On the night of January 21st I slipped a slice of Black Spanish Radish into the inside pocket of my suit. I believe it has been sliced a few minutes before in front of me by a cook named Rebecca Raben and it was part of a sea snails salad, one of the best dishes I had that night at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. One of the best I had in my life.
Usually people who wants to remember a restaurant ask for a business card, take a ton of pictures, steal a fork. But what if you want to take with you a memory of the craftsmanship, the symbol of a cutting edge experience, the tangible matter shaped by an alliance of hearts, minds and hands? Well, the best I could do was keeping that fine slice of radish who has survived a japanese mandolin and now sits dried between the pages of my bojo.
How sick could a man be to do that? How weird is that somebody flies 1,435 km to spend 2,650 DKK (about 365 euros) for a three-hours-18-servings menu? Would you do that even knowing that René Redzepi, the head chef of the place and one of the living kitchen gods, is on a three months leave and won’t be there that night because he’s having dinner in Japan? Would you be that sick? Well, I’m sick enough, I’d answer.
Now I will not go through the menu, because others made a better job at describing Noma’s seafood season menu: check Anders Husa & Kaitlin Orr and Feinschmeckeren for awesome pictures and in particular the second one for a review that could be mine.
Anyway… that night, during the months I studied the place and its history or just during year 2019 (that I dedicated to the noble art of fermentation), I think I learned a few things. Here they are, in no particular order.
1. One team, one voice: Yes is more
One day I probably will forget the honey scent coming up from that sea snails salad served from a bee-waxed-heated cup, or the primordial feeling of drinking a warm king-crab broth while stuffing my nose into a garden of fresh seaweeds. One thing I don’t want to forget is the word “YES” pronounced all’unisono by the couple of dozen of cooks in the middle of Noma every time the head chef Ben Ing whispered his commands.
If you have read some kitchen stories (think about Anthony Bourdain stuff), you already know that consistency of plates is made by the ability of line cooks to replicate the dish their chef has put on the menu. If possible, chefs would secretly trade off people for AIs with the sense of smell or robots with taste, but they can’t.
So, cooking is still a game for people, but the struggle to perfection is a road paved with underpaid young guys running like hell and through hell to be perfect at any mise en place, any seasoning, any plating, any line cleaning and wiping. At Noma this happens under 200 hundred eyes expecting nothing more than Heaven for any inch of edible and inedible stuff.
Cooks can be tired, their hands can be wet or patched or burnt, they can consider pure shit what they have to serve (duck brain cooked inside a duck head? See Noma’s Game and Forest Season Menu for more), but they deliver. And when Ben whispers, they say “YES”.
“Yes Is More” is also the name of a book by architect Bjarke Ingels of B.I.G. group, a manifesto for the things possible nowadays and the power of saying yes to the society (funny enough, Ingels also built the new Noma, and after he presented the first project to Redzepi, René told him… “No!”, because he didn’t like that at all).
Anyway, in my experience, that firm “YES” is what managers expect from their team anytime they have to ask for impossible. Probably a manager, a head chef, some kind of leader knows the billion things that can go wrong, the many many “but/if” that can blossom after a demanding task. But they need that “YES”, and the hard work it follows. I will repeat that to myself from now on: saying “YES” is not submission, is the noble affirmation of you power and responsibility executing an important task.
2. Don’t underestimate the power of Number 2s
On December 28th, a few weeks later I committed myself in spending a fortune for a one night seafood meal in his restaurant in Denmark, René Redzepi wrote this via Instagram:
I’m writing this to let our future guests know that for the next three months, I won’t be at noma, or in Denmark. I’ll be with Nadine and our three children somewhere in the world, not working. But don’t worry, I can assure you that you are in the best hands. Just before I left we finished a new seafood menu that I personally think is the best one yet.
Would you have renounced your reservation after that? Well, I kept mine. My belief is simple: if you long for that food, if you think you’re going in one of the best restaurants in the world, you don’t need Mr. Number 1 in the house.
Why I say so? Because, at work, I’m a Number 2. In any high quality organization Number 1s are the face of the brand, the minds of the product, the soul searchers, the mobile and sleepless business units and pr machines keeping the family alive. They can’t be 24⁄7 on the grocery lists, or kneeled under the sink fixing a pipe, or even holding a pan and serving all his guests when the house is full. It’s Number 2’s task to deliver the menu, the feeling, making a team of individuals sing together, like Number 1 intended.
I bet Redzepi’s Number 2s would deliver, I think I won the bet (as it happened many times before in my life in similar experiences).
3. Time, space, fermentation and all the answers in the world
I’m not the right person to entertain you about philosophy, and David Zilber, Noma’s boss of fermentation could add better lines to my following crazyness. But remember Immanuel Kant: you need time and space to experience something; and you - somehow - need experience to define time and space. Food, some kind of food, I believe Noma’s food is that: something you can have only there (space), only at that moment (time).
We always tell ourselves that food is love, that cooking is showing love for people (or for what you cook), but sometimes food is philosophy, is science, is the mean we use to answer many questions about ourselves and our place in the world.
«What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?», asked Kant. What can I eat? What should I eat? What may I hope to eat», could we ask ourselves in these times of environmental awakening.
These questions need answers, answers need time and space to blossom, and time to ferment like the deer brain you can find in a jar at Noma’s. Or maybe we’ll get answers when we will finally embrace the idea that you need good contamination to generate good food: like salt for fermented plums, or koji for the barley sticks I was served under some roe. Old questions, new answers, new taste in our lives.
As you can see I’m better at philosophy than at drawing. Anyway. The Seafood Season Menu, sketched by me. And randomly filled with color.