‘We need 140 live shrimp now!’: the inside story of Noma Japan

March 3, 2015

René Redzepi uprooted his award-winning restaurant from Copenhagen to Tokyo for a month. ‘There’s a huge chance of failure,’ said the chef as OFM joined him behind the scenes before the big opening

The kitchen was two courses into its trial run when something began to go terribly wrong. Made from several varieties of local fruit set in a pool of kelp oil and dotted with tiny rounds of sancho pepper, the citrus dish’s bright juiciness and deep savouriness were delicious enough to encourage bowl-licking. But you can’t lick a bowl you don’t receive. Meant to contain 11 perfectly rounded segments of fruit, freed from their bitter membranes and carefully trimmed so as to remain upright, each portion had to be made à la minute, which is to say in the tragically short interval between when the live shrimp for the first course were relieved of their shells and the shavings of frozen monkfish liver for the third were placed onto their rectangles of sourdough toast. In the rush, some citrus pieces emerged with edges less seductively curved than others – a flaw perceptible only to the increasingly agitated chef, who sent dish after imperfect dish back to be remade. Out in the dining room, the restaurant’s front of house staff – the beneficiaries of that night’s practice dinner – waited with polite restlessness as the dish failed to appear. Sommelier Mads Kleppe gazed balefully at the empty place setting in front of him. “If this were any place but Noma,” he sighed, “I’d be worried.”

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With two days to go before they opened at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Tokyo on 9 January, the staff of Noma had no shortage of things to worry about. There was the entirely new menu made from ingredients most of the staff had never seen before, let alone cooked with. There were products that appeared one day, only to become unavailable two days later. There was the formal dining room, complete with ornate moldings and a mirror-trimmed pass, that had to be transformed into something more suitably Nordic. There was the jetlagged staff putting in 20-hour days, and the reservation requests that came by the tens of thousands, and the kind of extreme pressure that only legions of clamouring journalists, bloggers and photographers can engender. But mostly there was the simple fact of it: the restaurant considered by many to be the best in the world had temporarily uprooted its staff from home in Copenhagen to a place literally and figuratively a world away. And no one – not even René Redzepi, the chef whose wildly ambitious dream this was – knew if they could pull it off.

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