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Noma, one of the world’s best restaurants, reopens next week — as a burger and wine bar

Noma
When Noma reopens on Thursday, the landmark Copenhagen restaurant will take walk-ins only, with all guests seated outside. Instead of a $400 tasting menu, there will be $15 cheeseburgers.
(Ditte Isager)

For the last decade, it was nearly impossible to get a table at Noma, widely considered one of the best restaurants in the world. A meal required a prepaid reservation (and most likely a flight to Copenhagen) that cost around $400 per person. During seasons when pollen-stuffed dried fruit partially submerged in rabbit oil was on hiatus, cod bladder simmered in quince might have been one of 18 or so courses.

Then coronavirus hit. Like businesses across the globe, Noma was forced to temporarily close amid the fast-spreading outbreak.

On Thursday, Noma will reopen for the first time in more than two months. When it does, one of the most exclusive and groundbreaking restaurants of the century will take walk-ins only and seat all customers outside on picnic blankets around its sprawling grounds. The menu: $15 burgers and drinks.

“We were like, ‘Should we do an ant marinade with raw carrots to have that twist of who we are?’” chef-owner René Redzepi said by phone this week. “But then I’m like, ‘No, why should we do that right now?’ It’s about being together, it’s not about trying to be innovative.”

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The new cheeseburger from Noma
The new cheeseburger from Noma, made with dry-aged bavette steak, beef garum, cheddar cheese, sliced red onion and a pickle-packed house-made mayo.
(Ditte Isager)

This is not the first time Redzepi, 42, has reinvented his restaurant. Three years ago, he closed the original Noma to move it from a former herring warehouse to a new lakefront home near the center of town, with three greenhouses and a state-of-the-art fermentation cellar. Noma 2.0, as he called it, opened in February 2018.

Now, unexpectedly, there’s Noma 3.0. The flip to a casual outdoors-only burger-and-wine bar is a dramatic change but not a permanent one, intended as a stopgap measure bridging how things were and how things will be. Redzepi plans to sling burgers for six to eight weeks.

It’s not so much about money, it’s about how do we heal and get beyond this.

René Redzepi, Noma chef-owner

He said the full restaurant won’t start up again until July at the earliest, which will give his employees time to adjust to new distancing rules, rework the summer menu — the theme was supposed to be vegetables but likely now will include some seafood dishes developed for the truncated spring season — and await the lifting of travel restrictions that currently prohibit tourists from entering the country.

This latest iteration of Noma, forced upon it by outside circumstances instead of internal ambition, will be closely watched.

Redzepi is one of the most respected figures in the global dining industry, an imaginative trailblazer who spearheaded New Nordic cuisine and popularized now-ubiquitous fine-dining trends such as foraging and fermentation. On three occasions, he has shut Noma for a few months to move his entire staff to another country — Japan, Australia, Mexico — for elaborate sold-out residencies.

Noma Mexico
Chef René Redzepi, center, in 2017 during the Noma Mexico residency in Tulum.
(Jason Loucas)

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As one of the first elite chefs to reopen a top restaurant after being ordered to close, he’s again at the forefront — this time, pioneering a potential framework for how restaurants can operate during a time of deep uncertainty.

Noma is better positioned than many of its peers. The Danish government has offered substantial financial support to affected businesses, and will cover all of Noma’s fixed costs for the first two months of the shutdown and up to 80% from May 18 to July 8. Between that and a recently approved bank loan, the restaurant was able to retain its entire 85-person staff and offer free meals to its workers every day, Redzepi said, and has enough money to make it through the year.

Still, he’s not quite sure what to expect next week. Noma has never served a burger before, unless you count pre-service staff meals. A la carte hasn’t been available since the aughts. The restaurant typically seats a few dozen diners a day; Redzepi is expecting as many as 500 people (60 at a time) from lunch until sunset, Thursdays through Sundays — plus takeout.

“It’s an uncharted area for us,” he said. “Some people say, ‘Hey, you might sell 1,000 burgers in a day,’ and we’re like, ‘Well, maybe if tourism was open.’ But nobody really knows.”

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Redzepi has the sense that diners might not be in the mood for a long fancy meal right now. And he sees burgers as a way to welcome in locals — many of whom may have never eaten his cooking.

After a few weeks, Noma might add more food options, such as a fried chicken sandwich, crudité, raw seafood and ice cream, Redzepi said. “But first, we open with a mighty burger.”

Describing it as “fairly classic,” he said the burger will be made with dry-aged bavette steak, cheddar cheese, sliced red onion and a pickle-packed house-made mayo. It’ll come on a freshly baked potato bun from local burger joint Gasoline Grill and will be roasted in the same pan the meat is cooked in. This being Noma, the patty will be “spiced up with beef garum for umaminess.”

There will also be a vegetarian version, made from quinoa and tempeh and glazed with a mix of “fermentation liquids.”

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Vegetarian burger at Noma
The vegetarian burger at Noma is made with quinoa and tempeh and glazed with a mix of “fermentation liquids.”
(Ditte Isager)

In between planning the burger offshoot and gearing up for the full restaurant reopening, Redzepi has been checking in with chef friends in Asia, Europe and America — the sorts of colleagues who are a fixture of his well-regarded MAD food symposium — over the last several weeks to see how they’re faring.

“One thing that has surprised me: how strongly hit restaurants are in America and how bad it seems. People are running out of money in one week, two weeks, and that’s pretty heavy to watch,” he said. On his most recent trip to Los Angeles, in January, he dropped by Auburn; the Melrose Avenue tasting-menu restaurant closed permanently last month, unable to weather the financial challenges brought on by the city’s prolonged shutdown.

Despite having a “crisis plan” in place since the outbreak spread to Europe, four world’s best titles and ample government support, Redzepi is bracing for a 50% decline in revenue once Noma opens its dining room again; he projects that drop will last until next summer.

He said the pandemic has highlighted long-standing vulnerabilities for restaurants regardless of accolades, geography or cuisine: profits that are too slim and prices that are too low.

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“We’ve been open for almost 17 years and our average profit after tax is only 3%,” Redzepi said. “That is sort of the same all over the world.”

That made the industry especially ill-equipped to handle the economic devastation wreaked by the coronavirus. As chefs try to figure out a way forward, they are urging a greater understanding about the true cost of running a food business.

“Restaurants are on thin ice,” Redzepi said. Selling burgers, he acknowledged, won’t make a huge difference to Noma’s bottom line but he hopes it will provide a measure of team bonding and community spirit.

“From a business standpoint, it’s dumb to do pop-ups,” he said. “It’s not so much about money, it’s about how do we heal and get beyond this.”


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