All photos by Mikkel Heriba
From live citrus ants to sea urchins on toast, there are few restaurants in this world that boast a menu quite so exotic as Noma.
Earlier this year, the highly-acclaimed Danish restaurant and winner of British magazine Restaurant’s “Best Restaurant in the World” accolade, announced it will be temporarily halting its operations in Copenhagen and moving the entire team – from dishwasher to director – to Australia for 10 weeks, starting January 2016.
Swapping its prime real estate in Copenhagen’s inner harbour for Sydney’s sunnier shorelines, the esteemed restaurant is set to open its pop-up operations on the Barangaroo waterfront.
Founded in 2003 by chef René Redzepi and Claus Meyer, Noma is widely celebrated for its reinvention and interpretation of Nordic cuisine, dishing up experimental concoctions, the likes of which include reindeer moss and roasted bone marrow.
Whether you think it’s pretentious novelty or culinary genius, nobody can deny the talented team at Noma their two-starred Michelin success.
But what does it really mean to hold the title of world’s best restaurant?
MAKE THE CUSTOMERS CRY
Katherine Bont, team leader at Noma, is sipping tamarind juice in the late afternoon sunshine when an elderly couple approaches, greeting her with a friendly embrace and a flood of gratitude.
“What a coincidence that we run into you today!” the lady says, passing over a small bag. “We just bought you this as a little thank you for the other night. We can’t stop talking about our evening. We didn’t get time to wrap it as we never imagined we’d bump into you here!”
Having dined at Noma earlier in the week, the couple had been so enamoured with the experience that the woman had started to cry at the dinner table.
That sort of service is no mean feat when you look at the size of the operation. With 75 staff encompassing more than 20 different nationalities, Noma operates on a scale like no other, serving 20,000 diners a year.
NORDIC EATS 2.0
The man behind the mania is René, a 37-year-old Dane who is widely credited as the re-inventor of Nordic cuisine, combining tenacious creativity and craftsmanship with an inimitable knowledge of his Scandinavian terroir.
And he truly leaves no stone unturned. His quest for ingredients will stretch from foraging amongst local fields for wild produce to sourcing horse mussels from the Faroe Islands, or the purest of water from Greenland.
It was René, of course, who initiated the move to Australia, having now taken several research trips, meeting with local communities, suppliers, farmers and chefs, and finding inspiration and ingredients from both sea and land.
“René is so inspired by Australia’s multi-faceted culture and the Indigenous foundation of the food. I think he just loves that the fresh produce is so unique – wildly different to Europe,” says Katherine during a sundrenched evening in Copenhagen.
THE DREAM GIG
Katherine first met René three years ago. Running a small hotel in Hokkaido, Japan, with her husband, they were restless and looking for a change when she discovered a tweet from René: “Are you a decent homosapien? Do you consider dedication, care and effort satisfying? If so, please apply for our front of house position.”
Packing her bags and flying halfway across the world for a week-long trial, she leapt into what was to be an invaluable experience for any prospective gourmand.
“I had spent all week preparing my résumé, mastering it to perfection – even binding it in leather – only to arrive and [have] them barely even look at it,” she laughs. “I was devastated!”
Three years on, and Katherine appears to have it all figured out. She’s now on her way to Australia with her dream job, spent last Christmas in Japan for Noma’s successful pop-up in Tokyo, and has amassed a loyal Instagram following in the tens of thousands – a tribe of aficionados following her each and every move as she posts raw and unfiltered snaps of Noma “behind the scenes”.
“He pushes each and every one of us in the team to be the best we can be,” she says of René, “And while it is hard work and a lot of pressure, he also makes sure we are well looked after.”
NUDGING THE BOUNDRIES
As a long-time champion in the foodie scene, many were shocked to see Noma hand over its title at Restaurant magazine’s 2015 “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” awards. But with such a lavish title comes a heavy load, and Katherine admits it isn’t always good times and smooth sailing at the top.
“I started working at Noma when it had already been awarded the title. It is an amazing accolade, but I feel this has not been the driving force or reason why things have moved forward the way they have,” she says. “René is determined not to be restricted by the pressures of always being number one. It’s far more important to him to maintain Noma’s freedom and creativity.”
So what is it that separates Noma, where a set menu with wine pairing will set you back AU$600, from the countless other incredible restaurants on this planet?
According to Katherine, the answer lies in Noma’s impeccable service. There’s the 20 chefs in the kitchen, 30 interns doing preparation work and then the 30-odd staff members dedicated to table services – almost on per guest – mysteriously making dishes appear and disappear on the table right before your eyes, with as little fanfare as possible.
“It’s a bit like a performance. We slip into character the moment we enter the restaurant,” she says.
“There have been a few places in the past that have truly changed gastronomy. I feel Noma is doing that right now – continually pushing the boundaries of innovation and inspiration.”
Guests are typically faced with a waiting list no shorter than three months to dine at Noma, an experience for which Katherine assures us the wait is well worth it.