Great Dane: At home with Nadine Levy Redzepi

Nadine Levy Redzepi has written her first cookbook, Downtime: Deliciousness at Home.
Nadine Levy Redzepi has written her first cookbook, Downtime: Deliciousness at Home. Photo: Lekfeldt/Scanpix Denmark/Australscope

Rene Redzepi is one of the world's most influential and best known chefs.

He has appeared in the list of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people. His restaurant, Noma (currently closed, and preparing to reopen in February 2018) was voted number one in the world three times in a row (2010, 2011, 2012) then, after a year's break, came back at number one again in 2014.

He has toured Noma as a high-concept pop-up restaurant across Tokyo, Sydney and Tulum. He put Nordic cuisine on the map for many people. The first time Noma hit the top five at the World's 50 Best Awards, he gave a speech that has gone down in history as one of the great moments in food. "They called us the seal f...ers," he said. "They asked us if we had braised whale's penis on the menu. Look who's laughing now."

Newly published author Nadine Levy Redzepi.
Newly published author Nadine Levy Redzepi. Photo: Lekfeldt/Scanpix Denmark/Australscope

But for once, this story isn't about Rene. This story is about his wife.

Nadine Redzepi has just landed in Copenhagen after a whirlwind New York tour of her first cookbook, Downtime: Deliciousness at Home. The book is a compendium of recipes, stories and mini-masterclasses – pretty much the antithesis of her husband's books, which are studies in hifalutin restaurant food. The yang, possibly, to her yin.

The first time I met the newly published author, it was some years ago at a lunch in Melbourne, a collaboration between Rene Redzepi and Neil Perry. We were sitting near each other, and I admired a blue leather rose ring she was wearing. She immediately took it off and gave it to me. Because clearly when a complete stranger admires something on your person you hand it over without thinking. That's the difference between Nadine Redzepi and the rest of the world.

Crumbed abalone at Noma's Australia pop-up.
Crumbed abalone at Noma's Australia pop-up. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Maybe that comes from her upbringing – a bohemian childhood spent in the European sunshine in Portugal and St Tropez with her parents, whom she describes as penniless musicians. It was these years when she was surrounded by a menagerie of animals (dogs, cats, geese, a donkey, and a chameleon) that she would pick sun-ripened fruit off the trees and would experiment with the plants growing around the area, with mixed results – her mother once thought she'd ingested something poisonous and made her throw it up on the spot.

Growing up in Portugal also meant eating buckets of tomatoes straight from the vine and plucking sun-warm pomegranates from the tree. As a result, she's confident about her skills when it comes to dissecting the fruit. "The best way to eat a pomegranate is picking it off the tree while it's hot and just eat it right there," she says. "I like splitting the pomegranate in the middle without cutting into it at all. I don't want to see any juice when I do that. And then I just lightly cut the peel and listen for the sound that it makes when you tear it apart like 'shhckchttt'. Then you break it into the sections and it comes apart so easily and beautifully."

It was a bittersweet time, though, because it was during those years that her father developed a problem with alcohol which would ultimately split the family up, sending her, her brother and their mother back to Denmark. It was a massive culture shock for the family.

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"Coming to Denmark was blurry in a way, even though I remember glimpses of it," she says. "At the time my Mum was devastated and my brother was upset. Being 12 and being away from your Dad … I think that's tough. And seeing Mum not in the best state ... she didn't actually want to come back to Denmark. But she got over it, and started working, and started cooking a lot again and then things started getting better."

These deeply personal stories are a mix of beautiful and raw. As a child, Nadine and her brother would gather almonds then sit on the steps of the house cracking the almonds with large rocks. The fruits of their labour, which would often involve caught fingers, would be handed to their mother to make into an almond and marzipan cake. When their father's drinking would be accompanied by mood swings that would be taken out on their mother, Nadine's brother would cover her eyes and sing to her.

"When I started writing the book, I let Rene read this story," she says. "That was the only thing he saw [before the book was published]. When he was reading it, I couldn't stand it. I actually went up to our bed and hid under the covers. He came up and said, 'this is incredible. I want to read more. I want you to write more about it'. I showed my Mum, too. She was proud, and was crying, and it was so nice."

Noma chef Rene Redzepi would be an 'amazing' home cook if he turned his hand to it, says Nadine.
Noma chef Rene Redzepi would be an 'amazing' home cook if he turned his hand to it, says Nadine. 

Telling those stories in the book came quite easily. "I was thinking about writing the book for almost a year before I started, so the back of the book is actually the first thing I wrote. I think everyone – the agents and publishers especially – they all need to know this story so they can get over this thing about me just being a chef's wife."

The pair met when Nadine was 19, and waitressing at Noma. A few years and a baby later, the Copenhagen restaurant was making international headlines. In his foreword to Downtime, Rene writes: "Nadine, without ever intending it, reminded me of the values a cook can sometimes forget when they've spent most of their young career as a mercenary in adrenaline-fuelled kitchens. If I hadn't seen her channelling all of the best intentions into making someone happy, I don't think Noma would have ended up where it has."

And now, here she is, with her first cookbook on the shelves and 100,000 Instagram followers. Which, for an unprepossessing home cook, is almost otherworldly.

But then, Rene's end of hospitality – the pointy end where Michelin stars and topping the 50 Best list is part of daily life – is a little strange. It's a world where restaurants have massive social followings. These titans of cooking don't live in the same world as everyone else. They are worshipped. They are photographed and harassed wherever they go. So to live in this heightened state, to be in the inner circle, as a mother and wife, confidante and ultimate adviser brings its own set of challenges when it comes to carving out some creative space.

It was extremely important to Nadine that she write this book unaided. "I knew that making the book people would say 'oh, great, some chef's wife making a book – he probably wrote it'. Rene's is such a strong voice and Noma has such a strong identity, that for Nadine to distinguish herself from him required her to have a cone of silence as she was writing. This was something she needed to make as herself – not as an extra limb of Rene Redzepi.

"I think Noma, and what Rene is, is all a part of it somehow. It's how I got my foot in through the door. But I just feel I really needed to do something on my own. Rene did not see the book until it was finished. And I knew that because I admire Rene so much that if I did show him that I would listen to everything he says. And he is not a home cook. He could be, if he wanted to focus on that for a while – he would be amazing. But I didn't want to lose myself in this."

Touring with the restaurant has certainly broadened her scope when it comes to her cooking. In every country the restaurant pops up in, she takes inspiration from ceramics to ingredients. "I feel like I've always done this," she says. "Whenever I eat something, I'm always thinking about what it is – trying to take a different ingredient apart in my mouth – dissecting the dish. And when we travel, I think about the things I could bring and use at home. While Noma go on their research trips, I go on my own little research trip, too."

Quickfire corner:

Music to cook to: It depends on my mood, but sometimes Rene puts on reggaeton. We also have all the playlists from Noma Japan, Australia and Mexico which I love.

After midnight snack: I'm trying to remember the last time I ate past midnight. We often have really nice hams, cured meats and fruit at hand. I think if I was quite hungry, I would also eat rye bread. Very Danish.

Kitchen weapon: I've been thinking about that, and I probably have three. A good knife, a frying pan, and rubber-ended tongs.

Formative food writing: My Mum never had cookbooks which is why I was so obsessed with TV shows, like Ready Steady Cook.

Non-cooking ninja skill? I can stand on my hands and, while I stand on my hands, I can shift from one hand to the other and touch my thigh.

Downtime, by Nadine Levy Redzepi, RRP $55, Penguin Random House