Editor's note: Our graphic designer, Lexie, had the opportunity to dine at Noma in connection with the publication of The Noma Guide to Fermentation. She was gracious enough to share her experience with us.
It was a sleepy morning in February when I arrived at work and was greeted with my colleague’s knowing smile and the words, You need to go see Kathi now.
My heart jumped into my throat while my jaw dropped to my knees. I knew immediately it meant that out of all the staff at Powell’s, I was going to Noma.
The kind folks at Noma then worked with me to secure a date in November for the Game and Forest menu. I had months for the giddy anticipation to grow, and months for the generous offers from friends wanting to join to come rolling in. My date, however, would be my husband, Russ.
Russ and I are travelers by definition. We both lived abroad as young adults, studied languages, and had dreams of diplomatic careers. Instead, we both ended up working at a bar, which is where we met and fell in love. We continue to make travel our priority, so it is no surprise that we had a springtime trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, in the works when I got the news about the Noma dinner.
Just hours before leaving work for the trip, Powell’s cookbook buyer handed me an unfinished copy of Hungry: Eating, Road-tripping, and Risking It All With the Greatest Chef in the World
. She didn’t know that I had my bags packed for Mexico and, while I knew it was about Noma chef Rene Redzepi, I had no clue what lay inside my new vacation read. Through its pages, I embarked on an intimate journey, side-by-side with the visionary chef, discovering ancient Oaxacan ingredients, pre-Hispanic cooking techniques, the identity of the muddy beverages ladled from buckets at the market, the witchcraft that is nixtamalization, and the indescribable complexity of mole
. I felt so connected to this person, as if by divine intervention. I could fully appreciate the account of his first tacos al pastor
, the evolutionary descendant of the shawarma
brought by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico. I began to recognize how food is such an integral part of our humanity, connecting us across miles and millennia. My first case of starry eyes set in.
Months later, after crossing a continent and an ocean, after a series of heartbreaking delays, an unplanned drive through Germany, and a delirious late-night ferry crossing, we arrived in the extraordinary capital of Denmark. Copenhagen is a magical mixture of charming historical stone structures and mind-bending modern architecture, intertwined with canals, bridges, and bike paths. We visited an opulent castle, walked the historic harbor, witnessed the changing of the guard, and ate smørrebrød
sandwiches, 1870s-style. We ventured through Freetown, the 1970s antiestablishment community-settled island, where housing is a treasure trove of DIY structures, not necessarily built to code, but certainly built to personal aesthetics and creative expression. Quality and design are themes that flow through every aspect of Danish life.
My first case of starry eyes set in.
We rode bicycles across the Snake Bridge, soaring over the water and weaving between the steel and glass. Later we biked under the runway of the Copenhagen airport as a jetliner passed overhead, and eventually traveled through time to the historic fishing village of Dragør, where quaint little yellow houses topped with lumpy thatched roofs line crooked cobblestone streets. In the distance, the expansive bridge to Sweden disappeared into the horizon. Had our backsides been up for it, we would have continued to CopenHill, the industrial power plant built with a sloped roof that doubles as a ski slope. But we had a dinner to get to.
Later that evening, we took the bus to the far end of Christiania, the island on which Noma is located. We got off in an area that felt like the edge of a nature preserve. To our left, the distance was lit up by the most beautiful power plant I have ever seen. It was Copenhill! And to our right was the soft glow of a complex of green houses, outbuildings, and what looked like a rustic hunting lodge. This was happening.
Immediately upon arrival, we were greeted by name, brought into a greenhouse reception area, and offered a warm tea while we waited. Then, when the moment was ours, one of the hosts opened the door and invited us to walk the lantern-lit garden pathway to the grand hall. This long procession was ours alone, just the two of us, a chance to be both mindful of the moment and in awe of what was about to begin.
We opened the door and three people were there to meet us and shepherd us into the dining room. As we were led around the corner passing the kitchen, all the members of the back of the house stopped what they were doing and warmly greeted us. I was so overwhelmed I barely saw that just beyond was Rene Redzepi himself, who also smiled sincerely and welcomed us.
At this point, I experienced an out-of-body floating sensation as we glided to our table for two, which was located next to a floor-to-ceiling window and lit by a single dramatic pendant, with fur pelts on the sleek Danish chairs. Before I could process what was happening, a figure approached. Rene Redzepi, culinary titan and myth among men, came over to personally introduce himself and thank Powell’s Books for selling so many copies of his book, The Noma Guide to Fermentation
. This is the moment I wish I could share with all of my comrades back home. Caroline, who attended us throughout the meal, poured champagne to celebrate the occasion. My heart was gushing.
The first plate to arrive was a straw nest holding the most perfect apple, fit for a still life, with its stem and painterly arrangement of lush green leaves still attached. The top lifted off like a lid to reveal ball-shaped pieces of an apple salad, with a mysterious dark entity lying inside. I had accepted from the beginning that I might taste things I had never dreamed of trying, but I didn’t anticipate it right at the start of the meal! I carefully examined every angle of this little body, which was kind of insect-like and kind of seaweed-like, but couldn’t determine what it was. I finally decided, here goes nothing.
It was pleasantly soft and a little sweet and really quite delicious. I asked Caroline what I had just eaten when she returned. Ask me the next time you see me at Powell’s and I’ll fill you in on the details.
At this point, I experienced an out-of-body floating sensation.
The next course to arrive was a sampling of reindeer offal. Each item was arranged in a circle, on a bed of bright green lichen with what I can only describe as “caveman frill-picks.” Careful hands had trimmed pieces of pine bough to look like tiny arrows with feathers that functioned as cocktail sticks for picking up the tender sweetbreads, buttery marrow, and the rich tongue. Finished with a foraged mushroom and a caramelized pine cone, we were instructed to pick up the bowl and sip the rich broth underneath. This was my favorite tactile experience of the meal. I felt like I was connecting with some primordial version of myself, as I brought the warm bowl up to my lips and the lichen tickled my nose.
Dishes were often delivered by their creators, who explained their intricacies in detail. I was still so hyper-stimulated and starstruck that I often had to ask Russ to tell me again what they said after they left the table. There were the most intense little dried seasonal berries and sweet tomatoes filled with bee pollen, served with rabbit oil and caramel. There were delicate sliced hazelnuts with robust caviar and the most luxurious chestnut dumplings. There was a yogurt mousse with a complex cardamom and poppy seed paste, nutty and exotic. And there was the duck, the main event. Served in rapid succession, we were ceremoniously presented with our own duck’s offerings: the brain tempura resting elegantly on his iridescent crown, tartare of heart inside the beak, leg meat cooked on the bone, and the most ravishing sanguine smoked breast. What I had feared having an emotional response to was instead mesmerizingly beautiful, and gave me a deeper connection and respect for this creature. It was avant-garde and artful and intoxicatingly delicious.
Each one of the 18 courses was a feast for the eyes, from the stunning ingredients, to the artistry of presentation, to the thoughtfulness of the vessels and utensils. Elements from the natural world surrounded the room decor, served as dinnerware and utensils, and composed the exquisite meal experience itself, giving the whole evening a rustic quality and vitality that made me feel less separate from the plant and animal kingdoms.
The human kingdom was impeccable too. Unsurprisingly, the flow of the meal was flawless and every detail was considered. But it was the unpretentious nature and genuine kindness of everyone we encountered that made us feel completely cared for and secure. If I nervously said something a little gauche, the staff were quick to respond with a relatable quip and meet us exactly where we were. Dining at such an exclusive, world-renowned restaurant is not an everyday experience for us, but the staff made us feel just as significant as their most famous guests.
We were invited to stay as long as we liked in the lounge area, cozy by the fire, with views of the grounds. Admittedly, I didn’t want the evening to end and could have stayed all night in the orange glow. Daniel, our new guide, generously offered homemade spruce schnapps to sip with our final dessert course, pine tree caramels with ants. We sat for a while, lulled by the fullness in our minds and in our bodies, digesting the gravity of what we just experienced.
The next day, I couldn’t stop beaming. The experience at Noma, and meeting Rene Redzepi and his wonderful cast and crew, left me feeling like I had met Jesus and his disciples. I had an entire flight to revel in the memory of the meal, the drama, the adventure. I knew my coworkers would be expecting a full review upon my return, and I struggled to know how to articulate what you can’t explain. I feel like any previous notion I had of what a fine meal meant had been limited to what I could imagine. But Noma tested and then exceeded my understanding of the world around me and what is possible with food. Caroline had grinned a little when I told her I didn’t feel like the same person as when I had arrived, but it was true. Our evening at Noma, the greatest restaurant in the world, was amazing and unforgettable. I am so thankful to everyone at Powell’s, from the drivers to the buyers to the booksellers and beyond, whose combined efforts made this possible. I hope those reading this post get a taste of this transformative experience and share a sense of the magic afforded by this wildly unique opportunity.