THE COOK’S COOK
Food & family An exclusive interview with Nadine Levy Redzepi
What to feed the best chef in the world? For 19-year-old Nadine Levy, on a night off from her job front of house and cooking for her new boss and boyfriend, it was chicken livers with tomatoes and chilli. She wasn’t to know it was René Redzepi’s favourite meal as a child. It was 2005, they were breaking the strict Noma rule against dating other staff but Redzepi had thrown a piece of bread at her head and made her his “seal-the-deal” pasta. The cheffy spaghetti worked and she was won over.
Love of food played a major part in Levy Redzepi’s early life. “It starts really, really early for me,” she says. “My good memories are all connected to food.” Her parents were buskers with two young kids living on a Portuguese smallholding. Money was tight but while her beloved older brother went to school (he was eight when she was born and got to name her after the Chuck Berry song), Nadine played in the fields, picked fruit and herbs and olives with her mum. Her clearest recollection from Portugal is of eating pomegranates from the tree, still warm from the sun. A good neighbour would regularly pop by with buckets of ripe tomatoes. It was almost Arcadian. But her father drank and when life went wrong her brother would cover her eyes and sing to her. Not all memories are happy.
Food carried Nadine through the next years when her mother returned to Denmark with the children. Her father was out of the picture, her mother working long shifts. She learned early to cook and to love it. Standing on a chair to stir porridge. Graduating to roasting a chicken, still her favourite thing: “When René comes back from a long trip, it’s the first thing I make, every time. It is the perfect meal, the best.”
Aged seven she was making her own vinaigrette. By 10, she was cooking herself three- and four-course meals while her brother was out with his mates. More improbably, it was Ainsley Harriott who changed her life. As an adolescent in Denmark, she was hooked on the UK’s Ready, Steady, Cook. “A three-course meal in 20 minutes! I would take notes,” she says.
Next on her radar came Antonio Carluccio: “He made a pasta sauce with mussels. I watched it and tried to recreate it: cook down the wine, the amazing colours, all orange and reds. The smells. I cannot believe I made that. It was so good. It hit me hard.”
She still cooks Carluccio’s mussel pasta every summer with her mother, brother and three daughters on holiday, though never wrote it out as her recipe until she was pregnant with Arwen, her first child. “I wanted to be the best mum,” she says. “I thought it would be cool if I had recipes from my grandmother. There are so many dishes from my childhood, she always cooked. I bought a black book and started writing down my favourite recipes to be passed down.”
Nine years later, the notebook is now a cookbook, named Downtime, and I am anxiously cycling through Copenhagen with Levy Redzepi curled in a box at the front of a Christiania-style bike. It had seemed fairer than her pedalling me around like a rickshaw driver. What I hadn’t factored in was the heavy weight of the cycle, the turns all slow like a ship. Plus, the Danish capital appears to have almost as many bikes as Beijing. We are on our way to buy food for our dinner from Torvehallerne market, part of the new Nordic food scene her husband’s influence helped fashion. She buys fat asparagus and boxes of strawberries from the stalls outside. I stop shaking from stress.
The Levy Redzepi family live in a quiet Hans Christian Andersen-style house on a square near Noma (a threeminute bike ride for René to grab time with the girls before bed). It’s Danish idyllic: mustard walls with timber frames, lichened apple trees and old roses, young children running through open doors.
Declaration: I like this woman, her mum and her family. I like the book and how she has sidestepped the obvious celebrity-chef-wife traps. She is aware her husband’s fame got her through the agents’ doors, but there are no gratuitous glamour couple photos, she fought to keep them out. The recipes are enticing. Her voice is sure.
While Levy Redzepi makes oldschool Danish macaroons and prepares supper we are joined by Bente, Levy Redzepi’s mother, who lives with them and also works for Noma. The kids run around. The sun shines. This is a happy family. At its heart is a woman who loves to cook for them.
Downtime is not a cheffy book to keep on a coffee table. “I wrote all the recipes as though trying to explain them to my cousin,” she says. “She loves to eat but is not a good cook.”
When Redzepi joins us, we eat brilliant asparagus and marbled pork chops bathed in professional amounts of butter. Pudding is caramel panna cotta, his favourite dessert, with the armagnac prunes his wife makes every year for his birthday. After we clear the table and dry the pans, I walk back contented to my hotel in the soothing summer rain clutching a box of coconut macaroons.
So to answer the question: the secret of cooking at home for the best chef in the world (or anyone else)? Serve up delicious simple food with a side order of memories. New for old.
‘When René comes back from a trip, roast chicken is the first thing I make’
NADINE AND RENE IN NOMA, COPENHAGEN IN 2010