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What do you cook for the best chef in the world?

What do you cook for the best chef in the world?
Nadine Levy Redzepi. (Peter-Emil Witt)

“You could say my whole life revolves around cooking and eating,” writes Nadine Levy Redzepi in the introduction to her new cookbook, “Downtime: Deliciousness at Home.” The book is a collection of recipes woven together with stories of the various roles food has played throughout her life, from childhood memories of eating pomegranates from a tree in Portugal, to standing on a stool learning to cook porridge over the stove, to dating — and later marrying — one of the world’s most acclaimed chefs. Levy Redzepi’s husband is René Redzepi, chef and co-owner of Noma in Copenhagen, often considered the best restaurant in the world. The Danish couple now has three daughters, and Levy Redzepi wrote the book, in part, for them as a means of collecting and preserving the recipes they’ve shared at home.

I recently interviewed Levy Redzepi about her debut book, the stories of her childhood and how they influenced her love of cooking, and her husband’s favorite dish of hers (hint: she made it on one of their first dates). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


How did your childhood affect and inspire the way you approach food and cooking?

I was born in a small town in Portugal. We lived in a small house, and to save money we lived off the land. While my big brother went to school and my father would most likely be at a bar or sleeping it off, I would spend the day with my mother tending to the animals and picking and planting food that we would eat. I remember clearly walking around the herb garden with all the beans, the geese and the chickens.

My parents earned a living as street musicians, and we would travel around Europe. When they had a good day, we would celebrate by going to a restaurant that was a little better than the one we normally would.

My parents thought food was the way you celebrated everything. If you splurged on something, it was food, not toys or clothes. It was always about the food.

Nadine Levy Redzepi, author of "Downtime: Deliciousness at home"

I think that my childhood has affected the way I think about food and cook a lot in so many ways — so many memories and feelings tied to food. I think that when I go grocery shopping or I am in the middle of cooking and there is a voice or images going through my head inspiring me — all the flavors and smells, memories from childhood, traveling and restaurant experiences that I have had so far.

How old were you when you started cooking?

I was about five or six when is started making porridge, with my knees on a chair so I could reach the stove-top properly. My mother would work 24-hour shifts or have evening shifts. My brother was supposed to stay home and watch me, but he felt very confident that I could make a sandwich and take care of myself, which I refused to do. I had seen my mom making porridge lots of times, so I was sure I could do it. Porridge quickly turned in to scrambled eggs and so on.

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Your cookbook is geared to home and family, and it’s kind of the antithesis of what your husband does at the restaurant. How does his style influence how you approach food at home?

I think it’s influenced my home cooking on so many more levels than I can even think of. The approach to food at Noma I find incredibly inspiring — the whole idea of taking a celeriac for example and telling yourself that this is the most valuable ingredient, to treat a seemingly boring or humble ingredient the same way you would the most expensive cut of meat or fish.

Most important, I’ve learned that you have to play around in the kitchen, and that good things often come out of making mistakes.

And how do you influence him and his approach to cooking?

I think — or I know because I have heard René say it — that he thinks it’s inspiring when I cook at home for loved ones, seeing the effort and warmth that goes into cooking a meal for family and friends. The warmth from home cooking I think is something that he is very focused on having in the restaurant.

Can you tell me a little about your cooking style?

Well, I have a husband who works a lot, so I go from work, grocery shopping, pick up our youngest and by the time I am home, I have about 30 minutes to have dinner on the table if we are to sit down and have some quality family time around the table to sit and talk about our day.

Of all the recipes in the book, is there one that has particular meaning to you?

The chicken liver pasta sauce is a recipe that the village women taught my mother how to make when we lived in Portugal, chicken livers being quite cheap. I had this so many times throughout my childhood; I clearly remember how I started tasting it and seasoning it when my mother cooked it and how I gradually took over making it from her. I’ve always loved this dish, and it’s also the dish I made for René the first time I cooked for him.

Rotini with spicy chicken liver sauce
Rotini with spicy chicken liver sauce Ditte Isager

Why did you decide to write a cookbook?

When I was pregnant with our first daughter, Arwen, who is 10 now, I was thinking about my own childhood, my mother and what type of mother I wanted to be. Amongst the thoughts, one of them was that I wanted to start a family cookbook that could be passed down from generation to generation.

Everytime something goes wrong in the kitchen, you learn something.

Nadine Levy Redzepi

I started writing down my favorite recipes in a notebook, and René would jokingly say, “Who knows? Maybe one day it’ll be a published book.” I would laugh and say, “That’s what you do.” Gradually, it turned a little more serious as René’s publisher at the time had asked him to make a Noma-at-home book, and René said it would be a crap book because I was the one that cooked at home.

When I was at the end of my pregnancy with our youngest daughter, Ro — she will be 4 in July — I started an Instagram account and started just posting photos of our dinner and breakfast. Within months, I had two small publishers reach out to me asking if I might have any interest in doing a book. This gave me the push I needed.

What’s your husband’s favorite dish of yours?

I think he has many, but I think that the chicken livers will always be a favorite.

You entertain a lot of famous visiting chefs at home, such as David Chang and Matty Matheson. What’s it like to cook for them?

I am happy to say that most of the chefs that come to our home are good friends and people we have known for years. I will admit that I was really very nervous the first time I cooked for René.

Most of them, like René, don’t go to someone’s home expecting a fancy restaurant meal. I think, if anything, they are even more appreciative of a home-cooked meal than anyone else.

Food Bowl

As part of the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl, Times Food critic Jonathan Gold discusses writing about home cooking with Nadine Levy Redzepi, author of “Downtime: Deliciousness at Home.” The free event is scheduled to take place in Pasadena on May 20.

Levy Redzepi will also take part in Plant Power: The No Beast Feast. Hosted by Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken and featuring an international lineup of prominent chefs, the event will showcase innovative vegetable-driven cuisine paired with drinks from female winemakers, brewers and distillers. The dinner is taking place on May 19 at Coral Tree Plaza at Border Grill.

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noelle.carter@latimes.com

@noellecarter

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