Dishwasher turns Noma co-owner

Mr Ali Sonko, who was a farmer in Gambia, in the kitchen of Noma restaurant in Copenhagen.
Mr Ali Sonko, who was a farmer in Gambia, in the kitchen of Noma restaurant in Copenhagen.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Michelin-starred restaurant promotes immigrant employee from Gambia, who has spent 14 years cleaning plates

After working as a farmer in Gambia, Mr Ali Sonko left for Copenhagen, where he eventually became a dishwasher at Noma, a Michelin- starred restaurant famed for experimental creations that have included, among other things, edible dirt.

This week, more than three decades after he first arrived in Denmark, Mr Sonko, a sprightly 62- year-old with a wide smile and 12 children, was promoted to part- owner of the restaurant, widely regarded as being among the world's best. He instantly became a powerful symbol of immigrant success in a country that is increasingly seen as being inhospitable to immigrants.

After 14 years of cleaning the plates at Noma after meals that have included live shrimp, ants that taste like oranges and sea coriander, Mr Sonko will now take on added duties as host. The restaurant, which recently closed its original branch, will reopen in December in a new location, retooled as an urban farm.

Mr Sonko says he plans to spend at least part of his time by the sink at the restaurant, which has won the top spot on the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list four times. The list is one of the most sought-after honours for restaurateurs.

"I am so happy," he said in an interview on Thursday, referring to his promotion and making it clear he preferred washing dishes to talking about politics. When asked about immigration in Denmark, he said: "Everybody does their best."

Noma chef and co-owner Rene Redzepi, 39, is celebrated as a leading light of New Nordic cuisine, a culinary movement defined by foraging from nature.

He said Mr Sonko's promotion had particular resonance for him as his own father, a Muslim Albanian who was born in the former Yugoslavia, had worked as a dishwasher after he came to Denmark in the 1970s.

"I feel a special connection to Ali because my own father is called Ali and was a dishwasher for most of his life," he said in a phone interview from Tulum, Mexico, where he will be temporarily hosting a pop-up restaurant.

"He has spent every hour of his life at that restaurant, works hard and hardly takes a day off. He is a great example of an immigrant done good."

Chef Redzepi said Mr Sonko and two managers received a total 10 per cent stake in the holding company that owns the Noma brand; Chef Redzepi owns roughly 20 per cent, while the remainder is spread among four business partners.

Mr Sonko's dishes-to-riches story began 34 years ago when he left his native Gambia after falling in love with a Danish woman while on vacation in Denmark.

After moving there, he worked as a fishmonger and a butcher, and in a window and door factory. Chef Redzepi said Mr Sonko spent all of his spare time with his children on his days off from the restaurant.

While Mr Sonko says he has enjoyed sampling Noma's dishes, including ants and the edible dirt - actually made from malt, malt flour, hazelnut flower, sugar and lager - he prefers having African food when cooking at home. "I love peanut butter sauce with rice," he said.

He is building a small hotel back in Gambia that uses an old gas stove that came from Noma's kitchen.

Several years ago, when members of the restaurant staff travelled to London to receive an award and Mr Sonko, a Gambian citizen, was unable to join them, the staff wore T-shirts emblazoned with his face.

Mr Sonko's ascent from immigrant dishwasher to restaurant owner, which has grabbed headlines around the world, comes at a time when Denmark has been immersed in a culture war over Danish identity amid a simmering anti-immigrant backlash fuelled, in part, by the success of the far-right Danish People's Party.

The latest flashpoint in a loud debate over immigration occurred this week when the country's Minister of Integration, Ms Inger Stojberg, lashed out at a middle-class family of Syrian refugees, whom she accused of abusing the Danish benefits system and called "greedy" in an opinion article in BT, a Danish newspaper.

Two years ago, the Danish government took out advertisements in the Lebanese news media that appeared calculated to discourage migrants from going to the country. It has also passed a law requiring newly arrived asylum seekers to hand over valuables, including jewellery and gold, to help pay for their stay in the country.

Chef Redzepi said the country's increasingly cold attitude towards immigrants sent the wrong message.

"You can't demand that an immigrant adapts and accepts the code and jungle laws of a place," he said, "unless they also understand that they are welcome and wanted."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2017, with the headline 'Dishwasher turns Noma co-owner'. Print Edition | Subscribe