Destination

Tokyo or Bust

In a whirlwind of 18-hour days and crazy travel schedules, Rene Redzepi talks about his big experiment,
counts the mind-boggling costs, and hopes his Noma Tokyo pop-up will take off

by Jaime Ee

As the countdown begins and the pressure mounts before Noma Tokyo opens for business on Jan 9, it's a wonder the chef of the world's best restaurant hasn't started getting nightmares in Japanese yet. "It's been crazy," agrees a slightly frazzled Rene Redzepi in a recent Skype interview from his flagship Noma in Copenhagen, a day before he leaves for yet another recce trip to Japan - this time covering Okinawa, Fukuoka and Nagano with a pit stop in Tokyo.

When Redzepi announced in March that he wanted to move Noma to Tokyo, he was doing what few are crazy enough to try. Which was to uproot his entire staff, travel across the world to a land with a different language, culture and food, to open one of the most expensive pop-up restaurants ever. All because of the day he tasted his first kaiseki in Japan and thought, wouldn't it be great to just drop everything and set up shop there.

But turning whim into action is par for the course for the reigning king of the culinary world whose temple of Nordic cuisine regained top spot on the Restaurant Guide's World's Best 50 list this year. You don't get there by playing safe, which is why he decided on Tokyo "before really understanding the scope of the project".

He had to because, "if we were to do a thorough investigation first, we would have told ourselves 'just forget it'."

He has since plunged head first into the wildest ride of his life - equal parts wonder at an ancient food culture and harsh reality that moving 60 staff members and their families can be "monstrously difficult".

The first lot of staff made the move this week, followed by the rest in the middle of the month. Redzepi himself will arrive just after Christmas. "So we'll have a good month (of preparation) with the first guys starting and when I arrive, we'll have 12 to 14 days together to finish the whole menu."

Just don't ask him what's going to be on that menu, because "we're not at all there yet", he laughs, almost sheepishly.

Instead, he's creating on the go, packing in 18-hour days on tightly-organized trips in search of artisanal growers who offer something beyond the pristine produce that Japanese farmers are already famous for.

"Most farms are part of the Japanese agricultural association which encourage same standard and procedures, but it doesn't have the same diversity as we have in Copenhagen in terms of plants and vegetables. We're searching for the small single farmers that are independent."

He's particularly taken with the Matagi people in Aomori. "They're mountain people who used to take care of the borders and they lived off everything that was edible - so they're sort of foragers. We're doing the same - salting berries and picking weird barks for infusion, and so on.

He reckons that the main influences for Noma Tokyo's menu will be the kaiseki - to decide the number of courses in the menu - and Shojin Ryori, or temple cuisine. The food will therefore be plant-based, "with very little meat and some seafood".

But it will not be Japanese. Nor even Nordic.

"It's important to say that we are not Japanese and we are not going to try to be a Japanese restaurant. But we will go there influenced by the culture and having that inspire us."

Contrary to what one might suspect to be Redzepi's upstart tendencies, this is no show-off project for him. "We have nothing to teach these people in terms of ingredients or food culture because theirs is an ancient one, and they're doing so much better than anyone in Denmark or Northern Europe.

"We are going to go there and take in as much as we can, and hopefully it would be interesting for locals to see how a group of travellers - who are also professionals - cook the same ingredients that they do on an everyday basis, but it would feel so different."

He must have got their attention because almost 90 per cent of diners who have snagged a coveted table at Noma Tokyo are Japanese. The response itself has been phenomenal, with "58,000 people on the waitlist" when the first ballot closed. When they re-opened it for the two week extension, "there were 1,000 tables on waitlist - meaning tables for two, four, six, etc."

Of course, he's thrilled with the response. "It's been really amazing to experience because we were so nervous. We thought, oh my God, are we going to fill up. Are the locals going to accept us, are they interested in this, etc."

It seems almost silly for Redzepi to question Noma's international appeal, but the mind boggling cost of the move was a real concern for him.

"We had to be careful because if we couldn't fill up we would be in a lot of trouble financially."

The numbers are certainly not for the faint-hearted. There is the cost of sending 75 people - including family members - to Tokyo, all of whom are sharing 20 rooms at the Mandarin Oriental in a deal where the hotel gets a cut of about 10 per cent of the restaurant's sales. Add to that the airfare cost for so many people, and the rent they still have to pay for Noma Copenhagen. And the renovation of the restaurant space itself, which had to be made earthquake-proof.

"It's unbelievable, the number of laws and regulations. Everything has to be done in such a way that nothing can fall and hurt someone."

As the days tick by, Redzepi is definitely feeling the pressure. "We really want to make people happy. We're there to do the best we can. But at the same time, it's a big experiment because the only thing we're bringing is our aesthetic, our way of thinking, the people we are. Everything else is new. New ingredients, new place, new culture, everything."

One ingredient you're not likely to see - if he doesn't change his mind again, that is - is soy, whether in soy sauce, miso or even tofu. "I'm worried about people tasting this familiar flavour and expecting a Japanese meal."

But if he's concerned about not making it Japanese or Scandinavian, what kind of food is he making then?

"I would say, expect a distillation of everything that's great to come from Japanese soil, put together with a modern Scandinavian aesthetic and taste buds. That's the best I can say."

Out of the whirl of information and influences, "there's a picture slowly, slowly coming together". And if we know Redzepi, it will be an experience of a lifetime for diners. It already is for him.

Noma Tokyo runs from Jan 9 to Feb 14, 2015. For details, go to www.noma.dk/japan/

Previous Back To Top

Advertisers

aspial borneo ion patek fullerton