lucky peach

feature

Why I’m Closing Noma

And a look at Noma 2.0.

By René Redzepi September 16, 2015
Photograph by Gabriele Stabile

Let’s start at the beginning.

Let me take you to 2003 when Noma first opened. I’d been touring through different restaurants all around the world. I was twenty-five, young and naive, but full of ideas. One day I got a phone call from my pal Claus inviting me to open my own restaurant. I went to see the ancient whaling depot he’d found, and immediately fell in love with the warehouse ambience; the exposed, almost-three-hundred-year-old wooden beams; even the derelict neighborhood.

It just felt right, and I thought to myself, We can really build something here—I can’t turn this down. We shook hands and decided on a grand idea, one which seemed so unlikely at that time: the restaurant would attempt to define the cooking of our region through Nordic produce. And that’s how we began, with a very strict dogma to only use the ingredients from our vast territory, thinking that a new type of cuisine, or a new flavor would evolve from that.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that this wasn’t going to happen. Cooking a goulash only from local ingredients didn’t make that hearty stew taste new or like it was truly from here. We stumbled forward slowly the first couple of years, and realized with each day that distilling our landscape onto plates of food was a very, very complex task. The answers wouldn’t be found in Nordic produce alone.

We began to discover the wild food of our terrain and foraging became a way to sculpt our cuisine. We were also starting to acknowledge that we needed to create building blocks to shape new dishes and flavors. The answer lay in rethinking traditional methods of preservation to cook up new vinegars, new marinades, new potions of umami. Those two discoveries are the most important innovations of the past twelve years of our work: Connecting ourselves to the seasons through foraging, and the wonderful building blocks of cuisine we have fashioned through our fermented kitchen.

Besides that we have been pretty confused about just about everything. For many years I was wrestling with the very definition of the word local. I mean, where do we even draw the borders of the Nordic region? Does it make sense to include Greenland, on the other side of the Atlantic, but not somewhere close with the same climate like Scotland? Do we include Hamburg, which was on the border of Denmark in the nineteenth century? Is it about the type of vegetation that grows, or the political climate of the moment? And what about chocolate, coffee, and wine? I knew I wanted all of those, but they come far from any place Nordic. And how do we consider potatoes, which were introduced from Peru but are now entrenched in modern Scandinavian food? What about pickles from India? How far back in history does one go to be “authentic?” It’s clear that in the world of cooking we haven’t fully understood many of the labels that define us.

Even so, we’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy tremendous success over the past twelve years. We’ve been able to fuel a community of chefs, producers, and guests that all strive for quality and share the belief that moving forward as a group is better for all of us. I genuinely believe what we’re seeing in our little city and our region are merely the baby steps of many more great things to come. And this success often leads people to ask me, “What’s next for Noma?”

Well, I’d like to share the plan we’ve secretly been working on for the past three years: We are moving to a place where we can grow our own produce, rethink every part of what we do, and create the best possible workplace for our team.

At one point quite a while ago, in the midst of all the confusion, hard work, and doubt, we realized that we’d been organizing our menus and even methods of work in a stupid and somewhat impractical way. Here we are in a region where the seasons change dramatically from barren cold to warm abundance, yet our restaurant and the menu format more or less stay the same. We haven’t been able to transform as dramatically as the weather does; at least until now. We’ve made the decision to change the restaurant along with three very distinct seasons.

In the cold months of January, February, March, and April, when the ground can be rock solid from frost, nothing grows. Very little from the earth is available, and so we will turn to the ocean. At that moment, most fish are at their pinnacle of quality, the flesh firm and pristine, many of them fat with roe, the other innards sweet and succulent. The diversity of shellfish is incredible. Urchins are plump, the ovaries the color of a ripe orange. Wild oysters are hand harvested alongside all the other wonders of the water season. A meal based around such rich proteins will be shorter, enhanced with our well-stocked larder, those hardy plants that survive the frost, and our own greenhouse. The cutlery, the platewear, every element will reflect an aesthetic of the cold ocean.

And then when the world turns green in spring, so will the menu. Slowly the kitchen will reorganize itself to reflect the incredible diversity from the plant kingdom, resulting in smaller servings, but more of them, a steady stream of the cooked and raw vegetation coming from all sides. In May, June, July, August, and into September, we will become a vegetarian restaurant. Our community of farmers and foragers will be central to this green season, but the new restaurant will be nestled in our own urban farm, and we will grow a significant amount of our own produce. The space will also house larger research kitchens; not many people know that the big fermentation facility that we built two years ago behind Noma was set up largely to develop a meal based completely on vegetables. How do you make a plateful of steamed spinach as satisfying as a steak? Through the work done in that half-kitchen, half-mad-laboratory, we have enough potions, liquids, and new flavors that can lift even the simplest carrot to become the star of our menu.

The next change is when the leaves start falling from the trees and our focus shifts toward the forest: the cornucopia of mushrooms, nuts, and berries, coupled with the best of the game. During the end of September, October, November, and December the menu again condenses, maybe organized around whichever game animal might be the centerpiece of the meal. A teal for two, a goose for six, perhaps a leg of moose for eight, and anything in between. Every slice carefully cooked and considered, the innards, each cut of meat, the skin.

And that’s the flow of the year. A true reflection of the landscape at that moment, the unique flavor of that point in time. Three distinct seasons, with a myriad of microseasons within each of them.

It took us a while to figure this all out. Like I said, we’ve been planning for the change for years. That’s why it’s great for me to announce that at the end of December 2016, we will run our last service at Noma.

Because we are moving to an incredible new space as we continue to build our community and figure out what it means to be a cook in this region. To keep exploring food and flavor, in a new place where we can dream. A place where we can build a farm right in the city. Where we can grow our own food, a place where we can keep pushing.

We have spent the last twelve years trying to figure out what it means to be a chef in the Nordic region, and now we are ready to start that restaurant we have been practicing for.