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Redzepi's culinary theatre in Sydney
I ADORE Rene Redzepi. For him, I would eat ants. No other chef can make me do that. For him, I buy into the ideology that ants are our future protein when our cows have gassed themselves and the environment beyond redemption. Because of him, I appreciate that there are wild things growing out there which can nourish me if I have a good eye, sharp knife and a willingness to be mildly poisoned now and then. I applaud how he has become the champion of the artisanal grower - the eccentric farmer, the obsessive diver, the hippies, the foragers, the driven individuals who care about the integrity of their product and the good earth it grows on. And how he's parlayed his fame not into his own fortune, but his freedom to believe. I adore Rene Redzepi. But I cannot, cannot, truly enjoy his food.
From home turf Copenhagen to glitzy stopovers in Tokyo and now on the tail-end of their Sydney tour, chef Redzepi and his Noma team have pushed the boundaries of cooking to high public praise and private head-scratching. In Tokyo, he spun a mind-boggling experience with some of the most amazing produce and technical acrobatics that had most people clapping (apart from Japanese food purists who reacted with polite derision), including me. Think live prawns topped with lemony ants, cuttlefish soba and umami-rich fermented cuttlefish, or takoyaki filled with mustard greens and glazed with fermented grasshoppers. All very off-the-wall, yet the recognisable Japanese ingredients - super high grade and exotic - provided a solid platform you could hang on to and enjoy the show from.
In Noma Sydney, imagine that platform kicked out from under your feet as you plunge into an unknown world - familiar only to most white Australians or all aborigines. Barangaroo - the swanky new playground in downtown Sydney where Noma stands now - has aborigine origins which chef Redzepi sought to explore and celebrate when designing the menu. That meant scouring the Outback for ingredients such as wattle seeds, bunya nuts, lillipilli, kakadu plums, finger limes and the like that took centre stage in a meal that had moments of brilliance tucked into an overall weird-fest.
For one with little connection to Australian culture or psyche, it feels like being an outsider eavesdropping on a conversation you don't quite know the context of. But, for chef Redzepi, it's about creating the context - using his own explorer/outsider status to give Australians a fresh perspective on their own food.
Many of the ingredients used in Noma's dinner are considered either weeds or things the locals never thought of eating, such as unripe macadamia nuts, which become a genius first course in chef Redzepi's hands. The nuts are near impossible to crack - except in the zealous hands at Noma - but are unrivalled in its pure, virgin flavours of crunch and mild sweetness, cast into a sea of ice-cold spanner crab juices, enhanced with the oil of fresh roses which lends depth to the delicate flavours.
A beautiful bowl of native berries - muntries (cranberry-like fruit), lillipilli, lemon aspen and desert limes - marinated in savoury seaweed oil and dusted with kakadu plum powder, is like a false advertisement in the mouth. It promises sweetness and all things nice but hits you with a sour-savoury punch that explains why Aussies don't put these things on restaurant menus in the first place.
You wonder at the thought processes behind a platter of super-fresh local shellfish - pippi, mussel, strawberry clam, flame cockle and oyster, served raw but each topped with a very thin opaque wafer made from boiled-down chicken stock and crocodile fat (which is lighter than other kinds of fat, it seems). An inexplicable bitterness from the crocodile fat and the pippi dulls the tastebuds and enjoyment of the sweet natural shellfish.
But nothing quite prepares us for a bizarre scallop tart - not because it's made from blending dried scallop and beeswax into a briny cold fudge-textured filling in a thin pastry smeared with homemade Vegemite, but for the beautiful pink flower called lantana, from which you're told to pick the petals off and sprinkle them on the tart. Lantana is a noxious weed that grows rampant in fields which Aussies try to avoid because of its smell. How something so beautiful can make you feel like you're eating a scallop tart under the cover of a dubious underarm is just mind-boggling.
Still, there are some stunners and tellingly, they involve real food. Like beautiful, sweet snow crabmeat, steamed just before serving and quickly shelled, served in a sauce made of egg yolk cured in fermented kangaroo meat - which sounds stomach-curdling until you taste the delicate crab amped up with creamy, sticky, salty egg yolk with a distinctive fish sauce flavour.
That's almost matched by the equally sweet, steamed marron wrapped in a thosai-like grilled milk-skin wrap smeared with a thin layer of ragout made with aged magpie goose. But waiting to top it all is the best dish of the night - an abalone schnitzel made from slow-cooking live abalone till it reaches a tender, malleable texture, flash-fried in crumbs and served with a buffet of native shrubbery. The texture of the abalone alone would make any Japanese chef proud, even if he doesn't touch the greens.
Ants, by the way, make a cameo appearance in the pre-dessert fruit bowl, scattered over refreshing cubes of mango sorbet, along with pineapple and watermelon.
Yes, the message may be louder than taste in Noma's cuisine. But when the messenger is chef Redzepi, who manages celebrity with his feet still on the ground, a regular guy with unstoppable drive and social conscience, and a chef who ultimately aims for deliciousness, you are inclined to listen. And you will do so for as long as he has something meaningful to say.
- The writer's meal at Noma Sydney was hosted by Tourism Australia and Destination New South Wales
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