Restaurants

Inside Noma

In search of obsession, the discovery of something far more powerful inside the world’s best restaurant.

“I FEEL LIKE every time something happens or there’s something new we have to think of, or do, here at the restaurant, or in my life — I overthink it,” René Redzepi, the famed chef of Noma, tells me. “Obsessing about things can be good to a certain point until it just becomes stupid, and takes over too much time and too much of your mental space. You think things through so much to the point where you foresee so many problems, you’re almost afraid of doing them. I don’t have one simple thing that I obsess about — it’s just everything.” Out of all that Redzepi says, this I relate to the most.

A month earlier, I had flown to Copenhagen to write about today’s best restaurant in the world (an accolade Noma has now received a whopping five times). I sought to examine the mythic place through the lens of international obsession, to see for myself how they’d transformed a city with little culinary draw into one of today’s greatest food capitals.

While the typical chronology of travel is to book a trip somewhere and then make your reservations, Noma inverts that. Countless hopefuls will breathlessly wait an unspecified amount of time for the chance at a reservation. If they’re successful, the plane ticket comes after.

Arriving at the restaurant, a long path stretched out before me. At the very end was a blazing fire, vibrant citrine against an expanse of winter gray. This menu was for Ocean Season, the doorway spectacularly on theme: encrusted with seashells like the barnacled underside of a ship. I swung open the door to the famous Noma greeting: as many team members as possible drop whatever they’re doing to stand there in welcome. Ears ringing from the cold, I met what felt to be around 30 pairs of smiling eyes, and had the sudden arbitrary panic my fly had come unzipped.

After being seated with a glass of bubbly, a preview of my meal was presented: a glistening spread of live seafood twitching in a basket. What followed felt symbolic — the act of a kiss.

The beginning of a love affair seemed to be the message. A crab shell arrived full of warm, viscous broth, the concentrated nectar of the sea itself. I had to bring my lips to the animal’s mouth to drink; others around me made out with their respective crabs. Tilting my head back to get the last drops, my eyes locked on the rafter above my head, sheathed in mussel shells.

Kevin, one of the chefs, gave me a tour of the kitchen. Through the long back hall, bodies zipped around with quiet intensity. I passed a huddle of folks tweezing crab meat out of the shells to reduce into the next batch of broth. Nothing goes into the fridge; it’s alive, then slain, then prepared immediately. “René thinks the second you put something on ice and store it, the flavor fades,” Kevin explained.

We passed the lab, steely and pristine as a surgery ward, and the cantina, where the team eats family meals on rows of long, summer camp–style benches. In a lot of restaurants, Kevin shared, front of house will eat together in one group, chefs in another, interns probably huddled together in the corner. “At Noma, we all sit together,” he said simply.

I walked back to my hotel that night, tapping notes onto my phone with frigid fingers, in awe of the tidy seamlessness that was this place. A few weeks prior, Daniel Humm, renowned chef of yet another cuisine cathedral, Eleven Madison Park, had described Noma to me as a “Gesamtkunstwerk.” A German compound word, it roughly translates to “a total work of art,” a creation in which different art forms are combined to create a single cohesive whole. The term couldn’t be more apt. From cuisine to design to service, Noma was a snapshot of obsession at its most heady: obsession begetting obsession. Who in their right mind wouldn’t relive the taste of that crab broth again and again after watching its tender flesh be tool-picked by gifted hands, then reduced to the heavens?

This story, I thought — eyes bugging out, face lit madly by my phone screen, thumbs numb — was shaping up nicely on theme! Squinting into the dark, I frantically typed some more thoughts:

Fish course had sauce that tasted like XO sauce. Served w/ tender cabbage, glazed in jade-hued light oil, still w/ crunch though. This dish = Asian?

Candied mushroom thing had peanut butter & jelly sandwich flavors. This dish = nostalgia?

Almost getting hit by a bike, I broke from my reverie, then switched to my emails. It didn’t even occur to me to question the absent figure, the one person I didn’t see all evening: René Redzepi.

The next morning, an email arrived: “As you might have noticed, René was not in the restaurant last night, as he was not feeling well …” Redzepi had COVID, his third bout.

‘I’ve never felt at home until I came here. It’s a place filled with dreamers. Noma is my home.’

The next day, I went to do my other interviews as planned, moderately tense and wondering how I’d write anything compelling without the very subject I had flown here to meet — to say nothing of his health. The scene at the restaurant was unexpected. With indie music floating throughout, the space was more like a university library, folks in chunky sweaters tucked up with their laptops, chatting, and sipping coffee. There was an air of lightness and contentedness — a microcosm of some utopian society. It was difficult not to ease up a bit.

I met with Jason White, the director of fermentation at Noma and Noma Projects — the restaurant’s first initiative to export the restaurant’s flavors and knowledge beyond its walls. “Hello!” he said. “I’m the resident nerd.” Jason got his start as a restaurant dishwasher in the U.S., then moved up to become a cook. He saw tons of premade products being used at the time, and would question why they didn’t just make them in-house. “I was like, ‘Chef, why can’t we just make this stuff ourselves?’ And the chef told me, ‘Jason, shut up and get back to work.’” The dismissiveness didn’t end there. “So many paid fermenters over the last 10 years were basically shoved in a corner or closet — or in their free time, unpaid, had to ferment under weird conditions because there was no investment in the role of a fermenter.”

What helped move the needle? Noma. “René took a risk showcasing what a small-scale fermentation facility looks like in a restaurant. You don’t need to throw a lot of money at a laboratory to create good products, but you have to fuel the passion and curiosity it takes to discover new flavors.” He described always feeling out of place — until now: “I’ve never felt at home until I came here. It’s a place filled with dreamers. Anywhere could be your home, but when you’re in the right place, you know. Noma is my home.”

Annika de Las Heras, the chief operating officer of Noma Projects, described the initiative as a new start: “Even though it’s our 20th anniversary next November, with Noma Projects it feels like starting at the beginning, in a really positive way.” The first expression of Noma Projects was a pantry product that’s since sold out, a bottle of mushroom garum (an “umami-packed liquid seasoning”) for which they tested close to 150 recipes. But their goal is for products to allow a financial foundation for more, “whether it’s finding an environmental project that we either fund or buy that gives back to nature in a specific way.” The ultimate dream, she shared, is to scale into something like an “incredible little facility where we could do small-batch units every year and use that as an R&D lab, and maybe an educational center as well.”


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For partner and CEO Peter Kreiner, the image of Noma Projects — the science-book Instagram captions, the petri-dish shots, the broadcasting of what didn’t work — isn’t at odds with their choreographed, controlled restaurant experience. Openness, curiosity, and vulnerability have always been at the core of their DNA, he mused. “I think one thing which has been a thread throughout all the years of Noma is that we’ve never had that really secret sauce or secret ingredients. So we are not afraid of putting things forward. Maybe we’re doing things in a way where others might say, ‘Ah, maybe we’d hold that back and not say this or show this.’ But that vulnerability is a part of who we are.”

At this point, the entire staff began filing into the main area. Bright turtlenecks and jackets, beanies and boots had replaced their muted uniforms. I asked Carolyne, Noma’s front-of-house coffee and tea specialist I’d met the other night, where they were all coming from. “Session,” she said with a meditative smile, explaining the team’s weekly masterclass on an array of topics, deep dives on things like whiskey or harvesting oysters, all the way to managing difficult guests. “Every Thursday, we learn something new.”

That night, Noma team members Arve and Jenny took me out to Tigermom — the city’s spectacular Asian-inspired restaurant — where we got sweaty on eye-bulging chili sauces and frank off the drink pairings. Jenny then took me to industry haunt Barabba, Copenhagen’s rustic love letter to pasta and wine. Over glasses that seemed to fill up as soon as we’d finished them, we exchanged personal stories and cackled over the bar. Walking back that night, I kept my phone in my pocket — watching happy Danes spill out from other eateries instead.

It was the first moment I truly noticed just how beautiful the city was.

A month later, I finally speak with Redzepi, recovered and in the kitchen once again. What he reveals to me over the course of our conversation has little to do with food, or Copenhagen, or even obsession.

He sets the scene with some necessary context, a window into the history of kitchen culture whose intensity most will never understand: “Our industry is challenging. It’s an industry born out of serving others and being at the servitude of others. It was typically an industry where people got their last chance in life in a way; it’s either the military or you find a kitchen to be in. It was very rough.”

The first time he questioned the old-guard restaurant model, it seemed downright radical. “The first time I told myself, ‘I don’t want to be the one who continues this cycle of restaurants; why don’t we try to break that mold?’ it sounded so crazy, because imagine — in the fine dining setting I grew up in, you could work in a restaurant where you weren't allowed to speak to each other, you couldn’t even listen to music in a kitchen. So even small steps like that — 10, 15 years ago would be new, like, ‘Whoa, you’re daring to do that.’”

I thought back to the sunny off-duty scene when I visited the restaurant, A Tribe Called Quest filling its halls. “Where we are today is a completely different place to where we were 10 years ago. But it’s by intent it has become the way it is today,” he says emphatically. “We have forced it to be where it is through painful thinking and challenging transformations. And I’m really happy where we are right now as a team. But there’s no light switch for anything.”

This rewiring, he explains, required total ego death — a scrapping of identity and the models he’d been brought up within. “Let’s say 10 years of work at the restaurant, plus 10 years of being a young cook, traveling the world as an intern and working in kitchens — everything you experience — and then realizing, ‘I need to change.’ It’s sleepless nights, it’s evenings looking at yourself in the mirror thinking ‘Who are you?’ It’s deep, existential darkness. At one point I had this moment where it was really bad and I was like, ‘What are you going to do?’ I couldn’t even be in myself because I couldn’t figure out what to do. ‘Why are you doing all this stuff you told yourself you would never do? Why did you start shouting? Why did you get angry for no reason? Why are all these small little mistakes that everyone is bound to make suddenly disasters to you? What has gone wrong? Why can’t you figure it out? Somebody help me. Who do I ask for help?’”

He found himself at a crossroads: Quit the industry, or turn things around. He chose the latter. “Then came hundreds of hours of coaching and therapy and reading books and step-by-step starting to hire more people.”

Starting a family played a role in his push for balance, for a more humane approach to work: “When Noma opened I was 25. At that age you think you’re immortal in a way. And so I was just working and working and working. Fourteen years ago, I had my first child. That was the moment to say, ‘Hey, is this going the right way, if you want to actually grow old in this industry?’”

“Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out the proper formula, not just for me, but in general — how do we get to be in the restaurant industry at a place that wants to be amongst the very, very best, with all the trials and tribulations that come with such an ambition, and at the same time also live? How do you fuel yourself with more creativity, with more longevity, how do you have fruitful relationships at work where there’s trust and motivation? All these things in our industry, we have never, ever been taught anything like this. Nothing. If you go to school, you learn how to whip up a sauce.”

This transformation is an ongoing process he grapples with every day. “With each year it becomes more and more possible, we are closer to it. And I really think we’ll get to a point where it’s challenging creative work, but we’re living at the same time.”

I had set out to write a story about obsession. But what I was discovering was something far more human, far more sustaining — something more like devotion.

And Noma Projects? To Redzepi, it’s key in this pursuit of balance, and another thing that would’ve been scoffed at just years ago. “It’s one of those things that a decade ago, if a restaurant like Noma were to start selling a sauce, it would’ve been the biggest sellout move … I always wanted to do it because I knew that as a restaurant, we need to find a revenue stream that’s not based on operating.”

“So we’ve been trying to figure out: How can we ‘monetize our brand’ and all these sorts of words I’ve been reading about and people have been helping me with. We hope that this will be the thing that can really propel restaurant Noma into a place where we set ourselves creatively free. Where the staff will be taken care of. Where we can work a little less and be proud of what is being put out there.”

In this moment, I realize I’d been looking at a place through a one-dimensional lens. I had set out to write a story about obsession, a story about extremism, flawlessness. But what I was discovering was something far more potent, far more human, far more sustaining — something more like devotion.

For someone at the helm of the best restaurant in the world, Redzepi is ironically very unobsessed with the term “fine dining.” “The idea that we are supposedly doing something that’s finer than the best taco stand in Mexico City is wrong, in my opinion. It is the exact same commitment to doing something very good,” he pauses. “And so I don’t like the term ‘fine dining.’ If you are serving tacos or are the best baker, and you wish for quality and you wish to do the best you can, then you are a fine maker of something.”

Something he is obsessed with is actually rooted in its utter lack of exclusivity or fancifulness: hiking. “One of my passions in life. I go on very extensive hikes, weeks at a time. I think hiking will be one of the most popular ways of experiencing tourism in the future, because there’s no VIP department when you hike. You’re in nature, walking from place to place, typically village to village, experiencing a country in such a different way than going to a major city and seeing a museum and the restaurants and so on. Typically, you also sleep in people’s homes. You’re just surrounded by nature. And I think we could all use a bit more of that.”

We discuss the meaning of restaurants, and fine dining (for lack of a better phrase). He’s not so precious with his words about this either. “Restaurants, what do they stand for? Most of the time, they’re a place for people to come and enjoy life. You don’t necessarily need to have restaurants to stay alive, but in order to feel alive, you need all this culture around you — art and beautiful experiences. I feel like every single person I know, their life mission is to set themselves free from whatever they have. I’m not saying that fine dining is necessary for that, but I do think it makes life more livable.”

He ends on something else they don’t teach you in cooking school: growing up in a restaurant. “When we opened, everyone was single, we were wild, trying to figure it out. Suddenly everybody finds their love, kids happen, all the problems around kids. Our parents getting old and our grandparents getting very old — that’s the next phase that seems to be happening right now. Nobody teaches you about these things either at cooking school. Whoa. You’re going to experience all these things together, and how are you going to deal with that? Life is a mystery sometimes — we just gotta accept that.”


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Sophie Mancini Writer

Sophie Mancini is an editor at Departures. Born and raised in New York City, she holds a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and has a background as a writer in brand and editorial.

Rory Payne Photographer

Based in his native London, Rory Payne applies a mix of analog and digital techniques in his work. His clients include Calvin Klein, Cartier, Mugler, and Versace. He has shot for publications such as British Vogue, GQ Style, Vogue Mexico, and Teen Vogue.

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