“Gerdaaaay maaayte. How yer gooowiiiing?”
René Redzepi, I have to say, does a pretty good Strine. Admittedly, when I interviewed the Noma chef in Sydney in 2010, his grasp of the Australian accent was already impressive, but six-odd years of meeting, cooking, talking and working with Aussies have clearly left their mark. And by the end of his restaurant’s much-talked-about season in Sydney – Redzepi has gone some ways to returning the favour.
When word got out last year that Noma was temporarily relocating from Copenhagen to Sydney’s emerging Barangaroo precinct, the food world, understandably, went a little crazy.
It’s not, after all, every day that a four-time San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant announces that it’s heading Down Under for 10 weeks, or that it’ll be producing an entirely new menu based on indigenous Australian ingredients. Despite the staggeringly high price of admission – just the food alone would set diners back $485 (plus credit card charges) – seats to the restaurant’s entire season went in minutes with a wait list of some 27,000 hopefuls crossing their fingers for a call-up.
Was it worth it? I reckon so, although forking over five big ones for lunch isn’t something I’d like to make a habit out of. While some of the tart opening numbers were more interesting than essential – that bowl of native berries flavoured with gubinge, say – the savoury courses were some of the best things I’ve eaten this year, not least an extraordinary dish starring West Australian snow crab meat served with a sort-of fish sauce made out of spiced kangaroo (“This is the best crab I’ve ever had,” exclaimed Redzepi as he brought the dish to the table. “Australia is the world champion of crab.”).
The much-Instagrammed abalone schnitty, meanwhile, rates as one of the most delicious crumbed and fried things I’ve tried while the unlikely union of sea urchin with dried tomatoes in a bush tomato and wild celery broth exemplifies that Noma magic. A thrilling, all-boutique, almost all-local booze selection accentuated the Australian-ness of the experience.
Food and drink aside, there were other aspects of Noma’s time in Australia that I’d love to see more of locally. The understated filament-lightbulb-free glamour of the room (post-Redzepi, the team from Bentley will be moving into the space). The brisk pace of the meal (10 courses of food in a shade over two hours? Yes, please). The candour of the service, from the unfailingly charming wait staff to the kitchen’s fierce greeting to guests on the way in. Fun fine dining? Absolutely.
While the last few months might well be remembered as the Summer of Redzepi (the Noma pop-up aside, Pierre Deschamps’ Noma documentary was also released nationally over the summer while Sydney is hosting MAD SYD, the first Australian incarnation of the ambitious food think-tank), the chef has maintained a long, meaningful connection with our nation for some time.
Frequent Redzepi sightings Down Under aside, many of the senior positions at Noma are held by Australians including James Spreadbury (restaurant manager), Katherine Bont (team leader) and Beau Clugston (research and development sous chef). Australians feature just as prominently on the restaurant’s list of alumni with Ben Greeno (The Paddington, Sydney), Sam Miller (Silvereye, Sydney), Ryan Squires (Esquire, Brisbane) and David Pynt (Burnt Ends, Singapore) among those to have cooked in the Noma kitchen.
Considering the Redzepi name was founded on a fierce commitment to express a region’s taste or ‘terroir’, native ingredients were always going to be part of the Noma Australia story (it was a similar case of indigenous-first during Noma’s Japanese pop-up last year and during the restaurant’s 2012 cameo at Claridges in London). More surprising, however, is that Redzepi has long championed these foodstuffs and those who have been using them for tens of thousands of years.
“Australians have to learn from its original people,” he said during his keynote speech at the Sydney Opera House in 2010.
“Not only to understand what’s out there and how to use it, but also how to take care of it, how to harvest it in a sustainable way, how to make it part of a cuisine that’s clever, that feels like it belongs here.”
Kylie Kwong, chef-patron at Billy Kwong in Sydney, was part of the audience that night and heard Redzepi’s message loud and clear. The day after the address, Kwong began sourcing and cooking native ingredients and incorporating them into her cooking. Today, diners at Billy Kwong tuck into the distinctly cosmopolitan likes of red-braised wallaby tail, crisp duck with Davidson plum and yabbies stir-fried with XO sauce.
“It was like learning all over again and incredibly stimulating and exciting from a creative and culinary perspective,” she says.
“As the months went by, the profound impact of this discovery hit me one day. By integrating native produce into my Cantonese-style fare, I was able to offer a truly authentic and meaningful version of Australian-Chinese cuisine. This is Australia on a plate. This is what our country looks and tastes like.”
While many have proclaimed Redzepi as some sort of chosen one for Australian cuisine, the chef waves away such talk, instead preferring to deflect attention towards the country’s existing indigenous food champions. He might have been able to give something to Australia, but the exchange hasn’t just been one-way.
“The encounters we’ve had with the Aboriginals have made the biggest impressions not just for Noma Australia, but also on me as a person,” he says.
“I will never forget my time in Arnhem Land with Josh Whiteland showing us around beaches of Western Australia, or going to Flinders Island in Tasmania and diving for urchins. I’m going to leave feeling fuelled and inspired to go back home having seen new people, heard fresh ideas, and experienced other ways of approaching the meal. What we’ve explored in Australia is something that very few get to do, even as Australians, and yet, we realise that we’ve seen almost nothing of what there is to still taste, smell, and experience.”