If you asked any chef to name five famous things from Denmark they'd probably struggle to leave Noma off their list. For over the past few years, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant has become almost as famous among culinary circles as Hans Christian Anderson is among their literary counterparts. Largely thanks to chef Rene Redzepi's award-winning Nordic cuisine, Noma has established itself as a destination for food lovers, restaurant critics and chefs alike.
Last month, the chefs from luxury hotel group Exclusive Hotels went to Copenhagen for a bit of culinary inspiration.
"We are exceptionally keen for the creativity and individuality of each chef to shine through," says Danny Pecorelli, managing director of Exclusive Hotels. "And taking trips to well known restaurants such as Noma helps stimulate that."
The day began bright and early, with all chefs (and Caterer) meeting at Gatwick airport at 6.30am. But despite the early start, there were no sleepy eyes or yawns - everyone was wide awake with excitement about the trip.
Once landed in Copenhagen, we caught a short taxi ride to Christianhavn, the home of Noma, where we found one of the most picturesque parts of the Danish capital, comprising a man-made island full of frozen canals and colourful buildings covered in snow.
The restaurant itself is housed in an old warehouse (once a store for whale blubber and sea salt) offering a spacious and austere dining room that seats up to 45 guests. It has sanded floors, exposed brick walls and wooden tables, while the smoked-oak chairs are draped with animal hides.
"The decor has a really nice feel to it," says Matt Gillan, head chef at the Pass restaurant at South Lodge hotel in West Sussex. "The atmosphere was not stuffy at all and while it was all very rustic it was classy at the same time."
Noma - a combination of Nordish (Nordic) and Mad (food) - is a partnership between Danish restaurateur and TV chef Claus Meyer and Redzepi, whose career has included stints at some of the world's finest restaurants, including Thomas Keller's French Laundry in California and Ferran Adrià's El Bulli in Spain.
The menu at Noma is a "personal rendition of Nordic gourmet cuisine" - a mix of costly and everyday ingredients, unusual foraged native foods, and home-made vinegars, beers, spirits and wines. Alongside modern cooking techniques, Redzepi has also revitalised age-old, curative and non-chemical methods of cooking such as smoking, salting, pickling, drying, grilling and baking on slabs of basalt.
In the name of research, we all opted for the seven-course tasting menu paired with matching wines. Things kicked off with a series of five "snacks" or canapés, which included a finger sandwich of rye bread and crispy chicken skin filled with split peas and smoked cheese, followed by a strongly smoked, soft-boiled and mildly pickled quail's egg, served inside a ceramic egg on a bed of hay. But the highlight was a flowerpot of soil containing seedlings in the form of radishes - where the earthy soil turned out to be roasted, ground hazelnuts.
Each dish was served by alternating waiters and chefs sharing the front-of-house duties and allowing for a real glimpse into the food preparation, which was hugely appreciated by the Exclusive Hotels chefs.
"The theatre and interaction were all very impressive," enthuses Andy MacKenzie, executive chef at Lainston House in Winchester, Hampshire. "With each course came a clear explanation of the food on our plate, detailing its provenance and seasonality and there was a huge amount of passion shining through from everyone involved."
This was echoed by Lewis Hamblet, executive head chef at South Lodge, who says: "I loved the fact that the chefs were acting as hosts. As an establishment Noma clearly invests a lot of time in training its staff and the service flowed seamlessly."
The tasting menu started with a salad of topaz apple, marjoram and hazelnuts, a beautifully presented dish featuring an array of carefully cut out tiny apple discs. This was followed by a dish more ardent Caterer readers will be familiar with: razor clam and parsley with horseradish snow and dill ramsons - which Redzepi prepared at Caterer's Chef Conference back in 2008. He makes the dish by creating a parsley gel in which he rolls the clams, while the "snow" is a mixture of frozen buttermilk and horseradish made in a Pacojet and grated over the dish, which is then served with a sauce made from the razor clams' fresh juices.
Michael Wignall, head chef of the Michelin-starred Latymer at Pennyhill Park in Bagshot, Surrey, calls the dish "sublime". "A definite highlight," he says.
Next up was another favourite among the chefs: salsify and truffle from Gotland served with milk skin and rapeseed oil - a delicate dish of poached and sautéed salsify served with truffle purée and the skin made from milk, cream and protein.
All dishes were matched perfectly with wines, some of which were as unusual as the ingredients they were paired with.
"A highlight was the Saumur-Champigny Clos Rougeard from the Loire paired with pickled vegetables and bone marrow, herbs and bouillon," says Pecorelli. "Matching the vinegar in the pickled vegetables was skilfully done."
There were bucolic touches throughout the meal that underlined Noma's rustic sophistication including hunting knives brought to accompany a crispy pork tail dish (the only meat dish on the menu) teamed with pickled flowers, winter cabbage and capers of ramson onion. Then there was a dessert of carrots, buttermilk and anis, which presented the chefs with their first encounter of carrots used as the dominant flavour in a pudding.
"The food was a lot simpler than I thought it was going to be, with an emphasis on locally sourced produce, and prepared using local traditions," sums up Gillan. "I like things like that where the chef doesn't feel the need to do the same as everybody else."
The day in Copenhagen was a cold one and the menu at Noma may not have warmed the chefs in the way a cosy pub lunch may have done. But then again Noma is no ordinary restaurant and Redzepi's menu isn't trying to be comforting. Noma is an exciting restaurant full of creativity, love and passion for seasonal, regional food and local traditions.
Pecorelli concludes: "It's not often I can get such a talented bunch of chefs to be quiet, but each time a dish arrived an unnerving calm came over them as they analysed their plates."
Strandgade 93, North Atlantic House Cultural Centre, Copenhagen 1401, Denmark
Tel: 00 45 3296 3297
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