Rene Redzepi’s groundbreaking restaurant Noma is known as one of the world’s best, so it came as a huge shock last year when he announced he would be shutting it down in 2024 — at least in its current form. The Danish chef and a team of over 100 have currently descended on Kyoto to create a culinary experience that has become one of the hottest tickets on the planet. Japan Times food critic Robbie Swinnerton joins us this week to discuss Noma, the Kyoto pop-up and where fine dining goes from here.

Hosted by Jason Jenkins and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Rene Redzepi  00:03  

Go, go, go.

Anthony Bourdain  00:05  

Noma is the place where Rene Redzepi pretty much changed the whole world of gastronomy. 

Rene Redzepi 00:10

Let's go.

Anthony Bourdain 00:12

For three years in a row, it was named the world's best restaurant by a jury of chefs and food writers who presumably know such things. 

Jason Jenkins  00:21

Hello, and welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I’m Jason Jenkins and what you just heard was the late, great Anthony Bourdain as he described Noma the award-winning Danish restaurant that went on to win the title of World's Best Restaurant five times before announcing that it will close — at least in its present form — at the end of 2024. 

What you're hearing now are the sounds of Maruyama Park in Kyoto. The borders are open, the tourists are back and among them are a select few who have booked a table at Noma Kyoto, the temporary, pop-up restaurant brought from Copenhagen to Japan, where it will remain the focus of the culinary world until it wraps up in May. 

Before Noma Kyoto opened in March, Japan Times food critic Robbie Swinnerton met the man behind Noma, chef Rene Redzepi, for a long discussion about his plans for the Kyoto residency. Then a few weeks ago, Redzepi and some of his team were gracious enough to let us peek behind the curtain in the hour before they opened. A few days later, Robbie joined me to discuss the significance of Redzepi, the future of Noma and how Japan fits into their culinary worldview.

Jason Jenkins  01:36  

Hey, Robbie, welcome back. Glad you could make it.

Robbie Swinnerton  01:39 

Yeah, nice to be here.

Jason Jenkins  01:40  

Get us started. Tell us a little about Noma. It's placed in the culinary world and why it's in the spotlight right now.

Robbie Swinnerton  01:47  

Well, Noma’s been in the spotlight for quite a few years, you know. It's in Copenhagen, as you probably know, it's been voted best restaurant in the world's five times, according to the World's 50 Best Restaurant list. And it's 20 years old now. And it's finally got three Michelin stars, since a couple of years ago. But why the spotlight is on it at all is because basically, it's changed the direction of gastronomy in the world. Noma has created this cuisine, which is based around its own territory. The name itself means “Nordic mads,” which means Nordic food. It's quite a radical approach. It’s also radical in the sense of it's very unlike fine dining: they don't have tablecloths on the tables, they don't have, like, waiters in starched suits, etc. It's a lot more casual than most, but it's definitely fine dining. And why they're in the news right now is because they've just recently started a 12-week pop-up in Kyoto, Japan.

Jason Jenkins  02:45 

Right. This isn't their first pop-up. They're also kind of known for doing pop-up restaurants or residencies in different cities, right?

Robbie Swinnerton  02:52  

That's correct. Yeah, this is their second time in Japan. But they've also done pop-ups in London, Australia, and Mexico. And in most restaurants, when they do a pop-up abroad, they just take a few staff, and turn out the same dishes that they serve in their main restaurants. Noma does it differently. Noma creates a totally new restaurant, and a new menu each time it does this. 

Jason Jenkins  03:19  

So if I was to have gone to the London pop-up, I would have a completely different menu, then the Mexico or the Australian pop-up.

Robbie Swinnerton  03:27 

Absolutely all based around the local food. To do this pop-up in Kyoto, the head chef Rene Redzepi tells me that they spent two years researching this. And that was on top of having done a previous pop-up in Tokyo — that was eight years ago in 2015. And then also having done a lot of research in the intervening years, so it's not just like a flash in the pan, “just come to Japan and throw a few Japanese ingredients in our regular menu.” It is starting from scratch. And the reason they do these pop-ups is because it's a way of learning, learning as a team and learning about the rest of the world and learning ways they can make their own cuisine. Take it to the next level.

Jason Jenkins  04:08  

Let's talk about the latest pop-up Noma Kyoto. How did it come about? And what's the story with it?

Robbie Swinnerton  04:14 

This thing originally was scheduled for last autumn, but due to the delay in opening the borders here, post-COVID, Redzepi decided to postpone it until the sakura season. 

Jason Jenkins  04:28 

Good choice. 

Robbie Swinnerton  04:29

And going back two to three years ago, Redzepi and his team came up with the idea of “Why don't we go off to Kyoto? Back to Japan but this time, not Tokyo — Kyoto?” And coincidentally, around about the same time they were looking online and (he was a) big fan of Kengo Kuma the architect, Japanese architect, it seems. And they saw that he just designed a hotel in Kyoto called the Ace Hotel, which piqued their interest as a possible venue. When they looked into it, they found that the Ace Hotel opened, but the main restaurant in the hotel had never opened, 

Jason Jenkins  05:06 

Ah, because of the pandemic.

Robbie Swinnerton  05:08

Because of the pandemic, because there were no inbound tourists. The hotel was, sadly, sadly, quiet these last two, three years. 

Jason Jenkins  05:16

Not the best timing.

Robbie Swinnerton  05:18

Had two other restaurants going for the people who were staying. But the main restaurant — which was due to open as soon as people came back — was still empty. And they thought, “well, this could be the ideal setting.” And at the same time, things are up and running again, in Japan, and especially in Kyoto. They've also figured it might help the Ace boost their, come back with a bang, put their name on the map. And so it was a kind of synergy there. What's great about this dining room is that it's on the third floor of the hotel. But they have their own private garden out through these huge windows. It’s almost like you're, you could be anywhere because you can't see the city really well. And it's totally, totally private. And it reminded them a little bit of their own place in Copenhagen, which has … which is outside the city and looks out onto water and has this beautiful big garden around it so that it reflects their, it reflects who they are and where they're coming from very, very well. So it's a great synergy. 

Jason Jenkins  06:12  

Yeah it's a beautiful spot. And I loved how I mean those huge windows and they get lots of natural light. And then you've got this sakura tree out there with petals, and it's just gorgeous. 

Robbie Swinnerton  06:22

Perfect this time of year. Perfect.

Jason Jenkins  06:24

I was glad you pointed out to when we were there. There's the little trail of shells and kombu and sort of all of these elements of Japanese cuisine.

CLIP  06:34 

Jason Jenkins  06:44 

That are sort of dried and sort of a breadcrumb trail that goes up the stairs into the restaurant. That was a nice touch as well.

CLIP  06:50

Robbie Swinnerton  06:52  

It's right. It starts in the lobby, doesn't it? In the lobby, and then it's like, what's this? It's not usually there. And then you go, takes you up the stairs, up the stairs up the stairs and right to the beautiful noren, which marks the door to Noma.

Jason Jenkins  07:10  

Let's stay on the restaurant for a minute. So they found a place and this isn't their first rodeo, they've moved to various cities to do these pop-ups. I'm curious about comparing some of these places. For the Noma team, how is Kyoto different than the Tokyo time?

Robbie Swinnerton  07:27 

Very different. The city is different. The environment is different. The kitchen itself is different. And actually, of course, Noma itself is different. It's more adept at doing these things. But let me take you back to 2015, when they were at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in the center of Tokyo. It's a high-rise building, and the restaurant they took over was on the 37th floor. And you didn't really feel you were entering Noma until you kind of got just in the door. And even then it was a little bit they they did a certain amount of decorating but it was still very much Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Here in Kyoto, they got beautiful decorations, they've totally transformed the space because it was essentially a blank space. They had free range to do what they liked to it, they've got strips of kombu hanging from the ceiling, like a seaweed garden. And the sound is muffled by very thin tatami mats across the walls. Whereas up on the top of the building, you just get the room and the windows and the sky. What they didn’t have was actually a glimpse of Mount Fuji in the distance, but in terms of the logistics, it's also so much better at the Ace. The kitchen is compact, it's a lot more compact than what they used to at their place in Copenhagen. But in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, they actually had to have the prep kitchen on the second basement level. And so when they were preparing stuff and sending it up to the restaurant, it had to come up like 39 floors, which was … it wasn't like each dish was prepared down there. But all the prep was done down there. And a very small service elevator — not the guests’ elevator, which is all nice. So it was intense for them. And they did a really good job and they learned a lot and that paved the way for them to do what came later and bringing us up to the present day in Kyoto.

Jason Jenkins  09:26  

So the kitchen that they have now is large by some standards but considerably smaller than what they are used to? Right?

Robbie Swinnerton  09:34  

That's right. The present, Noma 2.0, is a beautiful operation. It's got a huge footprint and they’ve got an amazing kitchen. They’ve got like four kitchens: you got a test kitchen, a fermentation facility, the in-house dining for the staff, and then they got the main kitchen for serving guests. So they’re used to having a huge amount of space. Here, it’s compact. The whole crew has come over for this event. And so they got to fit into a kitchen about a quarter of the size of what they’re used to. This menu has been basically put together by four people: Rene Redzepi: there’s Mette Søberg, who has been in the test kitchen since 2015, very key person; Junichi Takahashi, Japanese chef, he's from the north of Japan, but he's been at Noma for 11 years now, and he's playing a key role here in Kyoto. It was interesting to hear what he had to say about that, wasn't it?

Junichi Takahashi  10:31

So this kitchen is much smaller than the Noma Copenhagen kitchen which is almost like maybe three times bigger than this kitchen so actually much smaller, and the same amount of people. So it may be a little bit difficult to manage. But, you know, it's always people walking through and behind the staff so we need to communicate. That's very important. So people need to communicate more than before, so …

Robbie Swinnerton  10:59 

But there's a fourth person who we mentioned very much is Thomas Frebel. Thomas has been associated with Noma for like 15 years now I think, and a key person in the original test kitchen. After the Tokyo pop-up, he was really excited to be in Japan and discovering Japan. And he eventually opened this restaurant called Inua in Tokyo, which was kind of like Noma style, but using entirely Japanese ingredients. And within two years, he'd got two Michelin stars, he was on Best Restaurant lists, getting a lot of people coming from many parts of the world to be able to taste this different style of Noma cuisine, but through Thomas Frebel’s eyes and hands, and then unfortunately, the borders closed and Inoa had to close with it.

Jason Jenkins  12:02  

So we've talked about the people behind Noma. Now let's talk about what they're serving. I know Noma is famous for many things. They were pioneers in the locavore movement, they sort of focused on local ingredients and even wild foods that they foraged for themselves. They’ve also been on the forefront of fermenting and fermented foods, tell me a little about these, and how chef Rene Redzepi uses them. And maybe a little about how this has influenced fine dining.

Robbie Swinnerton  12:28  

Absolutely. Yeah, before Noma came along, people weren't using a lot of wild foods, foraged foods, and certainly weren't devoted to the locavore idea of only using ingredients from the surrounding area. Because they are so far in the north they try to follow the seasons.

Jason Jenkins  12:47  

And that's kind of hard to do in Scandinavia, right? I mean to use local ingredients, because you're at least your plants are going to be … your vegetables are going to be fairly limited, right?

Robbie Swinnerton  12:58  

Especially in winter, of course they have these long winters and during that time, traditionally, what people were doing in the Nordic countries would be to lay down foods, preserve them for the winter. So they'd be dried, they'd be fermented foods, like pickles and things. Even of course the meat would be dried or salted or kept like that. So this has led to the current Noma menu in Copenhagen where they have a cycle of three different menus during the summer when there's a lot of vegetation, a lot of vegetables, that's what you'll find on your plates. It's actually fully vegetarian now. And during the winter they moved to the forest, what they call the forest menu, which includes lots of fruit and nuts and also game food, so we have that's where to get the most of the meat on the menu there.

Jason Jenkins  13:47  

Wild game like reindeer? Pheasants? What are we talking about wild game?

Robbie Swinnerton  13:53  

Including… Yeah, both those a lot of different game birds. And then when the first season is over, when you get into early spring, they go under the water into the ocean, which is all around them in Copenhagen and, fantastic seafood menu also there. So as spring gives way to summer, you get back to the vegetarian menu. You have three cycles there. So coming to Japan, one idea they had, especially when they were thinking of doing it last autumn was to go totally vegetarian, but in the Japanese way, following what they call, what's known in Japan as shōjin ryōri.

Jason Jenkins  14:28  

Ah, right, the Buddhist vegetarian food or the vegetarian foods you would find at Buddhist temples.

Robbie Swinnerton  14:35  

Exactly, yeah, especially connected with Zen Buddhism. And Redzepi told me that there was a serious consideration for them because they got such inspiration from the great food, that they'd been served at Buddhist temples during their research trips. However, basically, it was decided that they should probably add a whole lot of seafood to it, because that's what people expect when they come to Japan, because seafood here is second to none. And then there's … in terms of forage foods, this is a good season for them, of course, because we have all the wild plants known as sansai here in Japan,

Jason Jenkins  15:08  

Sansai, literally “mountain vegetable” in Japanese. 

Robbie Swinnerton  15:12 

And there's a whole range of them here in Japan and reflecting that, Noma Kyoto has one specific dish devoted to sansai, wild mountain plants. The other aspects of going back to the winter season, fermentation. Fermentation has become a massive plank of what Noma does, they have a huge fermentation lab, developing alternative ways of preserving foods but also of developing flavors. A lot of them are based on Japanese fermentation techniques, as well as local Nordic techniques. So a lot of these involve kōji, which is the traditional mold used for fermentation of these products like miso, shoyu (soy sauce) and sake. But they've taken them to places which Japanese — traditional Japanese food producers — would never dream of, like growing kōji mold on vegetables. I believe that throughout Noma, Kyoto people will be served one particular dish like that. I will not give any spoilers. So, another aspect of fermentation is katsuo bushi, these are the dried, cured filets of bonito fish, which are the basic building block of Japanese dashi, the soup stock that underlies all Japanese cuisine, basically. And they've taken this process and tried applying it to other types of seafood, but also to vegetables. So, these are all things we'll find at Noma Kyoto.

Jason Jenkins  16:47  

Speaking of fermentation, we've talked about the food, what about wine and other libations?

Robbie Swinnerton  16:53  

Great, yeah, that's another aspect of what makes Noma particularly interesting. Besides making a brand new menu for this pop-up. They've also developed a whole new drinks list. And these are been put together by the head sommelier, Ava Mees List, who has done a fantastic job traveling around Japan, visiting producers of: sake, of course; wine, Japan has a great wines; beer, too, they've made a special beer especially for their menu; shochu, or distilled spirits; whiskey; and also botanical distillations, which will go in the cocktails that she's put together. And then for people who are going the non-alcohol route, there is tea, there are juices and very, very nice non-alcoholic cocktails.

Jason Jenkins  17:41

Yeah it was fascinating to hear how she sourced ingredients from all over Japan: kombu seaweed and peppers for the beer, small local distilleries for the whiskey and even donguri acorns for the sake.  

Ava Mees List  17:55 

Initially, I went to Terada Honke who we are very, very connected with and who I believe is the best sake maker in the country. Really wonderful person, and they do everything very old, old style. And he brought me to an abandoned rice field that he was starting to grow rice on this year. And we walked around and he said, you know, you know my people you like foraging and we have all of these trees around here. And there's this particular acorn, which is called a donguri, which he said, “Oh, yeah, people used to eat that.” So he said, I'm thinking about throwing this into the sake. What do you think? And I said, “Yeah, let's do it.” So it's a donguri sake. 

Robbie Swinnterton  18:40

That’s so Noma

Ava Mees List  18:41

Yeah, very Noma.

Jason Jenkins  18:43  

And so what does the menu actually look like?

Robbie Swinnerton  18:45  

Well, as always at Noma, it's a multicourse menu. You have like, I don't know, 10 or 15 different dishes arriving in front of you during the course of the meal. They're all beautifully, beautifully presented. As always, this one is vegetable-forward, but also it's plenty of seafood. There will be, as I mentioned, a dish of wild plants, sansai. There is seaweed as a main ingredient, not just a bit-part player. Perhaps of interest to people who like seafood, there’s lobster, spiny lobster, is a key part of the menu, so far, and fish called alfonsino, “kinki” and Japan. They're putting roses on their rice, on the cooked rice. There's tofu, of course, but not like served in a Japanese restaurant. So you could tell that they've been taking the Japanese ingredients, they're inspired by them, but they're not copying Japanese cuisine at all. It's purely, purely Noma food and it's so beautiful. It looks really good. Even though it's inspired by Japan. It's very different from what you would expect to find in a Japanese restaurant.

Clip  19:57  

Food lovers need to book their table soon if they want to eat at the best restaurant in the world in Copenhagen as it’s set to close at the end of 2024.

Jason Jenkins  20:06  

So Robbie, I have a confession to make. When I first began reading about Noma years ago, I was not a fan. I mean, the meal in Kyoto costs about ¥124,000, that's just under $1,000. And, you know, when I first started reading about it, this is maybe in 2017 when they had the pop up in Tulum, Mexico. I was living in Mexico at the time, and this sort of idea of the rich and famous flying in here, in contrast to the poverty that I saw in other places … I just … I had the wrong impression. So when I read six months ago, or so, that they were going to close, I was sort of like, “Good! Good riddance.” I felt like they represented the elite in a certain way. Now, let me stop there and say, I was wrong. I think I was looking at it completely wrong. Because in a way, I feel like what they're doing is, is art. I want art to exist. I don't mind people paying a lot of money for fine art. So why not fine dining? Is this how you look at it?

Robbie Swinnerton  21:15  

Absolutely. I believe that it's worth spending the money on. If you have that money, you should spend it. Is it art? I see, I see the cooking aspect of it more like craftsmanship. And they do it over and over again, refining it, refining it. And when it gets to a certain level, it actually turns to a kind of alchemy, because they refine it from the basic ingredients, the base material, to this kind of gold. That's gold that glitters on the plates. I mean, not everyone may see it that way. But for me, I've eaten Noma’s food about seven or eight times. And each time it's been different. And each time it’s blown my mind, really. Just blown my tastebuds. But not just what's on the plate, but the way it's presented. The team who present it are natural and friendly, accommodating, not like your usual three-star restaurants — that you expect anyway, in your mind. You know, we've all seen Ratatouille, the movie, and it's absolutely different from what they do there. Even the chefs coming out of the kitchen to serve you. So you kind of see it from kitchen to plate, and it's gone from farm to kitchen. So it's kind of … there's a link all the way going back to the soil to the people who've foraged, the people who have hunted. And that's one of the things that Noma does really well.

Jason Jenkins  22:38  

Yeah, When you're talking about the team, they are a team of real people who want to connect with people and support others. The stories that you have told me, the stories I heard from Mees, and from Annegret, the director, it really kind of sort of sealed the deal for me. It seems like there's more an element of compassion and support with the people that run Noma.

Annegret Kuhnert  23:02  

It's fantastic to see how the whole team is reacting to it. We need to altogether get used to the space and how we work and how we just run service. And of course of this is us, this is Noma, but then there's so much more around it that needs to change. And you know, like, yeah, it's too hard. Exactly, exactly. So there are certain things that we had to get used to, which is fantastic. And certain things that we had to be challenged on. And this is what it's all about as well that there's this learning curve and the jump in the ice cold water and just keep swimming. So it's something wonderful.

Robbie Swinnerton  23:38  

Yeah, as soon as you walk in the restaurant, you can feel that actually, the way Noma is now is not the way it has always been. I got to say, but it was based on a very strong sense of ecological, ethical ideas, working with small producers, local producers, artisans, not just food but for the tableware and the decorations and things like that. So it has a very, very strongly based within the community within the local community and that's something that they're doing here in Kyoto, too. They are sourcing materials directly from the farmers and the fishermen and …

Jason Jenkins  24:26

Even the tatami makers too, right? 

Robbie Swinnerton  24:17

Even the local tatami makers, indeed, yes. 

Jason Jenkins  24:20  

And they seem to support each other quite a bit and, and there is quite a few of them. Tell us a little about the staff at Noma.

Robbie Swinnerton  24:28  

Right. As with all their previous pop ups, they didn't just bring a few chefs and a few front-of-house people. They brought the whole staff, the whole restaurant — 103 people in all, that's like 79 people from the restaurant, including kitchen and front of house, dishwashers, office. And then you got some spouses to come with them. And there's nine children, they brought nine children with them. It's because the aim of the process is not just to serve meals, it's also to learn. To learn how to serve meals, in fact, picking up on the Japanese spirit. This is another thing that Rene Redzepi, has mentioned to me: how it's kind of a giant staff training exercise. It's really interesting as part of what makes Noma so unique, that they're prepared to do this, go all the way with all the team and take it to the next level.

Jason Jenkins  25:22  

But this also sort of begs the question of how sustainable is something like this? As I mentioned at the top, Noma announced that it will be closing its doors in Copenhagen, not for good and not for everything. What happens next? When the Kyoto pop-up ends, where do they go from there?

Robbie Swinnerton  25:42  

Yes, it was interesting timing, because after they announced the Kyoto pop-up, then the announcement came that in 2024, Noma is pivoting to its next stage, which they're going to be calling Noma 3.0. And I'm not privy to what's going on behind the scenes, but as it was announced, they're going towards developing and producing ingredients such as seasonings, and the most popular ones they've been making so far is garum, which is traditionally garum is fermented fish seasoning sauce. But they're making it with vegetables, with mushrooms with different ingredients. And that will be one of the things they'll be making. But they've got probably tons of things up their sleeve. These are things they've developed in their fermentation labs in Copenhagen. And they want to see how this goes. While also, the restaurant won't be closing totally. There'll be continuing to do pop-ups, apparently — pop-ups in their own restaurant in Copenhagen. So there'll be like short-season, instead of like, long, long seasons of seafood first, foraging, etc., there'll be just like short, shorter pop-ups. While they get on with the business of satisfying the demand for their garums and other ingredients. Meanwhile, they've also launched a burger restaurant. I don’t know if you were aware of this, they have a restaurant in Copenhagen, which emerged out of their pandemic. What they were doing during the pandemic was actually running … they did a takeout burger restaurant, which seemed so popular. They’ve got a meat version and also a non-meat version, a vegetarian version. So that will be continuing too. I don't see this as the end of Noma at all, I see it actually as the start of something very interesting. And who knows, I mean, they'll be totally geared up for flexibility. They could do a pop-up anywhere in the world while also continuing their food production in Copenhagen. And who knows, maybe they'll come back to Japan for a third time.

Jason Jenkins  27:47  

Maybe so. I read an earlier draft of your interview and Redzepi really seems to be smitten by Japan. He talked about feeling like a novice again, and that he had some sort of unfinished business with Japan. Does that indicate maybe a return in the future?

Robbie Swinnerton  28:06  

I asked him about that. Yes. I asked him why are you back in Kyoto? Do you have any unfinished business? No, we were, you know, we were complete when we left last time, which was eight years ago. But we've moved on so much to the present day that it was, it was time to do it again. When they were thinking of whether they really wanted to pop-up. Yeah, indeed, Kyoto was the place, so I cannot speak on his behalf other than to say, who knows what will happen?

Jason Jenkins  28:31  

Well, Robbie, thanks for coming back on the show again, man.

Robbie Swinnerton  28:35  

Really good to be back. Thank you.

Jason Jenkins  28:39

Thanks again to Robbie Swinnerton for serving up some of his insight into fine dining and for letting me tag along in Kyoto. If you want to read more of Robbie's work, including his previous reviews of Noma and interviews with Rene Redzepi, you'll find links in the show notes. 

Did you like this episode? If so then please consider leaving us a review. It's still the best way to help listeners find us. 

And also a quick announcement: The Deep Dive team will be taking a long sought after break starting this week, so you’ll see a few encore episodes in the feed until we return. We look forward to sharing new episodes with you sometime after Golden Week.

Production and editing for Deep Dive is by Dave Cortez. Our ending track is by Oscar Boyd and our theme song is by LLLL. And, this is our last show with our intern, Natalia Makohon. Thank you so much Natalia! 

Natalia Makohon  29:30 

Thank you Jason, it’s been a lot of fun. I'm gonna miss you guys. 

Jason Jenkins  29:34 

Yes, and you’re gonna be missed around here too, Natalia. And now, there's one thing left to say, Natalia would you like to do the honors? 

Natalia Makohon  29:41

Yes, thanks for listening, podtsukaresama

Jason Jenkins  29:41