Food & Drink
The world's best restaurant Noma
Who he is and what he does
René Redzepi is chef and co-owner of restaurant Noma, which has topped S. Pellagrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants List four times. In 2008, he founded the Nordic Food Lab, a nonprofit research center that studies deliciousness. In 2011, he founded the MAD Symposium, a yearly gathering of the culinary world’s sharpest minds.
Family: Married to Nadine Levy Redzepi with three daughters
Apprenticeship: He started his career at Kong Hans Kælder in Copenhagen and also worked under Ferran Adrià at El Bulli in Spain
Read more: Redzepi is the author of Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine (Phaidon, 2010) and A Work in Progress (Phaidon, 2013)
Word reaches the open kitchen.
“Guests coming in, guys!”
The chefs stop whatever they are doing and hurry over to the headwaiter’s stand to welcome the group of people who have just walked into the world’s best restaurant. It’s an impressive lineup: a good 15 of the 55-strong team standing shoulder to shoulder, smiling, alongside René Redzepi in their kitchen whites.
The welcome ceremony has been planned down to the tiniest detail. On the surface it is just a simple gesture, but it creates that feeling of exclusivity that the world’s top restaurants strive to give their guests.
“It seems obvious to me that the team should meet the guests. It makes a huge difference when you prepare food for someone if you have stood face to face with them,” says Redzepi when we snatch some time for a quick chat in the conference room above the restaurant. In the prep kitchen opposite, another 20 or so chefs are busy stripping herbs and peeling vegetables ahead of the dinner service.
The contact between guests and chefs is one of the things that make dining at Noma so special. The 24 staff who make up the restaurant’s front-of-house team concentrate solely on making sure the guests are having a good time and serving them drinks. The chefs are also on standby to answer any questions about preparation and ingredients they might have.
Started as a small café
Noma is housed in an old warehouse on the waterfront at Christianshavn. Just across the water is Nyhavn, and a half-built bridge that nobody seems to know anything about. This part of the city is constantly under development. A large apartment building has recently begun to take shape next door to Noma, and earlier in the day, I was met by a bitter Redzepi who was looking daggers at the construction workers’ heavy machinery.
“They are making life really difficult for us; they steal the restaurant’s parking spaces so our guests are forced to park illegally by the water, and then they block the way so that the taxis can’t get through,” he grumbled, quickly dispatching a member of staff to clear the way for the soon-to-arrive lunch crowd. Gastro tourists hanging around by the quayside reach for their smartphones when the photographer asks for a portrait of Redzepi outside the restaurant. When Noma started out neither the neighborhood nor the head chef were anything like this hot.
“People forget that in 2003 Noma was a small café at the bottom of a cultural center. When we opened we never thought we would be as big as this. Anyone who says we did is a liar. Back then we served croissants, smoked salmon sandwiches, and coffee. We had a function room where conference guests could buy a two-course lunch for 110 kroner. We only had one gastronomic dream – to work with lots of local suppliers. The rest is all down to ambition, luck and staff who had enough drive and desire to want more,” he says.
There’s a world of difference, though, between working with lots of local suppliers and exclusively local ingredients.
“When we wrote our first menus, Mads [Refslund] and I noticed that we kept coming back to traditional luxury ingredients. We added a little caviar here, a little foie gras there. I got really quite annoyed with myself because I couldn’t see past my own training. I had always thought that when I got my own restaurant, it would be completely innovative and develop new tastes. And then we sat there and couldn’t get away from the old ways of thinking.”
They stuck to their task and discovered that when they imposed tough restrictions on what ingredients they could use, new creative pathways opened.
“My eureka moment came three months after we opened,” Redzepi says. “It sounds strange but I can remember the precise moment when the foundations were laid for what Noma has become today. It had been a mild winter, with no frost, and this particular day a Swedish guy with a beard came by. He had read about us in the Sydsvenskan newspaper and wondered if we wanted to buy any of his crop. He opened up his van and inside was a whole world of wild herbs. I used to go out in the woods looking for wild garlic and mushrooms, everything else was just ‘grass’ to me. But now I could see the treasures to be found there. All my nerdy books on the nightstand about three-starred Michelin chefs were quickly replaced with books on wild flowers and guides to edible mushrooms. One of the most useful books was a survival guide from the Swedish military.”
The herb gatherer was Roland Rittman, Noma’s first supplier of wild Nordic plants. In the years that followed, he would supply many of the emerging New Nordic restaurants in Skåne and Copenhagen. Noma, meanwhile, took things further and began foraging for its own herbs.
“The concept of the wild was what helped me to define Noma,” Redzepi says. “You could sum up our journey as spending the first five to six years on a long voyage of discovery, hunting for forgotten ingredients. Early on it was enough to add new herbs, completely raw, to a plate and to invent a sauce. The past three to four years have been about what we can do with them and how we can develop them.”
It is hard to imagine all the commotion that surrounded Noma’s “weeds on a plate” 11 years ago. What is now considered standard garnish in Nordic restaurants, such as dock leaves, yarrow and chickweed, were provocative and exciting back then.
“A lot of people forget that it was really hard work getting customers in those first five years. We could be sat there on a Tuesday or Wednesday with only two tables booked, just like any other restaurant.”
I’m curious to know what Redzepi classes as Nordic. Potatoes, for example, came to these shores in the 18th century, so Noma must have made some concessions. Redzepi taps his forehead.
“The limits to Noma’s ingredients are in here, nowhere else. I don’t have a fixed idea of when an ingredient must have arrived in Scandinavia in order for us to serve it at Noma. The most important thing for me is that it can be produced in Scandinavia and can achieve perfection. I’m not interested in anything else. For example, we have never had tomatoes on the menu, because I can’t find any that taste good that are grown here. If I could, it is not inconceivable that I would serve them. The same goes for chili peppers – the ones that grow here are certainly strong, but they don’t have the same fruity complexity as those from sunnier climes, so they are of no interest to me. I am open to us perhaps pouring a few drops of perfect olive oil into some cucumber water or using a Japanese rice vinegar in some way in the future if it feels like the right thing to do.”
Although Redzepi may be somewhat flexible on ingredients, one thing he won’t compromise on is creativity.
“Restriction is the mother of our innovation. Never in all these years have I felt that something was missing from the kitchen. Nowadays, creativity is about me being able to combine everything I have learned throughout my life and career with a feeling for the moment. This evening, for example, we have teal [duck] on the menu. They started hunting them yesterday and we only have a three-week window when we can serve them. We just don’t have six months to stand around in a lab experimenting with preparation methods. But this is our 11th game season, so we have enough experience that we can quickly find a method to tenderize and season it using a ‘batter’ of fermented barley and salt, which we cover the body of the plucked bird in. When it is time to cook it, we scrape off the batter and hang the bird by its wings over hot coals for 12 minutes, all the time brushing it with a liquid made from fermented rye bread. Then we serve it in a bowl of hay, accompanied by crispbread, steamed herbs and truffles.”
From ant-flavored gin to a mousse made from moth larvae
I have yet to sample the duck, but I still remember the grilled marrowbone with roasted garlic I had on my previous visit. Fine-dining restaurants often prepare the elements of a dish in advance, but the food at Noma is cooked to order. During service they keep a grill going in the backyard with the chefs running back and forth serving food.
“Eating food that has been prepared just now, specifically for you, is the very essence of what it means to go to a restaurant,” Redzepi says. “In some cases the chefs have picked the ingredients themselves, treated them with the greatest of respect, and then prepared them to perfection – all for that one moment. That second when you look the guest in the eye and put the plate down in front of them.”
These dishes aren’t just dreamed up in one afternoon, though. In its 11 years as Scandinavia’s leading gastronomic think tank, Noma has nurtured a number of side projects, including the Nordic Food Lab, which began life as the restaurant’s experimental kitchen but is now a nonprofit research facility. Right now it is in the middle of a three-year project on edible insects. Its blog is a gold mine for foodies, and provides behind-the-scenes glimpses of everything from ant-flavored gin to a mousse made from moth larvae that works well with roasted hazelnuts. It might sound a bit far out for Western tastes, but the idea is grounded in finding sustainable protein sources for a growing world population – and getting it to taste good.
Black ants appear on Noma’s fall menu sprinkled on a dish of raw beef and are reminiscent taste-wise of lemongrass and lime. It is easy to see why this chef who won’t use citrus fruit from outside Scandinavia is drawn to them. But ants are already old news in the world of Noma, as are grasshoppers, which I had in the form of a fermented cream on my last visit. This season’s insect was the bee, and over the summer Noma had its own beehives outside the restaurant.
“We took inspiration from how bee larvae are used in other cultures and we did a few of our own experiments. One of the things we used them for was to thicken a cream of herbs and elder oil, which we serve with a potato dish. In the Nagano prefecture of Japan, wasp larvae are considered a delicacy and they are eaten in many different cultures because of their high protein content. If anyone asks me how I can serve ants and wasp larvae, I generally ask them if they eat honey. That, by definition, is bee vomit.”
Although the Danish press has reveled in the fact that the world’s best restaurant (and one of Copenhagen’s most expensive) serves ants to its guests, Redzepi is not in the habit of sacrificing taste for effect. Nor are the guests put off by it.
Pop up in Tokyo
“There are maybe three to four guests a week who say they don’t want to eat ants. But that’s no big deal – we must have five people every day who don’t eat gluten. Our guests are generally open to our ideas. But of course some are better prepared than others. The Americans and the Japanese are the bravest; they’ll try anything. The same is true of people in their twenties, whatever their nationality. Scandinavians are the most reserved. The most common complaint is that they don’t think there is enough ‘luxury’ on the menu. But you can get lobster or caviar from any old supplier. Real luxury is rewarding the person who knows the precise week when chicken of the woods [a type of mushroom] is ripe for picking, or the farmer who can grow eight varieties of biodynamic carrot on open land.”
A fter 11 years at the vanguard of New Nordic cuisine, Redzepi is this month taking “the biggest financial gamble in Noma’s history.” In December he packed up the Copenhagen restaurant and flew the entire team to Tokyo to open a pop-up at the Mandarin Oriental.
“I have wanted to spend a bit longer in Japan ever since going there in 2008. Now I finally have the chance, and it is fantastic to be able to take the whole team with me. It will be a bit like boarding school for the staff, as we will all be living together at the hotel and I think it will give us all a shot of inspiration.”
Because Noma is all about using local ingredients, Redzepi has had to start the menu from scratch with Japanese ingredients, something he describes as being “insanely exciting.” I ask how many dishes are ready and he laughs nervously.
“I have traveled more than 8,000km around Japan looking for ingredients and I have ordered everything from turtles to Japanese mushrooms. I already have a huge fermentation project underway over there, which I think it going to work out great. But so far I don’t have a single recipe.”
Text: Lena Ilkjær
Published: January 29, 2016