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Flavoured with rich memories
ON Valentine's Day, Rene Redzepi said goodbye to his Japanese sweetheart: Noma Tokyo, which ran from Jan 9 to Feb 14 at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, but took more than a year to plan and left him with enough memories to last a lifetime.
"My legs hurt but my spirit is better than ever," he smiles wryly as he personally serves us the first dish on the last night of service: a refreshingly perky pairing of green strawberries and pickled cucumbers in a sweetish sauce made from sake lees. "In Japan, you usually end a meal with pickles but here we've made them lighter in a more Scandinavian style so that you can start the meal with it."
For six weeks, that was what he and his team did - transport the aesthetic of Noma Copenhagen to untested territory, cooking with Japanese ingredients but not making Japanese food, for a mindbending experience that alienated the purists and enthralled the rest.
Apart from what diners took from Noma Tokyo, it could well be said that whether it makes money or not, Chef Redzepi and his team have come away a whole lot richer for the experience.
"We don't know yet if we're profitable," admits Chef Redzepi. "I knew it would be ridiculous from a profit point of view - we pay high rent and we didn't know what it would be like flying 77 people here. Plus the legal structures: taxes, paying bills and so on."
But what he does know is that he won't give up the experience for anything. "We did this to shake up our world. To learn, to be together as a team, to journey so you can look at your work at home from afar and see it from a different light. It's about having a life experience."
Adapting to the Japanese environment was smooth and there was little by way of culture shock, explains Chef Redzepi. "That's because we were here seven times (before opening). I think if we had just shown up and thought we could easily cook something (it wouldn't have worked)."
Being in Japan has been a totally different ball game, and Chef Redzepi marvels at the culture he has come to admire deeply. "Here, things are about relationships. At home, it's about transactions. Here, it's about building a relationship after which - maybe - you can start performing a transaction." He recalls "visiting the turnip farmer two times, drinking miso soup, seeing the farm, walking around - and this was a one hour trip from Tokyo to Nagano by Shinkansen. Going back again, trying again and then finally, a phone call: 'Ok, how many turnips would you like?'."
Rather than being suspicious of the western chef stepping over their farms and trying to assert his "dominance", the Japanese growers welcomed him, says Chef Redzepi. "I think they're happy to see people appreciate Japanese food culture."
They're also happy because "usually when a chef comes from the West, they bring their own stuff", he says. "Of course, most chefs do that because they feel more comfortable, they don't want to chance it. But to a lot of locals, it can feel like the Western chef is saying 'our stuff is better'."
Is he happy with the menu he's created for Noma Tokyo?
"Yes. Very, very happy," says the man who served the likes of twitching prawns covered with citrusy ants; black garlic leather; shaved frozen monkfish liver on toast; squid soba in a dip of konbu dashi with pine needles and rose petals; steamed cabbage with sea urchin and frozen scallop air - all part of a 17-course extravaganza that stretched both the palate and the imagination.
"We have so many ideas, we even have the next menu lined up if we were going to stay on," he enthuses. "After three weeks in service, you become more confident and want to explore more. We almost have eight new dishes ready, not that we will ever serve them - probably only in our minds."
When it's suggested that the flavours of Noma Tokyo are so vastly different from that in Copenhagen, Chef Redzepi agrees. "It's because we have an aesthetic and we find we can adapt it to very foreign places - so long as we do due diligence."
He says that he would love to repeat the Noma Tokyo experience elsewhere but it has to be in a place where the ingredients are challenging and also where the social situation allows for it. It would be awkward to do something in say, Mexico, which he loves, where the cost of a dinner would be out of reach for most of its population, unlike in Japan, where there is a culture of fine dining.
Until the next opportunity, he's raring to return to Noma Copenhagen, which re-opens in April. What can diners expect? "Hopefully, the food will be better," says the ever-humble Chef Redzepi. "Because now we can see all the things we did wrong. Sometimes, you need to step away from everything you do in order to see that."
Is it hard for him to leave Japan?
"I have two feelings," he muses. "One is that I love it, but the other is that I really want to go home and work." Sensing our disbelief, he adds, "I feel like I've worked a lot, but now I have more fuel to go home and work."
He smiles. "I'm ready."