The man who runs the best restaurant in the world cannot afford his own home. He lives in an airy and light rented apartment in the old part of Copenhagen and cycles to work, pedaling through the streets with his 4-year-old daughter tucked cozily in his bike cart as he tries to get her to school on time. After dropping her off, he stops at a nearby coffee bar to down an espresso and a yogurt that will be his sole meal until his restaurant's staff dinner.
By now René Redzepi, the chef at Noma, could have TV deals and restaurants opening up in the world's major cities and certainly a house in his own name but that is not the kind of ambition that drives the 34-year-old Dane. Where many leading chefs seek to build empires, Redzepi wants only to dig deeper into his immediate surroundings. This helps explain why he is standing in his restaurant kitchen offering a skeptical patron not some truffle-covered delicacy from France or a pricey bit of sea urchin from Japan but a plate of scuttling Danish ants. "They're delicious," he says, "and they're Danish."
Weird things that happen to be both Danish and delicious: Redzepi has built his entire reputation on that. When he opened Noma in 2003, Nordic cuisine barely existed, at least beyond pickled herring and smorrebrod. But eight years later, a menu that includes the likes of foraged sea buckthorn and cured bear meat has helped elevate Noma to the top spot on the world's 50 best restaurants list published annually by Restaurant magazine. And through hard work, dazzling talent and the insatiable demands of the celebrity machine, its chef has likewise risen to the pinnacle of gastronomy. When the patron finds the courage to swallow the ant that Redzepi is offering her, she no doubt does so at least in part because the man handing it to her is now leading the world of cuisine. He's just not sure if he wants to be.
There have been influential chefs for as long as there have been restaurants, but the idea of a sole cook standing at the head of the culinary universe is a recent invention born of two not unconnected phenomena: the unprecedented influence of Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, whose culinary revolution freed many young chefs to follow their own visions, and the newfound power of the 50 best list, which dares to rank something so ineffable as dinner. In 2010, when Adri announced that he was closing his restaurant, El Bulli, and Noma achieved the top spot on the list, Redzepi found himself ascending to the role of literal Top Chef. The fact that this role had not existed prior to Adrià hardly mattered. The king is dead; long live the king.
The signs of coronation are obvious. Noma's tables are fully booked three months in advance. Critics adore the restaurant. "The explosion of flavours and textures that ensued was simultaneously so subtle and so startling that nothing in a lifetime of tasting had prepared me for it," wrote a reviewer for the Financial Times in 2009.