I sent my cover letter and resume to eleven restaurants. Eleven. Ten of them are scattered across Europe: Czech Republic, Brittany France, Sweden, Italy. And the only one I heard from, maybe the most sought after for a position in the kitchen, Noma, in København, Denmark. Unbelievable.
So here I am, a short time ago (Saturday) finishing my second week at the restaurant where I will reside at until March 5th. Never in my career did I think I would arrive at one of the top restaurants in the world so early. I can recall quite vividly my discovery of "The List" of best restaurants, a night during high school, after a long day of school and then working at the Can Can brasserie. I don't recall why I was searching, or if I just stumbled upon it. But I found the list, and it had my heart racing from the start. I began going to the restaurants websites, watching videos, and seeing things that blew my mind and that I had no idea about. At the time I was at the Chesterfield Technical center learning basic cooking skills, working at a French Brasserie in Richmond, Virginia. A secluded and...poor cuisine world(mostly). I believe I got very little sleep that week, because each day I would return home with time for myself around 11:30, after a full day of school and work and begin again reading and watching and looking at all of these places doing miraculous things with food. I set as a dream for myself to one day step foot in, if not to eat then to cook at one of the restaurants. Thinking it was very far off, after I had spent many years in kitchens and slowly building up my skills, I still have this dream. And now I am for two months in one of those restaurants, surreal. A young 19 year old boy, with 3 years under his belt, no formal education, from Richmond Virginiawhere?! is that?, who spent two months in a former Michelin starred restaurant, walking in every morning with cooks much older from around the worlds top restaurants, and working alongside. Luck? Skill? Fate? Who knows.
For those unaware, Noma is the restaurant ranked #1 in the world by Restaurant Magazine's 2010 list published every April. Located in Old Town København, Denmark, along side a canal that makes up Christianshavn, or the old part of town, mere steps away from the palace. Started by a young Danish Macedonian, Chef Rene Redzepi, only 8 years ago, and the restaurant has quickly risen to the top in the world. Known for due to their usage of pure Nordic ingredients, inspirations, and techniques. During the warmer seasons, the kitchen team is also known for their usage of local herbs, greens, and vegetables, foraged by kitchen staff and other local personnel.
My position at the restaurant is a stagiare, a common position created amongst the larger restaurants in the world. I come for a set period of time, work for free(sometimes living and expenses are provided), and then leave(or maybe get offered a job?!). It is a bit crazy, this system the restaurants have created, as in any other industry I don't think free labor still exists. But seeing as I did not go to school, I see it as my expense for that. Much better in that case, as I am seeing the world and cooking! Noma's kitchens work on a loose 8:30-11:30 schedule. Some days earlier, some days later. Therefore, I am working at least 15 hours a day, sometimes more, with Sundays and Mondays off. In 3 days I am working over the "overtime" for the U.S. You've got to be loving your job to do this! With a 30 minute walk to work, it leaves little time in the day for anything else.
This past week, there were around 25 other stagiares in the kitchen, along with the 14 paid kitchen staff. Funny thinking of those numbers, and then thinking about the 40 available seats for lunch and dinner daily at the restaurant! It is truly incredible the amount of work that goes into the mere prep of a dish at this restaurant, the amount of man hours taken to create the food. Without the stagiares, all of the hands, the restaurant wouldn't be able to do what they do. Some of the more almost humorous kitchen projects include: picking chervil leaves off of the stem to get around a 1 inch miniature leafless "tree" for a garnish on the Pickled Vegetables and Smoked Bone Marrow dish(300 a day), peeling raw chestnuts first of their husks and then peeling the skin off, and maybe the worst, picking veal strands off of the cooked veal for each single string.
But I have really enjoyed my time thus far at the restaurant. The first week I worked hard and quickly, almost "proving" myself that I not only wanted to learn but that I was capable of doing other jobs. Maybe due to my youngness, I somehow emerged out of the endless projects that the kitchen had to offer and now do somethings that seem to be out of the stagiares normal realm. I am questioning it all, at the moment however, after hearing the others credentials. Certainly they are far better cooks than I, perhaps it's just my energy to keep on pushing. I have even begun to work dinner services, dressing plates, and even running food to tables(even when the queen was present!). The kitchen is divided into five? sections, and currently I am working on the section that is responsible for appetizers. The restaurant serves a seven and twelve course menu, so for the sevens course maybe three or four courses come from our section, and the twelve course maybe quite a few more. Depends on the menu for the day. Including the courses on the menu, there are quite a few other "courses" that get sent to the table, including snacks which is 6 or more it seems.
Cold section seems to have been a great starting section. Next week, I will most likely get moved to another. The Chef de Parties, or paid positions on the station are Trevor(head) from England?, Oliver from England, and now friend Leo from Ireland and Portugal. Leo has almost taken me in, and because of that I have gotten to do and see many more things. Not only has he become a great friend but also a great mentor. Also on the section are more stagiares, including now from the beginning Henrike, a Swede. Henrike travels daily from Sweden, a in total two hour commute one way. I feel horrible for the guy, thinking about how much time he is left with in his day. By the end of the week, he is often looking very tired and downtrodden. But he is very funny and like minded, there are a few mostly stagiares who feel the need to talk, the entire day. It is often very nice to work and have silence, and the certain people break that quickness and peacefulness so often with jabber about what restaurants they have cooked at or this that the other.
Everyday we eat dinner at 5:00, and during the work week other than early morning and late night snacks that is my only meal. Usually it is quite good, an Irish cook's daily task is to make dinner. On Saturday he did an American meal: Barbecue with Macaroni and Cheese, and Coleslaw!
Currently Chef and face of the restaurant, Chef Rene Redzepi, is on vacation for the month in Mexico. It is his first restaurant since the restaurant opened. It will be very weird and interesting to see how the dynamics will change once he returns. The past few weeks, it is often talked about keeping the energy of the restaurant up in the dining room, as he is not in the kitchen and guests are traveling quite a ways to eat there. Although the food is no less of quality I am certain, the energy level is most likely lower without his presence. I have heard some stories and things about him from some in the restaurant, I will be interested to meet him!
The restaurant is situated in the corner bottom floor of a very large building, "Nordatlantens Brygge House" which is an old warehouse building that use to be the departing and arriving building for boats headed to Iceland, Norway, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. Because of this, the restaurant houses now the Faroe Island and Icelandic Embassies, a museum, and a few other offices pertaining to the cultures. That is why when Noma was created, it must only have been a Nordic cuisine restaurant. With mostly all of the original interior, panelings and floors, it is a very unique space. From the upstairs prep kitchen windows, the Palace, Canal, and Opera house are all visible.
My living situation has been quite perfect thus far, and the cheapest I have heard from all the other stagiares situations. I am living in a room I found from CouchSurfing, with an Ivorian mother and a Brazilian student. Just a small room, bed, desk, and couch. But who really needs luxury when you are working all day? The Ivorian in the begininning week was very helpful in helping me learn about the city, where to go, etc.
I had a classic Danish lunch last week, at Restaurant Schønnemans. Pickled Herring, Lamb Meatballs, Aquavit, and Rye Brød med Lard and Butter. Delicious. Last weekend I also found per the sommelier of Noma's suggestion, a good local wine bar. The owner was very welcoming and interesting to talk to. Currently I ride on a train in return to København, I spent the weekend in Goteborg with friends Simon, Robert, Jonathan, and Jonathan's girlfriend. Last night Simon and I had a chill night, (Simon is quite the cook!) and today we toured Goteborg, had meatballs, and many laughs. Was quite nostalgic returning to the first city I visited in Europe. The trip was short, I hope to return again atleast once during my time in København.
Although I won't necessarily learn to "cook" on this journey, I believe my time spent at this restaurant should have a huge impact on my career. I hope to take from it the philosophy of the restaurant, the style, thought process, and seasonality of one of the best restaurants in the world. Soon to become habit surely will be the ways of working in a kitchen. A kitchen whom accepts nothing less than 100%, cleanliness, perfection, finesse, quickly and efficiency. These are things that I can surely take along. The time spent at a known restaurant will surely also open new doors never imagined for the future.
The current menu at the restaurant is as follows:
Moss and cep
Seabuck thorn leather and pickled rose hips
Cookie with lardo and currant
Fried leek and garlic
Rye bread, chicken skin, lovage, and smoked cheese
Pickled and smoked quails egg
Radish, turnip and carrot, soil and herbs
Toast, herbs, smoked cod roe and vinegar
Leek and seaweed
Dried scallops and grain, squid ink and rucola
Langoustine and sol, parsley and seaweed
Oyster and the ocean
Cauliflower and pine
Celeriac and black truffle, garden sorrel
Turbot and unripe elderberries, stems and cabbage
Pickled vegetables and bone marrow
Wild duck and apple, malt and browned butter
Øllebrød and skyr
This post has been a long time coming. I apologize for the delay, I hope to get one written every weekend. We will see how that goes! Thanks everyone for the support. Thank you again everyone at Secco for a great last night, I will never forget my time spent with you all. I hope to return! Thanks especially to Julia and Tim for your wealth of knowledge, guidance, and support. Thanks to my friends for the great going away before leaving! I miss you all. Thanks family for a wonderful Christmas and holidays spent together.
Unfortunately at the moment I am camera-less, and phone-to-computer cordless, so I haven't anyway to post a few of the pictures that I have taken on my phone(decent pictures). Next weekend I will try to find a cord to connect my phone to my computer. But blog readers, don't forget my birthday is coming up...ha!
Perhaps next week I will post more in depth about the food at Noma. Thanks all for reading, talk soon!