PRINT February 2022



noma, Copenhagen, Fall 2020. Photo: Ditte Isager.

Awarded three Michelin stars and crowned World’s Best Restaurant 2021, noma is no mere notch on the belt for the destination diner. Founders René Redzepi and Claus Meyer are credited as two of the leading forces in New Nordic cuisine, an informal but influential movement that champions ethics of care, sustainability, and self-sufficiency. BRUCE HAINLEY and CHRISTINE PICHINI converse about their revelatory experience at noma on a wintry afternoon, having been served not only an exquisite meal, but also plentiful food for thought.

BRUCE HAINLEY: We flew to Copenhagen for lunch. Three friends flew in early December for a 12:30 reservation for Saturday lunch at noma, and we found it to be not what we expected—to be better than we expected—and difficult to come up with equivalences for. Not a soccer team, not a corps de ballet, nothing remotely corporate, yet there was an ethos of nimble communality. Some terms: care, conviviality, exuberance.

CHRISTINE PICHINI: The incandescent flush that comes with creating something gorgeous, extraordinary, ingenious. With sharing it with others. At first, I thought of the collaborative performances created under a master such as Mike Leigh, where the script is a collective, exploratory project, a kind of foraging for native flora and fauna of an emotional or historical stripe. But maybe it would be better to think in terms of the mushroom. Let’s tap into noma’s mycelium.

BH: On Star Trek: Discovery, the ship has a spore drive that allows it to utilize the mycelium to jump instantaneously to any point in the universe. I think we tasted things that activated such explosive transport. This new Mike Leigh joint, noma: It would be a study of youthfulness, Happy-Go-Lucky adjacent. As all the beauties in the kitchen greeted our arrival or placed a duet of the next complementary dishes down and gently enthused about their ingredients, they seemed readied to make a better world than the one they inherited. How would you describe the cared-for-ness of the experience, from the greeting at the entrance off the street—at Refshalevej 96 on Refshaleøen, an island just south of city center, once home to shipyards—to the stroll back to the dining room along ice-capped gardens, to the experience of sitting, gleefully, for our meal?

Reindeer-brain custard with kelp. From the “Game and Forest Season” menu, noma, Copenhagen, 2021. Photo: Ditte Isager.

CP: Well, the greeting we received as we entered the restaurant itself just about brought the three of us to tears. A voice from the kitchen announced our arrival, and all of a sudden absolutely everyone hard at work on plates—the worktables were in plain sight, between the front door and the dining room, not hidden away—stopped what they were doing, came forward, and formed a line to welcome us as we walked past. Even before we were presented with a single morsel of food, we were flooded with a sense of genuine care. Avital Ronell, glossing Hölderin and Heidegger, casts the greeting as a sacred thing, part of the “infinite belonging of gods, mortals, earth, and sky.” That sense of belonging, of attunement, of things “revealed to their own splendor,” was present from the very first moment.

BH: Not having to choose what we would eat, not knowing what would arrive before us next, also became part of the attentiveness, the holding, that allowed us very quickly to trust that whatever it might be—from reindeer-brain custard cradled in the animal’s skull to the grilled-wild-boar speck and chestnut paste—the food would not merely satisfy but expand one’s understanding of the five tastes. The ubiquitous word-concept of umami barely begins to gloss what was going on in that zone of buccal perception. I feel that I should jump back a bit: It took eight years to secure this reservation for “Game and Forest Season,” one of noma’s three seasonal menus; the restaurant opens bookings only three times per year. The meal is expensive but much less than Springsteen on Broadway, courtside seats at a Knicks game, or Martiniano loafers. “Tasting menu” doesn’t transmit the sprezzatura of Redzepi’s style. Seventeen . . . offerings? No word quite hits it. Dishes seems too convoluted; courses, paradoxically, too filling, restrictive; bites too modish and stingy; inventions too scientistic; creations too arty. All guests are given the choice of a wine or juice pairing, and all three of us opted for juice, which was its own variegated adventure—in fermentation, in genres of “lemonade,” in teaness, in libation. The meal progressed over four hours, time out of mind. Would you help me parse how utterly precise and yet unfussy and unpretentious the entire vibe was, from uniforms to dish presentation?

The incandescent flush that comes with creating something gorgeous, extraordinary, ingenious. With sharing it with others. —Christine Pichini

CP: I was so into the uniforms. They looked like the garb of a utopian commune: egalitarian, utilitarian, and yet low-key chic, in a rich, jewel-toned navy blue. The skirts were there to serve. Modest and practical but not too prim. Simply pleated, orderly, efficient, allowing for range of motion and freedom of movement.

The place setting was radically, cosmically simple: a plate—a lunar disk—made of hammered metal, light-years away from a gold-rimmed china charger, and no silverware, obliterating the codes of conduct of fine dining. No worries about which fork to use! The plate acted as a foundation for each course, often served in a small basket that resembled a bird’s nest. Some arrived with a tailor-made utensil, usually slightly miniature and made of tortoiseshell, maybe bone—

BH: —buffed antler, too, and some lacquered spoons of lightweight wood—

CP: —but many courses consisted of a single mouthful of food that we picked up and ate with our hands. Doing so felt integrated, grounding, playful. Every signal we received was entirely free of ostentation, granting us permission to sink in and enjoy the full-throated vitality of the experience. Was there one mouthful in particular that felt for you as if the top of your head had been taken clean off? 

BH: Two things leap to mind: one an actual single mouthful, the other a few more bites or scrapings. There was an “oregano sandwich”—“Rethink sandwich” must have been a note Redzepi made to himself long ago—consisting of two leaves of Mexican oregano holding mushroom and truffle. The abaxis of each soft green leaf faced out; the sandwich rested on a small beach rock, as if to suggest moss. The herbal middle notes of oregano cushioned the elsewhere frequently overwhelming and monotone funk of black truffle, here instead lured to brighter chords of sensation. Luncheon began with an immaculate reindeer skull presented on a wooden base. The server said only to explore it, and that the dish was a custard made with reindeer brain and sea kelp. It was chilled, as many of the dishes were. I first thought the skull might be meringue.

CP: I thought it might be bread! That the rivulets and crests of the bone were just part of a slightly baked crust. 

Mexican oregano sandwich with truffle. From the “Game and Forest Season” menu, noma, Copenhagen, 2021. Photo: Ditte Isager.

BH: No such trompe l’oeil gimmicks reigned. We had to turn the skull completely over to find the custard nestled within, defying gravity. The butteriness of it appeared under an aspic, caramel-colored and briny—the combination conveying a resonant beholdenness to the littoral, evoking Danish coastal woods, winter sea air. With a small spoon made of bone, we scraped the skull’s interior to scoop up this marvelous schmear. There were small bits of kelp floating in the aspic, and the entire dish was relished in perhaps three or so atomic bites. In this initial mouthful, a recognition of death, that a grand beast had died, in the midst of, as constitutive of, bounty, pleasure, life. Did you, could you, pick a single favorite?

CP: No, there were too many beauties to single out just one. But I do keep thinking about the third and final dessert, partner to the curtain-raiser you describe. A reindeer-marrow caramel laced with white chocolate, its top encrusted with dried crimson-colored berries the size of peppercorns, filled the interior of a slender bone cut lengthwise in half, about four or five inches long. The caramel, like the bone, was luminescent white and viscous, nectarous, could be pulled almost like taffy. For the first and last courses, we had to turn over bones to reveal their interiors, discoveries that felt electromagnetic, enchanted. As if a spell had been cast over the contents to distill original matter into essence, to marry it to other potencies, and then return it to its spirit house for us to find.

Just imagine the alchemical labors going on in that test kitchen! It felt significant that we could catch a glimpse of both it and a small greenhouse as we walked down the path to the restaurant. 

BH: We didn’t see apiaries, but given the bee pollen and honey we ate, they must be somewhere. I took notes on as much as I could, though I hated having my phone out at all. We saw no food selfies being taken, huzzah! About the second of the three desserts, I jotted this down: “Saffron ice cream with crumbled(?) Mexican chocolate at base and poppy-seed ink (crema?) on top. Served in frozen beeswax mushroom-cap-like cup.” Several specifics on this menu seem to have coalesced from the noma team’s time in Mexico in 2017.

I don’t know if I’ve ever eaten a meal that felt so thoughtful and deeply, musically considered, without any conceptual brouhaha, without arch moves. I learned something about, for example, saffron and saffron-ness. It strangely all reminds me of “Cézanne Drawing” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which I saw with you last year, in terms of its expression, without words, of a cogent worldview, of presentness and yet futurity.

Meditation is a daily part of the goings-on at noma, and I wondered if you had any gloss on that practice in terms of the meal.

The abaxis of each soft green leaf faced out; the sandwich rested on a small beach rock, as if to suggest moss. —Bruce Hainley

CP: I didn’t know that, but it makes so much sense! There’s definitely some very intense listening at every stage of the process, from the kitchen to the table, which seems fundamental to the inventiveness and ethics of the place. We remarked on how, thankfully, there was no music in the dining room. And both noma’s unpretentious vibe and the intense beauty of those atomic mouthfuls are totally based in a spirit of wanting to share the prolific space of full-spectrum awareness that meditation practice affords. There’s a term in Sanskrit, sakshi bhava, which, very loosely translated, means a state of witness-consciousness, of being tuned in to what’s going on around you at every level, without ego identification. I think there’s a lot of that going on at noma—a deep resonance with the symbiotic potentialities of flavors and colors and scents, all the nourishing energies around us—that captures its harmonics. Crisp, clean harmonies were especially audible in the juices.

BH: A list of the juices from the one-sheet menu given to each of us as we left, with some notes:

quince/bee pollen; seaweed lemonade (native to Iceland and the northwest coast of Denmark, this particular seaweed had citrus brightness); mushroom/ancho (a kombucha of chanterelles and Ancho chile); plum/angelica (made in part from leftover plum skins); rooibos/hojicha (the single “juice” served hot); sloeberry (one of our helpful waiters said that this was the “red wine of the juice course”); cloudberry/plum kernel (like a dessert wine, but lighter, fresher).

While I’m certain the wine pairing would have been dazzling—people all around us smiled at every new bottle brought to their table—I would recommend opting for the juices instead. Where else are you going to drink such mind-bending potions?

I don’t want to forget that at the end, after coffee and tea, we were asked if we might like a cognac or schnapps. The waiter picked three schnapps from the cellar—quince, William pear, and rowanberry—and put them on the table. I don’t know if any of us had ever had schnapps—I hadn’t—but the rowanberry shot gave new life to the idea of eau-de-vie, now my new favorite way to get lifted.

CP: Talk about uplift! And the schnapps bearer was quite charming. He closed out the final act of a performance given by a charismatic, naturally friendly team; instead of having one member of the staff assigned to our table for the duration, many courses were presented by a new, fresh face. Somehow, that contributed to a sense of openness, of synergy. And their choreography was impeccable. It was focused yet free, never upstaging the meal but amplifying the dynamic thrill of being in that room. 

Dessert of saffron ice cream with poppyseed sauce and Mexican chocolate. From the “Game and Forest Season” menu, noma, Copenhagen, 2021. Photo: Ditte Isager.

BH: We went to noma’s delightfully low-tech, just-the-facts website to see whether the restaurant was hiring. These sentences about what it searches for in its front-of-house staff articulate so much of what was on display:

We place a huge emphasis on togetherness; one of the main foundations of our team culture. You should hold enough confidence to help every person around you. You strive to make your teammates better than you—you ensure that newcomers do not fall into the mistakes that you have made.

There was such pride in each member of the troupe. I just flashed on the woman who served us the pumpkin rolled in cabbage with koji butter, and how she couldn’t help telling us, “This for me is the most beautiful dish. An explosion in your mouth.”

CP: Redzepi points to that ardor in his book A Work in Progress: A Journal while describing his, and noma’s, creative trajectory. It’s simultaneously a statement of purpose, a methodology for making art, and a primer for how to live marvelously:

You start noticing the weather, the ever-changing natural rhythms. You learn to deal with the bounty of nature as it is, discarding preconceptions. You learn to give your diners the gifts of nature, as gems you pass on, rather than creations you have made. This is an important distinction, to share enthusiasm rather than show off . . . A new curiosity, a new sense of exploration, a new appetite for the world.

I’m hoping that in 2022, we will all reinvent our collective menu with noma’s cooperative ingenuity. 

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Christine Pichini is an artist and translator. She is currently at work on Serge Daney’s The Cinema House and the World, forthcoming from Semiotext(e).