Creativity in a restaurant comes from reinvention. Weeks before the entire Noma staff move to Kyoto, Japan for five months for their latest pop-up, founder René Redzepi and two of Noma’s longtime chefs shared how they stay innovative in the grind of restaurant work.
“As a cook, you go through the seasons each year and it’s the same, it’s not like you’re going to find a new species of birds or the world is going to invent a new animal, you’re going to have to constantly see fresh opportunity in the same winter beats and the same winter onions and so on and so forth,” Redzepi says. “It’s up to us to put the imagination.”
Noma has been awarded multiple times as one of the best restaurants in the world, and earned a third Michelin star last year. Regarded as the pioneer of modern restaurant fermentation, every dish at Noma features something fermented. Noma is regarded as the pioneer of modern gastronomy fermentation, igniting a worldwide movement experimenting with unconventional ferments in the restaurant kitchen to create flavor-packed dishes.
As part of promotion for the new book “Noma 2.0: Vegetable, Forest, Ocean,” authors René Redzepi, Mette Søberg and Junichi Takahashi (both Noma chefs), traveled from Copenhagen to Los Angeles. The book’s title refers to Noma’s three iconic serving seasons. Vegetable in the summer, made with foraged and plant-based items; forest in the fall, when they serve wild game and mushrooms; then ocean in the winter, when seafood is on the menu.
“It provided an outrageous pressure on the team,” he added. “It sounds like nothing, but three times a year coming up with this new way is really, really, really, really hard.”
Redzepi described opening Noma 20 years ago and discovering bright green sea grass that tasted like coriander. It was a pivotal moment.
“That epiphany, that moment where you feel like a child that’s discovered the most amazing thing, those discoveries don’t come that often anymore, I will have to be very very honest, because we’ve just tasted so many things,” Redzepi says. “It’s harder now.”
In the restaurant industry, where pay is low and hours are long, it stifles a chef’s creativity “to be in factory work…it’s simply not worth it.”
But Soberg, head of research and development, said creativity “is really a gift that Rene has given us, because we get to work with these three distinct menus. It’s more about the storyline of the menu.”
She added that she enjoys brainstorming with Noma chefs – a diverse team from all over the world – for the ingredient-driven game and forest season, the more simple seafood where a scallop can shine with umami butter and the complicated vegetable season.
Takashi, a 10 year veteran of Noma, is known as having the most complicated recipes on the staff. The book features one of Takashi’s recipes for cod that is 17 pages long. He said, while working at Noma can be learning techniques, the chefs from different backgrounds all teach each other and share ideas.
“We are also learning from some traditional, international techniques , which is very important for us,” he adds. “I think that’s more important than the fancy stuff, honestly.”
Investing new dishes at Noma can take years of planning. Executing an idea into service “is by far the most complicated part,” Redzepi says. The restaurant spends 10 days before a season opening in a dress rehearsal – then 2 days in testing full serving – finding critical moments – like will a sauce split during serving? Will the weather make the produce taste different?
Intuition, Redzepi says, is a critical skill for a chef to possess and adapt as ingredients change. “You can’t follow the recipes, it’s all in your hands, in your intuition, in your cooking skills. A drop of acidity, a touch of salt. Recipes are guidelines, but the cook will ultimately create the magic.”
Edmundo Farrera describes the taste of mezcal as a complex experience: “First you taste the valley where the agave plant was grown, next the earth it came from, and then on to taste the cosmos and time.”
The Veracruz, Mexico native who opened New Zealand’s first mezcal bar says each sip of a great mezcal is “so beautiful and powerful, like pyrotechnics exploding on my palate.”
An ancient drink that dates back to the Aztecs, they agave was eaten and used in ceremonies. Mezcal came about after the colonization in Mexico by Spainards. They brought Filipino slaves with them, who shared distillation techniques with the Aztecas.
Farrera says mezcal has long been popular in America but only recently it’s becoming more popular globally. American foods and sommeliers, he notes “are fascinated, even more than us, with these agave spirits. They get into it, they study it, a good percentage of American sommeliers, like with wine, can recognise different species of agave in a blind tasting of mezcal.”
He advises “a real mezcal drinker will never touch a cocktail.” Mezcal should be enjoyed sip-by-sip, he says, with the first sip awakening the palate and the second sip experiencing the multi-dimensional taste.
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