A few years ago, my good friend Henrik Pedersen, who runs Restaurant Babette in Vordingborg,
was offered the use of beautiful premises in the old warehouse at the end of Strandgade in Christianshavn, where the Royal Greenland Trade Enterprise had once held fort. It was, in fact, right here that a grandiose project was underway. Before long, it would come to be the case that Iceland’s embassy and the Home Rule representation for the Faroe Islands and for Greenland would all share the common address at this warehouse, which would eventually come to be known as Nordatlantens Brygge (North Atlantic House).
In short order, I was drawn into the spirit of the project. Meanwhile, Henrik’s wife, Vivi Schou, Restaurant Babette’s head chef, was not thrilled at all about the idea of taking on the responsibility for yet another restaurant along with the day-today running of Babette and certainly not when it involved a project that was situated as far away from Vordingborg as Copenhagen. So Henrik pulled out. But he made it clear that he would be more than delighted if I were to carry on with the project and I had already grown very excited about it. What fascinated me most about the project were neither the exquisite wooden floor in Pomeranian pine nor the warehouse’s fascinating 250-year history. My compelling interest had much more to do with the possibility of generating – within these very frames – a compellingly stringent and beautiful culinary concept, which the world had never seen before.
If a restaurant was going to be established at the Nordatlantens Brygge – the building housing the cultural and administrative facilities for the North Atlantic countries, then it was imperative that the cuisine must be built up of ingredients from Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland. However, due to practical and economic considerations, it was also going to be necessary to use ingredients from the other Nordic countries. A purely Danish restaurant with Arctic elements would be just too far out. There was simply no way such a concept could be clarified to others.
Paul Cunningham – the big happy fellow – had just extricated himself from his commitment at
Restaurant Coquus. So I took a chance and offered him the position of head chef and a partnership
in the project. I spoke to him about my thoughts concerning a Nordic restaurant. Although Paul was very enthusiastic, he asked for some time to think it over. Three days went by before he phoned back to say that he had been thinking very seriously about my offer. He was flattered. But at the time, plans he had been making with his friend, Morten Tønnesen, to open up a new restaurant in Tivoli Gardens had progressed to a stage where there was no turning back. On the other hand, he wanted to know whether he could tell two of his colleagues about the project, since he sensed that this just might be of interest to them. The one was Bo Bech, who had just come to the end of his collaboration with Jan Hurtigkarl. The other was René Redzepi, who was eager to face new challenges after having served for four good years as the souschef at Kong Hans. I met with both of these men. And although René and I ended up being partners, my meeting with Bo also signaled the beginning of what has proved to be a warm friendship.
René caught sight of the great vision in the project right away. Like me, he became dizzy about the very notion of what it would mean if we could really get this kind of restaurant off the ground. At the same time, he approached the task before us with an admixture of dedication, humbleness and enthusiasm – his way of meeting the challenge truly made a great impression on me. Shortly after we had shaken hands on initiating our partnership, René asked me how I would feel about him bringing his friend and colleague, Mads Refslund, on board. René had known Mads since the days of his training at the Hotel & Restaurant School. What would I say to cutting Mads in as a partner? Well, I didn’t know too much about Mads, aside from the fact that he was Cunningham’s head chef and I did regard this as a problem. However, thanks to the two chefs’ eagerness and clear-sightedness, to Mads’ winning personality and to Paul Cunningham’s openhearted spirit, all the arrangements worked out in the way René and Mads wanted them to. Now, just to relocate – we are still back in the early spring of 2003 – nine months before Noma’s opening.
A few months later, the three of us set out on a four-week long study-excursion to the North Atlantic countries. We did not have particularly high expectations of the cuisine that we would come across on our trip. But we did imagine we might be finding fish, shellfish, meats and wild herbs – and maybe even grains, vegetables and fruits – of an unprecedented quality.
We really felt like gastronomic explorers. Maybe we would be running into ingredients that we had never seen or tasted before? Our first destination was the Faroe Islands, where we experienced our fi rst great surprise. And maybe this was the greatest surprise of all on the whole trip! As we were being served a cup of coffee, we watched our host grate a turnip. “Does this go with the coffee?” we asked. Yes, it did! And soon, we would come to understand why. The turnips matured a few months after the Danish ones. The period of ripening had been a very long one. The nights were cool and throughout its maturation, the turnip had access to a good measure of light and very moist soil. It was as juicy as a pear and the meat of the vegetable conjoined the turnip’s bitterness with the pear’s sweetness. None of us had ever tasted anything like this before!
On the Faroe Islands we also met the skipper, Birger Enni, the man who had discovered local mussel banks with 45-year old horse mussels. They were enormous ... and filled with wonderful orange-red mussel meat and they had the deepest mussel flavor that anyone could ever imagine. It was a roar from another time. Birger’s friend, Gunnar, another shellfish expert, had specialized in trapping gigantic langoustines, which he kept alive in basins, together with deep-sea crabs that were every bit as impressive. Both species of shellfish were still alive when they were delivered to different places around Europe – shipped directly by airplane from these small islands in the North Atlantic.
We moved on to Iceland, where we became very enthusiastic about the cultured dairy product, skyr, which is made with an age-old bacteria culture from the milk of the Icelandic cows, a race whose line has continued in an unbroken chain since the time of the Vikings. We found that we could get the skyr sent to us back in Denmark – unpasteurized! We tasted the local lamb and the wildly growing Scotch thyme, biodynamic pearl barley, fish – including arctic char – and seaweed of an extremely choice quality. Iceland’s dark rye bread, which is baked in steam down below the ground, was also fantastic.
As might be expected, Greenland also offered its own surprises. Among other things, we found an area where it was possible to obtain angelica roots, angelica leaves and angelica seeds. For the first time, we got a look at the huge musk oxen, which are actually mountain goats of a kind, and we also tasted monstrously delicious reindeer meat. We also managed to get hold of a shipment of newly caught cold-water Greenland shrimp, some of which were six years old. Whether we were sampling them raw or seared, their savoriness knocked our socks off. The Greenland halibut was also of a quality you never come across in Denmark. And the small and fatty species of salmon, the angmassats, which are called capelin in English, inspired us with a great many unusual ideas. Last, but not least, there were the crowberries and the herb called grønlandspost, which were among the wonderful items that we were looking forward to getting hold of one fi ne day when everything would be falling into place back home in Copenhagen.
In Greenland and in the Faroe Islands, we actually met a few chefs who were working with the local produce and ingredients in a modern way. On Iceland, we met even more of them, some of whom were working ambi-tiously with French and American produce. All these fine cooks were making fine food, indeed. But we had to wonder: why were the original local specialties so inaccessible to us? When you travel in countries like Italy, Spain, Vietnam and Japan, it’s easy to fall in love with the local regional dishes. But for some reason, this just wasn’t happening to us on this trip. There were angmagssats in seal oil, buried dried shark, the intestines of the way too long deceased Alcidae bird, porpoise soup, fulmars, air-dried mutton and ræstur. We tasted all these things with our professional inquisitiveness and an optimum degree of openness to the experience. But we just couldn’t build up any craving for this stuff .
In short, we discovered that there were a whole lot of wonderful ingredients that seemed to be growing by themselves out from the landscapes. The people there were spectators, trappers and hunters – not refiners. The light, the silence, the aromas and the delight about the savage North became a common frame of reference for us, although we were not yet certain about what it was going to mean to us later on. On the other hand, there were not many food preparation ideas that René and Mads were inspired to carry back and eventually bring forth in the restaurant in Christianshavn.
Looking back from where we are today, it all seems to have made sense that we ended up defining Noma as a Nordic restaurant. But we were in doubt at the start. On the basis of our intense experiences in the Arctic countries and also because it had a sharper conceptual effect, we perceived ourselves for some time as being a North Atlantic restaurant. But we never would have let it go so far in this direction had we known in advance how difficult it would be to get hold of fresh supplies of shellfish, herbs and spices, musk ox, reindeer and the like sent to Copenhagen when we needed these ingredients. It had repercussions when our colleagues in the branch teased us so fiercely: Restaurant “Lard Thrasher”, “The Whale Belly”, “The Seal Humper”, “The Dry Fish” and “The Golden Harpoon” were just some of names they called us. With a smile, of course, but anyway ... Suddenly, it occurred to us what strong prejudices we were up against and this caused us to think twice. Would we ever get any guests at all, aside from members of the Greenland legislature and a few Icelandic investors?
For our part, we sat down and formulated what we were actually aspiring toward with the whole project. Some time later on, we even decided to inscribe this right on the first page of Noma’s menu. It sounds like this: “At NOMA, we aim to off er a personal rendition of Nordic gourmet cuisine, where typical methods of cooking, fine Nordic raw produce and the legacy of our common food culture are all subjected to an innovative gastronomic approach. Carrying this line of thinking further, we view it as a challenge to play a part in bringing forth a regeneration of Nordic culinary craft, in its capacity to encompass the North Atlantic region and to brighten the whole world with its distinctive tastiness and special regional character.”
There are so many ways whereby you can make a living. I have always been most strongly attracted to the struggles where one has the chance to fight for something greater than the business’s profits and I am delighted that René and Mads feel the same way. We would rather fall flat on our faces trying to implement a project with a great value of beauty, without which the world would be a little poorer, than trying to push through a cynical business idea that has been figured out and realized only for the sake of making money. We thought we had a very strong team and even though it presumably would have been easier and safer to create a semi-global and hyper-innovative gourmet cuisine, with a selective focus on the seasons’ local raw produce, as had been achieved with a great deal of success in the Basque region, we continued to be optimistic about what were about to do. We were never really afraid it would go awry.
But there were certainly enough reasons to be worried. In the beginning of Noma’s life, when René and Mads had to switch the channel from what they learned at the internationally-oriented kitchens, where they had been schooled, I operated in a very active manner as coach, whip and sparring partner, on many levels. I’ve saved notes from one of our last meetings just prior to the restaurant’s opening night; the first thing I wrote down from this session was that “our food can never be better than what our suppliers bring.” But we were already all too aware that the supply lines were going to be an essential problem for the development of a new Nordic cuisine ... meaning Noma. In 2003, it was a whole lot easier to obtain freshly picked basil from Thailand than it was to obtain frozen Swedish cloudberries. And this is still the case. You could get hold of white truffles from Umbria in ten minutes’ time during the season, but you couldn’t get turnips from the Faroe Islands in two weeks. It was easier to buy crocodile meat than to buy moose. And finding 20 different varieties of processed wheat from Italy was absolutely no problem, but you certainly couldn’t obtain barley or oats from Norway. Dried American blueberries and cranberies could be purchased for a song at the nearest grocery store, while the far more interesting dried berries from the Northern Swedish forests couldn’t be purchased for any price at all in town. And the local fish market would typically be presenting fresh king clip from South Africa and Japanese tuna on sale, while fresh cod from the Faroe Islands or Icelandic arctic char would have to remain impossible dreams.
In Southern Europe, there is a long tradition of very small business enterprises that make use of special local climatic circumstances – the terroir – and especially of the local biodiversity – to fa-bricate products that are outstanding, specifically because they communicate their geographic origin through their fl avor, their scent and their history. In the North, however, we have very few of these kinds of enterprises and meanwhile, the larger agricultural producers have made a virtue out of the elimination of any terroir-dimension in their produce. One of the many questions we were asking ourselves was this: how on earth are we going to allure international feinschmeckers with a Nordic cheese dish when the legislation in every one of the Nordic countries requires that the milk be pasteurized and accordingly rendered uniform prior to making cheese? Something had to be done. Consequently, we wanted to seek out any conceivable dialogue with whatever larger and smaller enterprises we thought might prove to be of help in improving the situation. And we also thought that the time was ripe for doing this. Already, before Noma’s opening night, we decided that we would eventually invite a number of colleagues from the Nordic countries and representatives from the Nordic ‘establishment’ to a symposium which would place Nordic cuisine on the agenda. The next point that I jotted down at the aforementioned meeting before our opening night sounded like this:
• Our cuisine would be “built on a basis of traditional and non-traditional Nordic ingredients
and we would be giving expression to the seasons’ changes in a maximum way, taking things all the
way to the limit.”
In other places around the world, the cuisine is the same all year round, aside from the food shared on the high holidays. And being as far from the Equator as we are, we saw it as our duty to underscore the seasons. It was not merely a matter of what was the proper time to serve asparagus and carrots, but also an interest in the crops that signal the first harbingers of spring. It also had to do with the dishes that inspire us to notice, for instance, that winter is upon us. Alas, we forget to take our own medicine. We failed to build up a serviceable stock of jars and bottles in the course of our first season. René has eloquently described the experience of dragging himself and his kitchen forward to the incipient signs of that fi rst Noma spring (in April 2004) as a veritable nightmare. We ended up formulating things in this way:
• We promised each other to be especially attentive to the wild, the inaccessible and the saliently
Nordic: the items that have been growing in our region, always without human intervention.
In formulating this, we were thinking especially about the goods from nature’s pantry, which is in fact so very generous in the Nordic region, and about goods that do not pass through any formalized cultivation systems and cannot, therefore, be sold through the customary supply lines.
• We ought to be “ready to commit ourselves to putting certain food products into production,
wherever such a need might reveal itself as a natural link in the context of our project.”
• We agreed to conjoin the idea of “the Nordic” with a certain measure of purity, with a simplicity in the idea, and it was our wish that these factors would reflect themselves in the construction and presentation of the individual dishes, as well as in the process of how each dish comes into being – that is to say, we wanted to steer clear of high-tech exaggeration.
• All the menus ought to contain some measure of Arctic ingredients.
• Shellfish would come to play a central role in Noma’s cuisine.
• We would be working with the age-old Nordic principles of conserving foods: pickling, smoking,
salting and drying. But we would be aiming to improve the fl avors rather than merely at prolonging
their shelf life.
• We wanted to avoid using wine in the sauces and soups and to fi nd, instead, the freshness and the “edge” in vinegars, fruit juices and plants like wood- and garden-sorrel. We wanted to search for sweet and sour tones, which we associated with the indefinable Nordic.
• From our point of view, soups are also an intrinsic element of Nordic cuisine and we wanted to widen and renew the very notion of soup and, you bet, the sausage – that’s exactly what it says on
my handwritten notes from the meeting!
• We wanted to develop a cuisine that could pose a challenge to the original Mediterranean cuisine’s status as being healthy. We wanted to make food that could be easily digested. We had simply grown nauseous about the opposition between “fine food” and “health”. If we were going to succeed in playing a role in building up a new Nordic cuisine, we were going to have to learn from the mistakes of the past.
• We wanted to include Nordic grains, cereals and all kinds of beans in our gourmet cuisine. We wanted to off er new interpretations of øllebrød (beer porridge), oatmeal and tapioca (pearl sago)
and to use split peas and rye in connection with the fine cuisine.
• And finally, vegetables would have to play a prominent role in Noma’s cuisine and would therefore be filling out more room on the plate than was generally the case at traditional gourmet restaurants.
As things came to pass, Mads Refslund decided before long to go his own way. After him came – first – Søren Ledet, who worked as René’s assistant head chef for a year and then, Torsten Vildgaard, both of whom held the title of Danish Chef of the Year in, respectively, 2004 and 2005. Søren did a really fine job. Although this national champion’s performance was hard to surpass, Torsten is – if one could imagine – doing an even better job as assistant head chef.
In March 2004 – only four months after Noma’s opening – we kick-started the process that would eventually lead to the much-discussed Nordic Cuisine Symposium (see the manifesto on page 175) and the realization of the symposium exceeded all our expectations. First and foremost, the diff erent chefs drew up a grandiose manifesto, which was later adopted in its entirety by the Nordic Council of Ministers as the foundation for the far-sighted international cooperation pertinent to new Nordic cuisine, which the Nordic Council of Ministers subsequently set into motion.The attention from the media was overwhelming. The symposium has even been compared with the resolution adopted by the Basque chefs in 1973 to elevate Spanish cuisine to the status of international recognition.
I am convinced, moreover, that the manifesto is functioning today as a guiding light for many enterprises and organizations in the Nordic countries. Every time we get word about a small Nordic business enterprise that is working scrupulously and quality-oriented with the possibilities that are growing out of the landscape, it comes as a delightful surprise to us. This can be said, for example, about the marmalade jam and jelly maker, John, from Strynø, who is both growing and making his blackcurrant and gooseberry preserves, about the Mandø-innkeeper who gathers glasswort in the Southwest Jutland coastal mudflats, about the Lapp winegrowers who are producing wine from birch sap, crowberries, arctic bramble and cloudberries up north of the Arctic Circle and about their neighborsin-spirit, who are making tea from the tundra’s flowers and leaves during the summer months. We are thrilled about discovering new kinds of horseradish and rhubarb, an old kind of pear or apple or a new wild plant, which nobody has ever used in the kitchen before. And we are delighted when we chance upon a historical flavor, the existence of which we did not know beforehand. Th is can be said, for example, about the Jämtlandish, unpasteurized goats’-milk cheese, Vit Cap-rin, which is fabricated from the milk of goats grazing on the North Swedish flowered meadows – at an altitude of more than 1000 meters. It can also be said about the barley from Skjåk, which has the longest conceivable season of growth and is irrigated by the melt water running down from the mountains in the Gudbrand Valley in Norway. Our enthusiasm will be just as great when the powerful players in the food industry start to wake up with a drive to initiate some new kind of dialogue with their surroundings.
It makes us happy when we hear that after 100 years of moving things in the opposite direction, Arla Foods is now ready to fight for the establishment of a new kind of raw milk culture in the Nordic countries and is even expressing its volition to help other dairy farms get started. And it comes as a delight to us when nutritional science initiates a new dialogue with chefs and with industry, not only about how they can continue making the food cheaper, but also about how it can be done in a better way. And we are delighted when we hear that Carlsberg’s house brewery, Jacobsen, is calling all the smaller breweries in the Nordic countries into a dialogue about how we can recreate a terroir-dimension for Nordic beer. These kinds of initiatives – regardless of whatever complex and strategic motives may be lying behind them – strengthen the multiplicity of purveyors and products and they generate waves of enthusiasm on all levels in the category. And this stimulates the consumers to seek new ground and leads, in the end, to the situation where goods that are spawned from all these eff orts come to be democratically accessible rather than remaining puny culinary artworks reserved exclusively for the pleasure of a narrow gastronomic elite. It is the latter-named scenario which, in all respects, represents the very antithesis of what we are aiming at in our conception of a new Nordic cuisine.
As of the time of this writing, it has been three years since we opened Noma. This book serves to document the position where the restaurant’s cuisine is today. It shows that we are using ingredients from all the Nordic countries. We travel several times a year in order to look around for new raw goods and new sources of inspiration. It is utterly crucial – but at the same time we want to re-emphasize this – that Noma’s cuisine does not purport to be the Nordic cuisine, but stands as only one among thousands of fantastic ways of unfolding Nordic cuisine in our region. But we are sorely lacking a Nordic tradition of exchanging the very best commodities between our countries, of course, but there is an even greater need for small and wonderful local restaurants that are exploring the local region’s potentials – and working in close interaction with producers located in the immediate vicinity. This could serve as the source of a great deal of happiness and pride and could certainly stand as a meaningful way of tying together all the parties involved, including the area’s inhabitants. Without vital local cuisines, we will never attain a genuinely vital regional Nordic cuisine that can be handed down from one generation to the next.
Just think for a moment about how Mediterranean cuisine has come to obtain its renown and about the persevering attempts, even under severe pressure from McDonaldsization, to maintain and secure the genuine qualities in the regions of the Mediterranean countries. Recently, René and I were eating at Café Lindevang in Frederiksberg, and it was like stepping into a time warp, where we were being presented with typical Danish cuisine from the middle of the twentieth century. Each of us was presented with a serving tray containing a great many bowls and dishes, among these being calves’ liver with sautéed onions and pickles and old-fashioned beefsteak with pearl onions, jus, white potatoes and pickles. But there were no baguettes! What lay before us was, by and large, the same food that was put before me when I was a child. In a strange way, it was like coming home again. We really liked this food. Being clearly moved by the experience, René told me that this was exactly the kind of food that his chef friends prefer to eat when they are off . When hard-pressed to answer, René responded that it might be so that he could make some of the dishes that were being served in a somewhat better way, if he were going to make them himself. But that wasn’t the point. We don’t have to choose between Noma and Café Lindevang. On that evening, it was crystal clear to us that somebody had to face up to the challenge of dusting off and updating traditional Danish cuisine, so that it could be lifted out from the nationalistic stench that fouls the air in the bodegas and inns and so that it could be resurrected in a modernized rendition, cleansed of the all too many bad habits and distasteful shortcuts that characterize our present day.
Anyone can declare his or her kitchen an olive oil-free zone or a goose liver-free terrain. But to create a Nordic cuisine that can actually reach out and grab hold of people’s hearts – well, that’s a whole different ballgame. In the first few months after we opened up our restaurant, I ate at Noma once a week. After every one of these meals, René and I discussed openly what it was that was working perfectly and what it was that could be done better. That’s the way it went on for a few months. But then, one day, I could suddenly feel that it no longer made any sense to evaluate the food, dish by dish. I’m not really sure what happened or precisely when it happened. But all of a sudden, I was speechless, because the food was so extraordinarily good – and in a very new way! It wasn’t because the individual dishes were more successful than anything I had previously been served at The Paul, Søllerød Kro or Kong Hans or any of the other distinguished restaurants in the neighborhood. No, it was because the food was affecting me as a sensation in my whole body and not merely as a taste in my mouth. It was as if the kitchen had wrested itself free from its own historical framework, with all the inflexible rules of play, and it was as if the dishes, in a certain way, were simply floating out from the kitchen ... out into the dining room.
No longer was the Nordic cuisine an assignment that René was taking on his shoulders. By now it had apparently become a fire burning within him ... and he has been keeping it alive ever since. When it comes to professional expertise, there is no person who has ever surprised me as much and as positively as René has. I wouldn’t hesitate for one second to attribute to him – and the versatile and strong-willed team he has gathered around him – all the credit and all the honor for that which Noma is today.
I have already mentioned the contribution of Rene’s assistant head chef, Torsten Vildgaard. But I am glad to repeat the acknowledgement once again – Torsten is a very great human being and a fantastic cook, who has been manning the bridge whenever René is called to be elsewhere. Let me also express my gratitude to two of our absolutely bearing pillars: Sommelier Anders Selmer has been part of this project from the outset. Anders has, first of all, played a crucial role in the development of Noma’s beverage philosophy, and Anders is also bearing the brunt of the responsibility for the prospect of making white wine on Lilleø. And last but not least, I would like to mention Pontus Elufsson – one of the Nordic region’s uncontrovertibly best sommeliers. He’s the guy we were really aching to have aboard. Pontus is now a partner in Noma and he is currently responsible for the beverages we are serving. He’s the man behind our beverage menu, which features an exquisitely curated selection of Nordic drinks. Pontus is the personality who, in ensemble with René, profi les the hospitality that you meet as soon as you step in the door at Noma. On a final note, I would like to add a word of thanks to Kristian Byrge. With his highly competent and business-related approach, Kristian manages to take care of things in such a way that René and I can focus on what we want to do.
Recent articles on Noma and Réné Redzepi:
The New Yorker on foraging with Redzepi
René Redzepi on the cover of Time Magazine. Read the article here