Half a decade ago, I started to lose interest in high-end dining. The hushed tones. The length of it. The cost of it. The contrived introduction of exclusive and rare ingredients served on pebbles instead of plates. It no longer seemed current, in a byte incremented life that comes at you fast and with impact before being forgotten in a new flurry. The pace of things had changed.
Having kids (three of them) further eroded my time. However beyond available time, the stripped down idea began to grow on me. If you can’t contemplate the simple, you can’t appreciate anything more complex. Hence the focus of accessible food on the blog.
Then a surprise: a table at Noma for my birthday. No chance to back out with justifications of extensive indulgence. Marguerite, a French girlfriend from Berlin, with a spirit adventurous enough to embrace eating ants in one of the courses whilst simultaneously possessing the cultural knowledge to understand the context and evolution of the food we were about to eat and abundant humor (because life is crazy and to combat that, I surround myself with people who know have a giggle).
We walked to Noma. Through the bleak fog, past the bright painted houses. 5 meters from the restaurant, an aproned blue-eyed man swung open the door and came to greet us. “Are you here to dine with us at Noma?” He asked, before stepping behind us and guiding us in. Inside, the kitchen and front of house staff gathered around us as we peeled our layers off and handed them over. The attention of all those eyes, so disarming and disorienting that when we had been seated at our table, our journey from the front door to the table seemed vague.
We were given one of the best tables. Next to a large window at the farthest end of the room, our 2 chairs pulled together in a V, giving us full view of the dining room.
The blue-eyed Australian who met us outside started our service off. As he spoke, his gaze alternated between the two of us and when we most expected him to smile, didn’t. This made our interaction all the more interesting. These days customers have googled extensively and come equipped with a fair bit of knowledge, contemporary service has to take this into account and display authority and presence if the customer is to rely on them.
When we both sheepishly confessed that we would not be ordering the wine pairing, he paused, considered us and suggested the juice menu (700 DKK / 94€). The only thing you can order at Noma is the menu (1,400 DKK / 255€) and you don’t get to see it first. Plates start coming, 16 of them in total. It is only at the end that you are handed the menu.
Having said that customers google before they eat, I had not found the time. I relied mainly on a program I had heard on BBC Radio 4 on Redzepi. I vaguely knew that the emphasis was on foraging and that there was something about ants. (Or was that Alex Atala?)
Both, in fact. Our ants came on a biscuit fashioned to look like a twig. One element in a diverse and beautiful 4 element plate. I didn’t hesitate. I think what we are eating today, the result of science and industry being applied for maximum profit with minimum accountability, is what we should be shocked by – not eating ants.
I won’t break down 16 plates for you. I will try to tell you what it’s like. It’s like when you have a crush, a terrible crush and your crush comes and sets his hand down next to yours. Close enough that you can feel the heat but not touching. So that the energy coming off that other hand starts to zing and hook into yours. Except no touching. And that is the most maddening place to be, about to tumble off the cliff. Maybe. Or maybe you hang on. In other words its subtle but powerful. Concretely, it doesn’t look like much but the statements that are being made, the flavours that unfold- are big.
No molecular business going on at Noma. Plates almost naked in their presentation. One of our favourites was a plate of foraged leaves, grilled to different textures then painted with a scallop sauce, not unlike a Chinese oyster sauce but infinitely better. We used the elastic sour dough bread that is grown using a 14-year-old starter to wipe down any bits of sauce.
It was this act of unchecked enjoyment on our part that finally made the Australian smile.
Four hours later when we finish our meal, our senses awakened, we are invited to visit the kitchen. A young man with gorgeous sleeve tattoos takes us to the kitchen and shows us the stations. Then we go outside to the grill where our foraged leaves have been grilled. We thank him and turn to leave. “That’s not all.” he smiles. He takes us to a tent where a group of interns are huddled together in the cold plucking teal ducks. “We have three hunters who supply us with wild duck.” Then it is on to the fermentation room, row upon row of tubs. Then up to the test kitchen with its aquarium of King Crabs and 100-year-old Mahogany clams.
This young man is brimming with enthusiasm.
“What time do you get here?” I ask him.
“6:30 and I leave at midnight. But I choose to be here.I want to be here.”
Noma has 15 paid members of staff but with interns, they number in the 50s. Each one wants to be here. The hours are long and cooking is by nature repetitive but they are part of a collective who are constantly pushing for better than the best.
That shows up on the plate. It shows up in the service we receive. It makes for a memorable lunch.