greatest Chef in the World (Tim Duggan Books, 2019).
The book shines a spotlight on Redzepi — his is not a household name compared to the televised onslaught of celebrity chefs, but in culinary circles he is a pioneering legend. He is the epitome of the over-achieving perfectionist working diligently to keep himself on top of his game. By scouring the globe, he has accumulated an encyclopedic knowledge of foods that most people have never heard of. His appetite for memorable dining experiences, for flavours no one has tasted before, and for meal concepts no one has even considered is insatiable, and his name will forever be linked to the ground-breaking cuisine known as New Nordic that focuses on ingredients from the farms, wilderness, and seas of Denmark.
As a food writer, Gordinier knew plenty of chefs, but influential individuals known for working wonders with Mexican, Korean, and Chinese food gravitated to Redzepi throughout their travels. Before his fortuitous meeting with Redzepi, the author’s gloominess about life hinged on a failing marriage, but with chefs with the status of rock stars surrounding him, with the globe as their playground, he became intoxicated with shadowing Redzepi.
With nine trips to Mexico alone over the course of four years, the author witnessed the chef’s attempts to elevate mole beyond its regional status, never in a way to replicate the sauce, but maybe change it in ways to radiate from the Noma ethos. The same went for tortillas. Sure, Redzepi could make them, although he sensed his limitations by never making them the same as the old women in Mexican villages. He can seemingly make a meal out of anything, but perfect tortillas stumped him. All the more reason to obsessively visit Mexico to watch the Mayan women who could do it with such ease.
A meal at Noma was a ticket Gordinier would have gladly taken at any point in his career, but his first meal there happened just before Redzepi decided to shutter his restaurant. The meal itself sounded as if it were conjured by wizardry, with combinations that only made sense in Redzepi’s mind — pumpkin and caviar, shrimp and radish, sea urchin and hazelnuts. Gordinier attributed Noma’s closure to the chef being restless, looking to move on, aspiring to something beyond that which had already been considered the best in the world. Reinventing is something that seems to come easily to the chef. Gordinier is informed that Noma 2.0 will be resurrected in a new location in Copenhagen in the future, but until then Noma pop-ups were given temporary residency in Japan, Australia, and Mexico. The pop-up operations did not always run smoothly, but financial and logistical impediments were no match for the chef’s obsession to prove that being hungry for new ideas can lead to revelations.
As readers, we are lucky that Gordinier got caught up in Redzepi’s orbit, to chronicle a rare glimpse into culinary ingenuity. Gordinier’s writing is brilliant and vibrant and intriguing: he is immersed in the glistening, bubbling, aromatic cornucopia of Oaxaca marketplaces; he finds himself harvesting wild edibles in the Australian wilderness with Noma-trained foragers; he raises an eyebrow at the strangeness of New Nordic dishes with ingredients like moss, fermented crickets, sea buckthorn, pig’s blood, and kelp, until realizing they are indeed the best food imaginable.
The book generally acts as a biography of Redzepi, but it is just as much about Gordinier’s rise from despair. Hungry is not only about satisfying food cravings, but following those other feelings that squirm in the pit of your stomach and drive you to shake up your life when it’s most needed.