Cooking Up Enjoyment

Five Weeks in Tokyo: The World’s Best Restaurant’s Japanese Adventure

Culture Lifestyle

Danish restaurant Noma has been named the world’s best restaurant four times in the last five years for chef René Redzepi’s innovative approach to cuisine. In early 2015, it opened a pop-up restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Tokyo, presenting a new menu based exclusively on Japanese ingredients.

On a February morning, just before the end of award-winning Danish restaurant Noma’s five-week pop-up adventure in Tokyo, visited the kitchen on the thirty-seventh floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Tokyo.

As soon as we stepped into the kitchen, from which a snow-capped Mount Fuji was visible, sous chef Beau Clugston took a Nagano-grown wild kiwi from the refrigerator. “Would you like one?” As it chilled the tongue, the fruit brought immediate refreshment with its tart, rich flavor.

Near the entrance, young chefs were opening freshwater clams one by one, arranging salted sanshō leaves, and cracking walnuts. The kitchen was something of a maze, divided into several rooms—including a preparation kitchen 40 floors down on basement level 3. “If they forget one of their ants, they have to wait for the elevator, go and get ants, wait for the elevator, and come back,” explained Anthony Costa, the hotel’s general manager, in reference to one of the restaurant’s more unusual ingredients.

Chefs at work near the entrance (left); the sanshō leaves are laid out carefully (right).

Noma has topped the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants on numerous occasions and always has a waiting list numbering in the thousands. It is one of the most difficult restaurants in the world to secure a reservation for. And for five weeks only, Noma owner-chef René Redzepi brought 77 staff members, from chefs to dishwashers, to Japan for a new restaurant challenge.

“What If We All Go There?”

René Redzepi is the chef and co-owner of Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. He began cooking when he was 15, honing his skills at upscale restaurants like Spain’s El Bulli. Since establishing Noma in 2003, he has developed a cuisine that draws from Scandinavian culture and seasonal cuisine. The name of the restaurant derives from the Danish words nordisk (Nordic) and mad (food).

Redzepi first came to Japan in 2009 at the invitation of Murata Yoshihiro, the owner of Kyoto’s famed Kikunoi restaurant. During his one-week stay, he visited a huge range of places including miso factories, sake brewers, and suppliers of soy sauce, kombu kelp, and yuzu citrus fruit. He decided he wanted to visit again for an extended period to learn by being a part of the Japanese system, which he felt was very different from his native Denmark. However, as a 37-year-old with three young children, he had family responsibilities he could not ignore. That was when he had a sudden inspiration. “What if we all go there? We simply move everybody.”

In September 2013, when he announced his plan to the Noma staff, “They cheered and jumped in the air,” he says. In December that year he began reaching out to hotels. Of the several he contacted, only the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo replied. Anthony Costa was highly enthusiastic about the unprecedented collaboration between the hotel and Noma.

As might be expected, the news brought a massive reaction. The waiting list was full by the end of the first day of online booking on June 23, 2014, and ultimately swelled to 62,000 people. In the five weeks—from January 9 until February 14, 2015—that Noma operated in Tokyo, 3,600 guests enjoyed innovative menus consisting of 15 to 16 items. Apart from Japanese diners, those lucky enough to win reservations included people from as far away as Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates.

In the Mountains with Traditional Hunters

Redzepi, who has spent a total of five months in Japan since 2009, and members of his staff made seven preparatory trips to the country in 2014 alone. He was amazed by the diversity of the country’s landscapes. His travels took him as far south as the subtropical island of Ishigaki, Okinawa, where he was sufficiently charmed by the long pepper grown there to incorporate it into a “Citrus and Long Pepper” dish.

Citrus and Long Pepper: Four types of citrus fruit—hassaku and mikan oranges, buntan and banpeiyu pomelos—are cut and presented like sashimi, garnished with salted sanshō leaves, long pepper, pine salt, and Rishiri kombu oil.

Redzepi spent two memorable days with traditional matagi hunters in the Shirakami mountain range in Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan. “We went into the mountains to taste roots, leaves, the bark of trees, and strange flowers. They talked about birds, what kind of animals live there, and how to get wild food and taste new berries. It was a very big experience.”

The expedition was arranged by Namae Shinobu, chef at L’Effervescence, a two-star Michelin French restaurant in Tokyo, who provided strong backing throughout Noma’s Japanese enterprise.

Much to Namae’s surprise, Redzepi was able to shock the matagi too with intense talk about the properties of Japanese knotweed. They were also taken aback by his suddenly chewing on a wild cherry branch. Later, a hokkori pumpkin dish on Noma’s Tokyo menu made use of oil flavored with bark from the same variety of wild cherry.

Hokkori Pumpkin, Cherry Wood Oil, and Salted Cherry Blossoms.

When Redzepi visited Nagano Prefecture, he read extensively about the local custom of eating insects, such as hornet larvae and citrus-flavored ants. He wanted to accent botan shrimp with citrus, but lemon juice reacted to “cook” the flesh, so he decided “to use formic acid from the ants just like a lemon.” The dish of fresh shrimp topped with ants was given the name “Botan-ebi [Botan Shrimp] with Flavors of Nagano Forest.” (Incidentally, the use of ants was not a new departure for Noma, which has been adding them to its dishes for some years.)

Among the Japanese foods that whetted Redzepi’s appetite, raised on the cuisine of Northern Europe, were freshwater clams, matsubusa berries, and several varieties of citrus fruit. However, he reserves his highest praise for Rishiri kombu, the thick seaweed from the northern Hokkaidō coast, particularly near the island of Rishiri. “It’s one of the most unbelievable ingredients I know of.”

All About Relationships

“Japan has one of the richest food cultures in the world,” Redzepi says. “Not only that, but the population is sophisticated and appreciates natural choices.” To him, he adds Tsukiji Fish Market is like the Eiffel Tower of Tokyo.

However, in other ways Japan seems like “another planet” compared with Denmark. “One of the big differences is that everything here is about relationships, whereas at home, it’s about transactions. When you don’t understand that, it can be a bit difficult in the beginning. You don’t understand that you need to go and visit the person who sells turnips, drink miso soup, say hello to each other, spend a few hours talking, and go back home before you call them again. Then maybe you get your turnips.” Costa was very impressed by Redzepi’s efforts to get to know all of his suppliers: “What he has done is remarkable.”

Namae, who accompanied Redzepi as he searched for ingredients, said of the Noma chef, “His cuisine is environmentally friendly and shows respect for the dignity of life.” Namae talked about Redzepi’s “trash cooking,” which makes use of ingredients that would normally be thrown out, as well as the way that he serves wild duck whole—a presentation that expresses the gravity of life. “He is a chef of the future, always going farther than anyone else. And through flavor he is influencing society’s values in many ways.”

Complex Simplicity

In Scandinavia, fermentation was an essential traditional method for preserving ingredients for the long winter. Noma relies heavily on fermented food. Redzepi also makes much use of vegetables. “For us, the future is in vegetables.”

In its Tokyo incarnation, Noma gained inspiration from the Japanese way of eating. “In Europe, most dishes are always on one plate, but in Japan you often have more than one plate. A dish of pickles on one side. Soy sauce you dip your sushi in. Cold broth for your soba.” Redzepi enjoyed the potential for varied interaction between diner and meal, an influence clear in his dish Kōika Cuttlefish “Soba” and Roses.

Kōika Cuttlefish “Soba” and Roses: Cuttlefish is thinly sliced into the shape of soba noodles and brushed with fermented cuttlefish intestines, miso-cured smoked tofu, and maitake mushroom paste. This is then sprayed with pine broth, sprinkled with salty Rausu kombu flakes, and served with rose petals in white sesame oil.

Pleasing and surprising people through food and having fun while cooking have always been central to Redzepi’s cuisine. His philosophy seemed to infect the Mandarin Oriental. “He transformed my hotel,” Costa says with a big smile on his face.

“First of all, his chefs listen to rock music in my kitchen. At eight o’clock in the morning! You can imagine the older Japanese chefs looking at these young guys with short sleeves with tattoos all down their arms. It’s taken a bit of time for some of my Japanese colleagues to get used to. But now they’re singing along to AC/DC together.”

Redzepi holds a staff meeting before the restaurant opens for the day.

It is not yet clear how Redzepi’s Japanese experience will affect his future menus. But he has been greatly impressed by what he describes as the “complex simplicity” of Japanese culture. “If you imagine green tea, it’s a cup of tea, but it’s not just a cup of tea. It’s a whole ceremony and it’s a whole philosophy.” The act of drinking a cup of tea may be an unremarkable thing to most people, but Redzepi thinks it is possible to find a lot of value and beauty there. “You can actually make it a very complex, rich, and profound experience.”

(Written by the editorial department, based on a February 13, 2015, interview. Photographs by Yamada Shinji.)

For more creative use of Japanese ingredients by the world’s top chefs, see the following article.

World’s Top Chefs Work Wonders with Japanese Ingredients
The third World Summit of Gastronomy took place in Tokyo in September 2012. Some of the world’s very best chefs were on hand to share ideas on how to bring out the best of Japanese ingredients.

food dining Noma René Redzepi Denmark Mandarin Oriental Hotel Kikunoi