René Redzepi | In the land of the rising sun

10 Aug 2015
4 min read
Inside Noma, at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo, Melinda Joe gets an exclusive insight into ‘The World’s Best Restaurant’s’ eastern adventure. Written exclusively for FOUR Magazine Asia.
A Culinary Exchange

It’s a clear winter morning in Tokyo, and René Redzepi is working on a new dish. “Let’s figure out a way to slice the tomatoes thinner,” he said, popping the discarded edges of the fruit into his mouth.

Although the individual elements -a richly marbled slab of cured tuna belly, a vinaigrette of nori seaweed and wild berries, and tomatoes from a boutique producer -are perfect on their own, there’s something amiss in the combination. Redzepi is enamored of the tomatoes, which he recently discovered in Kochi Prefecture. Intensely sweet and ridiculously umami-dense, they’re the taste equivalent to seeing in Technicolor, but the flavor is too dominant. He wants to debut the dish this week, so he instructs his head chefs to think of possible solutions before the next meeting, tomorrow. Moments later, as the first guests begin to file in for lunch, Redzepi spins around and welcomes them to Noma at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo.

More than halfway into Noma’s five-week residency at the hotel, which started on January 9, Redzepi and his crew seem very much at home. Perhaps it’s because the kitchen team had made seven trips to Japan prior to the launch, or because the entire Noma staff and their families — 77 people in total — have relocated en masse for the event. It’s a bold move for the restaurant, which shut down operations in Copenhagen for two months, one that has been rife with challenges but also rich with rewards. Within days of accepting applications for reservations, the booking system was inundated with over 50,000 requests. Even after extending their stay until February 14 (two weeks longer than originally intended), the waiting list for Noma at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo is 60,000 people long. Accolades have been effusive, and Warner Brothers has even signed on to produce a documentary about the project.

The chef is pleased with the success but hasn’t let it get to his head. “Being here is so humbling,” he told me. “What we try to do every day at the restaurant has been happening here for centuries.”

Redzepi turned 37 in December, but his hair still has the same boyish flip that it did when I first met him in 2010. When he speaks, his hazel eyes flash with the same indefatigable curiosity that has made him one of the most innovative chefs of our generation. Raising three children has made him more pragmatic, although you wouldn’t necessarily guess it based on his decision to temporarily transplant his restaurant to the Japanese capital. “We started doing this without realizing how difficult it would be,” he confessed.

Anthony Costa, the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo’s general manager, echoes the sentiment. “If we’d overthought it, we might not have done it,” he reflected, raising his eyebrows and exhaling sharply at the memory of arranging 60 work visas for the international crew and dealing with the dozens of small Japanese producers who supply Noma Japan with ingredients. “But it’s been such motivation for our team, inspiring the staff and stretching their minds.”

For Redzepi, learning was the primary aim of the project. Beginning last year, Noma’s chefs immersed themselves in Japanese food culture, traveling up and down the country to seek out ingredients, meeting with several producers, and commissioning local artisans to create original tableware for the venture. Some of the Danish chef’s discoveries shocked even the Japanese who accompanied him on his foraging trips. “It seems there are still a lot of things in the wilderness that are not used,” he told me, before describing the cherry wood oil that he’d extracted from trees in Aomori Prefecture. The oil is added to a dish of steamed kabocha pumpkin and caviar served in an emulsion of butter and koji (rice inoculated with the mould Aspergillus oryzae that is used to make soy sauce and miso), garnished with dried kelp and salted cherry blossoms. Equally surprising are the citrusy ants, which are gathered in the forests of Nagano Prefecture and then sprinkled on top of creamy jumbo prawns that arrive at the table still kicking.

One of René Redzepi’s gifts as a chef is his ability to imagine possibilities. Noma at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo presents Japanese ingredients in completely new ways, an approach that taps into different dimensions of deliciousness. A diminutive slice of pie, for example, is filled with a pesto of sarunashi (wild kiwi), beneath neat rows of shijimi (freshwater clams), each the size of a fingernail. Typically, shijimi are boiled and eaten in miso soup, but Redzepi has decided to treat them “like tiny oysters” and serve them raw. Shucking the clams requires a team of 13 chefs and over two hours, but everyone agrees that it’s worth it. “It’s almost musical in the way that it starts off softly and then builds up to a blast of umami,” he said. In another dish, raw strands of cuttlefish–cut to resemble soba noodles and brushed with a paste of fermented squid–accompany a cold dipping sauce of dashi (broth) infused with pine needles and rose petals. The combined effect of the fermented seafood sauce and the fragrant broth recalls the way musk adds a note of sensual complexity to the aroma of roses.

Much like the title of Redzepi’s latest book, A Work in Progress­, the project is constantly developing. The menu continues to evolve as Noma’s tenure nears its end and the chefs experiment with exotic ingredients like fugu no shirako (blowfish milt) and turtle (in addition to the psychedelically sweet Japanese tomatoes). “We’re starting to use yuba (tofu skin), too,” Redzepi added. When I asked him how they would prepare it, he answered with a shrug, “We have no idea yet.”

It hasn’t been easy, but Redzepi says that he would consider doing another residency (perhaps in another part of Asia or South America) despite the difficulties. The experience of working and living together has brought the staff closer, both professionally and privately. “We’ve evolved into a more confident, homogeneous team, where we enjoy each other’s company,” he told me. Above all, it’s given them a renewed energy and enthusiasm: “All this richness is unfolding before my eyes. It makes me want to go home and dedicate even more to what we’re doing, and it’s working for everyone.”