René Redzepi, Noma: Finger in the Wind

The recent opening of Noma in its new location in Copenhagen has for the most part ended speculation about Rene Redzepi’s highly anticipated project. Food publications, social media, and digital forums are inundated with images and details of each dish presented right down to the nanosecond; some rare seafood obtained from the pristine waters of a remote obscure place was flashed briefly in a technical cooking process to get it just so. While most of us have waited patiently for our turn at the new tables in dining room washed by sunlight at lunch and shining like a beacon in the dark winter nights of Copenhagen, the precious few pundits of the media world have had a head start. Waxing rhapsodic they have relayed to the world minutiae about the perfection of each morsel of food, the ambience, the team, design and more. That said the primal flavored ocean experience during the present seafood season certainly takes you on an effluvious, delectable journey with copycat versions already emerging from the many Instagrammed images beamed out accompanied by details of flavors and techniques.

Noma, for me, is more than a just a restaurant, a dining experience, or a trophy visit for food obsessed fetishists calling for reservations the moment they open on the ticketing systems. It is much more than René Redzepi’s dream realized and one needs time to absorb, reflect on and understand it (and there is a little selfish part of me that does not want to share it in its entirety). Never a fan of food critiques or blow by blow accounts of food experiences, it seems pointless to go into details of the current tasting menu. The sea snail variations, the smoked roe plated like a starfish, to the desserts that included a plankton cream sponge cake have in some cases already been tweaked, as evident in Redzepi’s IG feed. An ebullient Redzepi smiles as he poses with guests and when he stops by the table, indicative of his satisfaction for now with what he and his team have accomplished. In my multiple visits to Noma over the years it has never been about the food or about taking precious notes of each beautiful presentation but about the energy that surrounds the place. It’s a portent of what is to come in the world of food. René Redzepi is the guy holding a wet finger in the wind  to determine the direction to head to and unleash a deluge of new concepts and ideas.

Noma is a progressive food movement spearheaded by one man, the real heart and soul of Noma, René Redzepi, a man with a desire to make the impossible possible. In a previous conversation with me he said, “Noma is something that was deemed impossible but became possible. I honestly have this feeling inside of me that whatever I dream of, however crazy it seems there is a sense that it could work. My world in a way has become one where nothing is impossible at the moment.”

The man who has laid the grounds for fraternity building in the food industry believes that an omen or key to the future is sharing of knowledge, building networks and communities that belong within a larger community. He understands that by working alone or just being super competitive you may be successful but not as longstanding a model as when you progress in a community.

Redzepi seems to thrive under pressure and as the cynosure of the food world he has created an original food space, actually several different spaces connected by the 85ft hallway that runs along the prep kitchens, fermentation chamber, barbecue, storage, cooking, dishwashing stations, staff lounge, and a private dining room. The new home of Noma, designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, is a former depot for naval mines and spread over 11 buildings with over 20,000 sq ft allocated to the gardens still being planted. There is a rooftop greenhouse under construction as well as other structures in the complex. Point taken with the hard hat hanging on one of the columns in the central kitchen area, that it is still a work in progress. Redzepi was also observed fiddling with the controls of a light panel evidencing his finger is on the pulse or lights of his new playhouse.

Three seasonal menus planned will follow the ingredient flows in the region. The first menu from the oceans will be followed in the Summer by vegetables from the land  and then in the Fall from the forests and wilderness. The food served in the 40 seat dining room during the ocean phase is anything but simple fueled by the Nordic ethos of simple, clean living and using the best of seasonal products. The seafood is presented in its natural form , enhanced by complex sauces and presented in the case of all the shellfish on the menu in its shells, even using razor clam shells as utensils. My Danish dining companion who had lived her whole life in the region gasped at each course exclaiming she had never before seen the crustaceans, the seaweeds or even the cod head served on the bone unlike the boiled version she had grown up with. The seasonal menus will probably attract diehard fans back for each season so reservations are predicted to get harder to land. Dang!

It is impossible to overlook the influence of this Nordic outpost on the restaurant industry around the world. Chefs, cooks and industry professionals will take their cues going forward on sourcing ingredients, seasonally, sustainably and thoughtfully. It did not all happen overnight as Redzepi says it was the result of twelve years of work exploring, experimenting and comprehending their region to finally arrive at this level of understanding.

Welcomed at the curb by team members awaiting guests in the freezing temperatures, frozen whiskers and all (some even outfitted in arctic level construction gear), we headed towards the entrance. A beaming Redzepi along with members of entire team cheers guests entering through the massive wooden doors into the warmth of the restaurant. The banzai style greeting was matched up with two finger victory salute in Japanese style, maybe a holdover from Noma Japan the first international pop up. The spacious lounge leading off the foyer is  where guests to wait to be seated or just hang out after the repast. Most guests seemed loathe to leave during my visit  and not just because of the cold outside.

Guests get a tour of the different work areas along the long hallway lined with seafood tanks , collections of serve ware and collectibles from the Noma pop ups,  lit by natural light from the windows lining the exterior wall. One stop on the tour is at the dishwashing domain of Ali Sonko, the Gambian member of the staff, one of the three members to have earned a stake in the ownership of the world class restaurant. Redzepi  does not own the entire operation himself but has a partner from the US with a similar interest and commitment in the propagation of a new food culture.

The explorations of the Noma gang en famille into Japan, Australia and Mexico have influenced not just the kitchen but also the design of the new space, the tablescape and decor. The muted colors of eggshell blue, taupe and grey play off nicely with the clean Danish  motif of the space. Interiors designed by David Thulstrup are outfitted with furniture by Dinesan, a family run Danish wood  manufacturer. Redzepi says their latest overseas playground on the beach, under the open skies of Tulum, Mexico led to the large skylights flooding the interior with natural light and the open feel. The lines between the exterior and interior will probably blur even more as the temperatures warm up and the greenery replaces the wood chips on the grounds visible from the floor to ceiling windows of the dining room. The existing wooden planked walkway will probably snake through a green meadow in summer when I hope to return. Across the lake stands the massive Amager Bakke waste incinerator project, smoke stacks and all is designed to offer an all weather ski slope, a recreational climbing wall and a roof top garden in the future . This is presumably where those who cannot land a table at Noma will munch on their picnic smørrebrød with binoculars pointed to the food temple across the way.

When Redzepi first announced to the world that he was closing Noma, at the pinnacle of its success, many theories were floated about including it being a ploy to gain publicity. Redzepi responded with, “Publicity you can get in so many ways, and for us we are really lucky in that aspect. We didn’t have to change our restaurant to get that publicity. We have more exposure than ever before and I would say it’s actually a huge risk for us to change in this way.”

Redzepi: “Ultimately everyone has the same dream: Of building a place where they can work with their craft and make people happy.” The making people happy part has become important at Noma and René‘s mother in law (who has taken on the role of happiness monitor) was walking around the open kitchens during service chatting to the staff at the work stations. As a consequence of this subject being addressed at the last MAD Symposium in 2016 many other restaurants in the world have since followed suit especially with the four day work routine allowing family time for the staff.

There is an egalitarian hierarchy at Noma and everyone is expected to pick up the slack regardless of their assigned station or position. Rosio Sánchez the former pastry chef at Noma who has opened her own projects since leaving Noma says, “At Noma I joked about ‘Welcome to Noma’ and now you are responsible for this, that, and sometimes all over the place but I really like that you are expected to be a part of everything. If you are in pastry you will go over to help in the appetizer section if they need help. It’s so simple that you help your neighbor and that’s different in the States and other parts of the world.”

Redzepi’s team selection focuses on motivation, passion, a curiosity, drive, ability to adapt and think on their feet, to persevere and be happy to be part of the team. He leads by example and as contradictory as it seems by being one of them. During my visit he took a break to serve himself some lunch in the staff lounge just like at the old location and it reminded me of my bucket list desire for a staff meal at Noma. It is important to him that the energy, the presence and commitment of the entire team is evident to the guests and no effort is spared to make guests both returning and new feel at home. The detailed staff briefings led by Redzepi before each service are partly instrumental in making the experience exceptional.

Three weeks before opening what will be the most scrutinized restaurant of the year, it was a race against time and the entire team donned hard hats and picked up tools to pitch in to open the doors on February 16th. There was no doubt in any one’s mind that he would make it happen as he seems to get charged up to perform when his back is against the wall. There was a lot at stake as he said when he originally made the decision: “It would be easy to stay put instead of taking on this huge risk and continue doing what we are doing now and keep the status quo. We are actually going to close everything and almost start again in a new space, with new rhythms and a new soul. Once you know that it is the right way to move forward even if it’s risky you have to go with it. If we actually nail it, it’s going to be amazing.”

It is!

A few years ago the pressure of living in the constant limelight became difficult to manage and he took time off to put things into perspective. He also shared the difficult phase in public. It allowed many others to speak out and resulted in a shift in the organization of restaurants around the world.

A conscious effort has been made to address the gender inequalities a much debated topic of current conversations in the food industry. Mette Soberg is the first female R& D chef at Noma who took over last year. That afternoon at the end of lunch service she was heading out to spiffy up her new work space in a free-standing glass house in the compound.

The frigid temperatures had not deterred a few feathered visitors from descending on the freezing cold waters of the lake outside. Redzepi said that they expected to see more bird life along the seasonal migrations. Several other glass structures were still in the construction phase and soon the embankment sloping down to the lake, per Redzepi will have green shoots emerging, and by summer they might be foraging in a sea of green just outside of their doors.

When Redzepi speaks so assuredly about that transformation it is easy to visualize it and believe it will happen. It’s that inherent charisma and the conviction in his words that makes you want to believe him as he talks about building a new sense of tradition while acknowledging that it may not all happen under his guard. “That whole task and job is a very long one, it needs a lifetime of work and may turn out to be the next generations body of work this is why we are constantly searching for ways that take us to the next level of comprehending our processes and work.”

A candid admission by a leader of the food world about his confidence level “I have had moments when it dips completely and doubts surface about everything you do and sometimes you doubt your whole professional existence. You think everything you are doing is crap and you are nobody and just a phony. I still get that at times.”

In spatial distance the new Noma is not far from its former home but the concept has time traveled to a future predicted and foreseen by a visionary chef who has already left a mark in the industry. Some things will stay the same, the maverick chef will still ride his  bicycle to work, Michelin will probably come knocking with a star or two and Noma will be back in the top tier of the Worlds 50 Best list this year in Bilbao. It’s a sure bet however, that with his love of challenges and reinvention, he may be pedaling in another direction in the near future.

Stay tuned.

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