A top meal in Tokyo

A top meal in Tokyo

The logistics of setting up Noma in Japan have been staggering.

For just a little over five weeks from Jan 9 to Feb 14, the Copenhagen restaurant, currently at the top of the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, is operating from what is usually the Signature restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo.

Tables and chairs were made and shipped to the hotel located in the Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower; the crockery made by Japanese craftsmen; 77 staff and family members flown to Japan, dishwashers included; the kitchen and dining room of the restaurant retooled; and that is not counting the numerous trips chef Rene Redzepi and his team have made to various parts of Japan to source for ingredients and to watch over every little detail starting about two years ago.

It has paid off.

Never one to mince his words, chef Redzepi, 37, tells SundayLife! in Tokyo: "It is more fun to cook here than for Europeans because here, people are used to eating everything. Japanese food culture dwarfs many European food cultures. It is very active and alive, rich in diversity of ingredients.

"I've enjoyed cooking here so much."

He says of diners back home: "When we test something for the average diner - it could be a herb or a vegetable - because they have no reference point, it quickly becomes something they don't want to understand."

Some of the guests who come to Tokyo have that sort of reaction too.

"They say, 'But this is nothing. A duck on a plate'," he says, referring to the wild duck from Akita Prefecture in northern Honshu that is on the menu. "But the duck is caught with a net. It's a big eye-opener for me. This is the point of being in a totally different system."

To demonstrate that commitment, he has left Nordic ingredients behind.

Guest chefs often go abroad wheeling suitcases bulging with produce. However, chef Redzepi has built a menu around Japanese ingredients. To do that, he has, among other things, gone foraging in Nagano with what he describes in an essay for food magazine Saveur as a "mushroom prophet". He has also shopped at local and farmers' markets and is thinking of what to do with snapping turtles, so diners might well be served that before Noma goes home.

He says: "You are like a child again, seeing things with new eyes."

This voyage of discovery has not come cheap for him or for diners.

He declines to give specifics, but says that rent for the pop-up restaurant space is a double-digit percentage of the takings. Refurbishing the restaurant and kitchen have cost a six-figure sum and some of the plates cost US$400 (S$538) each.

"We have to hand wash all the plates. They are so expensive, it's nerve-racking," he says, adding that the crockery costs more than flying 77 people to Tokyo.

For diners, this translates to a fixed menu price of 40,200 yen (S$457), with an additional 24,700 yen for wine pairing or 16,500 yen for juice pairing. The minimum spend for the private room, which seats 10, is 618,000 yen.

Yet, about 60,000 people applied in June last year to dine at the event and were entered into a ballot. With just 64 lunches and dinners (the restaurant is closed on Sundays) and 56 people a meal, only 3,548 people will get to experience Noma Japan.

Will it have been worth the effort for diners?

For chef Redzepi, the answer is clear.

He says: "It is more than worth it because of what it has done for us as a team. We are closer, we know each other better. This is a team-building exercise like no other. We feel joy when we come back from a day off."

He adds: "Some have never travelled outside Europe. It's a big thing for them. We become in the West so focused to the point where we don't know what's going on in Asia."



$500 plates made by Japanese craftsmen

77 restaurant staff and family members flown in from Copenhagen

Chefs traipsing through Japan for the best ingredients

This article was first published on Feb 1, 2015.
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