Here’s the challenge. There’s an ant from Jutland, Denmark, that naturally tastes of lemongrass. For the full flavour it needs to be eaten alive and you want to serve it to diners in London. This is a signature dish, of course, at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that is lauded as the best in the world. Now Noma is opening as a pop-up restaurant at Claridge’s in London on July 28, for 10 days. For the executive chef of Claridge’s, Martyn Nail, and for the proprietor of Noma, René Redzepi, this is a vast culinary gamble because neither has ever been involved in a pop-up.
Take the ants, for a start. Twenty-two thousand of the critters are needed for the daily dish (served mildly chilled and anaesthetised on a lettuce leaf, since you ask). The Danish supplier will have to bring them over personally. He’ll also, apparently, need to keep ants from different locations separated, otherwise they’ll fight to the death – a bit like football fans.
At the beginning of this year the staff at Claridge’s realised that during the Olympics they had no bookings at all for their famous art deco banqueting suite. “We brainstormed some ideas to try to bring in some business,” says Nail. “We heard that Noma was closed for a summer break at exactly the same time. We sent our general manager out to Copenhagen to try to persuade them.”
We’re standing in the basement kitchen of Claridge’s on a Sunday with three weeks to go. They’ve just finished cooking breakfast for Arnold Schwarzenegger and other guests that weekend. Going over some of the Noma dishes with them is the chef de cuisine from Copenhagen, Matt Orlando. He chips in: “I was very sceptical. We’d never done anything like it. Our safe zone is 35 for lunch and 40 for dinner. Here they wanted to do 176 covers a night. But now I’m excited – it’s a chance to show we can do something on this scale.”
Orlando persuaded his wife to cancel their summer holiday, with the promise of a berth in Claridge’s during the Olympics. There followed four months of exchanges between the two establishments, so that Claridge’s could learn the Noma way. It famously sources its food locally, much of it wild – but not quite as wild as some of its dishes. Orlando came to London to visit British suppliers and to specify his very particular requirements. Samphire of the right intensity, baby celeriacs weighing no more than 150g, rye sourdough with the correct crumb and level of bake. All of these are now lined up in front of Orlando. Will “the man from Del Monte” say yes or no? Well, the vegetables are fine but the bread needs more work.
When I dined at Noma in early 2011, I found that the team there subscribed to an esoteric freemasonry, a sort of gastronomic cult into which they had inducted 50 suppliers and a separate army of freelance foragers. To open in London, even for 10 days, they had to have just as much confidence in the ingredients. “We’ve worked for many exacting chefs, but Noma know exactly what they want and how to achieve it,” says Leila Aghdassi of the London Bakery, which supplies Claridge’s. She has now been sent two sourdough cultures by Noma and has produced more than 10 batches to get this far, and they’re not quite there yet. Miles Irving, expert forager and wild food author, has agreed to supply 18kg of woodland sorrel, 30kg of rye grass and 10kg of Alexanders seeds, all to make the intense herbal emulsions Noma is famous for: “It’s not often you’re asked for such original stuff – we love pushing the limits.” And it’s Martin Mash, director of specialist vegetable supplier Mash, who’s sorting the celeriac. He’s also sourcing orange, purple, white and yellow 3in baby carrots: “The English growers have responded really well – everyone wants to get involved.”
In the kitchen of Claridge’s, Orlando is dispensing a thousand detailed instructions to Nail and his team: poach the oysters for precisely 45 seconds with the shells closed, don’t freeze the bed of stones, do freeze the buttermilk. What about the vital red seaweed oil? Orlando has brought that with him in the taxi from Gatwick.
Nail is happy to adopt Noma’s ways. He went over to work as a humble sous chef in March, shelling and skinning hundreds of peas, just to indoctrinate himself: “It’s amazing what they do. Redzepi’s going to leave his mark like Escoffier.” And the chef’s office in Claridge’s has been turned into a temporary Noma shrine with colour photos of the dishes they’ve chosen to feature, each with a small British flourish endorsed by Redzepi and Orlando. Diners can expect three of the famous Noma snacks to start with – culinary jokes such as the radish in its own earth (a savoury crumble with a dash of London beer). And there will be five courses to follow. One combines caviar with a quintessentially British scone and clotted cream. Another will be a Noma take on Lancashire hotpot, with neck of lamb marinated for 24 hours and braised for 48 hours. And a pud will combine native raspberries with lemon thyme, marjoram, Earl Grey tea and green juniper oil.
For the banqueting hall, special Scandi furniture and crockery has been ordered, all approved personally by Redzepi, who will be on hand throughout the 10 days. Two catering colleges are sending a score of students desperate to work in the kitchens, while biodynamic wines are being added to Claridge’s cellar. And on a rehearsal day the service team will get to grips with the sheer pace of the Noma cabaret, where chefs often emerge with the dishes they’ve cooked. It normally takes much longer than 10 days for a new restaurant to bed in. Ten days is all Claridge’s has. And London’s record with pop-ups is patchy. Pierre Koffmann did brilliantly in a tent on Selfridges’ roof three years ago, but Thomas Keller did not fare so well at Harrods last autumn.
This is a high-risk enterprise. If I’ve whetted your appetite, I now have bad news for you. Folk who wanted to dine had to register their interest in advance. Ten thousand did so. Then, when booking opened online, the 3,620 places sold out in two hours. So if you still want to eat the Noma way, you’ll have to go to Copenhagen.
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