NEVER mind that Noma has slipped a notch from the top of the world's best restaurant list: Rene Redzepi is more worried about people stepping on his new rock garden.
It's the last week of July and Noma is closed for summer vacation. But Redzepi is hard at work, putting the final touches on the most extensive renovation yet in his Copenhagen restaurant's 10-year history. When we meet him, he's giving the evil eye to a passing terrier sniffing at the patches of green growing outside the restaurant - a converted godown in trendy Christianshavn - with rocks forming a craggy terrain against the stunning waterfront view.
"It's a Nordic coastal landscape," explains the evangelist of Nordic cuisine as the dog senses his scorn and scuttles away. The idea came about during the renovation process when he and his team were thinking about the best way to utilise the open space just outside their doors. "We're on a coast, so we thought - if there was nothing here and it was a wild barren area, what would it look like?"
Certainly not a vegetable garden, as the strong winds and salty air would quickly kill anything edible. So Redzepi's architects spent a year and "a lot" of money studying the coastline and recreating it at Noma's doorstep with vegetation from the coast of Scandinavia and rocks from Iceland. "It'll be a green carpet with patches of flowers coming up according to the season," he enthuses, while hoping that diners and passersby enjoy the sight from a respectable distance.
Garden aside, the heart of Noma's renovations is the kitchen. It's been totally gutted and remodelled, putting an end to the carefully co-ordinated rhythm and work flow that the chefs have built up over the years. "We've had 10 years of moving in one way and knowing where everything is - now we'll have to 'dance' in another way."
They could easily have kept things the way they were, but Redzepi isn't one to subscribe to the status quo. "When things get too complacent, you're just three steps away from auto-pilot, and we don't have time for that," says the three-time world number one. "We're in an environment that needs creativity to develop this style of cuisine. We're challenging ourselves, taking a step closer to the edge and this will fuel us again for the next 10 years."
He sounds like a Type A food zealot, but Redzepi is anything but. He's forward thinking but at the same time, he knows you need to create the right environment to bring out the best in people. Besides "an inspiring space for the staff", he also has their well-being in mind. That's why Noma staff get to enjoy a bright and cheerful staff dining room on the second floor of the restaurant, which doubles as office, test kitchen and general lounge space filled with plants and stuffed animals.
"It's very different from the old school of being a cook where you're in a basement in a very crappy environment. We want to create a modern home kitchen in a professional way where we go to work and feel good rather than see it as a steel cage for the next 15 hours.
"Plus it's exciting to see what these changes do for the team and what it does for the product because the product is people whether they're cooking or growing the food."
Redzepi concedes that he wasn't quite as enlightened three or four years ago.
"I used to be so tough in the kitchen," he recalls. "I can still be but I used to be so tough all the time and it didn't make me happy. But I love what I do and I realised it's just a matter of changing our mentality. If you look at the industry, everyone is complaining that it's harder and harder to find staff and we had that problem too (before they became number one). There's a history of not caring about staff and people - if you don't do your job well enough, you're gone. We need a change of mentality so these young kids will come in and say, 'yes I'm going to work hard and they will expect a lot of me but there will also be mutual respect'."
This empathy even extends to chefs who leave Noma. Again, says Redzepi, "Our industry has a huge tradition where, when a sous chef leave, the next day they're competitors. That's bulls***, especially in a small city like ours." He's felt it first hand too. "I remember when I left one place where I was sous chef and the day after - ice cold. I said no, I'm not going to become like that because it's so stupid.
"The great irony is that if you really want to do something successful, it works much better if you do it within a community - sharing a bit of knowledge, helping people when they are down instead of saying 'wow there's more for me then'. In the end it will be better for all of us."
So, in the month of July when Noma was closed, its website actively encouraged visitors to dine at the restaurants Bror and Amass - new eateries opened by his chefs who quit to strike out on their own. Even before them, Redzepi was actively supportive of other alumni who had done the same, and he believes these talents, and others like them will determine the future of Nordic cuisine.
"One of the reasons why I know that the development in Copenhagen is going to continue for a long time is because we see a lot of immigrants coming in now. American (like chef Matt Orlando of Amass), English (Samuel Nutter of Bror) - our kitchen is filled with different nationalities and a lot of them are staying. Christian Puglisi (of Relais) is Italian.
"Maybe 30 years from now we will have something more distinct and unique. Right now it's very young and we need places like Bror (which caters to the general population) and Amass who will train people and in the next couple of decades, we'll see what kind of environment and flavours we can have here.
"It's hard to pinpoint the cuisine of this region other than the simple aesthetics and the vegetables - there are more vegetables used in Denmark than in most cities in the western world. It's based on wild food because there's a lot of nature here but we're still trying to figure it out."
But what about Noma? Is he feeling more or less pressure now that it's dropped to world number 2, after the Spanish Roca brothers?
"I never felt that pressure," he shrugs. "I decided when we became number one the first time to lock away all the hatred that inevitably comes when you reach a mountain top. You go to work and stay 110 per cent concentrated - as long as you are that you cannot do anything more."
He will say, though, that "being number one helped create an environment where you can be more free, and it changed our whole region. As much as I hate ranking anything because it's almost impossible, that list changed Scandinavia - it changed the world of cooking forever. Once there was a Scandinavian restaurant on there, the landscape of high gastronomy changed. As much as you could criticise it, it did that and fuelled a new confidence in the whole of our region."
But pressure? It's hard to say what kind, especially when the world's (now second) best chef dashes off to confront an Asian tourist he spotted trying to climb his Nordic landscape.