The main purpose of our CPH trip this time, if you will, was our Saturday night meal at Noma. It’s Noma, the biggie, voted the world’s best restaurant again after slipping (if you can call it that) to 2nd place. René Redzepi is credited with changing the way the WORLD’s restaurants approach food – You can’t get any restaurant menu these days without some sort of reference to foraging, local or seasonal produce.. But for YKL, it’s much simpler than that: I remember her first going to Noma not long after they opened (and way before they started making waves on the San Pellegrino’s World’s Best restaurants list) and when she first got back, I remember her saying that it was the “Best meal of her life”. Pretty bold statement, but she constantly went back and never once did she have a bad time. Then I started going a couple of years ago; And whilst my first visit was good, I’ve since seen different sides of Noma and absolutely see why YKL made such a statement originally. Noma is the original and still very much setting the standard – Whilst you have restaurants out there which are similar in concept and some similar in style of food, I can guarantee that Noma is not only unlike every other restaurant, it’s still head and shoulders above them all too. It was with this in mind that it was entirely appropriate that we should go to Noma for YKL’s Birthday weekend.
Actually, I was a bit snidey too; Knowing it was YKL’s Birthday, I cheekily emailed one of the directors if they could arrange a little something – They very generously ordered a brand new bread basket especially for her last year when our whole family went, so I thought I would ask if they would mind doing a little something for her this time. I had no idea what they could have done – Far be it for me to suggest anything – But I knew it wouldn’t involve her having to stand on a chair whilst all the staff sung Happy Birthday to her. Very generously, they agreed to do something but I didn’t hear from them in a while and it wasn’t until I was about to fly out that I checked again if they had managed to think of anything, just so I could think of something else incase they were too busy to do so. I got an email reply saying they had sorted something out and well, it would be a surprise for me too.. Unfortunately, YKL happened to look over my shoulder and saw whom had emailed me and so, the cat was kind of out of the bag. I admitted that I had been in contact with the restaurant for her Birthday was but it wasn’t until later that I revealed that I too, had no idea what was going to happen. The combination of nervous excitement had been building for 24 hours by the time we got to the restaurant. It may have been the day after YKL’s Birthday, but we were pretty sure that we were going to experience something awesome..
Getting there was no different to any other time, we speculated if we would be greeted outside, but we had a slightly later booking which would have meant that everyone would be in the throes of the organised chaotic symphony that is a restaurant in service. M, YKL and myself lurked outside the restaurant on the harbour for a brief spell – Mainly to compose ourselves – But it was there that I spotted movement inside from one of the chefs I knew and admitted to the others that I think we’d been spotted. James, the Restaurant Manager suitably came out to greet us and during the conversation to YKL dropped “It’s your Birthday, isn’t it?!”. Yep, they ALL knew it was her Bday so it was time to head out of the cold outside and hand ourselves over to the whole brigade at Noma..
Stepping inside and down the few steps into the restaurant, it’s quite normal for a few of the chefs to greet you – Not just the front of house staff. But what greeted us this time was the ENTIRE kitchen brigade – I honestly think they all stopped cooking for a brief moment and waited to say hello to YKL like she was royalty or something. Seriously, I’m not kidding, I stepped in and down the steps and was quite taken aback by a wall of chefs greeting us all. Very charmingly, some of them (the ones whom have been there longer so knew us a bit better) said Happy Birthday to YKL but to be greeted immediately by such a sight was quite overwhelming. Then we were led to our table;
YKL of course, led our party and she was led to her seat. Normally, they wait for us to choose where to sit, but YKL was definitely led to her seat this time. How did we know this was her seat? Because on the table in her place seating was an old large Danish cookies tin. Yunno, the kind your mother or Grandparents would get in the 70s – I certainly remember them from when I was younger. I did momentarily wonder if there was a cake in there – I know they use the tins as part of their petit fours, but the look on YKL’s face when she opened the time was an absolute picture – A combination of shock, delight and OMFG!- Inside were a selection of kilner jars, each containing different fermented or pickled ingredients to cook with. It was, for all intents and purposes, a tin of Noma. For a Birthday present that was unique and very Noma-esque? I could not have dared to ask for anything more. It was perfect – And this was the beginning of the meal!
The meal itself was the best I’ve had at Noma yet – There seems to be a bit more of a swagger and assurance in their cooking now and some of the results are spectacular. I’m not going to give a taste-by-taste detailed account, but as much as I joke about it, I really didn’t think I would be saying phrases like “They were some TASTY ants!” when I woke up that morning. Nor did I think that I would need some implement that looked like it was Tarzan’s weapon of choice for my main course of roasted mallard and Widgeon. This was food that was not only very delicious, but also got you really excited to see how innovative and creative people are in making things taste so damn good.
In the bar area afterwards, we settled down with our teas/coffees and some really fantastic petit fours – Best I’ve had there yet and reflected on what had been another intense, but very triumphant meal. Very sweetly, 2 of the waitresses came by with a small Birthday cake for YKL to cut. In a stroke of genius, M asked if the girls would sing Happy Birthday to which the response was “I will if you will”. Well, it may have been 3 people whom started singing Happy Birthday, but it ended with EVERYONE – staff and guests alike – singing Happy Birthday. It was awesome.
However, that wasn’t the highlight of the night for me. Yes, it was fantastic for YKL and I was so happy to be part of such a special Bday for her – But the highlight of the night was what came afterwards. I have previously mentioned on this blog about the Saturday Night Project where selected chefs get to present their dishes for the rest of the team, it could be that they’ve been given a project to work on and the end result is presented during the Saturday Night Project. My last and only evidence of this was after my family terrorised some of the chefs as they were preparing their dishes and we were all given a tour of the kitchens whilst a bit drunk.. I honestly thought that we would be banned from it as a result, but they offered us a chance to go see the Saturday Night Project to which we leapt at the chance.
It was interesting for a whole host of reasons: I’ve obviously met René every time I’ve been to Noma and have seen him in the Test Kitchen upstairs, but I’ve never really seen him working in the kitchen. I’ve seen him on television leading the kitchen brigade, but have never seen the man in action, so to speak. We entered the finishing kitchen quietly and there was a bit of a murmur of chatter in the back of the kitchen and immediately René asked for silence from the back so that the chef speaking to present his dish could be heard by all. This was completely Rene’s domain and in there, you play by HIS rules. But it wasn’t a case that he was a totalitarian in there, he asked for silence so as to respect the fact that one of the chefs – a colleague – was trying to speak and what they had to say demanded to be heard and René was giving them his full attention as a result. What’s more, the Saturday Project was a chance for the chefs to learn – René asked questions to the whole brigade like a good teacher does: “What was your project?” “I had to test different lacto-fermentations” “OK, who here doesn’t know what lacto-fermentation is?”. Anyone who raised their hand had a definition of lacto-fermentation by the senior sous chef. I just loved the whole feeling of nurturing talent – So inspiring to see first hand.
As you can imagine, the Saturday Night Project is a good chance for young chefs to really make their mark – As was the case we saw that night where a young chef had interned with Noma for 6 month and his internship had actually ended, but he stayed in CPH for a few more weeks knowing that he had a chance to present at the SNP. His eel dish was a great hit and interesting for René because he’d tried to make use of the abundance of eels from the harbour but had never managed anything near as good as what he was tasting that night. Added to this, Noma are going to Japan for a few months early next year and the way the Japanese prepare eel is very different, but it would be an ingredient that is available to them when they go over, so you could see how he wasn’t only impressed with the dish and the young chef for sticking around, but that they could perhaps do something with eel in a Nordic way when in the Far East. The camaraderie I witnessed afterwards when some of the other chefs went up and hugged and congratulated him after he had presented was sheer joy. I honestly felt privileged to have witnessed that. Furthermore, the last presentation of the night was dried scallop baked into a brioche and served with a sea urchin butter. Now, our meal earlier had a scallop fudge and there was a dried scallop element to one of the snacks which reminded me very much of the dried conpoy that we use a great deal in Chinese cookery, but you could see all the chefs devouring into this bread and butter and the questions being asked repeatedly afterwards in slightly different ways – “You put the scallop INTO the brioche?” “So you dried the scallop and put it INTO the bread?” “The scallop in IN the brioche?” amused me greatly – It was like they couldn’t fathom how someone thought of doing something so simple – But genius at the same time. Although, there was a bit of a wince when René asked how many of HIS sea urchins were used in the butter! And the verdict? There were no words, René just started clapping and everyone – EVERYONE – in the room joined in and applauded this young chef for not only being innovative and simple at the same time whilst meeting his brief, but in also producing what was a complete knockout dish. The must be little else more gratifying than getting the warm applause and raptures not only of your peers, but of your boss and someone you gently admire. Genuinely, I had to hold back the tears a bit because I could imagine the pride that young chef was feeling right then. Yeah yeah, call me soppy or sentimental, but I wasn’t even drunk.. Genuinely, it was a fantastic experience and so interesting to see how the chefs are not only nurtured, but helped to develop not only their culinary skills, but also their creative talents.
I said before that there is nowhere else like Noma in the world – There are many restaurants that may be similar in some aspects – How they forage for food, only using seasonal and local produce, nurturing their staff. But combined? Noma is light years ahead of them all. It’s not just the food that is sensational, the front of house operation is effortless in making you feel completely at ease and as if you’re the most important people in their world right now – Be you a lead actor in one of the best new TV shows in recent years (turns out Nikolaj Coster-Waldau was sat on the table next to us), someone who’s saved up for years to be able to eat at Noma and meet René Redzepi, a Foreign Dignitary or just someone with a good appetite and keeps coming back for more. But now that I’ve seen how they develop their staff, Noma really is unique and I love being able to go back time and time again. Each time has been special for different reasons, but there is also the assurance that I will be treated to the same friendliness, professionalism and deliciousness that makes every visit so very special – Just look at how well they’ve treated YKL at short notice for her Bday – And that’s why I keep going back.