In April 2014, chef René Redzepi was riding the crest of a wave. Noma, his iconic Copenhagen restaurant, had just been voted back to #1 on the World 50 Best list, cementing its place as one of the top global dining destinations. And then, at the awards ceremony, he dropped a bombshell announcement. He was going to close Noma, take a sabbatical from Copenhagen, and instead move the restaurant to Tokyo for a couple of months in early 2015.
It was not going to be just him and a couple of chefs. He was taking every single member of staff, from the kitchen and waiting staff right down to the long-serving dish-washer — with several spouses and children in tow as well. And rather than serving the same dishes that had made them famous in Denmark, Redzepi was planning an entirely new menu, using only produce sourced in Japan. It was a radical move and the risk of failure (or just not being very good) was high.
Noma Japan opened in mid-January 2015 in Tokyo’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel. It ran for only six weeks but it was a resounding success and few who ate there are likely to forget it. The process of setting up the residency, finding the food ingredients and developing the menu are captured in the film “Ants on a Shrimp,” which is now being shown in Japan. Ahead of the opening, I spoke at length with Redzepi about the experience.
• The decision to close Noma CPH in January 2014 and take the entire restaurant to another location was groundbreaking. Why did you choose Japan, rather than any other country?
I haven’t traveled to all of the great cuisines. But of the ones I’ve been to, Japan is the one that intrigues me the most, where I find a complexity of cuisines. I thought, this is a place where we can learn so much.
• What impression of Japan did you have before arriving. And how did that change after actually spending all that time in the country?
I knew that Japanese culture is vast and rich and deep. I knew it goes back centuries, and has many, many layers to it. Actually experiencing it and traveling around for several months before Noma Japan opened, I realized it would take a lifetime of discovery to go into this cuisine in depth. That was mind-blowing.
• Specifically, what was it about the food culture that drew you to Japan?
The easiest place to tap into the food culture is to visit the Tsukiji fish market. If you’re in the world of food, going there is like studying archeology and then going to the pyramids — and then digging for a new one. You have to go to Tsukiji. You have to see the quality and diversity, the handling of ingredients and the traditions. It really is jaw-dropping.
• So when you got here, was it exciting or was it daunting?
It was both. The food is so great in Japan and we were coming from an emerging food place where we’re only just starting to develop another level to our cuisine. So it was daunting. But at the same time it was amazing, as there was so much to tap into and to be inspired from.
• Traveling around Japan, what aspects of Japanese food culture amazed you the most?
The different types of cuisines. To see there is not only one way of looking at food, there are many. From eating ramen all the way up to the very top of the food culture, the kaiseki (traditional multicourse cuisine) meals, and everything in between. There is so much variety.
And every food ingredient seems to have a meaning, an articulated reason why it is eaten in that particular time of the year. That is something we don’t find in Denmark, where Easter and Christmas are the only times when people come together to eat and have a feeling. Everything in Japan has something like that — a small story, a big story or a deep cultural meaning. That too was really mind-blowing.
• How did you track down the ingredients for Noma Japan? Did you even know what were you looking for?
No, but we quickly learned that Japan is a shoreline culture and people live between the water and the mountains. So we needed to explore there on the flat lands where the agriculture is. Then at the same time, we also needed to see the mountains. We needed to forage and see what was there.
We also needed to see the sheer diversity of climates, and the differences in climate and terroir from the very north of Aomori down to the island of Ishigakijima (in Okinawa).
We just hoped that in the discovery of these places we’d find enough inspiration and ingredients to shape our menu. Obviously, to do that we needed months of reading and research.
• In the movie, we see you looking for ingredients with chef Shinobu Namae [of Restaurant L’Effervescence in Tokyo].
We needed an expert to be our guide. That person was chef Namae. He was an incredible, generous host. And, honestly, if it wasn’t for him, I don’t think Noma Japan could have been the success that we all think we ended up having.
• He took you foraging in the mountains and to meet with farmers. But you also asked him to take you to eat shojin ryori (vegetarian Buddhist temple cuisine). Why?
In our studies of Japanese food, we found that religion had influenced eating habits quite a bit. Also, Noma has a reputation as a restaurant that is “vegetable-forward.” So, for us to actually go and experience a full vegan meal — not just a single serving but a full menu — was something I was very, very keen on exploring.
This way of organizing a meal still amazes me. In fact, at first I thought maybe we could base our entire menu-planning at Noma Japan on the inspiration of temple cuisine. We ate shojin ryori three times. I can’t remember the name of the temples, but twice in Kyoto and once at a temple about an hour outside of Tokyo.
• What was the single best dish you ate in Japan that stands out in your memory now?
It was tofu served with a miso-yuzu sauce, at Kikunoi Honten [kaiseki restaurant] in Kyoto. Having eaten tofu in America and Europe, and then to taste it there where it’s freshly steamed… It was so mind-blowing. We also went to see where the soymilk and yuba (soymilk skin) came from. We saw the stones grinding the soaked soybeans, and saw the soymilk being delivered to the restaurant — that was wow! We understood then that the ingredients make an incredible difference. To me that dish was a perfect mouthful.
• Did that inspire you to include a tofu dish on the Noma Japan menu?
Absolutely. We weren’t trying to copy it but we were very inspired by it. We had tofu as part of shojin ryori. And visiting farmers around Japan, very often we’d be given a bowl of miso soup, or tofu with grated ginger. It was clear that tofu is something that people grow up with — almost like rye bread to us Danes. So I wanted to master that, to do it in a way that our Japanese guests would enjoy the quality of the dish but also be surprised by its flavor and the combination of ingredients [accompanied by foraged walnuts].
• For Noma Japan, your stated aim was to come up with an entirely new menu, totally different from those you serve Copenhagen. Why?
To me, the idea of serving a replica of what we do back home was like saying, "The traditions of Japan are not good enough for us to explore”. One of my key motivations for creating a menu from scratch was that I thought people would consider us weird [if we didn’t]. Basically, I thought it would be disrespectful.
• Your signature dish at Noma Japan was “Botan ebi (prawn) with flavors of the Nagano Forest.” It was unlike any dish that has ever been served in Japan before. And it was confrontational for some people because of the fact that you used ants to season it. How did that dish come about?
We wanted to have a raw seafood dish with a citrus flavor [from the ants]. We were also playing with the idea of marrying the land and the sea. And it was a way of showcasing a tradition that may be surprising for many Japanese — introducing the tradition of Nagano, one of the few regions of Japan that is not on the coast and where they actually do eat insects. So I thought that was quite special.
Usually in Japanese restaurants, botan ebi are killed first and their texture is very different. They are very fresh and yet dead, and the texture is a bit more creamy. I prefer the texture where you can bite into them. The key was having them alive, to get that translucence of the meat, and also a slight crunch in the texture. Besides Noma Japan, the only place where I’ve had a botan ebi to that degree of freshness was at Ginza Kojyu. And I prefer it like that.
• It was quite a statement, as an opening dish of a meal. Was that intentional?
Yes, it was a way to grab people’s attention! Japan for us is all about vibrancy, it’s about quality and freshness and we wanted to tell people: “Welcome here, everything here — it’s alive, we’re here!”
• You have a very distinctive style of plating that is very different from traditional French cuisine and also from Japanese cuisine. Where did that come from, and how did it get to be the way it is today?
I wish I could answer this question in a smart way, but I can’t… This is about our inspiration, our upbringing, how we view the world, all our influences — how everything comes together. All of that makes for a plating style. It’s been an evolution, what we do.
I don’t feel our cuisine is complete in any way. We may have had all this success, but it would be stupid to say that evolution is finished, because we don’t see it like that at all. But we’ve reached a distinctive level now, and it could be that we’re going to continue with the style that we have.
• You adopted concepts such as origami in one dish at Noma Japan. What are you thinking about when it comes to the design and appearance of your dishes?
This is a way of constantly looking at all the small moments and exploring the world in fields other than cooking. For us, origami was something we found fun in Japan, so we thought let’s see if we can be inspired in the cooking.
• In the film, we see your R&D team in action, especially your sous-chefs, Lars Williams and Thomas Frebel. They went about their mission almost like top athletes, setting goals and pursuing them in an environment (Japan) that can be very difficult, both physically and mentally. What do you feel about their roles, and what they achieved there?
In Copenhagen, people’s roles change all the time. But for Noma Japan, we were a team and everybody was very much on the same level. It was all about working together as one unit to distill and work on creating the menu. Some of the ideas came from Copenhagen, we know some of the directions we wanted to go for.
We had all our journeys planned, and we had a long list of ideas to work on, and their job was to take these ideas and work with them, And then I’d work with them and together we’d shape it into a menu, into something that would be more complete.
• Almost two years have passed since Noma Japan. Looking back, did it change the DNA of Noma in Copenhagen?
There are no particular ingredients or techniques that took back from Japan. But there was something that to me was incredibly valuable: Noma Japan gave me an overview of where Noma needs to go and how we need to work. I saw that Noma is a life project. We’re going to keep moving along and doing what we do, and we will keep developing.
Being in Japan, I could see that things develop over centuries — sometimes very fast, but mostly at a steady, slow pace. It’s hard to see distinctly how things change month to month or year to year, but over a decade it can be amazing. Seeing how patience, endurance and commitment can yield an incredible opportunity and success… that for me was the moment when I said we need to move Noma into a new space and into its next era.
• In your oldest memories, what was the very first thing that amazed you, that stands out as a child.
I remember being in a cherry tree, just surrounded by ripe cherries, and eating them for hours. And also standing by a blackberry bush near my family’s fields in Macedonia and eating blackberries for hours and hours.
• What were the first formative influences in food and eating?
It was going back to my father’s home in Macedonia. That was where my food upbringing happened. There were no refrigerators there, no freezers. If you wanted milk, somebody went and milked a cow. If you wanted cream, then you skimmed the milk for cream and then you churned it. Three times a day, home-cooked meals. I mean the smell of the fire place.
Growing up in Copenhagen in the 1980s it was all about the microwave, ready-made meals. It was all stale supermarkets. It’s not very good today what you can buy in Copenhagen as a regular person, but then it was much worse.
• About dietary education in Denmark: Is there any one thing you would like to get into schools, to teach children about food?
To me, it would benefit any child to become to become a forager, from their early years. If you grow up being a forager, you grow up with a connection to the land and with a connection to the seasons.
The next stage is to bring these ingredients to the school kitchen and actually cook something with them. I think it would be amazing for every child to grow up in a school system in which you naturally become a forager.
• What about your own children? Is there any direction that you’re encouraging them to go?
To me, it’s just about giving them an inspired life and as much information as possible. I think it is important to have them stay open to the world, understanding that there are many ways of looking at things — to give them a broad mind about how the world works.
• How do you remain creative all the time, pushing ahead rather than resting on your laurels?
Curiosity, and never believing in any of your successes, never believing in the person that people shape you up to be. In the case of the media, not believing that you could be the world’s best or anything like that. Continue to explore, to be open to other ways of looking at things. Listen to your team, listen to criticism. Read and be inspired. Those things are what work for us right now. And then of course the journeys that we take are very important.
• What is the most unforgettable trip you have made? And, why?
I don’t think I can name just one place. But there is one particular journey that comes to mind. We are sailing from the southern tip of Greenland to about the midpoint. We’re in a fairly big boat, it’s a two-day trip. And during the night, the captain wakes us up because there’s a very powerful northern lights. And to wake up there in the middle of the night and to see the most intense, powerful northern lights I’ve ever seen in my life, while sailing near a shoreline with icebergs… It’s something that I’ll never forget. It was magic!
• Do you think gastronomy is a luxury that is enjoyed only by a small exclusive group of people. Or do you think Noma has a wider impact?
In the longterm, it can have a very big effect, a great ripple effect. If you are good at what you do, you can have an incredible influence on young talent and people, and within a decade you might have a whole school of former apprentices who are out there cooking on all levels.
I can only say it happened to us in Copenhagen. Today our former sous-chefs are cooking anything from the best pizza in town to amazing Michelin-starred meals, to tacos and street food. I think it’s all about what sort of inspiration you give people, what sort of ethics and belief in themselves. I think it can really matter.
• Are there ingredients from Japan that you continue to find fascinating?
One of the big inspirations that we took is the [tradition of] fermented foods. We actually found something we share in common here. Because of the relative similarities in climate — having distinct seasons, and especially going through winters — both places are built on fermentations. In Denmark, the main ones were aways bread, and also fermented fish and fermented meat. We (Danes) have mostly forgotten about those things, so tapping into that is something that we still explore.
But with these fermentations, we’ve imported the ideas but made them our own here, using the produce and the microbiological terroir here.
In a sense there is a part of Japan in the Noma kitchen, floating in every single serving — although a Japanese person would not see them as a Japanese ingredient, but the DNA and inspiration comes from our journeys in Japan.
• What is the next challenge for you and for Noma?
The next challenge, obviously, will be moving [Noma will move to a new location in Copenhagen in 2017]. We’re going to move into a space where we’re going to grow some of our food. And it will be huge for us to once again create a new routine, working to find the soul of the place — trying to see if we can do that.
• Has the experience from Japan has an influenced the way you developed the new Noma 2?
It influenced the fermentation facility that we’re building, which will be completely state of the art. That is one of our biggest investments, the development of “the fermented kitchen,” as we call it. Currently we have 101 different pastes or liquids — we call them “ingredient building blocks” — that we have developed.
We’re making miso type fermentations, but we’re also exploring with all sorts of legumes [dubbed “pea-so”] and nuts and everything we can.
We have a tradition of lacto-fermenting ingredients, which is very European, typically done with cabbage [sauerkraut]. That can be done with almost any ingredient that has a bit of sugar in it. Then there are all the vinegars, the wines, and beers. There’s all the bread fermentations. All the salted fish, and salted meats.
There are also many different temperatures that you can ferment at, from 30 degrees Celsius up to 60. There’s all blackened fruit you can make, inspired by the black garlic [of Japan].
• Do you have a specific reference point for people to find out more about what you’re doing?
An abridged version of this interview ran in The Japan Times.
Before Noma Japan opened, I also spoke with Rene for The Japan Times. You can read that interview here…