The Noma Way
One chef, ten weeks, thirty dishes, and hundreds of new ingredients. How Danish superstar René Redzepi created an entirely new restaurant in Australia.
By Tienlon Ho
Photographs by Mark Mahaney
On the first day of 2016, chef René Redzepi walked into his new kitchen in a construction zone at the end of Sydney’s Barangaroo pier. He arrived at 1 p.m., later than planned, because his wife and two of their three daughters had fevers, and then he had no idea how to catch a water taxi across the harbor from his temporary home in Birchgrove. He was scruffy, wearing a T-shirt, dark jeans, and battered flip-flops, and tan from three weeks in Mexico, where he hadn’t touched a stove. (“The ‘mamás’ cook for us there — best cooks in the world,” said one of the best cooks in the world.) He had recharged on their slow-simmered mole and roadside tacos, and now he was bristling with energy.
Redzepi’s Sydney test-kitchen team was more anxious. They had already been in the city for two weeks, cooking full-tilt 16 hours a day to lay the foundations of this project: moving the culinary juggernaut Noma from Copenhagen to Sydney for a ten-week residency.
There had been a few headaches. They had arrived to a restaurant half-built at an address that didn’t yet exist online. Sinks weren’t working. Neither was the oven. A box of expensive ingredients had disappeared, and storms ripping across Tasmania meant more orders wouldn’t get through. Two leafy nests of gulgulk (green ants) from the north arrived in one box, and it was evident from the carnage that boundary disputes had devolved to warfare; the formic acid behind the ants’ ferocity and tangy coriander-lemongrass-kaffir-lime flavor was completely spent. The abalone suppliers couldn’t be bargained below $35 apiece, so the chefs would have to compose in their heads, Beethoven style, for now. They also needed 2,000 kilos of black currant leaves and branches ($7 per kilo) right away, before the plants grew too woody. In one week, they had racked up almost $6,000 in deliveries.
Leading up to this, Redzepi and his team had spent an accumulated two months in 2015 exploring the corners of Australia, meeting people in the cities and the bush, getting a feel for the continent and grazing on whatever they found. Any ingredients with potential were shipped back to Copenhagen for experimentation. But now there were still more flavors arriving in Barangaroo by air and refrigerated truck every day — bright-orange sea snails, flowers like feather dusters, pinecones the size of babies. It was the test kitchen’s job to decode these unfamiliar ingredients, learn how they tasted raw, fermented, charred, lavished with crocodile fat, rubbed with salt, inoculated with fungi, extracted, churned, dehydrated, pulverized, exploded, and so on. It was less than one month until Noma Australia’s official opening on January 26, and nothing — not even one dish — was done.
Most of the time, Noma is located on another pier, across a wide canal from the center of Copenhagen. In its 12 years, it has evolved from a struggling Scandinavian-French restaurant with a young chef into a renowned kitchen, cooking a cuisine untethered from tradition, led by a bona fide prodigy. Each month in Copenhagen, more than 20,000 reservation requests come in for just 2,240 seats. For the Sydney residency, 5,600 tickets priced at $340 each sold out online in 35 minutes (an astounding rate, if a bit slower than the widely reported 90 seconds). The waitlist swelled to 35,000.
Noma has held one of the top three positions in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants rankings (fine dining’s most hyped, if also maligned, list) every year since 2009, coming in first for four of those years. It has two out of three possible Michelin stars, a deduction most attribute solely to its casual service style. As chief imagineer and guardian of Noma, Redzepi is probably the most influential and widely recognized chef in the world. He has been touted as a “foraging demigod,” a “locavore hero,” the “Prince of Denmark” (in a country with an actual crown prince), “an asshole,” and “a genius.”
Redzepi was born in Copenhagen in 1977. His father was a cabbie, his mother a cafeteria clerk. Every summer, his parents would take him and his twin brother, Kenneth, to his father’s native Macedonia, where they would drink milk straight from a cow, gorge on berries of all sorts, and roast chestnuts they foraged in the mountains. At home in Denmark, people called Redzepi “a Balkan dog.” To help support the family, he and Kenneth delivered booze and cigarettes in between running five paper routes. All these early memories, he said, shaped his naturalistic food aesthetic — dishes of wild things, fermentation, and leftover bits, food born of necessity, unlike the foams and spheres of molecular haute cuisine. His style of earnest hospitality is that of someone who knows how it feels to be an outsider.
At 15, he followed a friend to cooking school, where he earned top marks with a variation on his father’s recipe for spicy chicken with cashew sauce. He landed in a French restaurant in Copenhagen before taking a trip around the world to intern in other notable kitchens — Le Jardin des Sens in France, elBulli in Spain, and the French Laundry in the United States. Redzepi was 25 when Claus Meyer, a Dane who had made his name with a TV cooking show, called to ask him to helm the restaurant that would be Noma; its name is the amalgamation of the Danish words for Nordic and food.
Redzepi was expected to fall in line with his mentors and cook French classics, and for a while he did. Soon, though, Redzepi had the epiphany that his food should not only be made with but entirely shaped by what he found in the forest, on the beach, and in the hands of local farmers. In practice, this meant that berries ripe for a mere two weeks a year and plucked by a Swedish farmer uninterested in selling them were more luxurious than imported caviar; he served them in a bowl with minimal adornment. He made terroir — the soil, the climate, and the land that shape the flavor of the plant and the animal that eats it — more than jargon. He made it the entire point of his cuisine.
Noma’s influence today is undeniable. If your local fine-dining establishment offers swirls of vibrant-green sauces, carrots as a main course, or anything lacto-fermented, someone in the kitchen is probably thinking of the Noma way. The Noma aesthetic also helped spawn Nordic-chic décor — sheepskin, rough-hewn wood, and neutral and black earthenware (on sale now at Crate & Barrel). In Denmark, where local cuisine had been essentially pickled herring on smørrebrød (flatbread), markets now stock and sell out of seasonal items like ramson (wild garlic) and sorrel. Through Noma, Redzepi created a modern cuisine where no distinguished cuisine existed before and put the Nordic region on the cultural map.
Noma is now more institution than restaurant, and it has many satellites in its orbit. There is the main restaurant, with dining rooms, a service kitchen, and a test kitchen for research and development. There is a science bunker with three staff researchers who devise efficient cooking processes and new flavors (including Nomite, a play on Vegemite for the Australian menu). There is MAD, a semiannual culinary symposium that draws food illuminati to Copenhagen. Soon there will be a foraging school as well as a partnership with Yale to explore the management side of restaurants, from wage inequities to effectual leadership. In the spring, a casual offshoot restaurant called 108 will open in Noma’s space, and Noma will move to an abandoned plot and erstwhile skaters’ hangout in Christiania, less than a mile away, where the chefs will become part-time farmers, serving a menu that reflects the best of the seasons — only vegetables at the height of summer, only seafood in winter. The drastic revamp will free Noma to keep evolving, Redzepi has said, and will allow it to stay open year-round — even through the bitter Danish winters.
If it’s not clear from everything Redzepi has going on, he rarely stops moving. In the beginning, 90 percent of everything served at Noma was farmed, fished, or foraged within 60 miles of the restaurant. Redzepi avoided coriander, which originated in southern Europe, instead foraging for strand-trehage, a beach plant that tastes much like it. But sometime around 2014, he no longer saw a need to be so strict. “It’s just a matter of going far back enough in time until you realize that most of the foodstuffs you built your menu around were actually introduced from somewhere else,” he said. “Why shouldn’t we use coriander if the farmers grow it exceptionally well here, where it tastes incredibly different from how it tastes in Thailand?” Redzepi is still a regionalist (flavor dissipates with time in transit, after all), but he is focused most on bringing out new flavors from ingredients we’ve forgotten, discount as weird, or consider so ordinary they seem unworthy of a tasting menu, wherever he finds them.
The Noma tradition for researching on the road began a few months before the restaurant opened in 2003, when Redzepi and his partners traveled around Scandinavia. They tasted sour mysa in Iceland, reindeer in Greenland, and a turnip that had grown sweet from the struggle of surviving in the frozen tundra of the Faroe Islands. They weren’t ingredients that could be sourced in significant volume for the restaurant, but they were flavors to build on. “It’s about filling up with images, sensations, and tastes,” Redzepi said. They store them away and look back often later.
And so it went, until 2013, when Redzepi had a year that he called an “avalanche of disaster,” including media frenzy over a norovirus outbreak at Noma, and then another over contractual language threatening to blacklist interns who shirked responsibilities. Late that year, Redzepi began plotting an escape. What better way to find creative inspiration and boost flagging morale than by moving the entire restaurant to the country of omotenashi (humble customer service) and kaiseki (a hyperseasonal procession of dishes)? Soon he and his test kitchen were crisscrossing Japan to prepare for Noma’s five-week residency at the top of the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo. “I didn’t want to come across as a stupid tourist,” Redzepi said, so he stayed clear of anything in the realm of specialists — raw fish, green tea, noodles, soy sauce. Instead, he decided, “I wanted to show locals the foods they didn’t even know were part of their own place.”
Namae Shinobu, chef of the two-Michelin-star L’Effervescence in Tokyo, connected Redzepi with many of the more obscure producers, who were often surprised by Redzepi’s requests. When he asked a strawberry farmer to sell him his product green and unripe, Namae had to convince the farmer that Redzepi was an actual chef. Redzepi didn’t want to buy mushrooms, but rather the sawdust blocks they were growing on. On one trip, the chefs shocked their guides by eating the wood ants crawling on the forest floor; the ants would be used to season live botan shrimp. Even procuring the shrimp in this state drew bewilderment, because sushi chefs prize their texture a few days post–rigor mortis.
In Japan, where culinary mastery is often measured by consistency with a static ideal, Redzepi shook everyone up, Namae said. He looked at the ingredients purely for their flavor, without any expectation of how they should be used. Many of the farmers and chefs involved “received some kind of courage to do something new,” Namae said.
What Redzepi took away from Japan was another sort of confidence. Over tea, Jiro Ono, the sushi master, told him that he had remained doubtful of his own skills up until he was 50. Redzepi said that the conversation made him realize that “everything is a stepping stone. I need to continue to learn like I’m a nobody, because I know we have had success, but I still feel like a phony.”
Redzepi’s new ideas often begin by evoking a sensation. In the past, he has asked his chefs to imagine what it feels like “getting your face pushed in the grass,” or being a deer — “What does it step on?” In the months before the Noma team left Copenhagen for Sydney, Redzepi threw out new prompts. “What would you want after swimming in the sea?” he asked. Think about fire, char, and smoke, the flavors of cooking in Aboriginal camps and backyard barbecues, he suggested; think about ocean breezes, the way an oyster brines your teeth.
In his six research trips across Australia, Redzepi had discovered that sourcing ingredients from all over the vast continent was equivalent to sourcing between the British Isles and Dubai, Copenhagen and South Africa. So he created some parameters: Look to the shoreline, to the ring of lush green seen through the plane windows. Look to the Aboriginal way in the bush and to the diverse influences from Asia and Europe in the cities. Now bring these all together in a menu — make that two menus, given the brief ripeness of many of the ingredients. It was summer in Australia, and everything was rotting on the vine.
On Boxing Day, Thomas Frebel, the 32-year-old German in charge of research and development, arrived in the Sydney kitchen before sunrise and turned on thumping electronica. The four other members of the test kitchen — Beau Clugston, a 30-year-old Australian, Malcolm Livingston II, a 29-year-old American, Mette Søberg, a 25-year-old Dane, and Kim Mikkola, a 27-year-old Finn — soon joined.
Frebel and Clugston had scrawled across a white board (and on cardboard boxes taped to the walls) vague ideas based on their trips. Among the threads were abalone, a cured egg, muttonbird (a seabird known as yolla to Tasmanian Aborigines), an aerated take on the lamington (a classic Australian sponge cake), berries and herbs, nuts, a dumpling, pie. Clugston was managing the practical constraints: They needed dependable ingredients, enough to experiment with and to serve, nothing endangered or irresponsible to use. Even if multiple sources could be cobbled together, there had to be consistency (of flavor, quality, and on-time delivery), especially when ripeness was so fleeting.
Frebel and Mikkola had spent the previous day, Christmas, sweating in a heated closet in the half-built kitchen, looking after the nascent ferments — mango skins disintegrating into vinegar, off-cuts of beef, kangaroo, and crocodile transforming into savory garums, mushrooms gently souring into cep water with the help of lactic-acid bacteria. These would be the humble foundational flavors underlying many of the dishes. At a few days old, the ferments had to be checked on at least twice a day, holidays or not. Unfortunately, a whiff of the peaches revealed their controlled decay was now full-on rot.
In Frebel’s nearly four years developing flavors and dishes for the Noma menu, this is what he had come to expect. Little of what he and the other chefs made in the coming weeks would see opening day. More than a quarter of the fermentations would be lost to the whims of microorganisms. Much of whatever survived would then be edited out. Like scientists in a lab, the team was testing every credible hypothesis, looking for combinations that weren’t just tasty but felt new. The goal was to construct a library of flavors, textures, and aromas and combine them into potential components before Redzepi shaped and polished them into dishes and the rest of the team arrived to learn how to make them over and over, quickly and perfectly.
Noma Australia is situated on a former shipping-container wharf that is being overhauled from a derelict lot into a carbon-neutral development featuring park space, million-dollar condos, and a casino. The name of the shiny redevelopment, Barangaroo, embodies the uneasy relationship Australia still has with its original inhabitants: Barangaroo was the name of a skilled Aboriginal hunter and fisherwoman whose husband was taken hostage by the colonists and then made an ambassador of sorts. Barangaroo, unlike her husband, remained distrustful of the new arrivals and their plundering attitude toward the natural environment.
Australia’s land is so ancient that its mountains have already dissolved back into the ground, but it is a relatively new place for humans. The ancestors of the Aborigines arrived from Timor and New Guinea some 60,000 years ago and thrived, but when the Englishman Captain James Cook landed on the shores of Sydney in 1770, he wrote, “The Land naturally produces hardly anything fit to eat, and the Natives know nothing of Cultivation.”
Since then, the first cuisine of the continent has been viewed as one of survival. The impression was reinforced in the late 1980s by Les Hiddins, a white Australian army soldier who wandered out into the bush for his TV show Bush Tucker Man with the goal of gathering survival intelligence for the Department of Defence. (Coincidentally, one of Redzepi’s early sources for Nordic ingredients was a 1960s Swedish army survival guide.) “Good ‘tukka’” — or native foods — Hiddins said, was what didn’t kill you.
In the cities, cheesy bush-tucker-themed restaurants became a trend, serving ’roo steaks and salads garnished with a handful of crunchy wattleseeds. Clugston, once an Australian kid himself, said most grow up thinking of edible native plants, like lemon myrtle and mountain pepper, only as fragrances of shampoo. Australian cuisine is in many ways similar to Nordic cuisine before Redzepi: defined by the foods of its neighbors and by what new arrivals have brought with them.
It is often claimed that early Aborigines did not cook in a cultured way since they did not have metal implements before the colonists arrived, but, of course, that’s not true. They cooked fish and meats in thin sheets of bark peeled off the melaleuca (paperbark tree) and slow-roasted game under mounds of hot coals. The people in the tropical northern lands harvested wild yams in a way that would allow them to grow again, stored grapes and figs in tree trunks to dry for later use, kept living larders in fish traps, and cultivated clams in decaying logs. They encouraged new plant growth by tilling with fire, leached poisonous toxins from palm nuts, burned seashells to make lime to fertilize fruit trees, and left flower nectar and tree sap to ferment into sweet elixirs.
Campaigns to annihilate Aboriginal culture left holes in this knowledge and a reluctance to share what was still remembered. Jock Zonfrillo, an Adelaide chef who uses many foraged, wild ingredients at his high-end restaurant Orana, said there was so little reliable information available when he started out a decade ago that his first resource was an Aboriginal man who played didgeridoo for tourists at Circular Quay in downtown Sydney. The man told him about cooking mangrove jack — how to break the fish’s spine to release all its flavors and then roast it over mangrove wood.
In 2001, horticulturists Gayle and Mike Quarmby, who were concerned about the lack of economic opportunity for Aborigines, began to create a commercial market for wild ingredients. By that time, only the eldest in the Aboriginal communities still knew the names and uses of local plants. To preserve what knowledge was left, the Quarmbys collected clippings and seeds to grow on their small farm inland from the Limestone Coast in southern Australia. They cloned a particularly tasty saltbush, a coastal plant that had been relegated to cattle feed and erosion control, and raised varieties of briny coastal succulents such as karkalla, samphire, and sea blite, often overlooked as weedy groundcover. They now deliver these greens by the crate to fine restaurants around the country, and their farm was an early stop for the Noma Australia team.
Despite attempts to connect indigenous groups to the market, the growing demand for native ingredients has, for the most part, bypassed those communities. One exception the Noma chefs found, with the help of Zonfrillo, was the numbul (magpie goose), an ancient-looking black-and-white bird with a bald head and talons, which had become such a pest to mango and melon farmers in the Northern Territory that the government had declared open season. The sheer waste of the cull had spurred Keith Jeffrey, a descendant of the lost Woolwonga people and more recent Indonesian arrivals, to start a cottage industry in partnership with the Larrakia Nation and a licensed distributor. The people here once ambushed these birds like crocodiles in the swamp, using reeds as snorkels; now he and his crew were setting up nets in the billabongs and cow pastures. Sometimes the flocks were so thick they could grab them three at a time as they took off into the air.
When Zonfrillo took Redzepi and the Noma chefs to visit Jeffrey in October, Jeffrey roasted a whole goose for them over an open flame, the way the Woolwonga would have done it, and served it with a dipping sauce of slow-simmered shrimp paste, chili, onion, and chopped heart, liver, and giblets, as his Indonesian ancestors would have. Everyone tore into the meat with their fingers. “It was a very intensely gamy bird, but tender and juicy with no iron-y flavor whatsoever,” Frebel said. Charred over the fire, it still cut like butter. Redzepi put in an order for as many as Jeffrey could provide, which was only 60 — maybe enough for 200 guests.
Other chefs have followed suit, putting in orders for next year. Jeffrey said he was struck by a mix of relief and concern. Suddenly the 13 families in his camp in Acacia, despite living in one of the most impoverished communities on the continent, had some prospect of making a living. But he also knew such demand would put pressure on them to provide a limitless bounty, even though they only hunted during Gunumeleng, the season after the first rains fed the swamps, when the chestnuts swelled and the numbul had pushed their beaks deep into the muck to eat until they grew fat. Jeffrey said they had already decided that they would not change the old ways. “Nature,” he said, “does not work like a restaurant.”
By the time Redzepi arrived at Noma Australia, 25 days before the opening, the kitchen at Barangaroo was finished and fully stocked, and there were a few dozen good ideas on the white board. Back home, the test kitchen might develop one or two dishes a week. Here, each chef was working on three or four ideas every day.
Redzepi wanted to talk through everything they had encountered on the trips that still lingered in their minds and then take inventory of everything they had gathered with another round of tasting. Livingston brought out a pineapple that had been compressed, braised, dehydrated, and then rehydrated until it was a caramelized log half its original size with a surface that crisped like chicken skin. Redzepi liked the idea but thought it was “too Christmassy,” not something to cap off a dip at Bondi Beach. He pulled up images on a computer of a delicate pineapple carpaccio with vanilla, crystallized mint, and lime sorbet that French chef Pierre Hermé had made in the ’90s. “It was so fresh and different from other desserts at the time,” he said. He had another idea — “a Patterson rose,” a vegetable carpaccio in the shape of a blooming flower that originated in 2011 with San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson. Redzepi seemed to want everyone to think about the history of carpaccio and to leap off from there.
The test kitchen proceeded with more projects — a miso-marinated banana, tongue-numbing mountain pepper berries steeping in various vinegars, fermented eggplant, ice creams of gum tree and myrtle, crispy crocodile skin, and muttonbird wrapped in saltbush and grilled.
Redzepi knows his ingredients can sound off-putting. A few hours into that first afternoon in Sydney, Redzepi forced everyone out of the kitchen for lunch. Someone got food from Belles, a fried-chicken stand nearby whose buckets are so popular in Melbourne and Sydney that it will soon have four more outposts. Redzepi picked up a golden, crispy chicken tender that resembled a withered pair of lips. “Look at this one,” he said. “It’s like a 100-year-old’s vagina.” Studying it carefully, he said, “This is what people want to eat.”
Over the next week, there was an orderly parade of ingredients: 100 small berries, herbs, and twigs one day, then coolers of swimming seafood the next; birds, tubers, very large leaves. As Redzepi was exploring, he was wide-eyed in all directions, constantly tasting. When something was good, he was euphoric. There were desert limes (“fucking sick”), native currants (“a strange one — savory, then it takes you almost to stomach reflex, then it dries your mouth out”), and a bush peach so primordial it was like a bitter, hairy olive (“problematic”). They tasted a bunya nut, a huge cone containing juicy pine nuts the size of oysters that the Aborigines in eastern Australia would eat raw or roasted, pound into meal and bake, or bury in mud for months until pungent and ripe. Redzepi thought they should try fermenting theirs in seawater. There were cobalt-blue seeds that no one knew the name of that looked like alien river rocks. Clugston cracked one open with a vise, and it tasted like a coconut from Mars.
“Everything is so completely new!” Redzepi said. “We should read up on some of these so we don’t end up with holes in our stomachs.”
Redzepi also continued sampling the test-kitchen projects. The mountain pepper berries had turned out particularly astounding, like gently spicy blueberries. “Picture that as a coarse paste, brushed on a pancake. You lift it up,” he said, miming. Mikkola suggested a drop of reduced celery juice to round out the flavor further. “Oh, I can see it, Chef,” Redzepi said. He had started adding to the list on the white board. ABALONE and PIE were now ABALONE PIE. He had added clay and a platter of three bites. Clugston calculated that the list now cost almost $500 a person for just the raw ingredients, and everyone laughed.
This birthing process can be painful. Frebel said he still bears scars from working on a dish they eventually called Leek in Leek, a charred, grilled leek with the tender heart of another leek inside, which took six weeks of trials and more than 800 leeks before Redzepi felt it hit all the right notes. In the recent documentary Noma: My Perfect Storm, which was taped throughout the challenging year of 2013, Redzepi gives in to the “crazy side” of his brain, berating Frebel for pulling a batch of thyme rather than lemon thyme for a test dish. Frebel said that those days can end with everyone deflated, no one feeling like tasting anymore.
There are worse stories floating around, especially among chefs who worked in the kitchen during Noma’s rise. One involves the entire kitchen being pulled outside in the middle of service to line up in Noma’s courtyard, where Redzepi delivered a “Fuck you!” to each person’s face. This past fall, Redzepi published a piece espousing his commitment to a more rational management style on the food symposium’s website MADfeed, in which he admitted, “I have been a bully for a large part of my career.” Redzepi’s confession drew praise, particularly from those who had never worked in his kitchen, and bewilderment from many of those who had. Some said it was never so bad; others said that such behavior is required for this level of success.
But Redzepi is, by all accounts, largely reformed. “I used to be a really intense guy. I have three kids now. I meditate when I take care of shit diapers,” he said. The change may also be a result of the team he has assembled. Noma has become his family. His brother is head of maintenance. He met his wife there, and their kids play in the dining room. The residencies and research trips, Redzepi said, are “a very prolonged team-building exercise. Instead of walking on hot coals together on a Sunday afternoon, we go somewhere far away and live together.”
His former head chef, Daniel Giusti, who recently left to pursue a project of his own — reforming American school lunches — put it this way: Redzepi is not just the heartbeat of the restaurant, he is “the father.” Some of his chefs are at a level where they could be running their own world-class kitchens and still they don’t move out. In a household like this, Redzepi need not yell. He can devastate with a flicker of disappointment.
Things seemed to be moving briskly in Sydney until there was trouble with the clams. This was especially frustrating because Redzepi was trying to evoke a poignant moment he had experienced up north in Arnhem Land. Some kids had shown the chefs how to dig for mud clams in the sand in the mangrove swamps. You would feel around with your toes for a shape about the size of a lemon and dig. The air was 100 degrees and thick with humidity.
“I was very skeptical. Hot shellfish?” Redzepi said. Back at the camp, one of the elders taught him the recipe: “Throw it on the coals, and when it sings it’s ready.” The clams started to steam and whistle. The meat was swollen, vulgar, the perfect mouthful. Redzepi shivered recalling the flavor. Goosebumps actually appeared on his arms. “I don’t think we could deliver as meaningful an experience as they shared with us, but we can maybe bring back that flavor of the clam, the smoke, that sweet, tender juiciness.”
Now he just needed to find a way to source 6,000 mud clams. So far they had gotten only 140, so he was working with varieties of smaller, intertidal clams. Bivalve trouble seemed to be a recurring theme in Redzepi’s life. Three years ago, after 63 guests fell sick with norovirus, it was freshwater mussels that turned out to be the culprits, though the press initially blamed it on cooks not being able to wash their hands properly. “It can ruin you, because people think you’re filthy,” Redzepi said, looking back. Then, during the residency in Japan, he had served a tart of raw clams that took 30 hours of labor to prepare but failed to impress some Asian guests. Turned out, they associated eating those clams raw with hepatitis.
The first iteration of the Sydney clam dish was a rough sketch. They were lightly grilled, barely steaming. Someone added bush tomatoes to the sauce, and it got exciting. Suddenly, Redzepi was wondering why everyone in the world wasn’t using bush tomatoes, which tasted something like piquant sundried tomatoes marinated in soy. But the next day they tried it again, and the bush-tomato flavor was entirely different, dark and muddy. Then the clams were intermittently, unpredictably bitter. “Headaches are waiting,” Redzepi said. They couldn’t make the team calibrate such variable flavors every day.
“Well, the idea is out there now,” Redzepi said. “Let’s keep getting a feel for it.”
A camera crew was rolling, and a producer asked Redzepi if the dish was a go. “No, the dish doesn’t work,” Redzepi replied.
“Could you say that one more time?” she asked.
“The dish doesn’t work,” Redzepi repeated.
One more time, she said.
“The dish doesn’t work,” he said again flatly.
The producer was digging for more drama, but to Redzepi, creating a dish that would never be served was to be expected. “We are freaks,” Frebel said. “We live for those amazing moments when we get it right. But most of the time is about failing, then standing up, and doing that again and again and again.”
For weeks, Clugston and Frebel had been playing with a dish of crystal crab ($100) in their heads, and finally it arrived, a snow-white crustacean pulled from depths of 1,500 feet. The idea was to grill it to order and swab it lightly with egg yolk that had been fermented in beef garum to its most creamy state. Redzepi was ready to go for it.
He plated it — first a bright-yellow circle of egg sauce, then a piece of meaty leg basted with butter and still bubbling. He tasted it a few times without much reaction.
“The butter is too smoky. Whisk it more next time,” he said. “A little cep water, please.” He tasted again. More salt. He took another bite. The cooks were frozen, looking down at the counter, not making eye contact, probably not breathing.
There was a long silence, filled with more chewing, before Redzepi cracked a wide smile. “This is amazing, guys. This is sick.” Everyone visibly exhaled, and there were high-fives all around.
“It’s the best dish we’ve done. This is going to be good,” he said. “This dish will be pure luxury.” They all started tasting excitedly.
Five minutes later, though, Redzepi was back by the crab, studying its shell. Something was off. Even after allowing the crab to rest for a few hours, he could see it had been stressed. The meat was tight but not so plump. There would have to be some discussion with the fishermen to see if the crabs could be treated better, he said. Also, they should request female crabs, which would be meatier this time of year.
Then he said, “I think no cep water. It’s too strong, too acidic.” It also occurred to him there must be a way to get something other than chicken eggs. Duck, pigeon, gull, crocodile, emu? The season was not right for any of those eggs, but maybe there was an animal they hadn’t thought of.
So the dish was not done. It was close, maybe. “Who knows,” Frebel said.
Frebel was already at work on a new idea for a dumpling-and-taco hybrid, one that involved a palm-leaf holder, and he was watching YouTube videos on weaving a Panama hat. “When you’re stuck on an idea, you pack it away and move on,” he said. They would come back to the crab after they had worked through the other 14 or so dishes on the first menu. Anyway, Redzepi and Clugston were about to get on a plane back to the Margaret River in western Australia to scout for more possibilities. Some ingredients had given Mikkola a creeping rash and Frebel’s tongue was swelling up. Everyone went home early that night, around 10 p.m.
By the time I left Australia, the Noma team had 12 dishes they felt were close enough to make the final menu in some form. Probably. Maybe.
But there was one dish that everyone agreed was already there, a dish called Native Fruit. It consisted of the wild fruits of thorny shrubs and scrubby bushes — bright green and red muntries, berries with a flavor like a blend of blueberries and tart apples, white lemon aspen like pops of lemon-lime sorbet, and lightly poached desert limes that tasted as if the whole world of citrus had been crammed into tiny yellow orbs. Then there were a few drops of a deep-green bull-kelp oil to tame the berries’ potency, a careful positioning of some pickled lemon myrtle buds, each standing tiny stem up, and finally a gentle dusting of tart green kakadu plum powder.
It was an idea that sprang from a morning months earlier when the chefs plucked fresh muntries straight off the bushes on the Quarmbys’ farm, but it was also a dish from midsummer nights in Denmark, and Redzepi’s summer mornings in Macedonia, and anywhere they had ever been where the berries were so delicious they wished they could relish them by the handful. This is perhaps where Redzepi’s magic lies: in the condensing of an experience into something recognizable even to those who haven’t experienced it before. The first dish of Noma Australia tasted like grabbing berries off a bush and cramming them into your mouth on a hot summer day, 6,000 years ago after a long trek through the bush and six months ago on a family farm. It was bright and green, refreshing and unctuous. It was everything you are thinking it could be, and I can still taste it.
Tienlon Ho is a writer based in San Francisco.
Photographer Mark Mahaney lives in the Bay Area.
Tienlon Ho touched base with Redzepi in Noma Australia’s final days to see how it all went and what he’s looking forward to next. Read the full interview here.
Originally published at californiasunday.com on February 2, 2016.