Noma Blog Post

Peter Evans

Peter Evans

Executive Chef

I was really excited to get tickets to attend the Phaidon book launch, and I must at this point, add a special thanks to Simon Hulstone for his hard work, in trying to obtain the books for The Staff Canteen, which Simon had tried to arrange for signed from Noma, and then suggested the book launch evening.

On a very wet Friday in early November, I set off armed with six reserved tickets and "Billy No Mates". I'm en-route to the Free Mason Hall just off Drury Lane in Lonon's theatre land, strangely not quite knowing what to expect from the evening.

Noma is simply one of those places, which quite literately "Everyone is talking about", not just chefs, but the main and trade press, bloggers and critics alike. I've spoken with Chefs who will claim that it is the best meal that they have ever eaten, which when you consider where such a statement has come from, then this is huge praise indeed. Noma has become almost a pilgrimage for Chefs, it has become the place that they have to eat, and many of them, on far more than one occasion.

So what is all the fuss and hype about? A small Nordic country with less than six million habitants, a country that previously had, had, little or no reputation for its food culture, suddenly had became the focus of attention for the great and the good of the food world. Noma began in August 2003 when three Danes set out on a journey or tour of the North-Atlantic.

A young Chef Renè Redzepi and Mads Refslund also a Chef and best friend of Renè, were accompanied by a cookery writer Claus Meyer. The three men covered a seventeen day voyage of the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland, often in sub zero temperatures. It was Claus Meyer that offered the then only twenty five year old Renè the opportunity to become Chef and partner, with himself and entrepreneur Kristian Byrge in a new venture, which was to be situated in an eighteenth century warehouse that had had been part of the cultural centre for Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes.

A building situated in a roomy warehouse loft space in the Quayside just on the edge of Christian and unspoilt section of old Copenhagen, this would become "The World's best restaurant in 2010". 

So what do we know of René Redzepi?

Other than, in my opinion, he's a look-a-like for Paul Heaton, from the House Martins and Beautiful South!! Renè was born December 1977 his Mother from Denmark, with his Farther Ethnic Albanian from the former Yugoslavia, now Macedonia.

Renè spent his early years in Yugoslavia, before the start of the independence wars that saw the country torn apart by years of civil war and ethnic cleansing, leaving it divided into the states and regions that we know today. What do we know of Renè the Chef? We know that it is something that he simply happened to choose - to be a Chef, there was no great thought plan, or inspiration that delivered Renè into the culinary arena, it simply just happened.

He began his career in Denmark at the restaurant Pierre André , which quickly gained a star. He then travelled to El Bulli as a guest in 1998 returning to work in the kitchen's of Ferran Adriá, and worked there for a season in 1999. Two stints followed at Kong Hans Kælder, in Denmark, these were punctuated by a four month Stagè at Thomas Keller's The French Laundry in California. So what is Nordic cuisine, a cuisine that even by the locals had been frowned upon, a cuisine that almost never really existed. René and his team have run the gauntlet, have had "Seal Fucker" Whale Penis and the Blubber Restaurant thrown at them, from his own peers within his own country.

What René and Noma set out to achieve was something very brave, it was at a time when the Danish food scene was at a very low point, you could argue that at this point, anything new would grab attention, which Noma certainly did. By contrast to many of the restaurants that René had worked in the "Raw Materials" in Denmark, are simply so different from, those of mainland Europe, it's extreme winters make it often a hostile and a very difficult country to produce products, purely based around climate and growing conditions. What René and Noma set out to create was a cuisine that would embrace the natural materials, the climate, terrain, air and water had to offer.

It is a cuisine that links elements across each dish, so if you're served oysters, then you can expect it will be accompanied and enhanced by plants or seaweed that grow in or around the sea line. It's a cuisine that works at one with Nature, is respectful to what the terrain offers, a food style that is often driven by the change in climate and very often by accident.

It's been a difficult journey for René, he personally struggled in the beginning of this journey with the notion of why he should limit himself to what is potentially a very small larder, when a world with his CV, was very much his oyster. He and Noma stuck to their guns, the opening reviews were good but nothing out of the ordinary, people came to see what "All the fuss was about", but it wasn't really that stand alone or that unique. Renè described that they had to explore the seasons much better, and in much greater depth, dishes that are of the here and now, seek out or forage the hundreds of wild mushrooms, berries, roots. Each dish should create a sensation, be cooked with skills and techniques and with the right staff, that was very much the core that built the Noma that we know today.

So back to Friday, I arrive in the stunning hall, it's almost Church like, my mind flashes thoughts of untold handshakes, secret whispers between strangely dressed Masons. I walk past a man, a huge stack of books, people busy scurrying around, checking lightning, drapes and point of sale promotion scrolls that hang and decorate. As I walk past the books I notice that someone, who looks very ordinary is simply signing the books, it takes a second glance and cross reference check to the point of sale, to confirm, that it is indeed René, at this point, it's panic, there is currently the most famous Chef in the world, a Chef whose restaurant is now visited by likes of Adriá and Blumenthal, who can no longer claim the crowning glory of the best in the world, and he's looking straight at me.

Gulp! I walk across introduce myself congratulate him on his success and how much I'm looking forward to watching the presentation later that evening. Like with so many Chefs that I've met recently I can't help be overwhelmed how down to earth, and simply very ordinary he is, I use the term ordinary in what I hope is a positive way, and highlights a complete absence of ego. I spend the next two hours with AlexW and Chefben, along with a selection of Alex's team, who are beavering away preparing canapés on trellised tables in the centre of large ornate room for the Danish embassy guests attending the demonstration that evening. It's not long and Renè walks in to the room, he introduce himself to us all, one by one and also members of his team, that have travelled with him to demonstrate at the evening show case event.

He talks freely and openly, and is really the perfect gentleman, his English is embarrassingly good, we are just so lazy here in the UK, but that's another debate. Renè takes up a chair, opens his laptop and begins to type; I can't help but wonder what value there would be on the information contained on that hard drive. Ah, not to steal it I hasten to add, Chefs. Just before the main event, I collect the six books which are presented in a green hessian style Phaidon dual handled bag, and quickly look for my seat, the room is full of high profile Chefs, bloggers, critics restaurateurs - all here to hear the man from the "Whale Blubber" restaurant speak. He's come to talk about food he says, and what that means, he wants to understand the concept, and the journey that not only he has been on but also his team. He introduces his team on the stage, Torsten, Ben and Ali, who's a regular and has dined at Noma nine times in under a year.

The evening begins with beautifully shot video, that takes us through the core elements of what Renè his team and the Noma/Nordic food concept is about, the harmony, with nature, it's all about the food. Next up a course by course demonstration, that details typical dishes that are, or have featured on the Noma menu, we understand the concept and journey behind "Shitty potatoes" or two year old carrots that on the outside are leather but inside Rene describes them, as better than any meat he's tasted, there is even beets that have been left on the fire for, well, far too long, really.

It is difficult not to be inspired by this man, a man that has clearly had a vision, and also shown great bravery, in pursuing and delivering his beliefs, he stuck to his guns, he's put everything he had on red, and as the ball has span and span and bounced into the black? For René and the team, it has for the moment landed on red. He's now the man in high demand, he's the face on every food based publication, website and blog, with this success, comes added pressure, it brings the "Tick in box" diners that now all want a table at the "World's Best Restaurant".

From what I've seen it is very different, and I can see that this will not be received with glowing reviews by all, cries of "The Emperor's new clothes", are, explains René, sometimes a theme in letters received at the restaurant.

What next for Noma? where does it go? They continue to look for new ideas; inspiration, they have a research and development chef, they receive on average eight CV's a day to work at Noma. René is a little less than forth-coming on how long the concept can further go, in terms of a timescale. They plan to review where they are after ten years. I can't see a Noma template that operates around the world in various countries, as other high profile chefs have achieved. Noma is a one off that is so in tune with its location it's people and nature, it being anywhere other than its current location.

So after the presentation, we are invited to ask questions, before the book signing, where at precisely this point in the evening I notice that my very heavy six books are machine cellophane wrapped, gripped vice-like around the book, like that CD that you can't wait to open and spend ten minutes trying to open. Quickly a queue is forming and it starts to twist and turn out of the room, it is at this point, I wonder why having spent almost two hours with Renè I didn't have the hindsight to get the books signed and avoid the queue and make the pub, like so many of many fellow forum members!?

But in the name of determination queue I do, and as I approach the front of the queue I can see why this process is a long one, everyone wants their photo taken, and Renè seems genuinely happy to oblige.

Six books are placed with care on the table "To the Staff Canteen" from Renè Redezepi "The Staff Canteen, I've read that." I'm sure that is just politeness on his part! 

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Peter Evans

Peter Evans

Executive Chef 25th November 2010

Noma Blog Post