If you’re in a restaurant somewhere in the world eating foraged local ingredients off of an earthenware plate, you’re doing so because of Noma. The most influential restaurant of its generation created a new style of fine dining, where foraging became the restaurant’s indelible feature. Over time, fermentation became just as important to Noma as gathering spruce tips from the forest. René Redzepi’s commitment to using Nordic ingredients at a restaurant open year-round in Scandinavia meant the cupboard could end up quite bare during the long winters. So Noma had to find ways to preserve what they’d gathered and expand the ingredients they had at their disposal. “Fermentation became our bloodline at the restaurant,” Redzepi tells Robb Report.
From the old Noma that catapulted to the top of the World’s 50 Best list, to the new Noma that opened earlier this year, the exploration of fermenting foods has remained integral to what the restaurant does. So much so that Redzepi and the head of Noma’s fermentation lab, David Zilber, have teamed up to write a book that explores vinegar, miso, kombucha, and more.
But beyond the nuts and bolts of their techniques, understanding what fermentation means to Noma gives you a glimpse into Redzepi’s mind. He’s someone who upended countless traditions in fine dining—from taking away the tablecloths to eschewing luxury ingredients like lobster—but did so using centuries-old methods. He wanted to strip away everything he thought didn’t matter but keep the traditions—like fermentation—that did. Because to him, anyone can scoop caviar onto a blini, but not everyone can use all their skills as a chef to create a dining experience that can express a time and place through flavors. Noma conveys what Redzepi believes has inherent value, not just what has a high price tag.
We sat down with Redzepi and Zilber to talk about The Noma Guide to Fermentation, the constant need to surprise, and how they don’t view caviar in the same way other chefs do.
Why do a book on fermenting instead of a more traditional cookbook?
RR: We had to make a book that people can actually use, as opposed to the other two books that we did, which are good books to look at if you’re interested in restaurants or a cook who wants to be inspired. But we wanted to do something that was truly helpful for the adventurous home cook, and also for chefs. At the same time, it needs to be something that was Noma. We had to share something that was truly us. The story of fermentation with us is long and important—it has been more than a decade old. Fermentation has become our bloodline at the restaurant.
You guys get deep into fermentation from history to process—like down to the microbial level.
DZ: I learned a lot about the history of fermentation because I wanted to frame it for people, so that they could understand where these processes come from before they understood why we do them at the restaurant. Kind of every chapter starts off with a brief, “Oh, why does this thing exist? Where did it come from?”
There was some real nerding-out.
RR: You have no idea how much got taken out. It was much, much, much, much more technical.
DZ: I was going for it.
RR: I was like, whoa. He was going full-on. I said, “Dave, I appreciate this. We love this. It’s great to learn, but why scare people away? First, let’s get them in. Let’s get them excited. This will challenge everyone that reads this book.”
You show a lot of variations on fermentation, but why should someone use one method over another?
DZ: Once you understand what’s at your disposal, you have a lot of shades to paint with. The subtitle of the book is Foundations of Flavor. Understanding what bacteria makes what acid will allow you to play around and do really interesting things.
RR: Throughout the history of Noma, we get this question a lot. Someone will say “Your dessert tastes like cilantro. But why don’t you just order cilantro instead of going into the wilderness and taking something?” The same thing goes with acidity. Why do we need to lactic ferment things when I can kind of get a similar thing, but only kind of. Only kind of. It’s like you want to build a Lego house, and you need that piece that has a rounded corner, but you only have square blocks. This is you having more Legos in your basket. You have rounded corners. If you enjoy cooking, that’s what you need.
That precision when it comes to flavor is what you’ve long pursued at Noma.
RR: Absolutely. But a good stock of fermented ingredients makes cooking at home better. Imagine you’re sautéing these greens up, and you want to have something that just builds a bridge between each ingredient and lifts everything. And then you have 100 different things to choose from. These 100 things, you know very, very well. Over time you understand what does that to this dish, you know? A dash and it’s like poof, and then suddenly your guests are sitting like we are right now, and like, whoa, they’re feeling happy. We have three kids at home, it doesn’t happen often, but we cook something the kids completely love and everybody turns quiet for seven or eight minutes. That’s a special moment.
DZ: Good food kills conversation. It does.
How are you deploying these ferments at Noma to build dishes? Because there’s a fermentation lab and a test kitchen apart from the service kitchen.
DZ: To add onto René’s point about having that 100 things, at the beginning of each season I bring over to the test kitchen new things we’ve developed so they can reach for it as they create. In the test kitchen you see 100 different little tubs of pastes and liquids. I joke and call it a “Flavor Piano.”
RR: Flavor piano? We should have called the book that, man.
DZ: The next one.
RR: There’d be a picture of you sitting at a piano.
DZ: In a tuxedo.
Why put this much time and energy into having a lab just dedicated to fermentation?
DZ: At Noma you push yourself and help push others along the way. Like last season when the test kitchen wanted to capture the flavor of beeswax in a broth. They were having trouble getting their broth strong enough. So I talked it over with my team and we have the most potent beeswax flavor you could imagine.
RR: It’s so difficult to explain what beeswax tastes like. And that’s true of a lot of the things we do. Part of Noma is that we have to surprise. That’s where the extra added thing is, when you surprise people.
Is it becoming increasingly difficult to surprise people?
RR: Of course.
My favorite band growing up was Radiohead. I loved everything they did, but at some point, their need for innovation caused them to be so different and abstract at times that they lost the emotional resonance they had. Can you prevent that from happening?
RR: I don’t think you can. It’s the story of every single success out there.
DZ: But I think the food is more delicious than it has ever been.
RR: I mean, we’re not there yet, but when that starts happening somebody close to you will say, “Stop.”
Was opening the new Noma a way to keep that eventuality at bay?
RR: Yes. Break free of routine and look at your way of doing things again and with a different set of eyes. I don’t think we could have done what we do now at the old place. Even though the seasonality approach is different. I think we would just put the old dishes into a new type of format. With this here, we’re forcing ourselves to be different, while still being who we are. It’s hard to explain exactly how that works, but I can feel that it’s working.
The new location has helped creatively?
I can feel that it’s different to before. I can feel we’ve stepped it up. We’re seeing fresh opportunity within the same world that we were in, and for us to do that, we had to close for a while, almost a year. We had to go on all these journeys around the world, we had to move to a new location, we had to think of seasonality in a different way. And all of that combined is now the new Noma, and I really feel that we’re starting again, we’re searching again. Obviously, it’s not the same.
It can never be the same as when you first open, because when you first open you’re free. We opened, luckily, in a time before social media, when I was 25 years old. You could fool around. There’s not that many hires. And then when people start coming in, it was just the biggest surprise, and to everyone. You know what I mean? It’s like, “Oh I heard of this place. Let’s go in there.” Like, “Wow, there are no tablecloths.”
That was big deal back in the day to be at the fine-dining level without tablecloths.
You talk about it today to people who have been in the industry for like seven, eight, nine years, they’re like, “What the f*ck you talking about? How can that be innovation?” But it was. We had that problem when we first opened. People would leave. They thought this is a bistro. We want a big night out, and so on. But back then it surprised people so much, the whole setting and formula. This idea that chefs are serving the food. That was like, “The chefs are serving?” Today it doesn’t make sense to talk about that either because it’s becoming more normal amongst restaurants, right? That you see the chef in the restaurant serving.
The notion of what is luxury was changing—going back to when you worked at El Bulli.
RR: Ferran [Adrià] left a mark that’s going to stay in kitchens forever, and that can be difficult to grasp because everyone is going to think about jellies and foams. But what it was really about was thinking.
DZ: It’s about curiosity.
RR: Yeah. Looking at things differently is the biggest thing El Bulli left for us at Noma.
Because many people think luxury in restaurants is just putting a big scoop of caviar on something.
RR: But see, anybody can get caviar. It’s going to sound weird, but it’s only money. Luxury is about experiences that are unique and caviar isn’t unique. You can get caviar at every single airport in the world. Caviar is airport food now.
What is luxury then?
RR: Try to get that one mushroom that’s in season for three weeks of the year that only two foragers in Denmark can get. That’s going to cost much, much less than caviar, but it’s so much more incredibly luxurious. People don’t see it because they always look toward money—that’s what’s supposed to make something special, right?
DZ: It’s not about dollar value. It’s about the rarity or specialness of a thing that makes it luxurious.
RR: Of course, you also have to be able to see the specialness of it. But the way people are guided toward what’s special is…
The price of it.
RR: Yes, the price of it. Then it’s special. We’ve heard that through the years. “Where’s the luxury?” People will ask sometimes. There’s no lobster, there’s no caviar, so I hear that question. Because people have a set idea of what should be there. But you know, then you have three foragers hired and they spend 12 hours to get two kilos of wild raspberries. You know what I mean? And that’s for one service, so each of these berries, it’s like a dollop of caviar in silk. It’s just raspberries, but they’re out there finding this one. No, not that one, this one. The ones that are best right now, and we put it on a plate. That’s luxury.