If you pay any attention to food news and restaurant raves it’s been hard to miss the buzz emanating from Copenhagen over the last several years. That’s because of chef René Redzepi and his eight-year-old restaurant, Noma, which has earned two Michelin stars, the title of Best Restaurant in the World for three years in a row and plenty of New York Times acclaim.
Believe the hype.
Redzepi first got attention because of the dishes he concocts out of such unexpected items as moss, ants, and bark foraged in wooded areas on the outskirts of Copenhagen--an innovative way to locally source ingredients in a rather inhospitable climate--but it’s the restaurant’s cultivation of a warm and welcoming environment and a dining experience that prompts guests to smile, laugh, and even cry (more on that one soon) that make Noma stand out among the greatest dining destinations in the world.
The day after the restaurant reopened from its annual three-week summer vacation (this year they renovated much of the neutral-hued dining room while Redzepi brought a small team to London’s Claridge’s Hotel for an Olympics-timed pop-up), on behalf of Co.Create I indulged in a nearly four-hour lunch that was followed by a private tour of the kitchen and the test kitchen. (Note: Noma does not comp journalists’ meals but the restaurant made special arrangements for me and my partner to dine there because otherwise a table is impossible to book.)
The moment you arrive at Noma you know you’re somewhere special. At how many Michelin-starred establishments are you practically embraced upon arrival? (Not at Sushi Jiro, that’s for sure.) The entire Noma experience is marked by a disarming lack of pretension.
Also different: While you have one primary waitperson, dressed in gray, each course is brought to you by a different server. Those servers’ fingers show tell-tale signs of food handling: If it seems that they are unclean it’s because their hands are smeared with remnants of the food they just prepared that they then present to you. It turns out those "waiters" are actually chefs (you can tell because they wear white), who, in Noma’s unique non-hierarchy, also serve the food they make. "That way the chefs aren’t stuck in their heads, without sunlight and without the satisfaction of seeing people eat your food," sous chef Samuel Nutter explains. "I think it really works for the guests and is really beneficial for the chefs."
It’s an opportunity for diners to learn about the dishes from someone who truly knows them. The servers are from all over the world--San Diego, Australia and, of course, Denmark-- as Redzepi recruits fine chefs wherever he finds them. It doesn’t hurt that each server--male and female--is gregarious and, well, let’s not beat around the bush--they’re lookers. They are also overwhelmingly young and tattooed.
Once seated, you’re told that the first series of courses will be bite-size treats intended to awaken the palate. "That’s where we attack you with lots of small servings," is how Nutter describes the "snack" portion of the meal. Ours began with a playful surprise: The first course was tucked inside the table’s gorgeous and seemingly innocuous flower arrangement--flatbread shaped like the branch of a tree. This was followed quickly by, among other items, reindeer moss with mushroom powder; crispy pork skin with black currant Juice; barbecue carrots with sorrel sauce and hay ash; and smoked and pickled quail’s eggs (all of these dishes are pictured in the gallery above).
The moment I bit into a quail’s egg and its warm yolk exploded in my mouth was the moment I started to cry--out of sheer joy and sensory overwhelm, and perhaps the influence of an earlier-than-usual serving of beer. That emotion tipped even further over the line with the presentation of a terra cotta flower pot bursting with sprigs of carrot greens emerging from soil that was covering a thick, bright green sauce made of asparagus. All of it was meant to be eaten with our fingers. "There better not be anything left in that pot when I get back," a waiter/chef playfully taunted. The edible dirt turned out to be finger-licking good. As were courses that followed for which they provided forks: grilled baby cucumbers with chamomile buds, parsley, berries and fermented pea "miso"; onions with green strawberry sauce and lemon thyme; and pike perch wrapped in grilled cabbage. If there was an off note in the whole lunch, it was dessert; but perhaps carrots and sea buckthorn (whatever that is) just aren’t my kind of sweets.
After 25 courses and seven wines, we were ushered into the kitchen. Though the dining room was winding down from lunch, only the kitchen areas nearest the patrons showed signs of slowing; the rest are bustling all day and night. Right off the dining room is where the snacks portion of the meal is plated and larger dishes are garnished. "It’s very busy here," says Nutter. "With running the snacks, it’s almost as hard to plate them as it is to eat them," he jokes, adding that the proliferation of food allergies, which Noma happily accommodates, can make serving a bit complicated. "If you have a table of five and three of them have food allergies you have to be prepared to present the right version of the dish to each patron."
Just around the corner are ovens to heat the bread and ice-cream machines for the desserts. This is also where they put together a dish that had debuted that week, sorrel leaf and cricketpaste. A shallow bowl is frozen full of ice; they pour a little liquid nitrogen on top of the ice; someone stands nearby with a pot of water; the ends of the sorrel stems are dipped in the water and then held on the ice until the water freezes, so it appears as if the sorrel is growing out of the ice. The grasshoppers have been freeze-dried and turned into a paste that’s tucked inside the sorrel leaves. Remove leaves from ice and enjoy.
Out back behind the restaurant is a hut in which a Big Green Egg awaits to grill the pike perch in cabbage leaves and smoke the carrots that were paired with hay ash.
Back inside a different doorway and up the stairs is the private dining room, seating up to 15; to the left and through double doors where music is blaring are two kitchens--one where chefs work from 6:00 a.m to 6:00 p.m. making dinner for the staff, served at 5:00 every day ("Looks like we’re having burgers tonight!" says Nutter, peeking in) and the production kitchen where, Nutter says, "Everything starts."
In a way, though, everything starts in another kitchen, through another set of double doors: the test kitchen. It’s a small area that shares a large loft-like space with Noma’s offices. On a whiteboard where Redzepi and a few chefs are at work is a list of recipes in-the-works or being tweaked. At the top of the list: blueberries and ants (!). Near the test kitchen is a sort of mini growhouse where they store plants that have been brought in by a biodynamic farmer from an hour away.
The staff of Noma is roughly 70, including 20 chefs and as many as 30 volunteers at a time. Many of those volunteers spend time foraging in nearby wooded areas and beaches; in fact, I was told during lunch, one had come back to the restaurant with just-plucked chanterelles that were spontaneously scattered, in a field-to-table flourish, on my plate of braised ox cheeks moments before being presented to me.
The volunteers work without pay for however long they can afford in order to gain experience and, they hope, a position. But open jobs are few and far between."There’s no strict hierarchy like you see in a lot of kitchens where if you’re an apprentice you shut up and don’t talk to us," Nutter says. "Everyone’s opinion is valued. If you have a good idea that’s time saving or a good idea for the menu, why not encourage it rather than trample all over it?"
That collaborative spirit is embodied by what they call "Projects." Every week another person becomes head chef for a project. On Saturday nights, after dinner service, the chefs gather. "We all pile into the small kitchen downstairs and taste and criticize until 2 or 3 in the morning," Nutter reports gleefully.
With long hours and a wildly creative work environment, no doubt more yet-unimagined dishes will emerge from those kitchens soon. In the meantime, we’ll be back for the ants and blueberries as soon as we can.