Man vs Wild
Photography: antonia pesenti
"Beach mustard, wood sorrel, and after you've picked those, there's some stonecrop in the 'erb fridge," chirps Blane, the prep chef from California. "Oh, and don't forget we've got clean-down at 11am for the meeting. Get onto the chervil stems if you have time." At the herb table, fevered debate breaks out among the UN of stagiaires over which of these tasks is the worst. Wood sorrel is fiddly, but if you have the rhythm, then progress is swift. Picking chervil and sorting it into three sizes always has you asking, "Is my small your small?" And with stonecrop, which resembles something destined for the compost, you have to yield a large pile of tiny tips from a bunch of gnarled, weather-beaten roots.
It's not until I join Noma in Copenhagen for four weeks as a stagiaire that I start to understand the importance of leaves. I'm quickly introduced to plenty more ingredients requiring equally laborious preparation. Sea urchins from Norway, boxes and boxes of razor clams, local radishes, turnips and lovage all have to be cleaned and sent off to their respective corners of the kitchen. Then there's the brown crab. Ah, what is there to say about brown crab? First of all, it's totally delicious. Secondly, it's quite easy to cook, but ultimately, it's a bitch of a job that takes a team of six an entire day to finish. "You done crab before?" asks Blane, while cleaning chervil stems. "Uh, no," I mutter. "You'd know if you had 'cos you ain't gonna forget it," he smirks, amid laughter from the crab veterans.
This exactitude is dictated by René Redzepi, the chef, proprietor and driving force behind Noma. He's known for both his charm and sometimes explosive temper in the kitchen. I hear the stories during my first week, while he's away on a long-overdue break. When he returns, I'm somewhat intimidated, but at least I feel prepared.
I wanted to experience working at Noma (recently voted number one in the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list) because I wanted to understand how a restaurant located in the middle of a city could have such a connection with nature and seasonality. Over the years, I developed an almost unhealthy obsession with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage, which grew into a need to try my hand at foraging in the wild larder. I felt the exact same urge whenever I pored over Noma's menu online, or read articles about its "sauvage" philosophy.
I'd heard all about Noma's posse of foragers, who scour Denmark's hidden pockets of forest and coastline and sporadically deliver shabby boxes of mushrooms, bulrush, ramsons and other exotic edibles to the kitchen. This, I'm glad to say, is exactly how it turns out to be. They arrive without notice, at any time, even during service. That's a luxury not afforded to all providores, but these are no ordinary deliveries. They are bounties, proudly presented and respectfully handled. The gatherers are serious people with a special skill, and what they provide is a major factor in Noma's success. Every member of staff has contact with these wild wanderers, whether it's by packing away their haul, passing on receipts or weighing the goods, and it feeds a desire to discover your own wild side, which Redzepi encourages. Chefs collect herbs on the way to work and it's mandatory to make the trip to Lammefjord, 75km west of Copenhagen, at least once to rub shoulders with Søren Wiuff, a driven farmer there who grows a fantastic array of fruit and vegetables.
I'm fortunate enough to be at Noma for one of the staff's twice-yearly foraging parties, when the entire team heads off to dig, pick and play in the wilds of Denmark, scurvy grass and Tuborg in hand. Our motley band of chefs and waiters wanders the shores of Fanø, gathering wild oysters, sipping aquavit infused with native grasses and grains, picking hip roses and learning about the very things that have drawn us here from around the world. This little outing rounds off my experience at Noma and cements my understanding of what the place stands for. It's also a chance to see the other side of Redzepi, as he sits with us discussing the day's adventures, exploring cultural divides and celebrating our talents. He is justifiably proud of our collective achievements and speaks warmly of the whole team's contribution to making Noma the special place it is.
I go into my last week feeling like part of that team, even though my time at Noma is about to end. I'm doing service daily - small tasks, admittedly, but still bearing expectation. Quite deliberately, I book to eat at Noma after I finish my stage. I want to see if I'll enjoy the experience as much after having a peep behind the curtain. In fact, I enjoy it more than I could have hoped. "Just bring your appetite, chef," Redzepi tells me on my final night of service. "That's all you'll need. We'll look after you." And they do. Redzepi orders his chefs to walk each plate to the table, which creates an incredible sense of ownership and pride in the kitchen and a very special experience for the diner. Over the next five hours, the chefs I'd worked with arrive at my table to present and finish dishes that, until now, I'd only seen on the other side of the pass. It's a brilliant way to round off a month of hard graft, pressure and good fun.
My time at Noma was brief but intense. Working alongside one of the most driven chefs in the world and his amazingly talented team taught me a great deal, and also made me more confident in my existing knowledge and skills. I'm now back in Tasmania, invading people's gardens, cooking with weeds and scouring my own shores with memories of a place wild at heart.