Cultural Currency and the World's Best Restaurant: NOMA Copenhagen
Last May I made a pilgrimage to the Odin Teatret in Holstebro, Denmark, a mecca for experimental and physical theater, helmed by one of the world’s great directors, Eugenio Barba. To start my journey, I would spend a few days getting the lay of the land in the Danish capital, make a quick detour to Berlin to visit my primo hermano, and then travel eight hours by train to the sleepy fjord town of Holstebro. I was happy to be traveling by myself, but also happy to be introduced to a lovely Texas chick. I didn’t know her, but I knew she was from Texas and living in Denmark, so I thought a bottle of good 'ol Texas heat by way of Stubbs BBQ a befitting gift. Sometimes a simple gesture like that can go a long way. I think she was in need of some warmth, and some kindness from a stranger, as she was going through a tough time in her life. In any case we hit it off, and spent an afternoon into evening shopping Danish sample sales, visiting Kierkegaard’s cemetery, and eating and drinking our way through Copenhagen. We even found a Zapotecan gift shop and chatted up the shopkeeper about my motherland.
The next day, I was departing to Berlin, when I got an urgent text.
“I got a table for four at Noma. Have to respond in the next 10 minutes. You should reschedule your trip, it’s worth it.”
Flash forward four months when I decided to make this sojourn. I didn’t even know if I’d been accepted into the program at Odin, nor had I purchased a plane ticket or decided my itinerary, but I had put myself on the waitlist for every possible seating at Noma Restaurant for the entire month of May. But I also hadn’t seen my cousin in at least a decade, and he had a new baby. I would be cutting our reunion short, and I felt guilty. But hey, you only live once, and when else would I get the chance to dine at the world’s best restaurant? I resolved to make the most of my abbreviated visit and strengthen our family ties so that we would never go this long without seeing each other again. (It's happened, we talk almost daily. He's a dope ass death metal bandleader from Mexico City living in Berlin, and I can't get enough of his insane whatsapp's)
So now it’s Saturday evening, and as the sun sets over the quay where Noma's warehouse restaurant is unassumingly poised, I am overwhelmingly excited, like opening night excited. We are greeted by a clean, minimal interior of exposed wood, and sable tones. And an incredible staff. What a staff! Over 75 employees from all over the world, who like me, have come from far and wide to train with one of the world’s great experimenters. In their case, René Redzepi. (Noma’s staff is comprised of interns who work for free for three months as a training program)
The meal began with a trick… what looked like melted sorbet on a linen cloth, turned out to be a crisp disk of pure Nordic bliss. And this would be the beginning of the assault of the senses, the bait and switch, the engagement with the audience, that nothing is what it seems, and perception and reality are seldom one in the same, until you start to trust your gut.
Among the wonders I dined on, all exclusively sourced from the depths of the North Sea and the deep woods and pastures of the fjord land, was a 150-year-old clam. I cried. It tasted like I was eating with Poseidon himself. (I’m also dramatic like that)
There were chocolate covered mushrooms that while not psychedelic as I would expect from a teat like that, were transcendental in their own right. There were charred herbs a top a bed of eel skin that seemed to glow from within, and rare forms of Nordic seaweed turned into what I could only describe as a fruit roll up and peppered with rosehips brined in vinegar for the past six months. This was mood food, cerebral cuisine, enticing all your senses, and making you question your sense of time and place.
And the cherry on top? After hours of courses all expertly paired with local wines and beers and liqueurs (I’m super dizzy and head spinny by this point); we are invited to take a tour of the kitchen and the food lab. It was incredible, and would bear some resemblance to the Odin Teatret I would experience the following week. The rigorous way both establishments archive and forage for sources, either theatrical or culinary, to create something entirely new, but deeply rooted in our shared human experience.
It’s now super late, and we are the last patrons to leave when the chef pops over to greet us. The Texas chick works for the architecture firm they may be partnering with and a friendly conversation ensues. Except for that I’m drunk, and a loud mouth, and emotional at this point, so I start gabbing. It turns out chef loves Mexico and Mexican cuisine, cause I mean who doesn’t. He spends his one month a year off in Mexico with his family, and one of his proteges is about to open a taqueria in Copenhagen. We start nerding out about Mexico and Mexican cuisine, like how to add a proper alkalinizing agent to masa for tortillas (he likes using crushed oyster shells) and what the best kind of crickets are. It was delicious conversation and pure SavageCon gold. Cultural currency at its highest exchange rate.