Chef Jackie Cameron has recently returned from Denmark and here she shares her experience of dining on Nordic cuisine at Noma, the world’s best restaurant.
Good fortune has offered me remarkable travel opportunities and the chance to eat in some of the finest restaurants in the world. Memorable places that I’ve visited include Rockpool, Quay, Tetsuyas, River Café, Fat Duck, Nobu-London, El Bulli and now Noma. What an extraordinary journey it has been and I am privileged to have had the opportunity to compare their respective aspects of uniqueness. A common thread that seems to run through these outstanding restaurants is that the positioning of the restaurant is not key – extreme attention to the quality of food, creativity and service without pretention is.
I have spent many hours studying the Noma cookbook (see our review on the page**) and reading up information on the website, and I consequently empathised with Alieu, Noma’s dishwasher when he couldn’t make the trip to London for 2010’s San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards because his visa didn’t come through. In his honour,every staff member at the ceremony wore a shirt with Alieu’s face adorning their chests. The restaurant was honoured with the number one award in the world that night, and their heart-warming gesture will be remembered.
A little while ago (over a few bottles of wine) an agreement was struck between myself and my German friends, Rainer and Gabi Kirschke, that when they next invited me to Germany, I would extend my visit and travel to Copenhagen to celebrate their 37th wedding anniversary with them at Noma. When bookings for our date opened up, the telephone and internet reservations system was either continuously engaged or jammed because the demand was so great. I sent an email – with my CV and motivational letter attached – and we got in. What a relief!
And so my journey began. On arrival, Copenhagen was very different from my expectations – the big- city life and architecture filled me with awe. Nyhavn is described as the new harbour and is an enchanting 17th Century waterfront, man-made canal and entertainment district. This is what I anticipated that the whole of Copenhagen would look like.
Noma is situated on the other side of this canal and overlooks the water on to brightly coloured townhouses. Not what I expected.
The Food Experience…
Our booking was for noon. We were there just after 11h00 – eager Jackie! We checked out our destination and then enjoyed an espresso while waiting for the restaurant to open. Imagine my excitement when, quite by chance, we bumped into René Redzepi, Noma’s executive chef and partner. Synchronicity? His wife had delivered a baby girl in the early hours of the morning so he was off for the day. Our well-timed arrival was definitely for a reason and I would have been disappointed to my core had I gone all that way and not met him.
Before starting the 12-course menu, the purposely-rushed 12 tasters were served. Head Chef Matthew Orlando said that the reason for the hurried appetisers was to enhance the hype around the food and build up excitement for the tasting menu. It certainly achieved this!
Seated at our tables we were told to pick up the table decoration, a buck weed, and dip the end in a yoghurt and hazelnut praline mixture. This was unusually interesting. Next we removed the malt and juniper flatbread from the vase on the table and ate that. Our eyes moved to the candle on the table. Would we be told to eat that too? The answer was no!
Another highlight was a paper-thin, rye-bread sandwich filled with a lumpfish-roe and smoked-cheese mixture. This was topped with a crisp, flattened chicken skin. Tantalising textures and interesting combinations. We were then presented with a little flower pot filled with a watercress puree that was topped with edible soil and garnished with herbs and radishes. My friends kept asking “Are you sure we can eat this?” The pickled and smoked quail egg came perched in a little quail-egg container filled with hay. When popped into the mouth it released a homely, comforting flavour enhanced by a warm, smokyegg creaminess. Simply sensational! A wave of toast arrived with herbs and a smoked cod roe, topped with a dried out piece of duck skin. Quite out of the ordinary and the skin that I’m referring to is the one that forms on the top of a stock pot (this was dried out and the result was a sticky richness). While the aromas were familiar, the flavours and presentation were beyond imagination.
I appreciated the simplicity of each of the 12-courses. René focuses on the main flavours and he works creatively around each ingredient which he showcases at its best. There is no hint of intensity or boastfulness. An oyster in its shell was topped with a bit of seaweed and herbs, placed on a pot filled with hot sea stones. As the pots reached our tables the aromas made us feel as though we were at the seaside. The onion course included chick weed, an onion bouillon and thyme oil and it left us without the usual harshness of onion aftertaste. Another course included char-grilled white and green asparagus served with thick cream and loads of pine nettles, and I enjoyed the use of cream and yoghurts rather than heavy, classical sauces.
Only in-season fresh vegetables, herbs, spices and wild plants are served, with seasoning coming from beer, fruit juices and fruit vinegars. The combinations were innovative and the blends were healthy, resulting in a feel-good sensation. There wasn’t any heavy sauces, foie gras or truffle featured anywhere on the menu. The main course of delicious creamy veal sweetbreads with peas, grilled garlic and forest shoots was served with a brightgreen, fresh and delicate sauce. A highpoint for me was the beef tartar with sorrel, juniper and tarragon because I have often looked at this recipe in René’s book and I’ve thought how appealing it looked. There was great excitement around cooking our own duck eggs. Rainer seemed particularly put out at having to pay to cook his own food! His comments were all in humour but I remembered he cooked nothing at home! Our waiter, Kim Sander, whispered in my ear: “Sorry Jackie we know it is your day off. Sorry to make you cook.” The staff were extremely approachable, relaxed yet professional. I felt no irritation or antagonism as I asked my many questions.
The word foraging means to look for one’s food and this comes through very clearly in ever plate that is presented. The colour green is predominant with moss, ferns and pines as well as many forest shoots and sprigs forming the main component on all plates. Flavours are uncomplicated and amazing techniques are pulled off in a relaxed atmosphere. Guests almost overlook the incredible pace of the ‘work engine’ because of the peaceful ambience created during this fine-dining experience.
When shown around the kitchen I was pleasantly surprised that, like me, René had a very simple barbeque setup outside his kitchen – except mine is a braai! I was thrilled at the opportunity to see the back of house and meet the entire team. I took many pictures and these will be kept as a source of inspiration on the occasions when I fail to motivate myself…
The meal ended with coffee served in elegant little ceramic cups, with bone marrow toffees and lemon sweetie pies served in oldfashioned, biscuit tins. The touch of old world charm went down well.
This remarkable experience opened my eyes to numerous possibilities. My aim is to focus even more so on local ingredients and to highlight what the land, in my district, has to offer. I have learned to avoid complicated dishes and to work creatively in a subtle way.
And now to get started…
Noma Book Review
René Redzepi |Phaidon Publishers | R499
Noma has been voted the best restaurant in the world for two years running, and this book celebrates not only the restaurant’s cuisine but also that of Denmark and the Scandinavian area as a whole. To understand the area’s cuisine, one must understand that the ingredients that are available to work with come from a region with only 4 months of sunny weather a year and is surrounded by cold seas. The ingredients used aren’t the ones that we commonly use in South Africa. Remarkable ingredients such as apple balsamic vinegar, Zittauer onions, Swedish Prastost and Jackby- the-hedge leaves all pepper the recipes throughout the book.
Not having many of the ingredients meant that I was restricted in my recipe choice, even though the recipes are laid out in a manner that makes them very easy to read, with a step-by-step on each individual section of the dish. A recipe that I did try out was a dish called Steamed Egg White and Birch Wine, Wild Mushrooms. The average consumer probably wouldn’t understand the skill that goes into a dish like this, but the simple explanations made a tricky dish so very simple and easy to cook. Although I had to substitute a few ingredients, I was still able to get the nuances of the dish and it was truly delicious.
This is a cookbook for the very experienced, or those with an enormous amount of confidence, and it does take a few tries to understand the dish and where Chef René is going with it. But the book is more than just the recipes of Noma, it is a book about Scandinavia, its regions, its culture and its food. It is a truly fascinating read and incredibly inspiring – I recommend it to any chef that is feeling stale and uninspired, or who merely wants to look at food differently. Review by Karen Scholtz.