We Feasted on Crocodile Fat Inside Noma Australia’s Kitchen

A narrative visual guide to what's on the plate at Noma Australia, from crocodile fat to a green fruit that looks like a phallus.

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Mar 11 2016, 3:10pm

A few hours before the first service of his Sydney pop up, the most influential chef in the world was brandishing a large green phallus. In truth, it wasn't actually a phallus, but an indigenous Australian fruit, aptly named monstera deliciosa, that had to be aged in newspaper before becoming edible. Unripe, its high content of oxalic acid could cause burning and blistering in the mouth, and even then, its verdant scales had to be painstakingly removed one by one. But René Redzepi still wanted to figure out a way to use the shaft-shaped fruit. "Come on, man," he said to his development chef Thomas Frebel. "We didn't travel all the way here to cook with carrots."

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All photos by Jason Loucas.

No, they did not. Redzepi had decided to move his renowned restaurant noma from its home in Copenhagen to a purpose-built but temporary location in Sydney for several reasons: to bring his crew closer together, to teach them about a different part of the world, and, not insignificantly, to give them practice in opening a new restaurant (that practice will come in handy in 2017 when noma reinvents itself as an intensely seasonal restaurant with an attached urban farm and a wholly new series of menus). But mostly, they had come for the chance to gain inspiration from native ingredients, like that monstera deliciosa, that are seriously weird and wonderful.

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They got what they came for. Here is a narrative guide to some of the stories behind noma Australia's tasting menu:

Macadamia
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Fifteen apprentices, 16 kilos of macadamia nuts, two hours a day: pretty much everything you need to know about noma is contained within in that formula.

Like so many dishes on the Australia menu, the first course comes to the table looking like simplicity itself: little white coins in a bowl of clear liquid. But the liquid is a chilled broth made from spanner crab so pristine you can tell it never had an impure thought. And the coins are white macadamias, or to be more precise, green white macadamias, with a flavor so distinctive—verdantly nutty—that the farmer who grew them was gobsmacked by his failure to think of eating them that way.

With such unadorned components, the dish depends on a precise texture for its impact. Which is why, on opening day, a full nine people are prepping it during service, slicing the nuts à la minute. Redzepi watches them closely, and quickly grows displeased. "Did you do this?" he asks one cook, who, miserably, admits that he has. "They're too thin. It's exactly what we said not to do." He glares at the crew. "It's just slicing nuts. But this is a disaster."

Berries
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The berries are strange and wondrous things—muntries that look like tiny green basketballs, ruby-colored riberries. Dense and almost savory, they force you to redefine your very understanding of berrydom. But it is the gubinge powder that puts the dish over the top. A wild plum about the size of an olive, the gubinge is pureed, dried, and made into a powder with a flavor reminiscent of white chocolate. "Don't fuck around with it," Redzepi says as he watches a cook sprinkle it over a plate of the fruit. "It costs $500 per kilo." Just then, the air conditioning kicks on, and the station turns into that scene in Annie Hall where Alvy Singer sneezes at a party and blows a few thousands dollars of cocaine in the air. There is white powder everywhere.

Porridge
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Wattle seeds are the bush version of poppy seeds, the kind of thing you sprinkle on a lemon scone. Wattle seeds are not the kind of thing you plow into a big bowl of. Unless you are René Redzepi. In that case, upon hearing that Aborigines made bread from wattle seeds, you just might wonder what would happen if you treated those seeds like a grain and boiled the hell out of them. Maybe it would take eight hours in a pressure cooker set to 100 degrees for them to become edible, and maybe even then a few seeds would remain stubbornly resistant to the human molar. But you would have a porridge of sorts, a porridge you could wrap in—what else?—juicy saltbush leaves so that they look like bright green gnocchi. "Compared to the grain at home, this feels like wilderness food," Redzepi says. "It's next-level stuff."

Seafood Platter
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A tribute to the midden—or the pile of shells that accumulated from Aborigines eating shellfish—that sits outside noma Australia's door in the Barangaroo harbour, the platter is an introductory course in Australian bivalves. Atop each of the shellfish, including a funkily flavored pipi and and a red-rimmed strawberry clam, is a wafer-thin sheet that melts on the tongue as you eat it.

That sheet once paddled outside the Cage of Death.

Among the many activities offered by Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin—including a child-friendly Fishing for Crocs and a Big Croc Feed VIP Experience—is the opportunity to descend in a tank into a pool filled with swimming prehistoric reptiles. But Crocosaurus Cove is not all fun and games: it also doubles as a farm that supplies skins to Louis Vuitton, and now fat to a certain well-known restaurant in Northern Europe. On the day that noma's advance research team visited, the farmer was slaughtering. "We tried the fat and it was amazing," recalls Beau Clugston. His response was extremely positive, as he loves everything about crocodiles. But now I think he regrets it because it's a lot of work to get that fat out.

Noma turns that fat into a translucent shard, then sets it set atop the five bivalves in its Seafood Platter. What does crocodile fat taste like? It tastes like chicken, and not just because everything tastes like chicken. It tastes like chicken because that's what the crocodiles at Crocosaurus Cove eat.

Snow Crab
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The snow crab that noma serves in luxurious abundance isn't really a snow crab—those live in the North Atlantic. These are from Western Australia, fished in water so deep that the light doesn't penetrate, preventing the creature from taking on any color. For most restaurants, a ghostly, misnamed crustacean living in lightless oblivion would be enough weirdness for one dish. Here, they dress theirs with a lightly cured egg and fermented kangaroo juice. Do not ask how they juice the kangaroo. Just think of the dish as a noma Australia surf-n-turf.

Pie
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"We couldn't come to Australia and not have pie," says Beau Clugston, the noma research chef charged with sourcing ingredients in his native country. And it's true: pastries filled with meat in a gloppy sauce is on sale in every café, bakery, and shitty bus station kiosk between Sydney and Perth. Noma's interpretation is not shitty. In less skilled hands, however, it could have been poisonous. Pressing disks of grayish-green dough (there's seaweed in it) into tart molds, Clugston explains. "Lantana is an extremely iconic bush," he says, noting that it grows in people's yards all over Sydney. "But it's also a noxious weed, and its leaves are poisonous; only the flowers are edible." At noma they take those tiny purple and white flowers and scatter them (OK, tweeze them) over a filling of scallop fudge that, while deeply savory, is a bit of an afterthought. "Scallop just ended up being the protein that fit best with the flowers," Clugston says.

Tomatoes and Urchin
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"Basically, we just wanted to work with tomatoes," says Redzepi.

Marron
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One of the most complicated dishes on the menu, the marron—an indigenous Australian crustacean that looks like crayfish who has been through a terrible accident with a chainsaw—sits on a spoonful of ragout made from a mango-eating goose favored by Aborigines and is wrapped in a charred milkskin that is in turn wrapped in a palm frond basket. There are a lot of moving parts that can go wrong, and on the first trial service, they did.

As the first guests were gathering outside, the Josper oven that makes the charcoal over which the finished wraps are grilled started spewing smoke: the ventilation system had quit. The milkskin was too wet, and was sticking to the grill. Kim Mikkola, the Finnish chef in charge of the dish, got in the weeds. And when it came time to plate the dish, things got even worse; the baskets looked like they had been woven by preschoolers.

In fact, they had been woven by the waitstaff, who the next day sat around one of the outdoor tables, trying again. Mikkola wasn't taking any chances this time. He was the one who had figured out how to make the baskets in the first place: his grandfather used to weave birch bark. Now he watched over their work closely. "I'm always worried," he says. "The days when you're not, when you think you've got it under control—that's when shit happens. But the ones when you're behind and stressed, that's when it's magic."

Abalone
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The dish the chefs were calling the 'main course' is another take on what is, believe it or not, an Australian staple: schnitzel. Only this schnitty, as they call it Down Under, is made not from veal or chicken, but from abalone fished in the waters of Tasmania. For Richard Pinson, one of the owners of Red Claw Seafood, which supplies the abalone, it was a revelation. "I brought the diver to dinner here, and it brought tears to his eyes to eat it," he says.

It's true: the dish is outrageously delicious. At noma they tenderize the abalone by hammering it, bread and fry it, then plate it with bush lime and a bunch of weird and wonderful seaweeds. "It's like the best fish fingers you ever tried," Redzepi says.

Fruit
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In Copenhagen, there's a bowl of apples on the counter in the test kitchen; Redzepi can easily go through four of them in a day. In Sydney, the bowl is filled with slices of watermelon, and he eats from it even more frequently—watermelon is his favorite fruit. It also figures, along with mango and pineapple, in the palate-cleansing course that leads to dessert whose nearly-neon colors you never see back home. The deep pink cube of watermelon is marinated in Davidson's plum. "It's the sourest thing you'll ever taste," Redzepi says. "But the pairing with watermelon is great. It's like tomato and mozzarella."

Lamington
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It's Mette Søberg's job to keep the lamington—an iconic Australian dessert that noma has adapted to its own purposes—from melting. This is not as easy as it sounds. Made from an aerated sponge cake soaked in a local tamarind rum, it is covered in a milk crumb that resembles the dessert's normal coconut coating, but has to be kept frozen. Just not too frozen. "The milk crumb is very delicate. I can use liquid nitrogen to control the temperature," she says, gesturing to a canister that she wields like a sniper. "But it hardens the crumb. If you use too much, you end up with a solid block of ice." She brushes a hand across her forehead impatiently. "Yeah. You could say I have a love/hate relationship with the lamington."

Baytime
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The Australian version of a Magnum ice cream bar is called Gay Time (a Golden Gay Time to be exact), and noma has a version of its own, though it is forced to adjust the name to avoid infringing on any trademarks. "It was Thomas's idea," says pastry chef Malcolm Livingston, "He wanted to do a popsicle." Livingston set to work, and came up with a version in which the ice cream is made from peanut milk, the center from a citrus toffee, and the exterior from, well, freekah, an ancient grain that is toasted, then "blitzed with oil and clarified butter" until it resembles, with spooky accuracy, chocolate. It is so delicious that Redzepi, who normally doesn't like sweets, can't stop eating them. "I have to make four extra a day for him," says Livingston. "Two for each service."

There is more, of course. The all-Australian drinks menu, for one, which starts with noma's take on a Snakebite, one of those concoctions—in this case beer and cider—that normally sounds like a very bad idea. The gorgeous bread that one chef spent weeks perfecting with the intention that it would be served as its own course with housemade Vegemite, only to be told by Redzepi that although "it was the best bread in Sydney" it didn't fit in the menu. The petit fours made from bush herbs.

Eating through it all feels a bit like falling through a rabbit hole to a land you hadn't known existed. A land, it should be said, without carrots.