Travelling chefs

They have all topped the Restaurant Guide's World's 50 Best list at one time or another. El Cellar de Can Roca is the current number one, pipping Noma from the hot spot it held for three years running. Fat Duck, in turn, was number two from 2006 to 2009 (it never reached number one on that list, and went into free fall after 2010, although it's always retained its three Michelin stars).

When you're idolised as the culinary Holy Grail, what else can you do to up your game? Perhaps in the same way that great minds think alike, the chefs of all three restaurants have taken on what could well be the ultimate culinary challenge - they're closing shop and relocating in a totally different country. Not for good, but long enough to make an impression, and it won't be long before it becomes a trend.

The Roca brothers of El Celler de Can Roca were the first to start the ball rolling last December. They quietly announced on their blog that they would spend the whole of August in South America to kick off its Roca and Roll World Tour 2014. But this news was eclipsed just two weeks ago, when Noma's Rene Redzepi and The Fat Duck's Heston Blumenthal announced within days of each other that they would be relocating their restaurants next year - two months in Tokyo for Noma and six months in Melbourne for The Fat Duck.

There are several reasons why the chefs would do something as drastic as that - getting out of their comfort zone; learning about new ingredients and culture; stretching their cooking limits. But at the same time, their standing in the industry means they are able to do it with little, if any, financial risk. For Blumenthal's The Fat Duck in the UK, it was a winning solution. The 17th century former pub that the restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, occupies needs extensive refurbishment. Rather than lay off his staff and hope to re-hire them after, Blumenthal struck a deal with Crown Resorts in Melbourne to relocate to its Towers hotel for the duration. The arrangement is such that after The Fat Duck moves back to Bray, Blumenthal's Dinner by Heston will take its place as the hot London eatery's Australian outpost.

El Celler's World Tour, in turn, is sponsored by Spanish bank BBVA, and has no impact on the restaurant in Girona, north of Barcelona, because it is closed the whole of August anyway, for summer vacation. And while Redzepi will only reveal details of his partners in June, it's understood that it is a venture with acclaimed Japanese chef Yoshihiro Murata.

With the money part out of the way, the chefs can just focus on their cuisine, and for Redzepi, it is the opportunity of a lifetime. In an exclusive interview, he shares his fascination with the land of the rising sun.

"The first time I went to Japan, there was a lot of debate in Denmark about whether we could develop our own cuisine," he says. "People were asking questions like, 'What value would it add to us? Wouldn't it all just be a mirage?'. I was thrilled when I was invited to visit. I had always been inspired reading about such an ancient food tradition, but going there and seeing it firsthand - it was beyond any written word.

"It felt so alive. Even though you were eating dishes or ingredients that were conceived hundreds of years back, they still felt of the moment. The variety of produce, the preparations - just imagine the countless recipes and techniques that have been developed for the soybean! It's truly mind-blowing what dedication and persistence can do, and it fuelled me even more in my work at Noma.

"In comparison, what you see in Denmark makes us feel like infants, with Japan as a wise elder. Don't get me wrong: I believe we have lots of quality. I believe our ingredients are world-class. But I also really truly believe that there's a lot for us to learn from exploring a place like Japan."

While Noma's concept heavily emphasises foraging, Redzepi is unsure if they will do the same in Tokyo. "I've already been twice during winter to seek out ingredients and to play around with them, as a lot of it is quite different from what we have at home. We already have connected with some farmers and we've been told it won't be a problem finding foragers."

The move to Tokyo certainly makes Noma's much-publicised 10-day pop-up restaurant in London's Claridge's hotel in August 2012 a walk in the park. "There's no question that it's a whole different game this time," says Redzepi. "Leaving the western world and going into a completely new culture, to be in a country where most of the time people don't understand what you're saying, and vice versa - there are countless challenges ahead. But the reward of being in Japan and exploring a new place, and being able to do it together as a team, is already making all the trials and tribulations worth it."

During the Tokyo stint, Noma will be closed, as the entire staff will be relocated. He will take the opportunity to do some improvements to the premises, particularly to add a fermentation section - his latest obsession.

In fact, the whole relocation idea came about because Redzepi wanted to further his knowledge about fermentation and one way was, like young chefs, to stage (take on unpaid work) in Korea or Japan. But that would have been unthinkable given his status and responsibilities. So it was on to his other idea - something he had been dreaming about for years and is about to become reality.

Would he, like most Japanese food fanatics, become so fixated with the country that he would consider staying permanently? "I have to be honest - it's a question I can't answer," he says. "Given that I'll be having my third child in a few months, the thought of being in Japan sounds unrealistic." Even so, "after our tenure is finished there, the whole staff has five weeks of vacation to explore Japan and the area further. So everyone will really have time to dig deep into this exciting place."

That love of travel and exploring new environments is also what spurred Joan Roca to agree to move his restaurant to Latin America for five weeks beginning in August. Speaking from his restaurant's lounge area in Girona, he says through an interpreter: "We're always being asked to take the restaurant to other cities but we can't do that and replicate the same quality. But we also want to travel and show the rest of the world what we do, so this is a chance to do that and be true to our cuisine."

Under the agreement with Spanish bank BBVA, the team will spend four to five days in various cities in Mexico, Colombia and Peru. "We'll be seeking inspiration using the local produce, we'll learn and teach and it's also about rewarding our team for all their hard work."

The aim, he says, "is to highlight the value of small producers who are not in the circuit - and help them to showcase their authentic and interesting products, eg. those grown by indigenous tribes. It's also part of the bank's social responsibility programme. Another aspect is to help young people. They get grants from the bank and we take them in and give them training." The agreement with BBVA will last three years, but it has yet to be confirmed where the El Celler team will go next year.

Roca acknowledges that being voted the world's best restaurant has opened up a whole new world of opportunities like this. "Being number one was never a goal we set for ourselves and it should never be for anyone because it's difficult to rate and judge restaurants. But it's great that it has happened like that because it puts us on the map and also boosts the local economy as well."

What with The Fat Duck's Blumenthal also hoping to explore Australian ingredients, will this lead to a new trend of chefs heading off to new, unexplored territory?

"I don't know whether it will be a trend, but I can tell you that it can be extremely gratifying," says Redzepi. "When we left London, we were extremely tired, but it was genuinely piles of fun and a great experience connecting to a different place for a little while. I do think, though, that going to a place where it's so different from the Anglo-Saxon world will be on a completely different scale in every respect."

jaime@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 12 in The Business Times.

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