Copenhagen’s Noma is probably the best restaurant in the world. Chef René Redzepi has pioneered a new wave of Scandinavian cooking that focuses on local, natural foraged ingredients in unusual combinations. It is said over a million people apply for a reservation each year. There’s a lot of hype.
The compulsory 20 course tasting menu – more like 25 on the day we visited – changes daily and involves a succession of tasting plates; you are served by the chefs who explain the provenance, preparation and presentation with glee.
Noma is more sensory theme-park than restaurant. The dishes: mainly vegetarian variously surprise (deep fried moss with cep), entertain (blueberry and ants) and delight (chocolate covered pork scratching). The only thing I’d not try again is sea urchin: salty-cold slime that sticks to your teeth.
They’ve put such a huge amount of effort into the experience – from welcome, setting, service, food to souvenir menu – it warrants a separate post. Lunch clocked in at 3 1/2 hours. We were given a tour of the kitchen by an affable Kiwi sous chef called Hamish, and got to see the development areas where four experiment full-time with an alphabetised array of ingredients (dried meadowsweet, anyone?).
The question I was left with was how is such excellence developed and sustained? What can be learned?
Creative genius aside, I’d argue the success of this multimillion pound business relies on organisation and the resources to be utterly single-minded.
Numbers: with a ratio of around 1:1 there’s resource for all this attention to detail; 25 chefs & 20 interns to cater for 40 or so diners.
New blood: the 20 interns are drawn from across the globe & stay for 3 months, meaning around half of the staff are in flux at any time. By the time they’ve proven themselves soaking up the less glamorous parts of menu prep, it’s time to go.
Flat hierarchy: to the untrained eye 4 levels: boss/sous/chef/intern. Small enough to be cohesive.
Defined roles: 4 preparation stations each headed by a sous chef & a development kitchen with four full-time staff. Innovators are given free rein.
A clear goal: the mission is beacon-clear from the top. You join for a reason. Reassessing every ingredient & redefining what it can do.
Culture & expectations
Accountability: as a chef you forage for your ingredients, you prepare, you serve, introduce and answer customer questions. It’s your work and your responsibility.
Ethos: collegial, welcoming, chatty. As far removed from the clichéd alpha territoriality of Gordon Ramsay as you can imagine. After all, this is Scandinavia…