At 11.30pm Mads Kleppe, a Norwegian sommelier at the world’s most talked about restaurant, clinked an empty wine bottle (one of many he had expertly served) and silenced our party of 14 in the private dining room. Before dessert, he wanted to take us on a tour of Noma’s kitchen.
Half a dozen chefs were still hard at work. Three were standing around a table cracking and nibbing beech nuts, destined for a dish we had been served with four different varieties of old Scandinavian grains and a watercress emulsion.
In the corner facing a computer was Victor Wågman, a Swedish chef in charge of Noma’s working relationship with more than 50 suppliers. He was in conversation with sous chef Sam Miller, from Nottingham, England. They were earnestly discussing the hot weather and the impact it would have on their suppliers and menus.
In front of us stood an American, Matt Orlando, executive head chef and second in command to René Redzepi, who opened Noma in 2003. “Six years ago I was working for Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck in Bray, England, and my roommate was Danish,” Orlando said. “Redzepi came to see Heston and we all went out for a drink afterwards. That’s what brought me here the first time.” Thomas Keller persuaded him to go to New York as senior sous chef at Per Se before he returned to Noma. “I am now married to a Dane, so I don’t think I’ll be leaving.”
Orlando also explained the fourth of our 11 courses – carrots that had been left in the ground over the winter so the sugar content breaks down to concentrate the flavour, then roasted and served with sorrel and Swedish black truffle sauce.
By this stage I had learnt that Noma employs 65 staff and serves no more than 70 customers a day, not including the private room it opens two to three nights a week. I knew that profitability would be slim. But I immediately reached for my notebook when Orlando confided that last year Noma recorded a profit of just Dkr80,000, or £10,000.
Money is not what drives these chefs, certainly not in the case of the many interns or stagiaires who apply to Noma every day for work experience. Handling these applications is another part of Orlando’s duties (there were 22 waiting in his in tray) and he is full of admiration for anyone prepared to work for free in a city as expensive as Copenhagen. He also makes sure that none leaves without experiencing Noma’s distinctive foraging trips.
These adventures – to farmland, beaches, lakes – always involve a chef and several stagiaires, who will leave not just with a knowledge of what Denmark has to offer but also what lies neglected back home. Orlando said: “The last time I went back to California I went hiking in the hills around San Diego and I couldn’t believe the abundance of herbs and flowers that I hadn’t previously been paying any attention to.”
These wild ingredients appeared throughout our meal, alongside moreish warm bread served with goats’ milk butter. As with any animated, food-obsessed group, there were quibbles, most notably about the absence of protein in all but two dishes, but most of the cooking was remarkable.
There were some striking combinations: cold razor clam, buttermilk and horseradish; and the finest slices of last season’s chestnuts arranged vertically in a bowl with cress and diced walnuts underneath. Also impressive was the sight of 14 chefs walking into the room, each carrying a heavy, smooth rock on which was splayed a grilled langoustine with a dipping sauce. Vegetables, each pickled in a different brine, were served with wild flowers and a pork sauce by a French waiter, who confessed: “You would never see a dish like this in a restaurant in France. That’s why I’m here.”
What distinguishes Noma from any of the leading restaurants I have been lucky enough to eat in is not just its inventiveness. Its location is wonderful too – right by the water’s edge, in an 18th-century warehouse built to process salt, cod and whale meat. Those who work here seem more like members of a sect than anything else, so attuned are they to the credo of the restaurant, as though they were under what could be described as “the Noma coma”.
But in spreading his principles so widely, in teaching so many to look at the wild ingredients that we have ignored for so long, Redzepi is doing us all a favour. Noma could only exist in Copenhagen, but those who have passed through its kitchens may soon bring its pleasures to a restaurant near you.
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