Noma goes nomadic and explores the Australian bush
Danish Noma owner René Redzepi takes up residency in Sydney with Noma Australia
W hatever happened to Skippy’s paw? In the 1960s’ Aussie TV series, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, the FX department seemed limited to a kangaroo paw on the end of a stick. This heroic implausible paw would creep into shot (my memory is of it disarming bombs and flying helicopters) to untie ropes or operate a radio. I imagined that there was a paw on the end of a well-worn wooden pole hanging over some ruddy producer’s fireplace in Australia: “The paw that paid for this pad, mate.”
It’s what I’m thinking about in the blazing heat while I’m looking at a blackened roasted leg of kangaroo hanging over a campfire by a creek in a dusty but glorious valley in Australia’s Southern Highlands.
The setting is like a wrap party for The Revenant. The guy roasting Skip is James Viles, a softly spoken and talented chef who fled the industrial hotel kitchens of the Middle East, where his only connection with his produce was via a calculator and cold room, and returned to what he always had on his front door at home. What he had at home was everything. It just took him travelling to the other side of the world to remind him.
The chef who is all about pointing out what you might miss on your own doorstep, René Redzepi, is the focus of the Skippy’s paw lunch and this day trip. Redzepi’s residency in Sydney with Noma Australia is a nuclear soft power lesson to show the world that there is more to this country than barbies and fusion food.
The country is too large and diverse to comprehend for even this temporary wizard of Oz. That trippy trip to the valley was like being semi-asleep in the back of the car but waking up to find yourself variously in Kenya, Kansas, the Caribbean, or the green fields of Ireland, all in a two-hour drive.
Along the way we stop at a sensational micro-dairy sheep farm set in a cool climate rainforest where you’d expect to see free-range velociraptors peering out of the prehistoric giant ferns, rather than sheep.
But this island is a continent, so where do you even start looking for native ingredients? Ingredients used on the Noma Australia menu were collected and foraged, bought from tiny suppliers and individual producers, sourced from the seashore and rockpools, freshwater rivers, grasslands and lush tropical forests from Tasmania to the Northern Territories and everywhere in between
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Redzepi, “it blows your mind. And of all the stuff we’ve seen, maybe 5 per cent has made it onto the Noma Australia menu.”
Despite the sweetly flavoured spanner crab used on this Oz-focused tasting menu being flown from over four hours away, that is still in Australia, so in Redzepi’s terms that is still culturally local.
“Imagine sourcing from Dublin to Jerusalem or from Dublin to Marrakech, ” he continues. “Those are the climates and the physical range you have to choose from.”
The restaurant residency sold out on Tock in record time, processing over $1 million (€674,680) in two minutes, with a waiting list of over 27,000 diners.
When Noma goes nomad it isn’t just the chefs and a few key staff who travel. Everyone goes. Not just all of the staff but their partners and families too, although this is the first overseas gig that isn’t in a hotel. Its Copenhagen-esque quayside setting overlooking Darling Harbour feels every bit as permanent as the mothership at home.
But the restless Dane is leaving the mothership too, and walking away from the place and menu that won him the coveted number one slot in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants four times. Noma as it currently exists is due to have its last service at the end of this year, and is reopening in a different space in Christiania with an onsite garden and urban farm, and a focus on three distinct seasons informing the dining experience.
Some media coverage recently has suggested that Noma closing, coming back as something else, suggests it is slowing down, yet Redzepi has decamped Noma to Japan to use the scattered larder of one of the most sophisticated food cultures in the world, then popped up back in Australia a year later, working from that alien larder.
He did all of this in between having business as usual in Copenhagen, and moving his annual symposium, Mad, into an action-based food NGO by launching Mad at Yale and Vild Mad (wild food – a resource for learning, tasting and exploring wild food).
So with all of this happening over the last year or so, why is there is a sense that the Dane is taking it handy from here on in?
Noma’s influence on dining is global, the ingredients it uses, the presentation style (or indeed the plates themselves) . . . soon you will see his biggest change replicated in the chiller parts the world – his three seasons. “I gave it a lot of thought,” he said. “Could I really start again? Although we have a team, we have a community, we really wonder; is this going to work? I mean we might not even get two Michelin stars because we are figuring things out. But if it works out it’s going to be extraordinary.
“In all honesty with most fine dining restaurants, including Noma, you only have to come maybe once a year. The format is always the same. But now we will be giving guests three distinct moments. Even as a cook, to go into these three micro-seasons means you are constantly being fresh.
“I am actually excited about going home and starting this new thing. I do miss home. It’s very exciting. This is us going knee-deep into debt because we want to have a home for the coming decades. It’s the place we’re going to retire in, probably.”
My last question was about my home, a country blessed with incredible produce and producers and a dining scene that is better than ever, but in my opinion no closer to defining what Irish food is. Was there a rule of thumb that could be applied to help define our food culture?
“The rule of thumb is that you have to fall in love with your landscape and you have to explore it properly. Reach out to everyone for help and make the biggest trip of your life, around your own place. You have to go to every nook and cranny and talk to people, and that is the starting point. It is not enough to just go to a farm and meet that farmer. It’s seeing your own place with a set of fresh eyes and not through the lens of cultural stigma, something that natives can have a lot of towards their own home place.
“I genuinely think, from that moment on, something can then happen, you just have to do it. Don’t overthink it. There is no quick fix – people have to realise it is a lifetime of work. Noma has had great success but we are nowhere near the finish line at all. We are just starting”. Hungrier than ever, Redzepi isn’t just still in the game, he is still changing it.