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On the Road to Reinvention

Ahead of the release of his forthcoming memoir Hungry, food writer Jeff Gordinier talks adventure, embracing the extraordinary, and road-tripping with René Redzepi, the greatest chef in the world

words by Elliot RAMSEY

In 2014, René Redzepi, co-owner of the Michelin-starred Danish restaurant Noma and the man considered to be the greatest chef in the world, reached out to meet with Jeff Gordinier, then a food writer at The New York Times. What followed was a four-year journey across the world, from Mexico to Denmark, Australia to America, a cross-continental road-trip following Redzepi, embracing new adventures, and chronicling his own initiation into the weird and wonderful world of New Nordic cuisine. EJ

Tell us about your career in food writing.
I actually didn’t start out as a food writer. I tried writing fiction but I was wildly mediocre, I think because I had nothing to say. But I loved to write about other people – musicians, politicians, creative lunatics, people obsessed with creating things. I spent a decade at Entertainment Weekly and then another decade at Details, writing profiles of everyone from Tom Cruise and Marilyn Manson to mafia lawyers, until 2011 when I was poached by The New York Times to become a staff writer for their food section. I left the Times to begin writing my book and within 24 hours I’d been offered the job of Food and Drinks Editor of Esquire.

What is it that attracted you to food writing?
I’m just in love with the theatre of restaurants. For me, it’s like going to see Hamilton or The Book of Mormon – it’s my Broadway. You can go and see a dud play, but you’re still in love with the form, and that’s exactly how I feel about restaurants. As a child, I used to enjoy going out to restaurants with my family and their friends, see- ing how people socialised, how the adults loosened up after their cocktails, the performance of it all.

Did the opportunity to travel with René Redzepi come at a time when you were both seeking to reinvent yourselves in some way?
It was fortuitous dovetailing, really. We were both at inflection points. Mine was, of course, personal. I was going through a divorce, which was painful, enduring the same predictable melancholy, like Groundhog Day, continually gnawing on the same guilt. But René was in the opposite place. He wanted to blow everything up, which to me seemed borderline insane. He could’ve coasted along with Noma if he’d wanted, but René was losing interest. It was a dramatic moment in his career, like Bob Dylan on the verge of going electric.

You’re very frank about your personal circumstances within the book – was it therapeutic for you to document them?
Yes, I think that it’s a privilege to be able to examine yourself as a therapy. How often do we get the chance to sit back and actually grieve? We’re so often trapped in a fog, and the act of placing myself in Hungry as a character allowed me to observe myself from a distance and with a renewed sense of perspective.

In Hungry, Redzepi has misconceptions of Mexican cuisine and you have your own about New Nordic cuisine. Is it vital to make journeys to move past our initial impressions?
Every time you make a trip you change. And, actually, that parallel between Mexican and New Nordic cuisine in the book was accidental – I hadn’t really thought about it in that way before. But before eating at Noma, I did think that New Nordic cuisine was ridiculous, having eaten food in New York that riffed off its style. To me, it’s like going to see a Joni Mitchell imitator while never having seen the real thing. You need to go straight to the source.

Has your adventure with Redzepi changed your relationship with food?
I definitely crossed a threshold of understanding, and René made that happen. I’d always had my comfort zones when it came to food. Growing up in Los Angeles, the staples of my diet were Mexican, Thai and Chinese food. I never went a week without eating tacos, so René really opened my eyes to a different kind of cooking.

What makes New Nordic cuisine so good?
Imagine a colour you’d never seen, something off the spectrum that we know. And then imagine seeing a painting involving that colour. It’s eye-opening to see what René has achieved through spearheading the wild food initiative – it’s a thrill to see.

What was the best experience of your adventure?
Eating at Noma Mexico. It’s hard to shake. It’s not a place that you’d go to every day, but it’s a place you want to keep going back to. Eating at Noma is like being flipped through a portal. It’s like the toilet scene from Trainspotting where Ewan McGregor’s character flushes himself into the hallucination. That’s actually a really good way of putting it, I think.