What NOMA, the best restaurant in the world, can teach the journalism industry

Silver moss dish at Denmark’s NOMA, considered the world’s best restaurant. Bourdain insists stuff like this is amazing. Photo by Laissez Fare via Flickr and used under Creative Commons license.

Most people will never get to experience Denmark’s NOMA, considered to be the best restaurant in the world. It wasn’t even a place Anthony Bourdain, on an episode this week of Parts Unknown, really seemed to want to go. Denmark, the happiest place in the world, isn’t necessarily built for lovable curmudgeons like Bourdain.

It’s hard to describe the food at NOMA, except to say that chef Rene Redzepi combines brilliance and creativity to create masterpieces out of stuff he finds in fields and on beaches, deriving creations through aging, fermentation and a general, ongoing experiment. Bourdain also seems to struggle to actually find words for the panoply of foraged craziness that is set before him when he dines at Redezepi’s restaurant, other than responding with shock and platitudes like “amazing.” Whatever exotic, foresty-looking craziness Bourdain was tasting, he’d look at it skeptically, take a bite, and then devour.

I’ll leave the food critics to debate the specifics but the ‘aha’ moment that extends to the mystery of life — and Bourdain episodes almost always have one — came near the end during a part of the episode that could be seen as a throw-away.

Bourdain takes part in a ritual at the restaurant where various line chefs create dishes that are judged and scrutinized by the rest of the staff. One chef creates a version of strawberries and cream. The chef explains, “I just decided to go on my bike and see what I could get. So all the flowers that are here, the lady let me pick them in her garden. So I have strawberries that are pickled in rose vinegar. And the creme fresh at the base that’s been infused with burnt roses and rose pollen.”

They taste. A silent moment of wondrous reflection. Here’s the ensuing exchange, according to the transcript.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do we just clap or —
BOURDAIN: And then that might well end up on the menu?
REDZEPI: No. This is not about putting things on the menu. No. I mean, if somebody makes a masterpiece, it’s their masterpiece.
REDZEPI: Yes, yes. Of course.
BOURDAIN: Isn’t it your historical imperative as the chef to take his good work and innovation and put it on the menu and take credit for it as your own? I mean, that’s the way it’s been done for centuries.
REDZEPI: This is not the point here.
BOURDAIN: The pursuit of enlightenment and knowledge is its own reward?
REDZEPI: To me, yes.
Is that it? Cheers, everybody.

So that’s my analogy for journalism. We’re in a difficult climate. And while big companies with shareholders and quarterly profits are loathe to call what they’re doing experimentation, that is what they’re doing — without the inspiration part. I hope more will drive for experimentation that encourages quality, simply for the sake of it.

As Bourdain says, the pursuit of enlightenment and knowledge should be its own reward. And, frankly, we have little choice.

Also read Bourdain himself on how chef Rene Redzepi inspired the show to think differently:

NOMA is said to be “the best restaurant in the world” and they are famous for, among other things, sourcing almost all their ingredients from the forests, fields, farms, beaches and marshes of the area immediately around Copenhagen. They have pioneered the notion of “foraging” and taken it to an extreme that would be damn easy to mock, if the results weren’t so genuinely brilliant and delicious.
You’d think wandering around scrounging for weeds and moss would be boring — but get ready.
NOMA is a very, very creative space. And Rene Redzepi encourages creativity. So, we felt we had better live up to our subject.
We started off by deciding that there would be no standard “two shots” during conversations. That the cameras would move freely — literally suspended by wire from an uncomfortable contraption called an EZ Rig — for every single shot. That we would push our cameras through spaces large and small, while thinking about Terence Malick at all times.
That we would provide no “coverage” for our editor back in New York, no extra footage of entrances and exits, establishing shots, alternate takes. Subjects would fall and wander out of frame. That we would force post-production to be great, because there would be simply no alternative. That we would tell our entire story over the course of one meal, at one restaurant, cutting back and forth through time and space.