Noma came to me before I went to Noma.
René Redzepi’s flagship restaurant in Copenhagen planned to announce on Monday that 2024 would be the last year it will be open to normal business, as it transforms itself into a different type of business, Noma 3.0. Booking a table for farewell dinners at Noma 2.0 will undoubtedly be near impossible, but that’s been the story for years. As I was writing about Noma in 2018, two months after the restaurant took its current shape and location, I had a former colleague’s reservation on my back.
But by then, Noma had already been in New York for years.
Here they were in bite-size entrees made of reindeer lichen and fluffy fish skin, but they weren’t even called appetizers or entertainment – they were suddenly “snack”.
Noma was here in the orange berries of wild sea buckthorn, which began to appear in cocktails, jams, sauces, and cheese dishes. It was here that Mr. Redzepi and his cooks gathered, cut up and cut out the heart-shaped sour leaves of other plants in search of the building blocks of a purely regional cuisine that followed the principles of the New Scandinavian manifesto. .
In Noma, when natural materials such as stones and twigs did not completely replace the plates, they were lined up on the plates. Credit… Erik Refner for The New York Times
Here was the burning straw that scented individual ingredients, and sometimes entire dining rooms. It was here in the sharp acidity of the pickled and fermented ingredients served at the start of the meal and the gentle sweetness of parsnips and other vegetables that replaced fruit in desserts.
It was here that slates, rocks, shells, logs and handmade rustic pottery were beginning to replace delicate French porcelain as the objects of choice for carrying food from the kitchen to the table.
It was in the bony, opaque, angular, off-center, unpredictable, odd-smelling wines made in the Jura and Loire and elsewhere by natural and biodynamic methods – in bottles that had been cult in France for years but exploded like rockets. They rose to global fame when Pontus Elofsson, Noma’s first wine director, made them an almost exclusive focus on his list.
These and other Noma-isms began hitting New York City’s shores soon after 2010, when the restaurant itself was voted the best in the world by a British magazine using a highly opaque, off-center, and odd-smelling methodology.
Other restaurants – for example El Bulli and Chez Panisse – have been widely imitated. But I don’t think any restaurant has come up with so many ideas and stolen so quickly by so many places in so many other cities. Noma invented many pieces and they got around. Sometimes these pieces can seem like attitudes looking for an attitude.
In the beginning, especially from 2012 to 2015, chefs were copying what Mr. Redzepi did without understanding why he was doing it. For a while, when you walked into a brand new dining room with a modern Scandinavian look in New York, you could confidently predict that you wouldn’t be eating tomatoes that night. Reason? They don’t grow well in Denmark so Noma doesn’t serve them.
While I was forming an idea of the real Noma from all these distant echoes, I was like someone who had never seen Michael Jackson, trying to imagine what their concert was like by seeing a subway artist moonwalk.
Then I went to Copenhagen, and at the end of a two or three hour lunch, all the Nomads came together like puzzle pieces to form one whole picture. The restaurant that inspired many imitators was fluid, elegant, consistent.
Two things surprised me the most. The first was how original Noma still looks, even though I’ve actually been watching his sizzling movie for ten years. The other was how fun it was.
Few of the Noma-affected restaurants have caught on to it. As every available worker rushed to the front door to greet an incoming group, I thought, “How stale” – then watched the newcomers smile as I did.
Like anyone who spent more than 10 minutes on Instagram, I knew the meal would be arranged in a striking, elaborate manner without looking artificial – the prevailing visual motif was a homage to natural forms. Yet I was unprepared for the shimmering beauty of what came to the table, like the iridescent silhouette of a starfish smeared on a plate with edible paint and covered with the glittering egg of wild Danish trout.
And I discovered the flavors of Noma. An unattractive liquid that looked like it had leaked from an oyster or mussel would turn into a sauce of pleasure and complexity that came in waves at you. The next course would do this again, but in a different tone in another volume. Such feats, repeated in variations that are never boring, are what make Mr. Redzepi a great chef, not just a sculptor working with materials that spoil after just a few days.
That day, I had dinner with former Times reporter Jeff Gordinier, who had just finished a book about his adventures with Mr. Redzepi (“Hungry: Don’t Eat, Stay On The Way, and Risk It All With The World’s Greatest Chef”). At the end of lunch we were given a compound tour. The fermentation chamber was filled with jars of grains, yeasts, and fruits whose molecules were broken down and rearranged. The research and development laboratory was ready for new discoveries. The greenhouse was under construction.
Mr. Redzepi explained that the architecture is modular. Any building, any room can be reused in the future. Even the kitchen.
“We’re here for life,” he said to Mr Gordinier. “But we’re not here for one thing. It can change.”
I did not anticipate that Mr. Redzepi would one day decide to reinvent Noma as something more than a restaurant. But I can’t say that I will be completely sad when he leaves. In many ways, its excellence has become inseparable from the culture of overkill that now defines the windswept high peaks of fine dining.
The competition to become “the best restaurant in the world,” a meaningless title but with an irresistible appeal to chefs and headline writers, has resulted in crooked cooking, crooked service, bloated checksums, stuffed menus, and hours stolen from customers’ lives and many more. more hours, paid or unpaid, than the lives of the chiefs and their workers. Most overcrowded restaurants can’t last a week without unpaid labor.
After getting rid of those pesky restaurateurs, Mr. Redzepi apparently plans to focus Noma on research and development of new products he can sell. Perhaps he could ask a small team of scientists to look for ways to reduce great dining experiences to a more humane dimension that is both more humane, as Noma offers the lucky eaters.
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