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A little bit of Noma in their lives

As Noma 2.0 opens in Copenhagen, we look at three chefs whose food philos-ophy was shaped at this famed restaurant

Jonathan Tam (from left), Daniel Burns and Prateek Sadhu at Mumbai’s Crawford Market.
Jonathan Tam (from left), Daniel Burns and Prateek Sadhu at Mumbai’s Crawford Market.

Somewhere in the back room of every Scandinavian kitchen, there exists a document called the Manifesto for New Nordic Cuisine. This is a manual for those who are practitioners and participants in this cuisine, one designed by leading chefs, food writers and food professionals from the region. Significant tenets laid out in it are the development of a cuisine which expresses the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics associated with the region. It is about creating food which reflects the changes in seasons and bases the cooking on ingredients whose characteristics flourish in the Nordic climates, landscapes and waters. The practice of this cuisine also supports local producers and promotes animal welfare, while enabling sustainable production across the seas, farms and the wild.

In a nutshell, this captured the underlying philosophy behind every plate that left the kitchen at Noma, a restaurant that was Copenhagen’s undisputed tastemaker. Founders René Redzepi and Claus Meyer Nielsen (who has since left the restaurant), were among the chief architects of this manifesto. Their restaurant, apart from winning Michelin stars aplenty and finding a place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list year after year, also put Denmark on the global fine-dining map. Noma, whose name is a portmanteau of “Nordic" and “mad", shut in 2017, only to reopen in a new avatar, Noma 2.0, on 15 February.

Noma’s website has already announced that the opening menu will be crafted around the Scandinavian seafood season, which is at its best in winter. Food lovers across the world are waiting to experience the newest secrets from its kitchen lab. Noma was, after all, the restaurant that introduced the world to ingredients like monkfish liver, cloudberries, edible moss, sea lettuce and the now-ubiquitous sea buckthorn.

Kashmiri turnips on a fennel biscuit with mustard and pea shoots at Masque.

But Noma’s legacy goes beyond this—it changed how a generation of chefs across the world looked at food. Young and enthusiastic cooks arrived from around the world to intern at Noma and train under masterchef Redzepi. And whether it was a few weeks or a few years, what each alumnus took away was a lingering respect for all manner of ingredients.

It is this love for indigenous berries, flowers, leaves and assorted fungi and a deep understanding of the importance of the provenance of ingredients that resulted in a collaboration between three ex-Noma chefs at a special six hands dinner at Masque, a Mumbai-based experiential fine dining restaurant, in January. Daniel Burns, Prateek Sadhu and Jonathan Tam crafted a 10-course dégustation menu that melded each chef’s signature style and philosophy with seasonal produce from across India, with a special focus on ingredients from the Himalayan region.

For each of these chefs, Noma presented a turning point in their lives. “Noma taught me many things but I think the biggest influence it had on me was in regard to showcasing the produce of a region, rather than importing fancy ingredients from abroad. This allowed us to form a community, supporting local farmers and artisans, and, most importantly, created an opportunity for creativity, and this is something that stayed with me," says Jonathan Tam, head chef at Copenhagen’s Relæ. Started by another Noma alumnus, Christian F. Puglisi, this is regarded as the world’s most sustainable restaurant. Working specifically with New Nordic Cuisine, Tam’s biggest inspiration comes from Puglisi’s “Farm of Ideas". Each morning, Tam sends his chefs to this organic farm to source fresh produce for that evening’s meal.

For Burns, on the other hand, Noma influenced how he “thought about food—where it came from, its seasonality, as well as the ability to utilize ordinary products with new techniques". He applies this to the way he treats savoury dishes, as well as desserts. In fact, one of the big hits at Noma, Blueberries Surrounded By Their Natural Environment, was a dessert which he developed using blueberry, spruce and thyme. His acclaimed restaurant Luksus in New York (which shuttered in 2016) combined unusual ingredients with imaginative techniques; so does his newest venture, an ice-cream place called Burns Gelato. Burns has always had a passion for ice cream, and his gelatos come in imaginative flavours like burnt wood, river, pea and pine.

Winter vegetables at Noma 2.0.

Sadhu, who had a three-month stint at Noma, describes his time there as a “game-changer". “I landed in Copenhagen in 2010 in the middle of a harsh and freezing winter. The Noma kitchen was a high-energy space with over 50 people and it was very different from anything I had ever seen," he says. Prior to this, Sadhu had worked as an assistant executive sous chef at The Pierre in New York, yet at Noma he was back in the prep area. His first kitchen task was peeling kilos of dandelions. Around him, people were shelling walnuts, extracting oils from flowers, creating rich stocks. Away from the service kitchen, he had little idea of how the ingredients were actually transforming into actual plates of food. He went on a foraging trip with one of the chefs, and this gave him great insight into how the processes in Noma worked.

At Noma’s R&D kitchen, he saw chefs experimenting with the forms of different ingredients and learnt the different ways of extracting maximum flavours from them. “What I took with me from Noma was not the techniques or recipes; rather, it was the idea of Noma. Prior to 2003 (when Noma opened), most people knew nothing about Danish food and Redzepi single-handedly transformed Copenhagen into the culinary capital of the world. He harnessed the seasons, the terroir and the produce and put Nordic food on the world map," says Sadhu. It changed the way Sadhu himself approached food and led him to quit lucrative cooking assignments in the US to return to India and start a restaurant that would put Indian ingredients on the global map.

An essential part of the dining experience at Masque is an interaction with guests to help them understand the provenance of the ingredients on their plate. Sadhu’s most recent trip has been to Kashmir and Ladakh and his excitement over his acquisitions is quite infectious. He shows off the stars of his larder. These often channel his Kashmiri roots, from winter staples like dehydrated bottle gourd, tomato and eggplant to rich brown morels, nadru (lotus stem), haak and the seasonal black carrots. He works with local farmers in Kashmir, Uttarakhand and the Himalayan belt to source ingredients.

Noma was an incubator of sorts for Burns, Tam and Sadhu—three chefs from different parts of the world with very different cooking styles. On the night they cooked together in Mumbai, their ideas melded together into dishes which sounded like a sum of their ingredients—aged potato, Kashmiri morels and almond; squid, coconut and cilantro; sea buckthorn and carrot; sweet potato, beetroot and oats—but instead it was a marriage of textures and flavours. The naming of each dish was indicative of how they approached food—with imagination, drama, and, above all, a respect for the humblest of ingredients.

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