Noma and the search for a second act

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By Howard Chua-Eoan

COPENHAGEN became a place of pilgrimage for global gourmands because of Noma and its chef Rene Redzepi. The news that he will close its doors as a restaurant at the end of 2024 brought me back to the afternoon of Sept. 7, 2019. I’d just had lunch there with my friends Ferran and Isabel Adria, who were visiting from Barcelona. Ferran was the trailblazing wizard of El Bulli on the Costa Brava — a supremely innovative kitchen that made culinary history. Rene had worked there briefly and credits Ferran with freeing the imagination of cooks around the world from the dominance of French gastronomy.

Rene and his wife Nadine led us out into the restaurant’s lovely garden. He had important questions for Ferran, who’d shuttered El Bulli eight years before: How should he think about life after Noma? How does one go about a second act?

Here were two epic figures in the universe of haute cuisine, but I can’t say any real answers emerged from their conversation. Ferran’s one dictum was that, whatever Rene did, it couldn’t be just about food. Creativity, the Catalan chef said, was his operating principle. He had been working hard to turn the site of El Bulli into a center for innovation in all endeavors. That ambition had gotten a lot of attention but most of it derived from Ferran’s own compelling personality and his historic role in making Spain a mecca for the culinary avant-garde — or as he prefers to say in Spanish, la vanguardia. I’d been following the evolution of the post-restaurant El Bulli and was aware that Ferran had so many ideas for the project that shaping it had become a monumental task in itself. El Bulli will finally reopen this year — as a culinary museum.

On that September afternoon, Rene had listened politely but did not look as if he’d gotten the direction he needed. The New York Times says Noma will become a food laboratory that will turn out products to be sold online. However successful the endeavor, the next chapter will be very different from being the acclaimed chef of the best restaurant in the world. I think of the lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses”: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end,/To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”

I suspect Rene will go through what I sense Ferran has discovered. It’s great to be part of history — but not really comforting to know you have become part of the past. There’s nothing that quite compares to the rush from being the world’s No. 1 restaurant — an acknowledgement not just of creativity but of that most difficult of arts, making people happy simply by placing food in front of them.

When he closed El Bulli, Ferran admitted that he wouldn’t miss the annual anxiety over retaining Michelin stars. In the years since, he’s worked selflessly to burnish the reputation of his brilliant younger brother, Albert, whose restaurants are among the world’s best. But it’s still wonderful to be reminded of how brightly you’ve shined. I could see how he beamed when we ate at Rasmus Munk’s acclaimed Alchemist, where the cuisine is, in many ways, a living tribute to El Bulli. Munk is too young to have eaten at Ferran’s restaurant but he was enraptured by the presence of the master. And that made Ferran happy.

For now, the top chef doing the best forward thinking about second acts is another disciple of Ferran’s: Jose Andres. He’d been fired from El Bulli by Ferran himself, but when Jose moved to the US, he became an evangelist for his mentor’s culinary philosophy. He made his home and career in the Washington DC area, becoming adept at politics or at least dealing with politicians. Remember his feud with Donald Trump?

While Jose has built a successful business of several restaurants around the US, he has also become a secular saint. If a war breaks out or a natural disaster slams a city, Jose and his World Central Kitchen will sweep in to feed people.  It’s a different kind of celebrity status. Hero or top chef — which role provides greater satisfaction? Or longevity?

Noma won’t close till the end of next year. And the dash for final reservations will be heady. But all that doesn’t mean Rene can’t change his mind. He shut Noma once before, reopening what’s popularly called Noma 2.0 in a new site (where we sat in the garden) after more than a year’s absence. In the interim, he took his operation overseas for elaborate pop-ups. He’s doing one again this year in Kyoto. He’s only 45. Give the second act a little more time to shape itself. I haven’t given up hope for El Bulli 2.0. — Bloomberg