What matters is not what you expect
We are coming upon our 1 year anniversary of dining at Noma, in Copenhagen.
There are some things I still remember about that experience.
The food, for one, was intriguing, beautiful, fascinating and innovative. Everything that touched our palates was sensational. The mastery was not even in the “newness” of it so much as the balance between a long lost memory of taste and the present moment of something foreign. At no point did I ever feel forced to have to love something.
That wouldn’t be love anyway.
There was something sacrificial and genuine in every course. There was some bold statement being repressed for the sake of nuance and politeness. Nothing came clamoring at me, nothing demanded anything other than enjoyment and awakening. I was alert. Everything about me felt present and in the “now”. Even the flow of wine and beer and nog did nothing to stifle the clarity with which I remember that place and that experience.
The food was exquisite, but there was something far more valuable at work than just superb cuisine. It was something that no one really expects and even fewer people will pay for, willingly. And yet, it’s something we all crave more than anything.
A gentleman across the room, a sickly and pale man with a distinctively New York accent was sharing the table with a variety of global personalities. He had arrived at the same time we did, and was ushered in a few minutes before our reservation. I assume he was treated with the same welcome that was soon to come to us.
When you are in a moment, you can enjoy, engage, observe, celebrate and mourn all at once. Maybe that’s what makes the present moment so beautiful.
My wife and I were spending our 4 year wedding anniversary at Noma, a dream we could not imagine was coming true. Upon entry into the restaurant, fear and expectation pulsed anxiously through our veins. We anticipated a smug Michelin Starred up-and-down look from our host and imagined that everyone serving us would be wearing fashionable and decorous suiting. We were certain we would feel out of place in this elite world of fine cuisine.
This was not the case.
Instead we were greeted by what felt like the entire crew of this great vessel. Smiling, helping, welcoming, shouting with excitement. “May we take your coat? May we take your umbrella? May we get you something to drink? We are so glad you’re here! Welcome! We have been expecting you!”
Fear ABOLISHED. Joy ABOUNDING.
We were seated amidst this whirlwind in what seemed like a quiet corner, but was actually the middle of the restaurant. A large window looked longingly at the Scandinavian inspired landscaping. Minimal, Rocky, a reminder of our recent trip from Iceland.
Aware of the table near us, the bespectacled man from outside was sitting alone at a large table before his companions descended in all their clatter. He looked sort of like a sardine, white and stiff and packed into a can, oh but what a CAN!
At your table you immediately felt the intention of the place. Everything was minimal, but not spare. Everything simple, but still touched and worn and comfortable. You could see the imprints of a thousand hands and plates and forks and branches tenderly polished into the wood by the careful cleaning each table experienced twice daily.
Then the food came. I have said enough about this. But see here the colors and textures. You might be able to imagine some part of the flavor, but you will not know the whole thing. Again, it’s new, but also long-lost in it’s approach.
Course after course, glass after glass. We were enjoying everything about the process. With each new plate came a tiny army of two or more servers. One would announce the ingredients, preparation, flavors and Procédé de consommation of each dish, then add in some personal observation. We felt welcome to commentate and question until our watering mouths could speak no longer. Every answer was genuine and personable. Surely we asked something ridiculous or cliche, but they would never let us know.
I watched the odd man out of the corner of my eye. He was always either staring off in the distance during one of these introductions, or skeptically poking at the creation in front of him. It felt like each dish was supposed to be a hamburger in his mind, and that he grew sad as he realized that this burger was never coming.
Course, beverage, laughter, commentary, remembering, repeat.
Onward it all went, time flying and standing still all at once. Soft rain pelting the window, soft fur on the chair keeping us cozy. I finally saw it all when this small white haired neighbor, pitiful and entirely disgusted raised from his chair, and bid his adieu. He was leaving in the middle of the meal.
His hosts begged him to stay for dessert and asked a myriad of questions around preferences that could not seemingly be satisfied. He was stolid in his decision, and his coat was quickly acquired, a cab quickly called. He abandoned.
Maybe he felt ill, he looked ill to begin with. But to the redemption of the story, I SAW in that instant that the beauty of Noma, or anything for that matter, is not in its face value. He would not understand the food, therefore the experience meant nothing to him. But, the experience is everything. The hospitality is what makes this place one of the greatest restaurants in the world. They make everyone feel like they are a part of the journey with them, and everyone who sees this and appreciates it experiences a “coming home” sensation. Not for everyone, but for the remnant. Those who care to admit to themselves that they desire to be a part of something meaningful that is larger than themselves.
Maybe we did belong? Maybe we belonged not because we had the money to pay for the meal (if only barely) but because we could see more than what may meet others’ eyes. I certainly knew that I saw more in this place than that poor man. He had his every need and want taken care of, and yet he could not be content.
Noma has done something wonderful in setting a standard for almost everything. Do what you do VERY well, but then take care of the people who come to participate. I think this is the goal of every business and personal interaction I have, to show people ways to care for the people who “get it” and to graciously usher out the people who don’t. Show kindness to all, but build yourself around the ones who can see your vision and love every piece of it. You can easily get too focused on what you serve, but you cannot afford to miss the beauty of the hospitality you can offer in each moment, every single interaction. Whether it’s in a store, or an auditorium, or online, you can make a place where people feel welcomed and valued as they support your craft.
People will remember great tyrants and great servants. We decide which one we want to be.