Noma plans to reopen as urban farm restaurant

Chef Rene Redzepi (above) wants his menu to feature seasonal produce, such as the wild herbs he is picking near Copenhagen.
Chef Rene Redzepi (above) wants his menu to feature seasonal produce, such as the wild herbs he is picking near Copenhagen.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES,

COPENHAGEN • "Welcome to the new Noma," chef Rene Redzepi said on a bright summer day.

The 37-year-old godfather of the New Nordic movement and the chef at Noma, arguably the world's most influential restaurant, was standing outside what looked like an auditorium-size crack den. Used spray-paint cans lay in heaps amid the weeds of an abandoned lot outside the ragged border of this city's freewheeling neighbourhood.

But he envisioned something else as he climbed a staircase up to a tar-papered roof and gazed out at a lake on the edge of the property.

He plans to close Noma after a final service on New Year's Eve next year and reopen in 2017 with a new menu and a new mission.

And he wants to transform this patch of land into a state-of- the-art urban farm, with Noma at its centre. "It makes sense to have your own farm, as a restaurant of this calibre," he said.

"It makes sense to do it here," he said, despite visual evidence to the contrary.

His plans are nothing if not ambitious. He will put a greenhouse on the roof. He will dig out the old asphalt lot and truck in fresh soil. He wants part of the farm to float.

"We'll build a raft and put a huge field on the raft," he said. "We need a full-time farmer with a team."

He is aware of the gamble. "It really, really, really, really makes me nervous," he said. "I'm not afraid. But it does make me nervous."

The changes at Noma are not driven by necessity. There has not been a rent increase at the original location; business remains brisk. Redzepi simply believes the restaurant, where he has led the kitchen for 12 years, is ready for a dramatic evolution.

For the next two years, he has committed to giving the menu a shake-up. He has become less and less sure that it makes sense for customers to pass through the traditional stages of a tasting menu, from small nibbles to a slab of meat, culminating in sweets and coffee. "We've allowed the format of a tasting menu to dictate what we cook."

He intends to replace the predictable progression with a more fervent adherence to seasonality.

In the fall, Noma's menu will focus on only wild game (from goose to moose) and foraged autumnal ingredients such as mushrooms and forest berries. In the winter, when "the waters are ice-cold and some of the fish have bellies full of roe", Noma will mutate into a seafood restaurant.

Spring and summer? "The world turns green. And so will the menu."

During those months, Noma will become a fully vegetarian restaurant, with much of the bounty ostensibly coming from the farm he wants to conjure up.

"It's huge," he said. "How are you going to give a bowl of spinach the same pleasure that a steak gives? A richness of flavour. That is something that we will deal with."

From late December to the middle of next April, the restaurant staff will be relocating to Sydney, Australia, to see what happens when the Noma approach is applied to Australian ingredients.

It undertook a similar experiment in Tokyo this year and the Japanese reverence for the seasons clearly had a deep influence on his thinking. "It's as if everything they eat is at the right moment," he said.

For the first time in his career, he is partnering to open a second restaurant, a more casual enterprise in Copenhagen with chef Kristian Baumann heading the kitchen, and he has lured Irish chef Trevor Moran to leave the Catbird Seat in Nashville and return to Noma (where he worked for four years) to help lead the next wave.

Evidence suggests that Redzepi's employees are accustomed to hearing him ordering them to steer for the high seas. Every week at Noma, after the final dinner service, they gather in the kitchen for Saturday Night Projects, where young cooks are asked to put together their own dishes for his inspection and analysis. He even broadcasts it via Periscope.

"That's what keeps it exciting, it stays fresh," said Malcolm Livingston II, who moved from New York last year to become Noma's pastry chef.

Over the years, it has pioneered approaches to fermentation, ageing, foraging and even cooking with insects. "You're taking risks every time you move forward," said head chef Daniel Giusti.

But a big leap into agriculture could be the riskiest move of all. "That's where the challenge will come in," he said. "Are we growing the right stuff? Is it good? I know Rene. It's going to have to be great."

Technically, Noma's new home lies in the centre of the city, even though it feels like some faraway vegetation-tangled edge.

Redzepi may be seeking wilder pastures at the right time. A new walkable bridge will soon connect Nyhavn, one of the most tourist- packed parts of Copenhagen, to the dock-like zone that houses Noma and its fermentation lab. As often happens in New York City, gentrification is surging in.

"Of course, we could just stay put and do what we do there," he said. "But I think we won't progress."

He seemed rapt as he stood among the weeds and broken glass, as if admiring the new Noma in its finished state. "I have yet to meet anyone who thinks this is a stupid thing," he said.

He pondered this observation for a second or two. Then he got antsy, as he often does. "I can't stand still like this," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2015, with the headline 'Noma plans to reopen as urban farm restaurant'. Print Edition | Subscribe