Riding Shotgun with René Redzepi
It’s been about three years since Jeff Gordinier left his job as a collared-shirt-sporting food writer for the New York Times to focus on his second book, and the 52-year-old now happily exudes the aura of a slightly disheveled author who works entirely from home.
We’re sitting at the Paradise Café, less than a block from where the Pasadena native’s journalism career kicked off at the Santa Barbara News-Press, and he’s nursing a happy hour martini with a burger on the way, a white plastic bag filled with Jim Harrison poetry, Esquire magazines, and collected postcards at his side. Wearing maroon pants, a restaurant T-shirt, black leather shoes, and a tousled salt-and-dirty-blond mop, Gordinier is pondering, stream-of-consciously, the path that led to Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World.
“I had become incredibly fascinated by Noma and wanted to experience all of its different permutations,” said Gordinier, reflecting on how the famed tasting menu restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, would serve as the backdrop for his midlife crisis. “It’s a little bit like becoming a Deadhead” — which, incidentally, was another journey the longtime punk rock lover embarked on recently.
Hungry, which was published this month by an imprint of Penguin Books, follows the most critical phase to date in the culinary career of Noma founder René Redzepi, who an over-deadlined Gordinier reluctantly agreed to meet in 2014. Attracted to Redzepi’s cult-like charisma, Gordinier was suddenly, almost unwittingly, riding shotgun while this darling of the modern foodie zeitgeist dismantled and reinvented the Noma empire. Just as compelling, Hungry simultaneously reveals rebirth and rediscovery for Gordinier himself, who endures a painful divorce, new marriage, and the birth of twins when he’s 52 years old as the pages unfold.
While everything seemed peachy during his final years at the Times — Gordinier appeared on the popular Netflix series Chef’s Table, hung with the top chefs of our generation, and wrote some of the world’s most-read food articles — his personal life was near shambles. Just two weeks before Redzepi reached out, Gordinier had moved out of the home he shared with his wife and two children. As the “toxic fog” of depression settled in, he spent hours wandering the woods near his Westchester County home, craving comfort bowls of cacio e pepe and poking fun at the stark and stylish New Nordic cuisine championed by Redzepi before ever meeting the man or trying his food.
Redzepi, if you haven’t been paying attention, is the founder of the Copenhagen’s Noma, considered by many to be the best — and by almost everyone to be the most creative — restaurant in the world. His seasonally shifting tasting menus inspire chefs across the planet to forage, ferment, and fool around with food in mind-bending ways, usually to exquisite results that entertain all senses, though occasionally to clownish interpretations that fuel a growing stop-making-food-so-precious backlash.
After conquering the global food scene from 2003 to 2014, Redzepi grew disillusioned and bored, deciding that Noma needed rethinking to remain relevant. His first step was arranging longterm pop-up versions in Japan, Australia, and Mexico, as he planned to close and move the Copenhagen restaurant. That’s around the time he reached out to Gordinier, perhaps over a shared love of tacos, though the author isn’t quite sure why the call came at such a serendipitous time.
“There was a sense of mission,” said Gordinier of why he would wind up taking trips to Oaxaca, Tulum, Mexico City, Merida, Norway, Denmark, and Macedonia in the years to come. “And I was very much adrift.”
Self-Medicating with Adventure
At a fast-moving 225 pages, easily digestible in just a couple of reading sessions, Hungry manages to both encapsulate how we got to this era of celebrity chefs and food porn while serving as its most interesting chapter to date, at least since Anthony Bourdain’s game-changing Kitchen Confidential. Gordinier’s writing is tight yet thorough, name-dropping just enough star chefs to keep foodies gripped, and allowing Redzepi to wax on introspectively without becoming overbearing. There’s plenty of drama as well, primarily from the ambitious Noma pop-ups, where opening on schedule in a remote Mexican jungle is an ever-present concern.
It’s a probing, not solely flattering profile of Redzepi, who was raised in often xenophobic Denmark by a Muslim immigrant from Macedonia, an ironic twist given that he’s the face of Nordic cuisine. You also learn how the Noma machine operates, how young chefs are brought in from around the world and challenged to create dishes that reflect their own cultures. “René is the conductor,” explained Gordinier. “But he’s got a lot of tremendous instrumentalists in his orchestra.”
Even established chefs like Enrique Olvera and David Chang flock toward Redzepi like he’s some benevolent Svengali. Indeed, while a couple of the trips that Gordinier took were on assignment, “truth be told, I was spending my own money,” he explained.
The quest became an extreme manifestation of what Gordinier had been doing for years after leaving Santa Barbara in 1994 to work for Entertainment Weekly and then Details and the Times. (He now covers food and drink for Esquire.) “I was self-medicating with adventures,” said Gordinier, who has an “extreme problem” with boredom. “My line of work is great for staying young, for keeping your mind vibrant, but it’s not great for marriage. It’s the kind of work that keeps pulling you away from the relationship.”
As Gordinier moves through his divorce and finds new zest for life on the Noma train, he also connects with a public-relations woman he met long ago when they were both in relationships. They hit it off, get pregnant, and then marry on January 12, 2018 at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, when I just so happened to spot them, in my own post-Montecito mudslide haze, walking on their way to Paradise for martinis and burgers. Today, they live just a few homes away from Gordinier’s first wife, sharing custody of their kids with relative ease. “It’s a modern family,” said a content Gordinier.
For the sake of his new family and his sanity, he’s also reset his work life. “I spent a quarter century chasing deadlines,” said Gordinier. “I would like to do some yoga or make it to my son’s baseball game on time.”
Preserving the Now
Though Gordinier left Santa Barbara for New York 25 years ago, his heart remains in California, where he learned to love tacos and Chinese food at an early age and grew up reading Jonathan Gold and Ruth Reichl. “When I was 15 or 16, I could tell you about the differences between Oaxacan and Yucatecan cuisine,” recalled Gordinier. “You know how some kids become theater freaks? I became a restaurant freak.”
It’s surprising, then, that Gordinier didn’t turn to food writing until later in his career, which was primarily spent covering musicians, filmmakers, actors, and other pop-culture figures from 1994 to 2011. Some of that reporting went into his first book, X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking, which told interesting tales through a unique argument, but wasn’t much of a seller. For my 2008 story about that book see, independent.com/forgotten-gem.
Hungry, however, is almost certain to be a bestseller and may even win Gordinier a coveted James Beard Award, the food world’s Oscar. It’s the inside story about one of today’s most interesting, vibrant, and popular cultures, told in a gonzo-like style, with plenty of human emotion and personal growth to draw even non-foodies to the page.
“I want people to read this who don’t even read books,” said Gordinier, who tried to emulate heroes such as Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joan Didion. “That’s why I became a writer. All of those books were so mesmerizing to read.”
No matter what, though, Hungry will stand as a document of a man named René Redzepi and his globally influential culinary movement during a revolutionary time. Said Gordinier, “People interested in gastronomy can read this decades from now and have a sense of what it felt like.”
4•1•1 | Jeff Gordinier will sign copies and talk about Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World on August 11 at the Ojai Valley Inn with Chef Claudette Zepeda of El Jardín in San Diego and Jenn Harris from the Los Angeles Times. See instagram.com/thegordinier.