Rene Redzepi of Copenhagen-based Noma, uncontestedly one of the world's best restaurants, upped the culinary ante when he moved his entire operation to Tokyo for six weeks in the beginning of 2015. Thanks to an invitation from their airline partner ANA, Jeralyn Gerba slid into a seat at lunch just before the pop-up closed for good. Here's the debrief.
TOKYO – "So, how was Tokyo?" friends ask me, knowing It has been my holy grail destination for a decade. I suppose I can't really answer that, as I basically flew to Japan for lunch. On the other hand, my epic midday meal was like a thousand-year culture and history lesson served in a few dozen bites.
Technically speaking, I went for a two-day culinary tour in Tokyo to learn about a collaboration between Japan's All Nippon Airways and Scandinavian restaurant sensation Noma, which hosted a six-week pop-up in the Japanese capital. When ANA heard about the Noma experiment, they extended their Japanese hospitality, flying a crew of chefs over the course of the year — from Okinawa and Ishigaki Island to Fukuoka and Osaka — to research techniques and source ingredients.
After traversing the country, temporarily shutting their Copenhagen location, and managing the logistical insanity that includes moving a staff of 70 from Denmark to Japan, the Noma staff checked into the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo and went about transforming the restaurant into Noma Japan. Rice paper was hung from the walls, tables and chairs were crafted by local woodworkers, and the chef's table was relocated to a sunny spot with floor-to-ceiling windows. Ceramic plates, handmade utensils, and earthy tea pots were made by hand in Japan exclusively for the occasion. The kitchen experimented with flavors, foraged esoteric ingredients, and opened the reservation lines. The mad dash for seats began and ended in six weeks, leaving 60,000 people on the waiting list.
I flew into Tokyo at the tail end of the run. Even more than the food (which I was really, really excited to eat), I was psyched to hear the Noma philosophy straight from the horse's mouth. How does a restaurant become the best in the world? How does such an outlandishly expensive operation create enough buzz to maintain the spotlight? You'd expect some flash (hello, 16-course tasting menu) and a few gimmicks (serving "technically dead" crustaceans covered in ants), but you might underestimate, as I did, the degree to which each and every item on the plate (not to mention the plate itself) has meaning, intention, and purpose. There's an answer for everything, including moving to Japan. These guys are not messing around.
When I interviewed Redzepi after the meal, he explained why he was intent on stationing in Tokyo. "When it comes to eating, there is no cyncism in Japan ... There's a genuine respect for the products that we would normally hear about and call bullshit on. But in Japan, it's all true." It's all heartfelt.
For their short-lived experiment, Redzepi ws interested in applying Noma's foraging philosophy to a new landscape and cultural context. As a guest at the lunch table, I made my own meaning from my meal.