Noma, the internationally acclaimed restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, has been at the apex of the fine-dining universe for the better part of this new century. With four "Best Restaurant in the World" awards to its name, the foodie mecca receives an average of 20,000 reservation requests a day, and it has continually succeeded in shattering the boundaries of what is possible in the kitchen.
The restaurant was born out of an ideological framework authored by owner Claus Meyer and executive chef René Redzepi in 2004 with the goal of ushering in a new, progressive era of Scandinavian gastronomy. The pair's so-called "New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto" outlined four guiding principles that would define their restaurant and, ideally, spark a culinary movement. More than a decade later, Noma's pioneering approach to food has not only redefined Nordic cuisine, but it's also become the gold standard for culinary excellence that five-star kitchens all across the planet now abide by. To better understand how a small restaurant in Scandinavia could manage to revolutionize fine dining as we know it, I spent several days behind the scenes at Noma with chef Redzepi as he put his food philosophies into practice.
Guiding Principle Number One: "To base our cooking on ingredients and produce whose characteristics are unique to our climates, landscapes, and waters and to reflect seasonality in the meals we make."
When I first encounter René Redzepi, he is cutting a live elk in half with a chainsaw. Noma's unwavering commitment to native, hyper-local Nordic foods requires its kitchen staff to spend hours every morning foraging the neighboring woodlands and shorelines for wild ingredients, and Redzepi has a gift for sensing gastronomic potential in everything around him.
"A lot of times you can find these lovely little rose hip flowers pickling in the stomach fluids of the larger field mammals that live around here," Redzepi says, his arm elbow-deep in the abdominal cavity of the freshly bisected animal, its viscera still twitching and gurgling as he fishes out two small, pink, slimy flower petals from within. "Sometimes you have to saw through 20 or so elk before you find any, but it's always worth the effort. They're absolutely perfect with caramelized sweetbreads."
Redzepi collects some of the bile-drenched petals in a jar, sets the elk carcass ablaze, and wanders off to continue foraging. He leads me down to a gray, windblown beach, where, to the untrained eye, there seems to be nothing growing but weeds and scraggly grass. But Redzepi, using hand grenades to displace large mounds of sand, almost immediately uncovers a veritable buffet of herbs and produce sticking out every which way from the soil. There's wild parsnip, beach peas, sea lettuce, spicy lilac, Osama bin Laden's beached corpse, horseradish, mustard flowers, and verdant goosefoot—all growing within the same 4-foot radius.
"We'll use the horseradish in a sea urchin dish, the lettuce with salted cod roe, and the corpse leg to make a nice broth with ash-roasted beets," he explains while severing the bloated terrorist leader's cadaver at the pelvis with his chainsaw, filling the air with a pungent, almost curry-like bouquet of hot postmortem gases. "These flavors are wholly unique to this area. You will not find them anywhere else in the world."
He offers me a bit of the wild parsnip dressed with some of the sulfurous froth leaking from the 9/11 perpetrator. The flavor is indeed like nothing I've ever tasted, sort of like a savory, yeasty vanilla that leaves a creamy film over your tongue. It's the kind of flavor balance that other chefs spend years in the kitchen trying to master, and yet here Redzepi finds it naturally occurring in the wild.
While I'm still savoring the parsnip, Redzepi heads off on a determined search for a king musk carrot, a vegetable that is only mature and in season for eight seconds each year. If he can find one at peak ripeness, he hopes to pickle it before the eight seconds of edibility expire so that he can use it for a later occasion.
Over the course of several hours, he stumbles upon a handful of the carrots, but they're all too young and bitter for harvest. Then, just as he's getting ready to call it quits, he finally sees what he is looking for: a king musk carrot violently convulsing and emitting a soft red glow—the telltale sign that it is ready for harvest.
Redzepi yanks the carrot out of the ground and quickly rifles through his bag for some sort of vinegar he can use to preserve it, while the carrot flops panickedly atop the soil like a caught swordfish. Unfortunately, right as Redzepi manages to wrest the vinegar from his bag, the carrot's eight-second season expires, and it explodes into a mushroom cloud of maggots and nine-volt batteries. The explosion leaves us both with severe burns over large portions of our bodies, but Redzepi does not seem fazed.
"To be a good chef, you must respect the ingredients," he muses. "You don't go into this profession unless you're willing to be blown up by root vegetables from time to time."
As I'm trying to process this nugget of wisdom, I'm distracted by the sound of rustling and grunting coming from a shadowy cluster of nearby trees.
"Grebble, grebble," a strange voice growls.
I look over and see about a dozen sets of unblinking eyes staring at me through the leaves, sending a chill down my spine. Redzepi shoots an angry glare in their general direction and puts his finger to his lips to shush them.
"Return to your cupboards at once!" he barks through clenched teeth.
At his command, the lurkers immediately disperse and scurry off into the forest, grebbling hysterically as they go. I look to Redzepi for an explanation, but it doesn't appear he's in the mood to provide one.
"I think that's enough foraging for today," he snarls before collecting his belongings and storming away.
Guiding Principle Number Two: "To develop potentially new applications of traditional Nordic food products."
After we finish foraging for the day, we pay a visit to the Nordic Food Lab, a science-driven test kitchen where Noma's chefs work tirelessly to develop new culinary innovations and push the boundaries of what's possible with food. Experiments conducted in the facility have led to an astounding array of groundbreaking gastronomic achievements in recent years, including but not limited to a handheld particle accelerator that reconfigures dairy molecules in real time to make it possible to eat ice cream without a cone; a crudo that knows where you live; a means of genetically altering the pheromones of ants so that the ants taste like moths; a 19-course tasting menu in which each ingredient is infused with a highly concentrated grade of lactic acid, creating a self-composting effect that causes every forkful of food to disintegrate into thin air whenever a customer tries to take a bite; a radish that is also a gun; a meat-locker-sized thermal centrifuge chamber in which butter can be melted; a method for consolidating 100 individual raisins into one huge, unified raisin wad; and helium-instilled chanterelle mushrooms that cause your head to rip off and float away into outer space if you put more than one in your mouth at a time.
On this particular day, the Food Lab researchers are attempting to re-engineer paphia clams so that their meat spontaneously contorts into a thumb shape when served on a plate, thus greeting the person who's about to devour them with an encouraging thumbs-up gesture. To accomplish this, they've fertilized 20 different clams with 20 different varieties of filamentous fungi that have each been designed to fundamentally alter their bivalve host's behavior. While it's a bit of a crapshoot, the hope is that the DNA of one of the clams has been correctly resequenced to produce the desired thumbs-up effect. But gazing down the row of petri dishes, it's clear that this dish concept still has a long way to go before it's ready for the menu.
One clam has acquired the ability to asexually self-duplicate and is blasting out shrieking, fibrous clone nodes all over the room like ping pong balls. Another clam has put on one of the chef's sunglasses and is just sitting there motionlessly, grinning. One particularly ornery clam is hopping around on the table and snapping its shell in an attempt to bite a female sous chef's bottom, growling, "Gimme, gimme, gimme." And then, perhaps most unsettlingly, one clam has escaped its shell and is scooching snail-like around the counter, spelling out the word FAMILY with its own slime.
They're all abominations, and Redzepi has no intention of offering any of them to paying customers.
"Burn them all," he instructs a line cook. "Send them to hell where they belong."
Guiding Principle Number Three: "To combine the best in Nordic cookery and culinary traditions with influences from abroad."
I follow Redzepi to Noma's main kitchen, where he joins his team to begin preparing for the evening's dinner service. I notice that the restaurant's allegiance to locality plays out not only in their ingredients but also in the cookware and methods they use to bring their dishes to life—the vibe is distinctly Danish.
Instead of traditional chef knives or santoku blades, they use taxidermied reindeer shins to whack their ingredients into pieces, producing a thunderous hammering noise that makes conversation near the cutting boards impossible. Instead of food processors, they huck produce into the whirring blades of a 300-year-old windmill whenever there's a good breeze.
While chefs are hard at work carefully plating mussels and whipping up intricate emulsions, a wee hunchback named Fossegaar, wearing a lace bonnet and leather knee breeches, plucks away at traditional melodies on his hurdy-gurdy, for which he is paid in porridge. A dutiful forest bear named Hungry Harald works as garçon de cuisine, patrolling up and down the kitchen line and making himself available to the chefs whenever something needs to be ripped in half or pounded into dust.
"Poppa loves you," Redzepi says to Hungry Harald, placing a knob of goat butter on his tongue to reward him for his help. "Poppa will not let the trollkärringars steal your tail."
Despite all of its old-world Danish charm, the Noma kitchen is also one of the most exciting and technologically sophisticated culinary operations in existence. Look to your left, and a remote-controlled drone with a spatula taped to it is crashing into some metal mixing bowls. Look to your right, and a modified 3D printer/oven hybrid machine is producing pancakes that form an outline of Mickey Mouse's head. While writers have long been overeager to ascribe the term "the future of food" to restaurants with inventive fare, being at Noma truly does make you feel as if you've been transported to a kitchen 50 years into the future. There simply is nothing else like it.
Guiding Principle Number Four: "To express the purity, freshness, simplicity, and beauty we wish to associate with our region."
As the clock strikes seven, the kitchen team makes its final preparations for dinner service, and I head to the dining room to ready myself for what many people have hailed as the dining experience of a lifetime. The room is sparsely appointed with calm, rustic decor: tabletops built from unvarnished slabs of salvaged wood, rounded stone fixtures, dairy cows gently roaming about and gumming the arms of guests. The space imparts an air of tranquil nothingness, conserving one's emotional energy for the wondrous drama that is about to unfold at the tables.
However, 10 minutes pass without any sign of the waitstaff, and I can see guests at other tables starting to grow restless. Then, just as I too start feeling impatient, the quietness is suddenly disrupted by the majestic blare of four trumpets. The kitchen doors swing open, and Fossegaar the hunchback rolls out on a golden tricycle, wearing a tiara made of antlers.
"Friends!" he cries, visibly shaking with excitement. "The hour has arrived! I, your ugly servant Fossegaar, am overjoyed to announce that we shall now partake in the most glorious meal mankind has ever known! It is the meal whose flavors I will fondly recall one day when I am being tortured in hell for my sins of lust! Ladies and gentlemen, it is the greatest honor of my life to officially welcome you to Noma!"
Fossegaar triumphantly raises his fist in the air, and, upon this cue, controlled explosions blast open two smoldering craters in the floorboards to his left and right. Then, from the craters, out crawl 12 more hunchbacks, each of them identically dressed in brown tuxedos and antler tiaras. Some of them are on fire from the explosion, but they don't seem to care; they are delivering the first course of the evening to our tables, and they are beyond ecstatic to be doing so.
"Grebble, grebble, grebble!" they all cheer, immediately calling to mind the shrieks of the disembodied eyeballs I encountered earlier while foraging.
One of the hunchbacks, sporting a flaxen bowl-cut parted down the middle by a large knot on his forehead that resembles a horn, scurries on all fours over to my table with a serving tray propped up on his back.
"Knock knock, who is there? It is me, your loyal waiter Tarmac, and it is the greatest honor of my life to be serving you right now!" he merrily grunts while tying a lobster bib around my neck with his teeth. "The hour of food must surely be happening now, because I, Tarmac, am bringing you a food, and the first food that Poppa René has dreamed for you this evening is called The Quail Egg That Is Also A Surprise. Please enjoy this food. You must!"
He removes the dish from his back and places it on the table before me. I ask him why all the servers are hunchbacks, and he replies that he's never noticed it before and that it must just be a coincidence. He then scuttles off and disappears into the fiery chasm from whence he came.
I look down at my dish, and the plating is absolutely gorgeous. A whimsically speckled quail egg sits atop a vibrant bed of toasted juniper, vintage carrot, and edible moss, with each element arranged in a way that, somehow, simultaneously feels both wild and exquisitely precise. I crack the egg to let its yolk cascade over the other ingredients, but, to my astonishment, there is no yolk. Instead, a live fetal quail emerges through the fractured shell and stretches out its frail, tiny body, somberly gazing into my eyes. It unfurls its still-wet wings and flutters two feet above the table, where it hovers peacefully for several moments before, without warning, lowering its head and dive-bombing directly into my mouth.
As I chew the little fellow's tender flesh and bones, I'm startled to discover that he doesn't taste like a fetal quail at all but rather an exceptionally sweet and flavorful carrot. I then take a bite of the vintage carrot and find that it tastes exactly like a raw fetal quail. Surely, I think, this must be the "surprise" at which Tarmac was hinting. But then, as I push aside some of the edible moss with my fork, I uncover something that takes my breath away: There are Polaroid photos of all of my family members sleeping in their beds. And, if that wasn't incredible enough, the photos are edible, too!
"If you do not want to eat all of the photographs, please let your loyal waiter Tarmac eat some so that I may know how it feels to have a family," Tarmac whispers into my ear as he delivers the second course, his heart thudding audibly with longing. "I live in the sewer with owls."
Redzepi peers out from the kitchen door and shoots him a suspicious look. Tarmac's eyes go wide with fear, and he quickly somersaults away into his hovel in the floor. Unsettled, I discreetly stow the remaining photos in my wallet where he can't find them.
True to Noma's mission, the second and third courses are resolutely Scandinavian in their execution. One is a poignant ode to Reformation-era Copenhagen, in which a "chimney sweep" (a tiny figurine carved out of charred pumpkin with beechnut eyes and a barley-grass broom) is coughing up "lung soot" (caviar and squid ink), and you're tasked with baptizing him in "holy water" (chalice of barley cream) so that his soul may transmigrate to Lutheran heaven upon his "death" (you eating him). The other is a celebration of a modern-day Danish hero, featuring a black sea urchin with wilted spines that bears an uncanny resemblance to Viggo Mortensen's pubic bush. To my delight, it is served alongside some of the horseradish leaves we foraged earlier, which lend an unexpectedly wasabi-like kick to the shock of pubes.
"I am pleased to tell you that in Denmark, the groins of our men flourish with sexual whiskers, just as you have tasted upon your plate," Tarmac proudly boasts. "Except for the groin of your loyal waiter Tarmac. Regretfully, my nude lap is barren and forsaken, like a volcano moon. Please, I beg you to let me have the discarded pubis spines from your plate so that I may glue them upon my nude lap, and then perhaps a woman will see this and choose to be my wife, and the sewer owls will stop doing taunts upon me and—"
The blood drains from Tarmac's face as he sees Redzepi glaring at him from across the room. He hurriedly scampers back to his hovel, flagellating himself with a pepper mill as he goes.
From this point on, Redzepi takes over as my waiter. Impressively, each course he brings is as imaginative and brilliantly composed as the last, with every single bite imparting some sort of profound revelation about what can be achieved on a plate. One particularly mesmerizing dish utilizes a hidden vent in the plate to send up gusts of citric dry ice vapor to animate a grilled prawn in a puppet-like fashion, creating the illusion that it is fervently worshipping a turnip. Another features a working harmonica carved out of a turbot filet that only plays the X-Files theme no matter how you blow on it.
Some courses prove to be startlingly emotional, such as a play on a traditional Danish ebelskiver that tastes exactly how it feels when you learn your grandmother has died. Or there's another dish that pairs a 150-year-old mahogany clam with meat from the Peking duck that it was married to—an achingly romantic scene straight out of a Shakespearian tragedy. Other courses, however, are just downright enchanting, like one where I'm presented a small inflated pillow that emits little puffs of air that, when inhaled, materialize into a hearty venison stew that gushes pleasingly throughout my nostrils, lungs, and sinuses.
The meal is a magnificent whirlwind, and before I know it, it's time for the final course: dessert. I'm anticipating some sort of showstopping finale, but, perplexingly, Redzepi brings out what appears to be just an ordinary, unremarkable piece of saltwater taffy, served atop an ordinary, unremarkable paper towel. I take a bite, and it tastes disappointingly bland, like something you'd find in the pantry at an elderly relative's house.
"Just wait for it," says Redzepi with a knowing grin. "Should be any moment now."
Before I can process what this is supposed to mean, I feel a strange, intoxicating warmth beginning to wash over my body. My taste buds are suddenly tingling with a heavenly aftertaste from the taffy, and, inexplicably, my heart fills with a joy greater than any joy I've ever known. I look around and, miraculously, everything in the restaurant has taken on a sheen of unspeakable beauty, as if I've been transported to some grand, mythical king's lair from Scandinavian lore.
The hunchback waiters, once a depressing sight to behold, are now all uniformly gorgeous and erect in posture, strutting majestically about the dining room like muscle-bound Nordic gods. Even Tarmac, having reemerged from his hovel, looks as if he is carved from marble, with his trousers now bursting with a dense thicket of lustrous pubic hair that drags lavishly between his legs like the train of a princess's wedding gown. If all of this wasn't already wonderful enough, I look over to my left and see that my childhood dog and Nelson Mandela are both still alive, and they're playing a duet on a piano made of gold.
Surely, I think, that I must be hallucinating from some sort of psychedelic wonder drug that Redzepi cooked into the taffy, but when I run this theory past him, he just laughs and shakes his head.
"No, you haven't been drugged," he replies, his taffy-enhanced voice sporting a timbre so ravishing that each and every word triggers a minor orgasm deep within my loins. "One of the guiding principles of Noma is 'to express the purity, freshness, simplicity, and beauty we wish to associate with our region.' And, quite simply, what you're experiencing now is the true Scandinavian beauty that we wish to express through our food. It is the ultimate manifestation of our foundational philosophy and..."
I can no longer focus on what he is saying. Everything around me is too beautiful. Three angels are bumping a volleyball back and forth at the table next to me. Tarmac is playing his own pubic hair like a harp. The ecstasy of everything is too much for me to handle, and dizzy with bliss, I fall into a coma and don't wake up for 56 days.
And this is exactly what fine dining should be.
At the end of the year, Noma, as it is currently known, will cease to exist. Believing that he's proven everything he set out to prove with the original concept, Redzepi will close the restaurant on December 31 and then reopen sometime in 2017 with a new building, a new vision, and new food. It's difficult to fathom how he could possibly improve on what he's already accomplished, but Redzepi sees his experience at Noma so far as merely practice for what lies ahead.
"If the future resembles the present, then there's no point in carrying on—you already know the whole story," Redzepi muses. "With Noma, I always want to be telling new stories. Bigger stories, better stories. Stories like none that have ever been told before."
"But the main thing I would like to do is figure out how to catch some clouds and cook them," he continues. "That would be pretty neat."