René Redzepi in Mexico
René Redzepi in Mexico
Adventures in Audio

A Wild Odyssey with the World’s Greatest Chef

René Redzepi in Mexico

At midlife, food writer Jeff Gordinier felt like he was sleepwalking. His marriage was crumbling, and he’d lost his professional purpose. Then he got a curious invitation: René Redzepi, the superstar head chef of Noma, in Copenhagen, asked Gordinier to join him on a quest to Mexico to find exceptional tacos. Thus began a yearslong series of global adventures—foraging for sandpaper figs in Australia, diving for shellfish in the Arctic, seeking cochinita pibil in the Yucatan—that reawakened Gordinier passion for both life and food. In his book Hungry, Gordinier describes how Redzepi’s philosophy of constantly moving forward was an intoxicant as well as a kind of medication. For this episode, Outside’s Michael Roberts spoke with Gordinier about the wildest moments along his journeys with Redzepi and his new habit of saying yes to just about everything.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, these are dispatches: stories from our writers in the field.

Michael Roberts (Host): One of the most enduring narratives in storytelling is the the mid-life crisis. This is for a reason: At some point, usually in our 40s, we are all at risk of getting...well, stuck. Or at least sad. The stories we hear about this transition period often involve divorces, or sudden career changes, or just the malaise that comes with feeling like our path has been set, and it’s not everything we’d hoped it would be. 

There is an entire self-help industry advising people how to get un-stuck while avoiding the cliche choices of buying a sports car, or having an affair with your yoga teacher. Insted, we are told to meditate, to journal, to try something totally new. 

Other people re-find their mojo through extreme fitness or maybe wild trip with old friends. And then there’s the curious case of Jeff Gordinier.

Jeff Gordinier: I can't remember whether it's the red pill or the blue pill in the matrix. I never can, but I took the one that slid me down a different portal, you know, and essentially entered a kind of psychedelic form of consciousness with food.

Roberts: Jeff had been a successful writer for a long time, crafting memorable feature stories for a number of magazines, including Details, Esquire, and Outside. In 2011, he landed a job as a food writer for the New York Times. He was married with two kids. He owned a house. On the surface, he seemed to be doing great. But on the inside, not so much.

Earlier this year, Jeff published his second book: Hungry. In it, he opens up about a dark period in his in life, and his very unique path back to feeling good again. The title of the book hints at what he needed: and no, it wasn’t just great food. Jeff was already getting that. He was hungry for change.

Still, food did give Jeff his way forward—or, rather, a chef did. A very famous chef: one credited with transforming ideas about what makes for high-end cuisine. Renne Redzepi is the head-chef and co-owner of Noma, in Copenhagen, which is frequently cited as the world’s best restaurant. He is perhaps the most influential chef of the last 20 years, spurring what’s known as the New Nordic Movement. The dishes he serves at Noma are created with incredibly fresh, hyper-local ingredients, presented inventively, but also simply. Meals are often made up of what he can find on Danish beaches and sourced from nearby farmers. 

As it happened, right as Jeff was at the bottom of his personal downturn, Rene Redzepi dropped very suddenly into his life. And as Jeff would learn during a series of adventures with the chef around the world over four years, Redzepi is a man with an insatiable hunger.

Gordinier: I was at a period in my life where I wasn't feeling hungry for anything, frankly. I was in a good place on the surface. I was a food writer for the New York times. That's a pretty plum gig, I'll admit. And um, I should have been happy, but actually I was pretty adrift and sort of swaddled in clouds of toxic depression. 

I was in the midst of a divorce. Um, I had actually just moved out of the house where my first wife was, and my two older children, and I had moved into this crummy bachelor apartment down the street. And I was in that state that any person going through a divorce will know: That state of like: What has happened to me? You know, whether it needs to happen or not, it's, uh, it's kind of gutting. 

So it turns out that that same week that I moved out of that house, I got an email saying that Rene Redzepi wanted to meet me for coffee in New York City. That's sort of like saying that you're down in the dumps in your life and you happen to get a text from Beyonce, you know, and Beyonce is like: We oughta hang out! You know?

Roberts: But the crazy thing is, Jeff really wanted to say no. He was overloaded at work... and in his state of mind, he really wasn’t in the mood to listen to a rock star chef from Denmark prattle on about the principles of Nordic cuisine. Ultimately, though, Jeff realized he should probably meet with Redzepi. So on a winter day in 2014, he did.

Gordinier: It was extremely cold out. It was I think February, in New York City. We met at a coffee house, um, in the West Village, and I was instantly transfixed. It was like one of those weird moments in your life. He was very different than I expected. He didn't come across as pretentious at all. He didn't want to hector me at all. He didn't want to sell me anything. And he was wildly charismatic. I mean, it was like meeting a person akin to Beyonce or David Bowie... somebody who just radiates this almost supernatural level of charisma. And he wanted to talk about tacos.

Roberts: That’s right: tacos. This was a surprise. And, for Jeff, a kind of thrill. He’d grown up in Los Angeles, and he loved tacos. Redzepi, however, had been introduced to authentic tacos relatively recently, thanks to another chef named Roberto Soliz. Lately, Redzepi’s interest in tacos had become an obsession. This was why he had asked Jeff to meet with him: he wanted to pitch him on taking a grand culinary adventure around Mexico. They’d eat a lot of tacos. And Jeff could write a story about it. 

Gordinier: Essentially Rene Redzepi wanted to float an idea and the idea was that we'd travel through Mexico together. That idea sound complete sounded completely absurd to me at the moment. It sounded impossible. And I had yet to learn that Rene Redzepi loves things that are perceived as impossible. In fact, the impossible things fuel him. 

So I thought, well, we'll never find the budget to go on some trip through Mexico seeking tacos. But he was... persistent doesn't even begin to describe it. He emailed me, he texted me, I think he called me a few times. He's like: When are we going to Mexico? And I was like: Dude, let it go. We're not going to Mexico. It's a cool idea. But I'm sure the... you know, I don't think the Times is going to pay for that. 

Long story short, I did find an editor at the Times to send us to Mexico. Um, and that began this series of adventures. And my life got really weird. [Laughs]

Roberts: To get why Redzepi would take tacos so seriously, you need to understand exactly why Noma has had such an enormous influence on restaurants all over the world. A lot of this comes down to his relentless pursuit of new flavors. 

         

Gordinier: You know, people ask me all the time: Why is Noma so special? I like food. I've eaten good food. How much better can Noma be? Right. And it's a valid question. I answer it this way. Imagine if there were a color that you had never seen. You know, you know the colors in the spectrum. What if there were another color that suddenly appeared to you and it was used in a painting and you saw that painting and you're like: Whoa, my God, it's not just a great painting. It's, it's different. What if you heard a piece of music that somehow incorporated a note on the musical scale that you had never heard before? 

That would be all the more radiant because of the inclusion of that note. It would be not only beautiful but new. And that's what they do at Noma. They find pathways of flavor that your palette has never experienced.

Roberts: Noma is famous for its aggressive foraging—for picking edible greens from beach dunes, for harvesting plants from the forest that most people have never tasted. They conduct daring experiments in fermentation. And, perhaps most ambitiously, they drop into foreign countries to learn everything they can... and create short-lived international editions of Noma. 

Gordinier: Another thing they do to pioneer these pathways of flavor is they do these pop-ups around the world. Um, one of the popups was in Australia. Another was in Mexico. There was also one in Japan. So the entire team, um, at Noma, who by the way are from all over the world themselves. They're not all just Danish guys or something. They’re men and women from all over the world. Um, they're flown to these locations, to Sydney, to, Tulum in Mexico and to Tokyo, Japan. They're put up there for months and they learn everything about the indigenous ingredients, the foodways of that country, the history of that country, the culture. And um, then when they come home to Denmark, they cook differently.

 

Roberts: On his first trip to Mexico with Redzepi, Jeff quickly realized that traveling with the chef and his crew was like nothing he’d ever experienced. It wasn’t just the amazing food they ate, or the beautiful places they visited—it was doing this with someone who engages the world with such intense and raw energy. Given where Jeff had been in his life, hunting down flavors alongside Redzepi was like a kind of medicine.  

     

Gordinier: It's kind of hypnotic. I think if anyone listening has been through depression, they understand that one of the traits of depression, one of the hallmarks of depression, is that you don't really take enjoyment from anything. Right? It feels like you don't really enjoy meals anymore. You don't really enjoy listening to music anymore. You don't really enjoy a swim anymore. Like. simple pleasures don't seem to reach you. Right. And I was definitely in that state. And there was a kind of antidote in being around Redzepi because of this energy. Like it was an intoxicant. Um, he was the opposite of depression. He represented the opposite of that stuckness. He was just absolutely euphoric about fruits, you know, like he would taste a mango and it was like he, he was drunk on this thing.

Roberts: As Jeff sees it, Redzepi’s vision has been to use food to celebrate what nature gives us. And Redzepi himself is basically a kind of nature boy, who gets delirious in the presence of fresh food. When I asked Jeff to describe what it’s like to witness this, he read a passage from his book, about following Redzepi through an outdoor market in Oaxaca.

Gordinier: Bags full of chicken hearts. The smiles of slaughtered pigs dripping viscera left out in the open air. Wild cherries, prickly pears, fruits with spikes, avocados whose skin you can eat.

Roberts: If you’ve ever been to this part of Mexico—and especially if you love this part of Mexico—you know exactly what Jeff is talking about.  

Gordinier: Galaxies of chilies, oceans of nuts, pyramids of palm sugar, lakes of tamarind paste, babies suckling on bare breasts, young women whose aprons overflow with fried and spiced grasshoppers...

Roberts: Jeff wasn’t just seeing this carnival for himself; he was seeing it all through the eyes, and maybe even the mind, of Redzepi.

Gordinier: To watch Rene Redzepi in a Mexican marketplace, in any marketplace—anywhere really, but especially here in Oaxaca—is like getting a contact high from somebody else's peyote trip.

Roberts: So Jeff caught Redzepi’s buzz, but it came with a heavy dose of exhaustion. The pace on the trip to Mexico was relentless. Hungry begins with Jeff passed out on a beach in Tulum. This was at the end of a marathon day that began in Mexico City, included the Oaxaca marketplace, plus visits to bars and artisan shops... then dinner before a flight back to Mexico City to catch a connection to Cancun. When they land, the car that was supposed to meet them was, of course, totally MIA. 

Gordinier: When we finally got to Tulum, it was I think four in the morning. And at that point I was supposed to stay in this cabana, but I couldn't find the cabana and there was nobody at the desk. So I actually just passed out in the dunes near some sea turtles, like a refuge for sea turtles. I literally just took off my shoes, put my backpack in the dunes and passed out. And then, um, one of the people associated with the hotel, um, a man with a flashlight, woke me up. But you know, that was a typical day man. That was typical. Okay. That was not like an unusually extravagant day. So I just don't... I would look at this schedule and think: Are you serious? Like we are going to 10 restaurants and we're going to four cities in one day. How is that possible? Um, it just seems to be how he rolls.

Roberts: If you’re writing a book that has Rene Redzepi at the center, at some point you have to go to Copenhagen and eat at Noma. Jeff’s description of his meal there is rich, and fun, and includes this element of tension that I won’t talk about, because I don’t want to spoil the scene. But for readers, an even more surprising moment takes place in Redzepi’s backyard. For some time now, Redzepi has invited people over to his house for a workout. As you might imagine, it’s not a typical training routine. For Jeff, who does not enjoy exercising, it was torture.  

Gordinier: The workout is very much part of the cult of Rene. And many famous chefs have done it. Many notable food writers have done it. It's something that it's kind of like a rite of passage you have to endure if you get to the point where you visit Rene's house. Um, other members of the Noma team do it, sort of the top echelon, and he has this coach guy, who's like a JT coach or something on Instagram, who is, you know, just ruthless. I mean, you know, there's no mercy shown whatsoever. And I think it's comic relief for them to have a food writer do this. I mean, food writers as a species are probably some of the most out of shape people you'll ever meet. 

So he does this workout. Okay. And it's considered kind of a privilege to do this workout. I say privilege like if you are in a cult and they said that it's a privilege to put a spiked metal rod through your cheeks and attach it to a car battery, that would be considered a privilege. Like, I mean, this was torture for me.

Roberts: In keeping with the back-to-earth spirit of Noma—what Jeff calls a primitive return to indigenous ingredients—Redzepi’s routine involved simple, natural elements but highly creative executions.

Gordinier: So like we go out in his backyard and he says: Ah, the workouts about to begin. And I'm like, where's the equipment? You know, like, where's the gear? And he's like, you're looking at it. Which was like trees and dirt, you know, and stones and stuff. Um, and it turned out to be incredibly raw. Like, it meant he would be like, you know: Okay, we’re going to climb a tree. Okay, we're gonna scuttle back and forth upside down like crabs on the grass, or now we're just going to do sprints on the dirt back and forth, back and forth.

And the worst part of it for me... well, actually the second worst part, was that there was this kind of Viking game where you had to crouch in front of another person and kind of just hop around and try to slap the other person behind the knee, you know? And of course Rene wanted to go head to head with me. And he's good at this, and I am not. And I'm not in good shape. So the punishment, every time you got slapped on the back of the knee was you had to do a burpee.

So, you know, Rene would slap me on the back of knee. I'd have to do a burpee slap me in the back of the knee, another burpee. I was dying. Like, at the end of this, I thought that somebody had used my abs as a bobsled.

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Roberts: Jeff may have been in pain physically during the workout in Redzepi’s yard, but in other more important ways, his time with the chef was helping him get better. Racing around Mexico, flying to Copenhagen on short notice for a meal at Noma, it was starting to pull him out of his funk. 

Gordinier: I was aware over time that contact with this man was changing my life. It was changing my outlook on life, and it was cheering me up. I was kind of self-medicating through Rene Redzepi. You know? 

I mean, a lot of it for me came down to Rene's philosophy of living, right? Which comes down to constantly moving forward. I was at a point because of this divorce where I was just gnawing on the past, I was gnawing on guilt and regret. I was in a kind of walking trance, really just going back and forth, you know, gumming these old mistakes. And um, this very simple concept of let it go, move forward, became medicinal for me. I found that there was great wisdom in just saying yes to things, you know? Just saying yes to adventure.

Roberts: The most ambitious ‘yes’ Jeff gave was to an invitation to Norway from Roderick Sloan, who was essentially the chief fishermen for Noma.

Gordinier: He lives above the Arctic circle in Norway with his wife and three sons. And to say he's a character is an understatement. I mean, this guy is like Robin Williams playing Popeye crossed with Begbie and Trainspotting. You can't tell if he wants to hug you or smack you. He seems to be taunting you half the time you're talking to him. Like he seems to be incredibly lovable and full of hostility at the same time. 

I don't think he'd mind my saying this. I mean, I think he's crazy, you know, I mean, but he is also absolutely brilliant at what he does, which is essentially to dive alone into the frigid waters above the Arctic circle for mahogany clams, scallops, and other seafood that's sent immediately to Noma. Like he basically comes up to the boat, puts it on a boat, the boat goes to a seaplane, and they fly it from Norway to the kitchen at Noma that day. So when you get that seafood at Noma, it's from the same day that it was pulled up.

Um, but yeah, I found myself on this boat and, uh... I don't really mind cold. I kinda like cold, even though I'm a California boy. But boy, this was cold. I mean, it was so cold my phone stopped working. It was so cold that the ink froze in my pen when I tried to take notes. Uh, I couldn't move my fingers. My toes just kind of went completely numb. Uh, it was February in Norway. Okay. And I was like, why did I say yes to this?

Roberts: Then there was the trip to Sydney, Australia, where Noma had opened another pop-up restaurant, to hunt for menu ingredients with EJ Holland, the Crocodile Dundee of foraging. 

Gordinier: You know, I think it's funny. When people hear the word foraging, I believe that what comes to mind is something very pastoral and almost passive, you know, almost like birdwatching. And with EJ Holland, foraging is a contact sport, okay?

It was badass. Like he was... he carries around a variety of knives, and a machete. He doesn't feel particularly comfortable wearing a shirt or shoes. Um, and he's quite buff. Like he works out a lot. So there were probably moments during the tenure of Noma, Australia—the Noma pop up in Sydney—when people in the suburbs of Sydney saw this shirtless guy with a machete running through their backyard. Like, actually. Um, I know because I accompanied him. Like we had to go find these sandpaper figs. I had no idea what a sandpaper fig is. It turns out it's this beautiful tasting fig that kind of sprouts out of the actual trunk of these little trees in Australia. Not out of the branches, but out of the trunk. Who knew, you know? And, and like EJ Holland and I, we could be driving down the street, and he'd be like: Oh! Oh! Oh! In there. Sandpaper figs. I don't know how he saw them, but we then rush into a public park or someone's backyard, and he just like sliced them off with a knife.  Then we run back to the truck and these sandpaper figs were served at Noma. Okay. They were on the menu of the so-called greatest restaurant in the world. 

You know, he was always on call, and if the kitchen ran out of something, he'd have to hustle back in the middle of traffic to get it. So like, we had to hustle to Bondai beach, which is like one of the most famous beaches in the world in Sydney. And he scuttled up the side of this cliff, and there was kind of water sluicing through the rocks, and I guess that's where watercress is often found. So he ended up, the other guys from the foraging team, would just start plucking watercress from a cliff at Bondai beach and then taking it back to Noma. 

Roberts: In a later chapter in Hungry, a strange thing happens: Jeff switches places with Redzepi. Jeff has fallen in love again, and he’s going to be the father of twins. He’s now the happy guy. Meanwhile, Redzepi is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And the main reason is that his dream of doing a Noma, Mexico pop-up is crumbling. A major investor has backed out, and the expenses are overwhelming. There are all kinds of logistical challenges. But just when it seems like it’s all falling apart, Redzepi suddenly finds new hope. Thanks, naturally, to tacos. 

Gordinier: Which seems kind of perfect to me. Like there's a kind of symmetry to that, you know, because our journey started with tacos and things took a turn for the better with tacos. What happened is Rene Redzepi and Roberto Soliz, who's the guy who first introduced him to Mexico and coming to Mexico, uh, we went out to Yaxsuna, which is a village, a Mayan village, in the Yucatan Peninsula. Um, and when we were going out there... while we were making the trip, the village was in the process of cooking cochinita pibil. 

Now, if you’ve never had cochinita pibil, and you do eat meat, I would urge you to find a way to get some. It is one of the most delicious dishes in any culture on earth, okay? It's a whole pig that is swaddled in local fruits, and spices, and banana leaves, and is placed in a pit in the ground with all these, you know, hot embers. Covered up. And it just roasted so that the fruit and the spices and the, and the pork fat all just sort of blend together. And it becomes almost like barbecue. 

At the same time, the women of the village are making tortillas. All throughout Mexico, it is a cultural tradition that the men are not supposed to touch the masa, which is the dough that the tortillas are made out of. This goes way back. And Rene looked over at me, and he said: Have you ever had better tortillas than this? and I said: No, Rene, I have not. These appear to be the gold standard of tortillas. Like these are the best tortillas I've ever had. They have perfect texture, they're chewy, they taste like corn, they taste fresh. Um, and he said: Hmm, I wonder what these women are doing in April and May?

And I was like: I do not even want to know what you have cooking right now. Like, I don't know what's going on in your mind, but I have an idea. So we eat the tacos with the cochinita pibil. And it's like he sees God again. You know, it's like he passes once again through the taco portal and he goes to Roberto Soliz, his friend, and he says: Ask them what they're doing in April and May. And it turns out he basically hired the village to work at Noma, Mexico. Okay. He determined that he couldn't make tortillas right. Nor could his team from Denmark. So he had to bring in the specialists, which were the women of Yaxsuna. So they actually worked at Noma, Mexico. Um, and that was like classic Rene Redzepi, you know: classic saying yes to an opportunity that seemed kind of crazy, um, but brought a lot of spirit and soul to the enterprise.

Roberts: When Noma, Mexico opened in Tulum, in 2017, Jeff was there. It was an enormous success. Really, the only person who wasn’t impressed was Redzepi.

Gordinier: I was staying across the street at a hotel. , you know, for like a week. And I kind of woke up, padded across the street in Tulum, and I saw him, and he was making himself an espresso. So I sorta like snuck into the Noma Mexico space, and I said: What's up? And he's like: You know, whatever. You seemed sort of disengaged. And I said, you know, did you see the Washington Post? The Washington Post had declared Noma, Mexico the meal of the decade, like, on earth. You know, that's pretty good, you know, considering that he'd spent years planning this. Years, years of his life doing the research: reading, scouting trips, you know, I would think he'd want to celebrate. But no, he just wanted to move on. He just wanted to move forward.

Roberts: The book ends with Redzepi shutting down Noma Copenhagen so he can open a new version in a far less attractive area in the city. A lot of people thought he was crazy, but as Jeff points out, the choice to reinvent the restaurant that made him famous is perfectly fitting with Redzepi’s character. 

Gordinier: You know, I heard somebody say recently: If it ain't broke, break it. There's something about that that resonates with Rene Redzepi I think. I do believe that he believes if he didn't keep reinventing Noma, it would wither away. The public would lose interest. Food writers would lose interest. But most importantly, he would lose interest. Right? He doesn't want to just crank out the same signature dishes over and over. If he were in a band, he would have problems, because he wouldn't want to play the hit songs, you know, in concert.  He seems determined to shake it up. 

AndI will tell you that I've been to a lot of... I've been to a lot of restaurants. And it's often a thrilling, you know, comforting experience. But many of them find their place, they find their rut in a way, and they stick with it. You know, they have certain dishes that the audience loves. Their customers love those things. So they just keep cooking them. Right. And they'll do so for years. Um, and there's something to be said for that. People go to restaurants to be comforted. People go to restaurants to relax. But that's not where Rene's coming from. He wants you to come to his restaurant to wake up.

Roberts: Ultimately, Hungry isn’t a book about food or about Rene Redzepi. It’s a story of how Jeff woke up. Or, as he explained it to me, it’s about him quitting everything to join the circus. And now, there’s no going back.

Gordinier: If there's one thing that Rene Redzepi and I share, it's that we're both perpetual students. We're both hungry to learn. Right. And I do feel like every time I come back from any trip at all—even like, I go to New Jersey to check out a special pizza place, I mean, I cross the river to go to a Filipino restaurant that I've heard about—it changes me. And... I don't know. I've gotten to the point where I can't imagine living any other way. 

Roberts: That was Jeff Gordinier talking about his book, Hungry. I highly recommend it. I also recommend followiing Jeff on Instagram, so you can see all the amazing food he eats. He’s TheGordinier: T-H-E-G-O-R-D-I-N-I-E-R.

This episode was produced by me, Michael Roberts, with music by Robbie Carver.

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The Outside Podcast is a production of Outside Integrated Media, and distributed by PRX. Coming up next week: Christopher McDougal, the bestselling author of Born to Run, explains why he began running with a donkey. Really. 

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