On his travels through Mexico, chef Rene Redzepi recently tasted a large, white variety of butterfly larva that reminded him of a sunchoke caramelized for hours in the oven.
He said the wasp larvae he also tried had "a completely new type of nutty flavor," different from the bee larvae he serves at his renowned restaurant Noma in Copenhagen.
These bites are part of Redzepi's research as he creates an encyclopedia of flavors to be used in a Noma pop-up in the Mexican beach town of Tulum this spring.
Five nights a week from April 12 to May 28, a small group of diners with the resources and luck to get reservations will fork over $600 for food and drink per person to experience the results of Redzepi and his team's research. Bookings sold out in under four hours Tuesday.
By comparison, even top restaurants in Mexico City — rated among the best in the world — charge $100 or less per person for elaborate tasting menus. The average income per month for a Mexican family is about the same as a single diner's expected payout at the planned pop-up.
For Redzepi, the venture is both new and familiar. He's opened temporary restaurants in Tokyo and Sydney, Australia, each time closing his flagship and bringing his staff and at times even furniture to the new locale.
He is known for experimenting with a wild root or sea bean until novelty meets flavor. A documentary about his Tokyo pop-up, "Ants on a Shrimp," shows him picking ants off the forest floor and praising a dish of fish sperm created by an apprentice in his kitchen.
Redzepi said staying true to Noma's approach explains the costs. A new facility will have to be constructed for the occasion, nearly 100 artisan groups contracted to source everything from coffee to napkins, and an entire staff and their families housed in the resort area of Tulum while they are paid their normal Danish salaries. Expenses in Denmark must be paid while new costs are added in Mexico.
"I have a very clear conscience about the price," Redzepi said by phone from Merida. "I know where all the money is going. I'm not coming here thinking we're going to make a 20% profit. On the contrary, it's going to be tight."
Issa Plancarte, a food journalist in Mexico, said she and her colleagues have been tracking Redzepi's Mexican adventures as they follow their favorite chefs on social media. They were excited to see what he would do at the pop-up, but surprised by the price, even more staggering given the peso's recent plunge to a record low of more than 20 to the dollar. Just two years ago, the peso was worth about 13.5 to the dollar.
Plancarte said she sees Redzepi as an artist and understands that his creations carry a steep price tag, but she considers the situation unfortunate for the average diner.
"I know you have to pay wages and infrastructure, but the thing is, especially in a place like Mexico, if you want to show your love for the country, show it so more people can enjoy it, not only the 1%," Plancarte said. "I know it's not an easy request, but it would be so much better if more people can enjoy it."
To that end, Noma Mexico is planning to offer two weeks of lunches to culinary students, free of charge, along with internships in Denmark at Noma and another restaurant, Hija de Sanchez, with travel, lodging, per diem and English classes included.
Redzepi said he hopes the artisans he is working with — along with the many chefs he has befriended throughout Mexico — will benefit long term from new attention, especially from European audiences.
Redzepi said the price would have been significantly lower — a couple of hundred dollars per customer — had a key patron not backed out at the last moment, uncertain about the future given the election results in the U.S. At that point, his team had a tough decision to make.
"We looked each other in the eyes, knowing we are going to have to charge a lot more. Do we do it or not? They said, 'Yes, chef, you have to do it.' "
For Noma Mexico, Redzepi is partnering with former team member Rosio Sanchez, a Mexican American chef, whose parents hail from Guanajuato and San Luis Potosi. Sanchez quickly rose through the ranks in Denmark's Noma, becoming the chief pastry chef before leaving to open her own businesses.
Sanchez was part of the first pop-up in Tokyo. Right after, she left to open her taco and paleta shops, Hija de Sanchez, in Copenhagen.
The Tulum pop-up plans are special to Redzepi and Sanchez. Redzepi has spent a decade falling in love with Mexico, visiting for a month or more each year, often with his family. Sanchez has spent the last several years drawing from both her haute cuisine training and her heritage to create a menu for her taco shops.
One of main goals of the restaurant will be to show Mexico's biodiversity and strong culinary lineage on a global stage.
"What we have in terms of Mexican food — other than Rosio Sanchez and a few places — is mostly bad, bad versions of Tex-Mex," Redzepi said of his European audience.
Sanchez has first-hand experience educating diners at her businesses in Copenhagen.
"At first I was bit frustrated with the fact that people were asking for cutlery left and right and I was watching people try and eat tacos with a knife and fork, and I'm like, 'No! Stop it!' " she said. "Luckily everyone has been very open; everyone wants to try it."
Noma Mexico will not try to compete with classics like cochinita pibil or tacos al pastor. Some things "simply cannot be done better," Redzepi said. Rather, these classics will serve as inspiration as the team experiments with the same ingredients, seeking radically different results.
Plancarte said she was eager to see a Noma interpretation of her country's cuisine.
"Of course I'm dying to go," she said. "I'm going to have to sell a kidney."
Tillman is a special correspondent.
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