Noma 2.0 … Reinventing the “best restaurant in the world”

February 28, 2018

Approaching Noma, perhaps the world’s most famous restaurant, one can’t help feel the sort of trepidation that comes with any trip to a high-end dining experience. Fancy restaurants are by their nature intimidating places – expensive, filled with wealthy, successful people, and often, snooty staff.

Noma, a restaurant that takes immense pride in defying almost every convention in the book, doesn’t fit that stereotype, and makes its point from the very beginning.

Rather than a greeting from an aloof maitre’d with a waxed moustache and immaculate hair, guests’ first contact at the restaurant is with a 63-year-old Gambian immigrant called Ali Sonko and his infectious smile.

Sonko, a permanent fixture at Noma since it opened almost 15 years ago, started as a dishwasher at the restaurant, and having worked his way through the ranks, now owns a 10% stake in the business.

Voted the best restaurant in the world four times in the well-respected, but often controversial World’s 50 Best list, Noma is portmanteau of the word’s “Nordisk,” meaning “Nordic,” and “mad,” the Danish word for food. The restaurant’s name perfectly defines its ambitions.

Noma and its founder Rene Redzepi have built a culinary dynasty by focusing solely on ingredients from the Scandinavian region, shunning things like olive oil, and focusing instead on foraged ingredients from near the restaurant.

Famous dishes to appear on the restaurant’s menu over the years include dried moss, ants, and more recently mould.

Located in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, it has a fair claim to be the most influential place of gastronomy in the world. Alumni are spread all over the world, and have taken the restaurant’s philosophy of hyperlocalism with them.

Any time you eat an edible flower at a local bistro, or hear about the house churned butter at that trendy new spot downtown, Noma has probably had at least some influence.

The story of reinvention of Noma 2.0 reminds me of El Bulli, and in particular the movie which captured the innovative approaches of celebrity chef Ferran Adria at his restaurant just outside Barcelona which is now closed (not for lack of demand, but more because Adria wanted to move on):

This is how the New York Times reviewed the movie …

“A treat for chefs and foodies and a slog for everyone else, “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” fastidiously documents one year in the creative life of the esteemed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià.

Like Wylie Dufresne, the affable owner of the Manhattan restaurant WD-50, the admirably self-possessed Mr. Adrià embraces molecular gastronomy, the boundary-pushing marriage of sustenance and science. Each winter, for up to six months, the chef and his impeccably groomed team close up El Bulli, their noshing idyll in the Catalonia region of Spain, and repair to Barcelona. There, in a gleaming test kitchen as sterile as any laboratory, they vacuum, freeze, extract and deconstruct ingredients into possible menu items for the coming season.

In 2008-9, the German director Gereon Wetzel followed, hovering his hand-held camera over flying fingers and furrowed brows. Swarming deferentially around their maestro like white-coated eunuchs tending a rather demanding vestal virgin, the chefs record failures as meticulously as successes.

But anyone looking for the lowdown on haute cuisine will be sorely disappointed: devoid of emotion, context or narrative, the baffling avant-garde techniques and extreme politesse of the lab become oppressively dull. Only an occasional shopping trip relieves the monotony, as Mr. Adrià’s bleary-eyed minions painstakingly purchase five grapes and three beans, much to the disgust of the eye-rolling vendors.

Unlike the lively “Kings of Pastry” (2009), or Sally Rowe’s insightful 2010 portrait of the young British chef Paul Liebrandt, “El Bulli” offers no inkling of the man behind the mushroom broth. Sucking on a bizarre fluorescent fish ice pop or musing on the various tortures to which he can subject a defenseless sweet potato — oven, pressure cooker or juicer? — Mr. Adrià talks only about food.

“Don’t give me anything that isn’t good,” he instructs vaguely before delivering a lengthy disquisition on yuzu. When, almost an hour into the proceedings, we return to El Bulli (scheduled to close for good on Saturday and then reopen as a culinary research foundation ), the lucky patrons who will spend up to three hours — and heaven knows how many euros — to consume a meal of more than 30 courses are conspicuously marginalized, as if their pleasure or its lack were the least important aspect of the enterprise.

What comes across most strongly in this docile, finger-licking film is that only one set of taste buds matter. Their owner, a culinary magician who strives to please the eye, nose and emotions as much as the palate, appears as stingy with praise as Mr. Wetzel is with beauty shots. Not until the film’s final moments are we rewarded with luscious images of the chosen dishes (adoringly photographed by Francesc Guillamet, Mr. Adrià’s longtime collaborator). Only then are we reassured that the intriguingly named “vanishing ravioli” is probably not as dry as the film that celebrates it.

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