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René Redzepi, NOMA in Fukuoka – Interview

World Famous Chef Visits Fukuoka to Source Vegetables

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Noma, the award winning, genre-fusing, self-reinventing restaurant in Copenhagen made a surprise announcement early this year. On Dec. 20, 2014, the restaurant will temporarily close their Copenhagen doors, pack up their pots and pans and, on Jan. 9, 2015, re-open in Tokyo. And we’re not just talking about a handful of chefs, but the entire team of 75 from dishwasher to the owner and head chef René Redzepi. Noma will be setting up inside the Signature restaurant inside the Mandarin Hotel Tokyo. Lunch and dinner will both be served. Lunch and dinner is from ¥40,200 per person whilst the Mandarin is offering a Noma package for ¥154,000, including dinner at Noma and accommodation at the Mandarin plus service and tax. Reservations opened in June and were so popular that the Noma website crashed under heavy demand within two weeks. Since then, 58,000 reservations have been made.

Noma is famous for its locally sourced cuisine – so naturally in Japan they will use only the finest and freshest Japanese ingredients. That is why Noma owner and Head Chef René Redzepi, along with Lars Williams, Head Chef for research and development (R&D) and Thomas Frebet, Sous Chef (R&D) are traveling to select locations from Okinawa in the south to Tokyo in the north in the run-up to the restaurant’s opening.

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Fukuoka’s reputation for high quality and tasty vegetables has been gaining traction not only domestically, but also abroad. Many restaurants in Hong Kong in particular import fresh vegetables from Itoshima with same day delivery.

Accordingly, René, Lars, and Thomas spent two days in Fukuoka. They visited farms in Asakura where they walked through open fields, spoke with farmers and tasted the vegetables. Next, they headed to Hoshuyama Kinoko, a shiitake farm in Hoshuyama-mura, Asakura-gun. Dinner was at Hachi-bei, a well-known yakitori restaurant in Tenjin. Despite the long day, the group woke at 4am to witness the fish and seafood auction at Fukuoka Central Wholesale Market.

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From there it was off to Itoshima, where they visited Kubota Farms. Fourth generation farmer, Masayuki Kubota personally guided René and his team through several of his fields and greenhouses. The Noma team was highly impressed by what they saw and tasted. It’s a safe bet that there will be some Itoshima herbs and vegetables served at Noma Tokyo this winter.

Nick Szasz of Fukuoka Now accompanied the chefs on both days and managed to talk to René about his vision for this new project. If you are one of the lucky ones with a reservation in Tokyo – please send us a photo of your meal! Email contact(atmark)

Interview with René Redzepi in Fukuoka

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Tell us about the mission of your visit to Japan
We’re here to find ingredients for our lunch and dinner menu that we are opening in Tokyo in January. We aren’t looking to eat at other restaurants, so we don’t have a lot of reservations. People keep texting me, asking me, “where are you going to eat?” but really, we are spending each day searching for high quality ingredients and produce to create our own menu.

Why Fukuoka?
As a Westerner, Kyushu is an area you rarely go to or even hear about, but we heard that there were some great farms and produce to explore here. We only realized three weeks ago that the best time to try the local produce was in October, so we put a trip to Kyushu high up the agenda to make sure we could sample it at its best.

How did you first hear about Fukuoka?
I heard about Fukuoka from industry contacts, none of us had heard about it in the media before. We’ve heard great things from Hong Kong chefs who use Kyushu produce, they talk happily about the high quality and freshness of it.

What have you found so far?
We’ve found some extraordinary flavours. In Okinawa we found a variety of pepper that we loved and a variety of pumpkin that we’re extremely happy with and are keen to try, I don’t remember the names but both are local varieties that have been grown for centuries. We’re very happy with the wild sorrel here, the watercress and those bitter mustardy greens and we definitely want to try and see if we can use them. I also thought the mackerel was some of the best quality mackerel I’ve ever tasted. We could use almost everything on this farm (Kobata Farms, Itoshima) but it’s about selecting what’s necessary for our restaurant, what will compliment the other flavours and how that fits into the farm’s ability to supply us throughout the season.

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Can you tell us anything about the direction of the menu?
It’s difficult to say but at the moment we are visiting a lot of green farms and not looking too much at livestock farms. We want to surprise the Japanese people with something a little more vegetarian and not so rice-based – about 80% of the people who reserved tables are Japanese. Its all about putting our own fingerprint on typical Japanese ingredients. This is also how we do food in Copenhagen, predominantly vegetable based.

We know that much about ingredients, but we are also thinking about presentation. I have been inspired by the kaiseki style of organising a meal which focuses on length and timing. Maybe kaiseki is a bit too long for what we want to do at the Mandarin but it’s definitely inspiring, twelve to fourteen courses is a good number. I’ve also been to several temples to experience and try shōjin ryōri which I really, really adore, I think it’s unique and it has also given me some inspiration.

How are reservations going?
Extraordinary, more than we believed possible. There’s no question that we are in a tight spot in regards to our finances, we need to make it, we need to be organised and we need to count every penny. While we’re here in Japan we’ll be paying rent here but we’ll also be paying rent back home in Denmark.

We also have to organise everybody in the team coming here and find schools for the people bringing their children with them, amazingly though, we’ve found a Scandinavian school.

We initially planned to open for a month because we were nervous, “what if we don’t fill out?”. If that had been the case we would have lost money here in Japan, and that can’t happen. As we opened reservations though, locals flooded in and blew our systems over. After two weeks we had 58,000 people reserved. This was still six months before we opened and we were so overwhelmed that we decided to shut the system down.

When are you going to decide about an extension?
We already have. We’re now planning to keep the restaurant open until Feb. 14 – Valentine’s day. Around 80% of the people who tried to book a table are Japanese which surprised us – we were very uncertain what our demographics would be because Tokyo is such a hub: people from Singapore and Hong Kong all fly in for dinner. We also have had many people from Australia, Taiwan and Korea and even three to four hundred Americans who all want a table.

What were your expectations for the pop up?
The whole experience is about learning, to go and tap into an ancient food culture and see if it can add another layer to our own operation and also see if we can add our own layer to it. That’s the main reason.

Secondly, we wanted a life experience for the whole team. We’re trying to organise all the admin now so that when we arrive, it’s basically cooking and having a good-time and they don’t need to worry so much about everyday life. We’re organising everything and it’s an astonishing amount of work. We’ve spent double, no triple, the amount of money doing the admin then we would if we just opened normally in Copenhagen. We have also employed one person full time for the last year just to manage all of this. Financially it seems an impossible project, everybody will be happy if we just break even because it’s such a wonderful experience but really it’s a crazy, crazy thing.

Regarding Noma, just one location, one restaurant. Is that how it is going to be forever?
I hope so. I’m very happy with just one location especially if we can also do stuff like this, explore a bit. But let’s see what happens. It would be very difficult to move Noma. We’re trying now in a small way to move the Noma philosophy and put our aesthetic into a different place.

Whether it will work, we’ll see. I think it will, I really believe it will. And if it does, maybe then we can start thinking about another restaurant. But that would mean I would have to travel a lot. I have a family and I’m very happy working at the restaurant in Copenhagen, so I’m not sure this would fit in with lifestyle I want. But we might as well have stayed in Tokyo for the next ten years with all the work we’ve done.

I hope that your experience in Japan is everything you wished for.
It already is. Everybody loves Japan. We have an old retired University teacher, a Japanese woman that moved to Copenhagen, teaching us etiquette and helping us fit in. There are a lot of unusual things for a foreigner here, for example bowing. At home you can kiss on the cheek, but bowing seems so strange to us. But we are trying to learn a lot of these things to make it smoother and less awkward when we open up.

Finally, how do you feel when you hear Noma referred to as best restaurant in the world?
The opportunities that title has given us, like coming here, make me very happy, but I don’t believe that the best restaurant is the world is Noma, nor do I think a best restaurant in the world exists. But there will always be people that rank things, guides, reviewers etc. for better for worse, and you will always be able to argue against anything when it’s about judgement.

However, that title changed not only our restaurant, but my life and the life of our team forever. It also changed the city, the region, our country and people’s perception of Scandinavian food. At first, the idea of high quality food coming from Scandinavia was the beginning of a joke. Now, gastronomical tourism is the third biggest reason people visit Scandinavia today – ten years ago it was not even on the list, it really is astonishing.

Interview: Oct. 21, 2014

More photos:

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Fukuoka Prefecture
Published: Nov 25, 2014 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017

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