Redzepi and Nilsson

The photograph above, of chefs René Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson at Edulis, was taken on the afternoon of April 7 over my shoulder by Terroir delegate and speaker Mitchel Davis from the James Beard Foundation. I was shamelessly purloined by me from his Twitter feed. Half of Renée Lalonde’s face is also visible in the bottom right corner.

The breakthrough, the epiphany, the moment of truth and (heretofore missed) connection was sparked by what I would have thought was the most Canadian of all expressions: an apology.

Me: “I’m sorry, the city looks awful. The snow just melted and all the sidewalks are all dirty. There’s garbage everywhere.”

René Redzepi: “Relax, man. We have that too, and we are always saying the same thing. Just wait until the spring comes. We are Northerners, you don’t need to apologize!”

The exchange happened at Edulis, where (by complete chance) I managed to share a table with the Copenhagen chef of Noma fame, the ever lovely, Renée Lalonde (his handler while in Toronto) and his Swedish friend and fellow Terroir 2013 delegate and speaker, Magnus Nilsson, the 28 year old wunderkind from Faviken. In the restaurant were scattered chefs, journalists, Terroir delegates and committee members like me settling in to a blur of dishes being sent out of Michael Caballo’s kitchen.

Redzepi and Nilsson had flown into Toronto the day before, and had been wined and dined that night by their friend David Chang. They had been up early to eat a breakfast of sorts at Hopgood’s Foodliner (where he loved the snow crab with ramps), and looked tired from all the eating, drinking and chatting to the media, which (of course) eagerly followed the chef from the “best restaurant in the world”. Even this lunch at Edulis was merely a prelude to a bigger party that night at Momofuku Daisho. The next day, Redzepi would do another series of media interviews before giving an electrifying and deeply personal closing address at the symposium. The speech drew on a childhood visit with his family in Macedonia, his struggles as a culinary student and unexpected despair that gripped him when he achieved world renown success at Noma. (A video of the address will be released in the coming weeks.

Until the exchange about dirty sidewalks, I’d managed a bit of small talk with the two chefs, but mostly let them exchange harmless gossip about their mutual friends in the Scandinavian restaurant scene.  The master chef’s sudden interest provoked me to continue: “Right, of course. That has a lot to do with why we asked you to come to Terroir. In Canada we have been watching what has happened in Denmark and Sweden and wonder if we can also elevate our own northern cuisine to the point where people are as excited.”

I don’t recall the exact nature of Redzepi’s response to my suggestion,  except that it was positive and at precisely moment he might have embued me (and thus Good Food Revolution’s good looking and smart readership) with the secret to a great Canadian culinary global dominance, Parts and Labour chef Matty Matheson came up to the table to say hello.

Matheson is a big fan and practitioner of skin art, and Redzepi was immediately taken with his many tattoos. Redzepi asked about the ones on his knuckles: “Those must have really hurt?” Matty explained that they were nothing compared to the heart attack and recovery that they commemorated. And that was it. I moved over, Matty sat down and Redzepi was transfixed by the story of the heart attack, stress in the kitchen, recovery at home. Throughout Matty’s tale the famous chef kept asking questions, wanting to know more. In the end, he counseled Matty to “have some kids, they will keep you out of trouble.”

Over the next hour or so, so it went. People would come up to the table and Redzepi would be engaged to the extent that he was curious in their stories. He’d not heard of pickerel, but became intensely interested when I told him a bit about fishing culture on the Canadian Shield and the pleasures of a properly fried shore lunch. He was fascinated by culinary details of Reneé’s Japanese-Canadian childhood in Edmonton and told corresponding stories about his travels and meals in Japan. He called Newfoundland chef Jeremy Charles his “fellow viking” as they compared notes, and spent a lot of time speaking with organic farmers Gillian Flies and Brent Preston about raising vegetables in a cold climate.

What René Redzepi did not do at lunch was talk about himself or Noma. I gleaned no magic formula to restaurant fame and fortune, or even practical advice on how to prepare and serve one year-old leeks. I can report that he likes the lightly smoked herring in oil at Edulis, but this is hardly newsworthy or surprising since everyone does. Instead, what I learned was that this chef is an intensely inquisitive man whose chief interest is other people. No wonder he feeds them so well and so curiously.

Malcolm_on_RoofMalcolm Jolley is a founding editor of Good Food Revolution and a Toronto-based food journalist. Follow him at @malcolmjolley.