As news spread Monday that René Redzepi would close Noma and resurrect it as a dining destination with its own working farm, one question seemed to linger like a Danish winter: What would happen to the Copenhagen restaurant’s foraging program, the one that has influenced chefs around the world to explore their own geography for ingredients?
Would that component of Noma just go gently into the Nordic night?
“As far as wild foraged foods, that’s not going to slow down at all,” said Daniel Giusti, the former Washingtonian who leads the kitchen at Noma.
Giusti ticked off several reasons why the foraging program will remain at the heart of Noma, which, as the New York Times first reported, will close at the end of 2016 and reopen the following year near Christiania, Copenhagen’s famous “free town” dedicated to communal living and dope.
For starters, Giusti said, the people who work at the restaurant are not farmers; Redzepi will need to hire experienced people to raise the food that will be used at the new Noma, and even then, farming is not foolproof. Crops will probably fail.
“Nobody’s naive here,” Giusti said in a phone interview before service at Noma. “Everyone understands that [farming] is a hard thing to do.”
But farming is seasonal and can’t begin to provide for a restaurant’s needs year-round. Foraging will continue to play an integral role in the sourcing of fresh-picked ingredients for the kitchen. What’s more, full-time forager Michael Fitzner Larsen and others will continue to roam the country, searching for flora and fauna that Noma’s fermentation team will transform into vinegars, kombuchas, misos and garum-like sauces (garum is a fermented fish sauce) based on nontraditional ingredients such as grasshoppers, lobsters and razor clams.
Those fermented condiments, or “building blocks” as Giusti calls them, will continue to be the invisible applications that elevate a dish at Noma — its current iteration or the next one — into a realm all its own. Giusti recalls when Redzepi spontaneously decided to mix fresh mulberries with a misolike paste of yellow split peas fermented with roses.
“That was it,” the chef said. “It was really amazing.”
Noma’s makeover is more than a philosophical shift to urban farming and hyper-seasonal menus. There’s a practical component, too: At its current waterfront location on Copenhagen Harbor, Noma is a house divided. Its test kitchen is upstairs, accessible only by a staircase that forces cooks to walk outdoors first. Its fermentation lab and kitchen are outside on the dock, housed in four converted shipping containers, making for an inconvenient trek from the kitchen to the lab for vinegars, misos, garums and the like.
The plan, at present, would be to house those components under one roof, so they’re more interactive and accessible to each other. “Having them in the same building would be helpful, especially for the storage of the fermentation” ingredients, Giusti said. The new building will be “an easier way to keep people closer together, which is cool.”
The new Noma might also take a page from companies such as Google and TripAdvisor, which provide their employees with an array of lifestyle options such as gyms, cafes and even napping pods. There has been discussion of offering Noma employees an exercise room or even a sauna, although neither of those possibilities has been laid down in formal design plans. But the ideas dovetail with a recent essay that Redzepi wrote for Lucky Peach magazine, in which he argued for the “idea of instilling a more respectful, humane spirit into the restaurant.”
“When we started trying to change the culture at Noma, we did it for the sake of our own happiness,” Redzepi wrote. “I didn’t expect that it would also make us a better restaurant. But it did. This has worked for us. I genuinely do see the improvement in the staff’s morale, in our guests’ satisfaction, in the quality of our creativity and execution.”
Investing in a staff exercise room, Giusti noted, might not seem like the fast path to profitability, but it could achieve something just as important for a high-performing, high-stakes kitchen like Noma’s: It could make for happier employees who stick around longer.