Noma, the best meal of my life

To quote the late, great Roy Castle, “Inspiration, that’s all you need”. Well ok I may be paraphrasing a bit…..Dedication, Inspiration…same same. Any ‘ation’ will work… fascination, filtration…erm…evacuation….abomination…..OK OK, I’m a chef not Earnest ‘bleedin’ Hemingway. All I mean to say is that all I needed in order to rush to a computer and start jibber jabbering again was something to inspire me.

I have said before that I am not a writer and I quit my jibba jabba a few months ago having run out of stuff to say. Not for want of trying you underpants (UNDERSTAND….damn you spellcheck!). I have tried, I have at least five blogs that I have begun but never got past page two. Perhaps I should stick to cooking.

Anyway, I just had lunch at Noma, not two hours ago, and was so awakened and inspired by the whole experience that I just had to dash back to the hotel and gush about it. Now those who know me well will attest that I am certainly not a dasher or a gusher. But Noma seems to have awoken something deep inside me, and because of this I have dashed and now I must gush.

Bourdain said it best and more eloquently than me in his brilliant book ‘A Cooks Tour’ that it is impossible to actively hunt for and expect to find a perfect meal.

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The premise of his book is that each chapter would be a search for the fabled ‘perfect meal’, whether it be an attempt to relive his first ever oyster eating experience as a child in Normandy, the same oyster that inspired his love of food and eventually led to him becoming a chef. Or a thirty course tasting menu at the French Laundry, reputedly the best restaurant in the world at that time. Or maybe perfection would lie at the end of a long and dangerous trek into Cambodia’s impenetrable heart of darkness to sit down and eat the still-beating heart of a snake and exchange shots of homemade liquor with elderly ex Khmer Rouge despots.

To go out with expectations so high is pure madness. And what is the perfect meal anyway? As I posted on FaceBook yesterday only half jokingly, I expected Noma to be the third best meal of my life. The first prize (there is no prize any Noma team reading this whose ears have pricked up at the thought of a million pounds or a cuddly toy) goes or should I say went to my late Grandmother who, given a pressure cooker and half a glass of sherry, could destroy the hardiest vegetables known to man. These mushy carrots, onions and potatoes along with, if we had really misbehaved, the dreaded broad beans (my Sister still can’t walk past a broad bean without needing six months of therapy thereafter) picked by my Grandfather from the end of the garden would be served with a delicious boiled ham and some parsley sauce. And that folks, after thirty-seven years of being a person, twenty-one of which I have been cooking professionally has maintained the number one position ever since. Number two went to The Fat Duck in Bray, formerly voted the world’s best restaurant for a number of years. So as you can see, it is impossible to define the perfect meal. It’s a very personal thing. For me a nostalgic trip down memory lane filled with happy memories of my childhood and family and mushy onions will always be hard to beat as a number one in my own personal top ten. Whereas number two spot has more recently gone to The Fat Duck, having visited it a couple of times now, it has on both occasions been a magical experience. And I think that that was the key. Not only technically perfect and original cooking but also dishes that were designed to trigger childhood memories. Those of you who have been lucky enough to visit the Duck will relate. The whole Alice In Wonderland approach that sends the diner tumbling down through the rabbit hole only to emerge two and a half hours later dazed and confused. “Did that just really happen?” was the overwhelming thought that I left with on both occasions.  Dishes like ‘The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’ and ‘Like a kid in a sweat shop’….(SWEET shop!!! Krikee, that would be a fairly un-pc dessert!) always prayed on nostalgia with great success.  Well having said all that…. sorry Heston… sorry Gran, but you have been demoted to second and third.

Noma was the best meal of my life. I have been craving for something different, something original for a while now. I have successfully ruined for myself the novelty and specialness of going to a Michelin star restaurant. This past Summer has seen me completely lose the plot and visit a one, two or three star restaurant (and only a one star if absolutely every two star and above within a 500 mile radius is fully booked) once, sometimes twice a week. It has become a bit of an addiction. They say the first step is to admit you have a problem. Well people of the newly formed MSA , “hello, my name is Neil and I’m a Michelin Staraholic”.

Well I suppose there are worse things to be addicted to, I’m not sure I’d be better off on crack, calmer yes, and I’d probably drop a bit of this puppy fat, but generally I think its probably best to stick to stars rather than class A drugs. But as I was saying, once you’ve had fifteen or twenty ten course tasting menus within a relatively short period of time, they all start to look and taste the same. Very nice, mostly, but no longer very special. Recently I’ve tried to up the ante a bit and increase the potential for the perfect meal by hunting down great restaurants that are not only great but are located in some way somewhere extraordinary and special. A Chateau on top of a hill overlooking the French Riviera (Chateau De La Chèvre D’Or),

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a hotel restaurant gently nestling on the shores of lake Annecy (Yoann Conte),

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or a private chalet in Megeve complete with alpine cows grazing on the slopes outside and it’s own three star restaurant.

(Flocons De Sel)

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I would hire a car and drive six hours from San Remo in Italy up to Chamonix just to sit at a table that has a view of Mont Blanc that I can enjoy while I eat my tea.

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Frankly, it has got a bit out of hand.

There is a list produced every year by Restaurant magazine of the fifty best restaurants in the world as voted for by a panel of several hundred expert judges. If a restaurant is in the top five, then you know you are in for a treat. If a restaurant is number one, well then you can pretty much guarantee that you are going to have a life changing experience. The Fat Duck for example was number one for a number of years. I ate there twice; it changed the way I look at food and the whole concept of a meal. The problem is that when a restaurant reaches that pinnacle of being number one in the world, it then instantly becomes impossible to get a table reservation. I recently read a book about the restaurant El Bulli where they talked about the difficulties that they faced when receiving over half a million reservation requests for a restaurant that is only open five months of the year and seats forty people. I tried to get in there…. impossible. I tried to get into The French Laundry by calling them the moment they opened reservations for a date six months in advance. By the time I got through, yep, fully booked. I tried to get into the current number one El Celler De Can Roca. They practically broke into hysterical laughter when I asked for a table. Fully booked for eleven months!

Who makes a dinner reservation for eleven months away!? “Hey honey, do you fancy going out for a bite….next November?”

That experience reminded me a bit of a scene from the movie LA Story, in which Steve Martin’s character is trying to get a reservation at a currently trendy and must-be-seen-at LA restaurant.

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“I’d like a table next Friday at eight please.”

“Mmwooha ha ha ha ha HAAAH!!!”

“Hello?”

“Yoo can kerm un Munday…at eeleven zirty”

“Ah OK”

“Wat vill yoo ordur?”

“Erm…the beef?”

“Mmwooha ha ha ha ha HAAAH!!!….Yoo cannot av zee beef…yoo can av zee chickun”

So the key, I have learnt, is to bide your time. Wait, be patient, hang on until the restaurant drops off the top spot. Then, and only then, you may just have half a chance of getting a reservation. But you have to ask them when you can come, you won’t stand a chance of getting the exact date you want. And so it was with Noma. Now number two after several years in the top spot, I managed, incredibly, to get a table for lunch on a date that I could make myself available and fly to Copenhagen to eat what would be the best meal of my life…so far.

I eat in France all the time, as I work most of the year there, and I have become used to and almost excepted it as perfectly normal and reasonable that when I walk into a French restaurant (and I’m talking about high-end places) I should be made to feel like they are doing me a favour by allowing me to part with significant sums of money in exchange for rude and obnoxious service. Upon approaching the Maître D’, I am looked up and down suspiciously. I smile,  they raise an eyebrow and frown disapprovingly at me. I plead to be let in to eat on the promise that I will be quiet and try not to disturb them in any way. “You’ll hardly notice I’m here” I beg. Please let me eat your food. “Very well, you may enter”.

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(I’m kidding, you know I love Michel…he’s a sweet heart!)

I am shown to a table in a dimly lit corner of the room by the toilets and promptly ignored for the rest of the evening until it is time to part with several hundred euros.

When I tentatively opened the door to enter Noma, I was greeted like a long lost family member. “Neil! Welcome! Come in. How are you? We’ve been expecting you. How was your trip here? We are so glad you could come and join us. Please, pick one of my daughters and take her as your wife!” Every one of the staff smiled at me and seemed genuinely happy that I was there. That almost never happens when I enter a room. Occasionally with my Mum, but its usually very short-lived.

It’s such an easy thing to do and makes such a huge difference. To be friendly and put the customer at ease. Be welcoming, how hard is that?

What followed next was, by my count, twenty eight plates of the most wonderful and original food I have ever eaten. Ingredients that I had never even heard of before let alone tasted, all presented beautifully and unpretentiously. No unnecessary flourishes just for the sake of it. Just good honest food. The philosophy of the restaurant, I believe, is to source all the ingredients from the local area with nothing being unnecessarily transported from miles and miles away when everything they need is on their doorstep. “To cook the landscape”, I think Redzepi (chef and co-owner) may have once said.  When I say locally, I mean from the Nordic region. These ingredients are sourced from individual suppliers or foraged by the chefs themselves. Apologies to Noma if I am getting this wrong and misrepresenting you. So the ever-changing menu is intensely seasonal and always evolving. It also says a lot that out of the twenty-eight dishes I received, I am fairly sure that I can only recall a couple that incorporated meat. Lots of berries, wild herbs and interesting local vegetables. I love meat but the fact that I ate so little of it during this meal and didn’t really notice is a testament to the skills of the forty or so chefs that are cooking at any one time. Chefs who are from over twenty different nationalities by the way. Another excellent way of gaining inspiration and ideas for new dishes and cooking techniques.

When I cook, I tend to take an ingredient and then approach it with the intention of trying to show off my skills as a chef rather than show off the ingredient itself. Its stupid really, and I will try to change the way I look at food from now on. Before, I would take a beetroot and try to impress my diners by overly complicating things. Pureeing it, drying it, crisping it, liquefying it, turning it into foam, jelly, mousse, terrine…bla bla bla. Beetroot fifty ways, on the same plate.

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Why?

Take a typical dish at Noma, a leek. Yep, just a leek. Blackened on the BBQ out the back until the inside is beautifully sweet and tender. Simply served so all the diner has to do is open up the outer part of the leek and devour the deliciously juicy heart. So simple, and so yummy.

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An egg, lightly cooked and subtly scented with a smoky flavor that I can’t recall now. Presented interestingly and originally inside a nest, which is nestling inside another egg. Just one of the many original serving plates, cups and bowls that are designed by a local guy specifically just for Noma.

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A fish head cooked on the BBQ and skewered with a stick. By the way, there are almost no waiters or waitresses at Noma. Every dish is brought out by one of the chefs who explains it in detail down to where the ingredients have come from, the cooking methods used and usually and necessarily a lot of the time, having received a puzzled glance from myself, instructions on how to eat it. I didn’t receive any cutlery until course number nine, at which point the waiter brought over a knife and fork and, looking at my sternly, said “Cutlery Neil…now we get serious!”

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Who better to bring out food in a restaurant than the people who cooked it? Its obvious really. I can only apologise to the hundreds of thousands of waiting staff that I am about to consign to the scrapheap by suggesting that all restaurants should do this. The amount of times I have asked a fairly straightforward question about a dish that has been plonked in front of me, such as, “Excuse me but what is this sauce you are serving with the beef?”, only to receive a horrified and bewildered look from the stricken and dumbfounded waiter, and watch as he turns and sprints away from me with a banshee-like shriek leaving a waiter shaped hole in the wall across from me. Part of the reason for this is the remnants of this old school them and us attitude between kitchen and front of house. And as a result, a lack of communication.

Noma is a perfect example of what a restaurant should be like. Not a kitchen and front of house, but just a Noma. One Noma team, working together with a common goal, to stuff Neil to the gills with really super awesome and tasty food and also while we’re at it, get him completely hammered as well. Chefs were cooking, serving, clearing the tables. Sommeliers were getting me drunk but also presenting a couple of dishes if a chef was unavailable, and also clearing tables. Everyone was doing whatever was necessary to make it work. If there is one thing you can say to me as a work colleague that will almost certainly guarantee you a slap across the face with a wet fish, it is “that’s not my job.” SchhllAPP!!

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Anyway, back to the fish head and my puzzled and bewildered glance, that was not dissimilar to the fish’s expression. After the chef explained it to me that I should just, have-at-it, with my fingers and the stick while also occasionally munching on the bouquet of foraged herbs, it was really quite obvious. What is the best way to eat a fish head, the only way, a lump of piscine deliciousness that contains so many different textures hidden away in it’s crevasses and cavities? A stick of course. How else can you tear away that crispy skin, dig out that juicy cheek, pry away the crunchy cartilage, pop out the eye from its socket or explore the interior for any of that gelatinous brain matter? A stick of course. Or maybe two if you have the same thing in a Chinese.

Lets talk about the booze, as I could go on for hours about the food and I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you when you hopefully visit Noma. Lets just say the food was top-banana and leave it at that. Oh! But I haven’t covered the ants! Or the Moss! Or the bread served with dripping and bacon instead of butter! Or the best Danish pastry I’ve ever eaten! Ah well, maybe another time. Or better still, go and check it out for yourself.

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(My first or second course I think)

Wine pairings. Now, those who know me will know that I like a good wine pairing with my tasting menus. And woe betides the restaurant that doesn’t offer one. And this isn’t because I’m a massive wine snob.

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No not at all…. you misunderstand. I have embarrassingly little knowledge of wine. I have a terrible palate when it comes to the stuff. If you gave me a blind tasting of two different wines, there is absolutely no way I could tell you what grape it was or indeed anything about it. I could maybe tell you if it was red of white….maybe. And as for its bouquet? Hollyhocks, licorice, notes of burnt toast wrapped in rabbit pelt, crocuses, sparrow droppings, a hint of earthworm on the back, a whiff of catgut on the front? No…no, no, no, once again, I could maybe tell you if it was wet or not…maybe.

But I know when I like it (which is always) and I know when I don’t like it (which is never). No, the reason I enjoy a nice wine pairing with my meal, is simple. If I am going to travel miles and miles to your restaurant and spend exorbitant sums of money on the experience, you can bet your life that I want to be shit-faced by the end of it.

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Now my issue with some restaurants is that they don’t embrace this philosophy of mine. They don’t get it. They don’t seem to want to help me get drunk. They don’t seem to want me to have fun. They sometimes seem to be actively doing their best to ensure that I don’t have fun. Ignoring the restaurants that offer a tasting menu but with no wine pairing, as they usually just get a pained look from me and a shake of the head that says that worst of all comments that you used to hear from your Mum or a teacher you liked….”I’m not angry with you…I’m just disappointed” before I get up from the table and walk out of the door. Yes, ignoring them, I must take issue with the restaurants that do offer a tasting menu but for some inexplicable reason, the sommelier can only find three different wines to go with a miserly six courses. Now I’m talking exclusively about restaurants with Michelin stars. Restaurants that should know better. If you have a star, then I’m guessing you’ve made the effort to employ some reasonable staff and maybe, just maybe, invested in a reasonable wine cellar. So am I wrong to think that in this sort of establishment, the sommelier should be brimming with ideas as to which wine will best compliment the chefs roasted goose bum? Indeed he should be actively trying to showcase his skills and knowledge. Trying to get me to taste as many of his wines that he has carefully selected over the years as possible, no?

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(My very favourite wine cellar is in Flocons De Sel where one can study it at ones leisure)

Is that too much to ask? Yes. Instead I get a glass of wine with my first course, which I dutifully neck in time for the next wine with the next course. The next course arrives and I sit and wait patiently for the next wine to arrive. I want to taste the wine before the food you see, to understand, having listened to the sommeliers explanation, why he has chosen this wine to go with the second course. To attempt to identify the hint of boar’s breath that he has told me should come “late” and “at the back”. No such luck. No, I sit and wait, and wait, until it becomes clear to me that no wine is coming.  I look around for the sommelier who seems to be actively avoiding my gaze. I catch his eye and give him that smile and backward not of the head that says “get the fuck over here!”  And dutifully living up to my Englishness, I begin to apologise. “I’m terribly sorry to bother you, but I was just wandering if possibly, and again I’m very sorry and its probably my fault and please feel free to beat me with a large stick, if possibly there would be another glass of wine on the way?….You know?…To go with the goose bum?……sorry.”

“May non monsieur…yoo av ad zee wine…..vee will give yoo anozer glass wiv zee fish lips!…..maybe!”

Yeah, that really annoys me. I can understand, maybe, if you are serving upwards of ten courses that not everyone has the capacity to neck ten glasses of wine with their meal. But even then, just serve half glasses. Or at least let me know that the glass you have just served me is intended to go with both the goose bum and the fish lips. But if that is the case, then you sure as hell had better top up that glass if I finish it before the next course comes.

Anyway, rant over.

No such problem at Noma. They must have taken one good look at me when I walked through the door and instantly thought….”piss-head”. Or maybe it was because of the other thing that I forgot to mention.  It became apparent throughout the meal that they had done a bit of research about me in preparation for my arrival. Probably just googled my email address or name to see what popped up. They new I worked on a yacht (piss-head) and they new I was a chef (fellow colleague and piss-head). So on the basis of that, I think they were fairly generous with the pours. I have to say, that again, this was such a nice touch and something that is very easy and not at all time consuming for a restaurant to do. Just a tiny bit of research on who is coming to diner.

I bet it pays off more often than not. They might discover that you are a vegan or of a certain religious belief or have a food allergy or that you are a fellow chef who enjoys good food and good wine and on the basis of that they can start to anticipate your needs before you have even walked through the door.

My first eight or so courses were classed as appetisers and were all accompanied by free flowing champagne. The next twenty courses were served with different wines. I can’t be sure, as I don’t completely remember, but I am pretty sure that most of those dishes were served with a different wine. I don’t think they all were, as if that had been the case, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today. Nevertheless, there was a lot of booze going on and my cup definitely ranneth over.

Anyway, that made the tour of the kitchens after my meal very interesting as I staggered around after one of the chefs who very generously gave me a very detailed poke around behind the scenes. I won’t go into too much detail as I have rambled on long enough. There is a kitchen, there are chefs, there is a development kitchen upstairs and there are woods and lakes and rivers and forests all around where they get the food from and turn it into a very tasty meal.

So go. That’s all I can say really. If you love good food and want a good time then go to Noma. Do yourself a favour.

Ok, must dash now. I’m off for a traditional Khmer lunch at Angkor Wat followed next week by some tasty Thai treats in Bangkok and then its Christmas and New Year in Sydney (where I originally decided I was serious about this cheffing lark many years ago). Then stages in some of HongKong’s best restaurants and finally back to work on the yacht in April. Apologies to those of you who have been waiting for me to pull my finger out and write again. The blog was not dead…it was simply asleep….or down the pub.

Thanks again to all the Noma team for giving me such a memorable experience and well done Rene Redzepi for creating such an inspiring place to visit and I’m sure also to work. I will be back…if I can get a table.

Until next time.

TTFN

A chef abroad X

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