A touch of chaos in the air

Inspired by his travels with Noma chef René Redzepi, Jeff Gordinier’s Hungry is a feast of insight and wisdom on risk and chaos, creativity and reinvention, leadership and excellence.

“Sometimes it’s good to brush up against the possibility of losing everything.” So writes Jeff Gordinier in Hungry, his book about his time spent with René Redzepi –  the “greatest chef in the world”.

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Redzepi is all about constant reinvention. He is fearless in his pursuit of change to make his restaurant Noma the best it can be. Even if this means risking everything by repeatedly burning down his dreams to start over (junking reputation-cornerstone dishes to make way for new seasonal menus; closing down Noma at the height of its success to reinvent it from scratch). Gordinier sees this high-risk approach to the pursuit of excellence as positive:

“Sometimes, maybe, it’s good to throw out all of the old routines and start over. Sometimes, especially for those in a walking trance, it’s good to shake things up before you become complacent.”

A sense of mission

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To dine at Noma is to taste and delight in innovation, Gordinier tells Laurie Ruettimann.* He describes how he accompanied Redzepi on a global quest for unusual and idiosyncratic ingredients and time-honoured recipes that he can adapt and evolve in unique ways. The results speak for themselves, Gordinier believes:

“What he cooks at Noma is nothing you have ever tasted in your life. You will not taste anything familiar. It will be like flavour combinations you didn’t even know existed. There will be flavours on your tongue that you’ve never conceived of.”

You can’t run a world-class restaurant on your own. Noma relies on a team of top-flight chefs from around the globe. Gordinier considers Redzepi “an incredible leader”:

“He has a way of pushing people by creating a sense of mission in the workplace. It’s this sense of elevated mission and focus. He inspires his troops to push, push, push forward, to create new dishes. A hundred new dishes per year. Never repeat the menu. Every menu is tabula rasa, sort of created out of nothing.”

In Hungry, René Redzepi is depicted as a compelling force of nature. Gordinier likens him to a cult leader, and Noma to a cult. This magnetism pulled Gordinier into Redzepi’s orbit.** “I may have said no originally,” Gordinier writes, “but Redzepi had a gift for bending things toward yes, and after a while I gave up trying to fight it.”

Innovation is so beautiful

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The endless searching, the constant reinvention and the associated high levels of risk are all worth it, Gordinier tells Laurie:

“Innovation is so beautiful. There are dead ends and wrong turns with innovators. But there’s something about that compulsion to move forward that has a kind of radiance to it when you see it in retrospect. You just think ‘how great that he risks everything doing this, because you loved the result’.”

It has been interesting to read Gordinier’s Hungry over the past week, against the backdrop of the profound chaos engulfing UK politics as an increasingly populist Government attempts to force a sharp break with the past.*** Gordinier’s description of the atmosphere on the night that Redzepi closed down the original Noma restaurant is strangely apt:

“There is a touch of chaos in the air. You can talk about change in the abstract, but everything feels charged with extra layers of drama when the change finally arrives.”

But I can’t pursue this comparison too far. Hungry depicts chaos with creative intent.

Redzepi’s willingness to invoke chaos in pursuit of reinvention has at its core a profound respect for tradition. The chef’s constant quest for reinvention is about the marriage of past and present.  Gordinier writes that for Redzepi, “success meant this: a meal that had never been eaten on earth, one that tasted simultaneously contemporary and ancient.”

Redzepi himself beautifully describes this idea of blending past and present in a passage on creativity from his book A Work in Progress: A Journal:

“Looking back at the last six months, the best moments have happened when something in the present connects with stories from the past. ‘What is creativity?’ I’ve been asking myself while writing this journal. I’m not sure, but tonight I will answer it like this: creativity is the ability to store the special moments, big or small, that occur throughout your life, then being able to see how they connect to the moment you’re in. When past and present merge, something new happens.”

This is ingenious. I love this idea of creativity as a merging of past and present to create something new.

In this view of creativity, the artist, the creator, the chef places equal value on their learning, knowledge, memory and skill in the service of creating something both familiar and completely new.

While Gordinier is delighted to get caught up in the rush of Redzepi’s appetite for endless exploration and discovery, his own approach to creativity is decidedly different. In his podcast chat with Rich Roll, Gordinier explains that for him, writing requires the time to reflect, understand, digest and process what he has experienced. I love Gordinier’s simple formula for this approach:

“Lessen the energy to look at it more clearly.”

The easy route automatically qualified as failure

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Gentle reader: I sincerely hope that you will consider reading Gordinier’s book, Hungry. It has given me so much food for thought this past week. The energy of this book is incredible. The themes of risk and chaos, creativity and reinvention are explored and expressed beautifully. These words from Hungry provide a perfect encapsulation of Redzepi’s mission:

“Radical wholesale reinvention – nothing else would suffice. The objective was to start with nothing, to explode all preconceptions, and to conjure a multitude of courses from there. […] The easy route automatically qualified as failure.”

FOOTNOTES

* Jeff Gordinier’s appearance on Laurie Ruettimann’s Let’s Fix Work podcast is highly recommended – download the MP3, click the link in this tweet

…or view on YouTube.

** Even from the printed page, Redzepi’s energy and enthusiasm are infectious. I am no foodie. But reading Gordinier’s book, I was struck by the same energy and excitement I got from reading music magazines when younger. I had the same urge to write down names of chefs, restaurants and dishes for future exploration as when I would note down bands and records to check out, way back when. It al made sense when I learnt from the Rich Roll podcast that Gordinier was previously a music journalist.

*** The story of the UK’s political chaos is of course far from over. Events are unfolding far too quickly for me to attempt to summarise. There is a good summary to be had in the New Yorker article Boris Johnson’s Brexit Carnage (at least at the time of writing – it could be out of date by the time I get to the end of typing this sentence, for all I know). Sample quotation: “Nothing has felt certain for more than a few hours this week.”

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