This post has been updated.
In the military-style hierarchy of U.S. restaurant kitchens, a dishwasher ranks near the bottom, even if chefs, given half a chance, will loudly sing a good pot-scrubber’s praises. (These hard-working men and women, often immigrants, would probably prefer a living wage over songs of praise, but that’s another story.)
But over in Copenhagen, Rene Redzepi, the chef and co-owner of Noma, did something extraordinary last week for the restaurant’s longtime dishwasher: He made Ali Sonko a partner in the Danish gastronomic temple that regularly ranks among the world’s best.
Sonko, a native of Gambia, was one of three new partners named during a party on Noma’s last day at its waterfront space in the Christianshavn neighborhood. Noma is expected to relocate in December to its new urban farm near Christiania, Copenhagen’s famous “free town” known for its boho lifestyle and ample drugs.
When Redzepi made the announcement to an assembled crowd of 250 staffers and friends of the house, he “never expected it to be the big story that it’s become,” the chef says from Tulum, Mexico, where Noma will operate an open-air popup in the jungle, starting in April. Since the announcement, Sonko has been interviewed on just about every TV channel in Denmark, Redzepi says.
The story has clearly struck a chord, particularly in the United States, where dishwashers don’t earn the same respect as they do at Noma. Sonko has been with Redzepi’s restaurant since it opened in a former warehouse in 2003. For each of the past 13-plus years, Sonko has only been a dishwasher. He hasn’t aspired to “move up” in the kitchen hierarchy, as a dishwasher might in the United States, largely because the Noma team doesn’t view the dishwasher as a third-tier position.
In the culture of Noma, Sonko not only is “one of the top-paid people in the entire kitchen,” Redzepi says, but “holds as much respect as the best head chef or sous chef.” Because of his engaging personality, his work ethic and his dedication to doing the job right, Sonko has endeared himself to his colleagues. “People just respond to that tremendously,” Redzepi says. “It doesn’t matter what you do.”
Sonko — along with two other veterans, service director Lau Richter and manager James Spreadbury — were collectively given 10 percent of the holding company that oversees all the businesses related to Noma, which includes not just the restaurant with two Michelin stars, but also a more casual eatery that will take over the warehouse space. While Noma has historically funneled all profits back into the business, Redzepi says the holding company itself is worth about $20 million. More important, he says, the company’s potential growth is almost unlimited.
In short, Sonko, 62, and his two co-workers will be set for life. But “it’s not about the lucrative potential” of Noma and its owners, Redzepi says. “It’s about that you’re part of something.”
Whether or not it influenced Redzepi’s decision-making, the chef has a family history that, in a sense, mirrors Sonko’s: Redzepi’s father, a Macedonian Muslim named Ali-Rami Redzepi, immigrated to Copenhagen in the early 1970s.
“My father was a dishwasher,” says Redzepi. Ali-Rama, in fact, met his future wife at a Copenhagen cafeteria, where she was a cashier and Ali-Rami washed dishes. Their life together was not always easy, as the 2015 documentary “Noma: My Perfect Storm” laid bare: Ali-Rami dealt with casual Danish racism as a young man, likely the same attitudes that drive the country’s current restrictions on refugees.
“I don’t know if that’s an extra-added element to this story about Ali: the fact that he’s the same age as my Dad, has the same name and is a dishwasher, too,” the chef says. “Maybe there is something there. But Ali, he has, first and foremost, become a partner because he’s amazing.”
Redzepi, however, is certain that Sonko’s success underscores the importance of open borders. “Ali is such a story of a Muslim man from Africa, blending in well and making something amazing for himself.”
Sonko shares a similar respect for Noma. He reportedly told BT, a Danish tabloid, “I cannot describe how happy I am to work here. There are the best people to work with, and I am good friends with everyone. They show enormous respect towards me, and no matter what I say or ask them, they are there for me.”
Sonko previously made news in 2010, when the Noma crew traveled to London to pick up its trophy for the top spot in the annual poll of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Sonko could not secure a British visa to attend the ceremony, but the entire Noma team made sure he was there in spirit: They wore T-shirts bearing the dishwasher’s face. Two years later, when Noma earned the No. 1 ranking for a third consecutive year, Sonko was there to give a reception speech.
The dishwasher’s newfound celebrity status may earn him extra duties when Noma reopens later this year. Sonko “may be spending a little more time with the guests,” Redzepi says.
Why not? At this point, the chef adds, Sonko is “probably going to be the best-known dishwasher” anywhere.