THE COOK’S COOK

Food & fam­ily An ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with Na­dine Levy Redzepi

The Observer Food Monthly - - FRONT PAGE - IN­TER­VIEW Al­lan Jenk­ins PHO­TO­GRAPH Ditte Isager

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

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