‘We’ve met before’, I said, grasping him firmly by the mitt.
‘I know,’ he said.’ You bought me a pint.’
I goggled. And then I remembered.
Some years I interviewed Rene Redzepi for Market Kitchen, a TV series I was doing back then. He had come over for the 50 Best Restaurant Awards for the first time. I hadn’t a clue who he was, but Noma was tipped at the fastest rising newcomer that year. That part I knew. What I had forgotten, until he reminded me, was that after an agreeable natter for the cameras, I asked him what he was up to before the ceremonial gubbins started. There was an hour or so before the gastronomic great and good would start gathering for the evening’s f&g (fun & games).
‘Nothing’, he said.
Here, I thought, was a stranger in a strange land, without a friend in sight.
‘Let me buy you a pint at the pub across the road’, I said.
‘Ok,’ he said, and so we slipped into the Great Queen Street in Great Queen Street for a couple of pints.
And that was, oo, seven years ago now, and pretty much ten years since Noma opened its doors.
I’ve never been one for dashing to restaurants within a few days, or even weeks, of opening. I prefer to slip into a place when it’s had time to settle down and sort itself out, and then to eat and consider at leisure, unprompted by feeding frenzies and madcap media activity. Lazy? Well, maybe. Lazy like a fox I like to think. I think you get a better idea of the true potential of a chef and his team this way. Even so, ten years is quite a long settling-in period, even by my standards, but that’s how long it’d taken me to get to there.
There’s precious little external brouhaha to attract the eye, either. Noma is housed in a handsome, restrained, grey stone building down by the docks, and The interior, too, has a well-designed austerity, respecting the 19th century beams and cream colouring. It’s a clever combination of ancient and modern, each informing the other.
The greeting from Mr Redzepi, and indeed, what appeared to be the whole Noma brigade, set the course for one of the many joys of the evening – the fluency and friendliness of the service, largely carried out by the cooking staff in relays. These turn out to be a) extraordinarily youthful (at least they appeared that way to me); b) international in background – Americans, English, Japanese, Australians, Guatemalans, all sorts; and c) heavily tattooed. They were, without exception, charming and eloquent in explaining the qualities of each dish. I don’t suppose they were often quizzed about the forensic detail as they were by Anders Schonnemann, a prince among men and photographers, and myself, but they responded with good humour and great knowledge.
Of course, this doubling up of cooks as waiters has been remarked on before, but the effect is to diminish the gap between the kitchen and the customer, who, more normally, occupy as different worlds as Earth and Pluto. This is all part of the Noma culture, which is determinedly democratic, decent and remarkably undemonstrative.
Anders and I ate 12 small dishes, 7 more substantial ones and 2 puddings. We drank 9 wines, all organic, biodynamic or natural, through which Mads Kleppe guided us with forensic knowledge and mad-eyed passion. I haven’t a clue what the bill was because the saintly Anders paid, but I imagine it wasn’t small.
In a conceptual sense, I’m not sure Rene Redzepi and his team are doing anything that the likes of Marc Veyrat, Michel Bras and Edouard Loubet weren’t doing in France a dozen or so years ago. They were also foraging for forgotten or ignored herbs, fruits, vegetables, roots and berries in their regions to create new culinary accents and gastronomic emphases within the traditions of French haute cuisine.
However, what is radical, refreshing, even shocking, and, above all, delightful about Noma, is not simply the way it has dispensed with the ritualistic trappings of French fine dining, but also the way in which the Noma dishes extend a chef’s accepted palette and palate. Varying notes of acidity ring like chimes of a glass harmonica. There are touches of bracing astringency, the snap of bitterness, the salt and yeast tang that comes from fermentation, acridity of smoke. Pine needles, juniper, sorrels of different hues, rhubarb, fermented pears, nasturtium leaves and lingon berries are all deployed around other vegetables, fruits, fish or meat to provide defining contrasts. Redzepi has a playful way of combining textures, too – moss and ceps; berry with rose petals; leek with cods’ roe; meaty turbot with fleshy sea vegetables.
The play of sharp notes continues through what might be thought to be quiet, docile ingredients. Even butters and creams have a distinctive lactic, even cheesy, tang that offsets their smoother, more voluptuous textures. These small details set up the rhythms within each dish, and between each dish.
While the range of raw materials and techniques embrace the arcane and the unusual, the kitchen is not a slave to technology and novelty. The turbot, a magnificent piece of fish, was simply roasted and basted in butter, which added a voluptuous, nutty richness to its natural savour, offset by the fleshy, saline beach cabbage. I’m not sure how the lobster was cooked, but it was a marvel of freshness, precision and simplicity, sweet and firm, overlaid with peppery nasturtium leaves as a kind of seasoning. A rib of beef, which had been ‘cured’ in clarified butter before being cooked long and slow in a water bath, had a rich, almost decaying note, counterbalanced by sharp lingon berries.
As far as I was concerned, some dishes (peas, pine and chamomile; caramelized milk and cod liver; Skagen shrimps and ramsons, rhubarb root and flowers; lobster and nasturtium leaves; potato and caviar; roasted turbot and beach cabbage; beef rib and lingon berries) were illuminatingly brilliant, while others (Nordic coconut; cheese cookie, rocket and stems; pickled and smoked quails egg; leek and cods roe; white and green asparagus, cream and pine) didn’t quite achieve the same pleasure-provoking inspiration. Out of so many dishes, not all are going to appeal to the same degree. In fact, a meal would be almost unbearable if they did. But there was no mistaking the marvellous clarity and lightness of touch, or the way the essence of each dish was defined.
Was Noma the Best Restaurant in the World? (It was knocked off the top slot in 2013) Of course, it’s a nonsense (but marketing genius) to say there is such a thing, and I’m not going to get into that kind of futile league table. It’s like arguing that Leonardo da Vinci was a greater artist that Michelangelo, Vladimir Horowitz was a finer keyboard titan than Sergei Rachmaninov or Lionel Messi is a more accomplished footballer than Pele was. There is room in the world for them all.
All I can say is that every dish and every part of the Noma operation showed a brilliant and distinctive sense of personality, an individual vision of what food and eating can be. It gave me new experiences and opened up different gastronomic horizons. Most off all, best of all, it was huge fun. Well worth the wait, in fact.
1401 Copenhagen K,
Tel: 00 45 32 96 32 97
NB. The magnificent, brooding portrait of Rene Redzepi was taken by Anders Schnonnemann.