How Mission Chinese Transformed noma into a Wonderland of Fried Chicken and 'Titanic'
I watched Danny Bowien and Angela Dimayuga transform the world-renowned restaurant noma into a Gonzo-esque space where beautifully composed dishes including koji-fried chicken paired with weed were served alongside the <i>Titanic</i> soundtrack. The...
On his first night in Copenhagen, Danny Bowien got two hours of sleep. This was not, primarily, a result of jetlag—the chef of Mission Chinese and Mission Cantina had slept five hours on the plane from New York—nor is he normally an insomniac. The sleepless night was due almost entirely to where he had landed, and what he had to do now that he was there. "Dude," he said, the ends of his bleached blond hair sticking out from a baseball cap that looked to be made of blue pleather. "Look around. I don't think you know what it's like to work at noma."
We were standing in the bright, clean-lined, exceedingly Nordic test kitchen where Rene Redzepi and his research and development team devise the dishes that have made his restaurant the one many insiders continue to consider the best in the world (even after it lost its first-place ranking in this year's 50 Best Restaurants list). I live in Copenhagen, and have written about noma many times, so I know Redzepi to be driven but grounded, and know his crew as fiercely dedicated to their craft but nice, warm people—profoundly not assholes. So no, I didn't quite see why noma was worth losing sleep over. But then again, I didn't have to arrive at someone else's restaurant with no plan whatsoever and cook an eight-course meal for some whacked-out event called Gelinaz.
Founded by Andrea Petrini, a hedonist-savant about whom the phrase "food writer" seems an insultingly pale description, Gelinaz was conceived years ago as as a gathering that would bring chefs together to explore the boundaries of creativity in the kitchen. In its earlier incarnations, the event (the name comes from Petrini's first collaborator, chef Fulvio Pierangelini) was like some kind of weird 1960s happening, conducted in sous vides and lactic ferments instead of naked women and experimenta (although there would be some of both). In 2013, 23 chefs riffed for a night on the 19th-century food writer Philippe Édouard Cauderlier's chicken and aspic timbale; in 2014 it was chef Wylie Dufresne's scrambled egg ravioli. But the model quickly grew stale, and at a "spiritual retreat" held in the Tuscan countryside to decide Gelinaz's future, there was a lot of grumbling. "A lot of people were saying 'I don't want to be a part of this boy band that flies around doing dinners," recalls Bowien.
Blaine Wetzel from The Willows Inn came up with an alternative. Drawing a map on the ground, he pinpointed restaurants and then connected them with arrows. Albert Adria from Barcelona's Tickets could go to Jock Zonfrillo's Orana in Adelaide. Zonfrillo could go to Virgilio Martinez's Central in Lima. Martinez might end up at Sean Brock's McCrady's, in Charleston. And so on. It would be like a culinary version of Ophul's La Ronde.
Each of the 37 participating chefs was secretly assigned a restaurant by lottery. The plan was to have them arrive in their new destination a few days before the dinner to absorb the ingredients, dishes, and culture of their new kitchen, while staying mostly out of public, so as not to blow the secret. Then, they would devise a menu that somehow married their own recipes with those of their destinations. The dinner would be open to the public, who could buy tickets for slightly more than what a meal at the restaurant would normally cost. "Oh yeah," said Lars Williams, noma's head of R&D, and the person who would serve as Danny's guide a few days before things got underway. "He's nervous."
Danny and his chef Angela Dimayuga arrive in Copenhagen early on the morning of July 5. It's no wonder they look a little disoriented: they had both done service at New York's Mission Chinese—a restaurant that, in its inventive embrace of big, Chinese American flavors, its heavy use of chilies, and its predilection for blasting hip hop in its dining room is pretty much the anti-noma—one night before. Now they are standing in the un-Danish blazing heat with a shirtless anarchist farmer named Søren Wiuff who wields a set of tools that look disturbingly like they have been taken from an interrogation room in Guantanamo. "Here," said Wiuff, as he hands an implement to each of the chefs. "Go cut asparagus."
Angela is a pro; within minutes she is bringing in armloads. But Danny can't get the white asparagus, which grows underground and has to be cut with a swift, hard push through the soil, out of the ground. It's as if, gentle man that he is, he's afraid to hurt it.
As the day goes on and we walk through more fields, Danny relaxes. He and Angela stop to sample wild chamomile that tastes of pineapple, and fresh hemp (Wiuff is on a campaign to popularize a variety low in THC for cooking; have I mentioned that he's an anarchist?) and, at another farm called Kiselgarden, the best peas any of us have ever eaten. The ideas started spilling out. "Look at that," says Angela as she pulls a long, thin strand from the interior of an onion. "Udon."
The two are thrilled with the day. "Getting to see where all their product comes from?" Angela says. "It's like a crash course in noma."
"It's like having all your dreams come true," Danny says.
Noma has entire shipping containers and staff members devoted to making some of the most bizarre shit you will ever taste. A dehydrated dashi chip that could take your head off with its pungency. A garum—that's a fermented sauce—made from lobster shells that have essentially been left to rot for 45 weeks. A habanero distillation that smells like it could give you third degree burns but carries no heat whatsoever. Danny and Angela start the day by working their way through dozens of them. Then Lars and Arielle Johnson, the head of research for Noma's MAD symposium, take them outside for a tour of the restaurant's fermentation lab. "It smells like a pet supply store in here," says Bowien. "In a good way."
By now, he and Angela have put a list of twelve dishes on the test kitchen white board of dishes to test. Among them are a vegetable dish made from the udonesque onion and stems, a putative clams with black bean sauce made with blood, and a version of the Beggar's Duck cooked in clay they make at home. There is also a tartare that riffs on one of noma's classic dishes: a rectangle of raw musk ox underneath a carpet of perfectly aligned wood sorrel leaves.
"That was our original vision," Danny says. "To plate ours up like your old dishes."
"What you should do is a dish that is more noma than noma. Something like a veg dish covered in 300 grams of parsley flowers," says Lars, holding up a blossom so miniscule it would take a dozen cooks several hours to pick, clean, and plate.
Danny laughs nervously.
"You still don't get it, do you?" asks Lars. "You can do anything here."
Danny and Angela are testing the shrimp and scrambled egg dish.
"This is really good," Danny says. "It's making me really happy."
"I want some alliums in it," says Angela, and she begins chopping spring onions. Danny spoons a bit of the mixture onto a nasturtium leaf that has been cut into a round so that it rests with just a thin margin on a perfect circle of caramelized milk skin.
"I don't know if we should roll it or fold it," she says.
They add spring onion, and Danny tries it again. "That is so good. It really tastes Chinese now."
"It needs more shrimp, so it's not so rich and eggy," says Angela.
"Well, it's a good start."
Time passes. They weigh adding arugula flowers and crème fraiche, and cows' milk yogurt, and sheeps milk yogurt. They brush the skin with smoked butter and decide that onion is better than arugula. They add more shrimp, even though, as Danny points out, there is already so much shrimp in it. They roll it like an eggroll, and they fold it like a taco. They take it outside and grill it in a tamis, and then they re-do it, and grill it some more.
"It smells like fried wonton now," says Danny.
"Much better," says Angela. "Way more interesting."
"Well," Danny says, reaching for the marker. "That's one down."
In between tests, the talk is of décor. Bowien wants dry ice at the entrance to the restaurant, so that the diners have to pass through smoke on the way inside. He'd also like pink neon lights to place beneath the tables. And pink tablecloths to cover noma's famously bare tables. A disco ball, maybe.
"And a white piano," adds Angela.
"Elton John is in town," one of the test kitchen chefs pipes up helpfully.
"Maybe just a keyboardist," says Angela.
Late in the afternoon, Redzepi stops by. Angela and Danny are testing the rice porridge they plan to serve at the close of the meal, and they give Redzepi a taste. He tries it, smiles, and asks for more.
"Oh man, it's working," he says. "Gelinaz is working."
By the time I get there in the morning, most of the dishes have been crossed off the whiteboard list, and Angela is working on getting the poolish right for the sourdough naan she plans to serve. "You know he threw up last night?" she says of Danny. "Too much weird shit to eat. And too many nerves."
He looks fine now though. Danny is sitting with Lars, writing the menu. They are down to eleven courses. They start with the first, an oyster coated in parsley flowers (30 grams, not 300) that was inspired by another iconic noma dish, a razor clam encased in a tube of parsley gelee. 'It kind of looks like those lumpy gardens we planted next to the restaurant," Lars says. "Let's call it Lump."
Is he serious? Danny asks how they name their dishes, and Lars tells him they choose three ingredients and list them, no verbs or adjectives.
"So 'oyster, parsley flower, cherrywood oil'?" asks Danny.
"Oyster, parsley, cherry," says Lars. Danny types it in.
After lunch service, noma's kitchen staff comes upstairs, by section, to learn how to plate the dishes. They are entranced, excited to be getting to do something new, thrilled by the different range of flavors.
Danny shows them the porridge, dotting its surface with beach mustard oil, and telling them that his placement is just an approximation. "It's not Robuchon. You guys can do it how you want." He shows them the bowl of herbs and vegetables that will accompany the koji fried chicken and points out that the weed on it will not, unfortunately, get them high. He shows them the oyster, covered in parsley flowers, and Lars jokes that the dish is called "Lump." The production chefs look at the flowers, and exchange weary glances. Danny notices.
"It's also called 'Time,' he says.
"Hopes and Dreams," adds Lars.
The cooks leave, and Lars, Danny, and Angela set about trying to come up with a welcome drink to put on the menu that will buy the kitchen time after the guests sit down. They play with the habanero distillate, mixing it with champagne, trying to come up with a cocktail. Then Lars reaches deep into the test kitchen refrigerator, and extracts a glass flask filled with clear liquid. He pours a glass, and hands it to Danny, who gags a bit before drinking it. It is meat schnapps, made from distilled raw beef.
Lars suggests they make the cocktail from that, even though the schnapps gave him head sweats. "That's not, strictly speaking, legal," points out Arielle.
"The way I look at it, it's not, strictly speaking, illegal," replies Lars.
"Yes it is," says Arielle.
But Danny and Angela have bigger things to worry about: when they cracked open the test version of the Beggar's Fish—they switched it from the duck—for the staff to taste, the turbot was overcooked.
On July 9, I get to the restaurant around 10 AM; there are nine hours to go until the dinner that night. On my way in search of a coffee cup, I see sheets of the black garlic leather that Noma developed in Japan, and wonder what it's for.
"We're back up to 12," Lars tells me when I greet him. They've added a black garlic dumpling course to the menu.
They had to do something while they were waiting for the fish to cook. The three of them were in the kitchen until 3 AM the night before working on the Beggar's Fish. But it still isn't right. In one version the clay cracked, in another, it cracked the glaze on the plate that it was served on. And it keeps coming out overcooked.
"It's the dish I was most worried about from the beginning," says Danny.
"It's the dish you were most worried about, and we're only talking about it now?" says Angela. She takes a clay packet with yellow wires emerging from it—the thermometer—out of the oven and starts watching the timer. The temperature goes up 11 degrees in 8.5 minutes.
Danny starts making the blood-and-black bean miso sauce that will be spooned onto the clam. Lars begins selecting rocks to serve the langoustine on. While noma is doing its normal lunch service, Danny decides he wants a playlist for the night comprised of one song chosen by each staff member. He wants to end it with his own selection, the theme from Titanic. "We really have to take this playlist seriously," he says.
At 4 PM, there is a trial run with the kitchen. By then, the transformation of the dining room is complete. The dry ice got lost in the shuffle, but the neon lights are there, and the pink tablecloths are topped by column candles and bouquets of roses and baby's breath. A Norwegian staff member explains the décor to a Danish one: "Det er ligesom tacky," he says, because of course that word doesn't exist in any Scandinavian language.
At 6:15, the staff meeting begins. "I want you to know," Danny tells the crew, "that it's mindblowing to be here. To think that just because I love cooking, I get to do this with all of you." The music comes on, loud. It is a safe bet that this is the first time the theme song to Twin Peaks has ever played in the noma dining room.
All over the world that day and night, diners sit down to unique, hybrid, imaginative meals that—to greater and lesser degrees—fuse two personal visions of cuisine. Japanese chef Narisawa was at Melbourne's Attica; Slovenian chef Ana Ros cooked at Santiago de Chile's Borago, and Alex Atala from Sao Paolo cooked at New York's Blanca. Dominque Crenn prepared a vegetarian menu and posed for selfies with the staff at Le Chateaubriand in Paris. Swedish Magnus Nilsson got in a little running-of-the-bulls action in nearby Pamplona before cooking at San Sebastian's Mugaritz. And Massimo Bottura, at Momofuku Ko, prepared a dish adapted from Wylie Dufresne, who just happened to be dining there that night. As Twitter and Instagram filled with their photos, it seemed like the entire food world was caught up in Gelinaz.
Maybe I'm biased, but it's hard to imagine a better match than Bowien and noma. The energy in the dining room was high and happy, and the energy in the kitchen higher and happier still. As 50 Cent and Kenny Loggins and Beyoncé and Led Zeppelin blasted from the speakers, Danny and Angela sent out the spectacularly beautiful tartare, now dressed with lime and ants to cut through the richness and carpeted with an ombre bed of nasturium flowers that went from red to orange to gold. The sourdough naan—warm, chewy, and tinted black with squid ink, came alongside a not-small dish of virgin butter neatly topped with caviar. The mahogany clam arrived on a bed of hot rocks and managed, in its combination of brine and blood sausage, to taste like something you'd scarf down at your favorite tapas bar in Bilbao. The Beggar's Fish, cracked open tableside and accompanied by a chunk of grilled bone marrow glazed with sweet-and-sour cherry, was perfect.
"It's funny," Bowien said, after all the guests had left and he was standing in the kitchen with the beaming Angela. "When we were starting Mission Chinese we would do all theme nights—Mexican Night, Italian Night—but we quickly ran out of themes. So we started doing an homage-to-noma night. But we had never actually eaten their food." A slow clap started in the kitchen and grew to a roar before he continued. "Now, getting to do this? Work in their kitchen and have them be so open and generous with us, teach us everything they do? That," he said, "is just so dope."