Noma Is Still a Work in Progress
Noma in Copenhagen, "the world’s best restaurant," is in the news this weekend, as its chef-proprietor, René Redzepi, prepares to host his second annual MAD Symposium, the ultimate cutting-edge food even, taking place this Sunday and Monday. Copenhagen-based food writer and blogger Evelyn J. Kim, a former historian and sociologist of science, reports here on Noma’s evolution over the past half-dozen years. She will be covering MAD for The Daily Meal.
When I first went to Noma — the name is a portmanteau abbreviation of the phrase Nordisk mad ("Nordic food") — in 2007, I realized that something was brewing in René Redzepi’s head long before the wood sorrel even hit the plate.
By now, the origin story of Noma is fairly well established. BN ("Before Noma") in Scandinavia, there was only a revolving door of pork, potatoes, herring, and grumpy Protestants. And AN ("After Noma"), every restaurant in Denmark is busy foraging for herbs spelled with funny letters and killing moose with their bare hands.
But as with any origin myth, the truth is far more complicated. Yes, Denmark for years was not what anyone would call a "dining destination." Beyond the famed smørrebrød, all you could find in terms of fine dining was from Italy and France. And outside Denmark? Interest in Scandinavian food was a novelty — but mainly of the IKEA and butter cookie-kind (granted, Marcus Samuelsson did Scandinavia a huge favor by elevating Scandinavian food to fine dining in the early aughts with Aquavit in New York City, but he was an exception).
In 2003, Claus Meyer, the Danish restaurateur, approached a bunch of chefs about opening a high-end restaurant that highlighted Nordic ingredients. Most chefs passed. Except a young chef named René Redzepi. After having done stints at Pierre André in Copenhagen, Jardin des Sens in France, elBulli in Catalonia, and the French Laundry in California, Redzepi, then working as a sous-chef at Copenhagen’s Kong Hans restaurant, agreed and a partnership was born.
René Redzepi / Photo: Getty Images
But the beginning was not easy. Sourcing was a bit of a problem: No one just had piles of wood sorrel at the grocery store. But that was the least of Noma’s worries: How do you convince diners, much less chefs, that there was any worth in Nordic food? Chefs were the easy bunch. Ten months after Noma opened, Redzepi and Meyer did a Lars Von Trier. Working with area chefs, they created the Manifesto for the New Nordic Kitchen.
But as Molière once said, "I live on good soup, not on fine words." The proof was ultimately in the pudding. After reading several reviews of Noma, I decided on a whim to go there for lunch in 2007. Having eaten at many of the world’s top fine-dining establishments, including WD~50, Charlie Trotter’s, and the French Laundry, I was frankly not expecting to be surprised.