For 10 days throughout the London Olympics, Claridge's hotel in London is hosting a pop-up from René Redzepi's two-Michelin-starred Copenhagen restaurant, Noma. Tom Vaughan finds out how the preparations are going
"We need 22,000 ants," says Martyn Nail, executive chef at Claridge's. "And 375 litres of liquid nitrogen - but it has to all be delivered before, not during, the Olympics. We need 3,600 radishes; 50kg of wild grass; ground elder, chickweed, normal sorrel, sheep sorrel. Then there's the hay - where are we getting it from? Is it hygienic? Where will it be stored? Who's cutting it? Who's putting it on the plate?" His eyes glaze over, a to-do list the length of the Olympic Torch route dawning on him again.
If this shopping list isn't daunting enough, Nail need only remind himself why he is scouring Europe for 22,000 edible ants: for 10 days throughout the London Olympics, his hotel, Claridge's, is hosting a pop-up from none other than René Redzepi's two-Michelin-starred Copehagen restaurant, Noma, which has three times been recognised as the best in the world by The World's 50 Best Restaurants. At any other time, transporting the eatery to London would be a gargantuan task. But to do it during the London Olympics - when the world descends on the capital and hotels like Claridge's are packed to the seams - is just sadomasochism, surely?
"It's brave," agrees Nail. "But the Olympics are on and we felt duty bound to do something for our guests. We sat down and thought ‘What can we bring to town?' and ended up with René Redzepi and Noma. If we can't manage to pull it off, no one can."
From 28 July until 6 August, A Taste of Noma will take residence in a specially kitted-out Claridge's ballroom. Serving a total of 3,400 covers across the 10 days, the five-course meal is priced at £195 and, such is the excitement, seats sold out within two hours of phone lines opening.
"We had 10,000 table requests for those 3,400 seats," says Nail. "We could have run it for 100 days and still not answered interest."
Creating a buzz
The buzz around the pop-up is understandable - the 10-day stint is Noma's first foray outside Denmark, and represents something of a coup for Claridge's. But how on earth did it come about?
"There were two aspects to it," explains the hotel's general manager, Thomas Kochs. "First, the Olympics is a special time and we all need to contribute to help make London great. Second, the room side of the business is fantastic during that period, but the banqueting was non-existent. So we had this great banqueting space going unused and it made sense to do something with it."
The team started with a blank canvas, the only idea being that they wanted to get in one or more guest chefs. They enlisted the help of Taste Festivals CEO Justin Clarke, who put out a few calls to some contacts, one of whom was Redzepi. As luck would have it, Noma is closed for two weeks in late July/early August and what was originally a pipe dream - the idea of Redzepi guest cheffing at Claridge's - started to become reality.
Redzepi and his executive chef, Matthew Orlando, met up with the Claridge's team in London in April, and Nail headed back with them to Noma for a week, working in the famous kitchens.
"The constant creation that goes on there is amazing," he says. "They have an upstairs experimental kitchen and every week different teams are tasked with presenting new ideas. Very early on, like the rest of the chefs, they had me presenting dishes to the tables, which was quite daunting.
"But the real aim of the visit was to make them feel comfortable when they are here, so we can get the best out of them. Because, let's face it, when they are here we are going to be doing over 300 covers a day."
Alongside Redzepi and Orlando, four other Noma chefs are flying over from Copenhagen on 23 July for five days of prep before the pop-up restaurant opens its doors. Among the other 40 chefs who will be staffing the kitchen are members of Nail's banqueting team plus 28 students from catering colleges.
"We've got students from Thames Valley and Bournemouth universities," says Nail. "It's a fantastic training opportunity for them and something that will always be on their CV. Which reminds me, I need to put together the letters confirming that they worked at a Taste of Noma." And his eyes glaze over again.
The back-of-house alone needs setting up from scratch for the venture, and various sections of the kitchen have been put aside for service and prep areas. The 40-strong team is to be divided into two on a daily basis, with half working on that day's service and the other prepping for the following day.
While the five-course menu is, on the whole, a line-up of classic Noma dishes, there are also a couple of new creations for the occasion (see opposite). Designed as a nod to British produce, the lamb main course is a story in itself, says Nail.
"We need to cook it for 48 hours, which means at any one time we have four different versions on the go simultaneously. We've already done a trial run and had it sent to a lab to make sure we tick all the boxes from a hygiene perspective," he explains.
Since mid-April, when the idea was hatched, rarely a day has gone past when Nail and Orlando haven't sent each other a list of 20 or so questions. "It's not something you can get away with looking at for just 20 minutes a day," he says. "It needs my full focus."
The list of ingredients alone is remarkable. As well as the numerous wild plants, for which the team is recruiting the help of forager Miles Irving, who Redzepi presented with at Caterer and Hotelkeeper‘s Chef Conference in 2008, there has been a constant flow of trial produce into the Claridge's kitchen.
"Until yesterday, that table over there was full with the likes of 12 different walnut oils and 14 hazelnut oils. One even said ‘not for consumption' on it; why did they send it to a kitchen, then?"
Throughout the Olympics, deliveries will arrive by night, which will add another level of complication to proceedings. "It will mean we have to work three days in advance - we can't just ring the fruit and veg man and ask for another dozen of whatever. Everything that arrives will have to serve us for tomorrow and the following day."
Of all the ingredients, about 40% have been sourced in the UK, with the remainder coming from Denmark and the Continent. Shipping some of these over - the ants, for example - is proving far from straightforward.
In fact, little about the pop-up will be straightforward. Take another main course, which requires barbecued vegetables: Nail had to clear with facilities that charcoal grills could be set up on the hotel's roof. "That was hard enough, then someone asked me the other day if I had ordered the charcoal yet? No, was the answer. It goes on and on."
It's not just the banqueting and front-of-house teams that are directly involved in setting up A Taste of Noma; every department is somehow affected, says Nail: "We'll all be involved, from the rooms team finding accommodation for René, Matthew and chefs, to the HR teams checking passports of the new kitchen team, and the laundry, washing 40 extra sets of chef whites a day."
With the correct ingredients slowly arriving and Redzepi, Orlando and four other chefs arriving with five days' prep time, one can be fairly optimistic that the dishes leaving the kitchen will be a true taste of Noma. However, much of the restaurant's Nordic charm lies in its coastal location and rustic interiors. Will it not get lost in translation when it's shipped into a five-star hotel?
"I don't think it will, because it's billed as A Taste of Noma," says Nail. "I think it's a good call to not try and turn our banqueting room into a fake Noma - it would look cheesy."
Claridge's five-star art deco opulence and Noma's driftwood rusticity couldn't be further apart, so the two teams have had to work out how the ballroom can contain elements of both personalities. Tablecloths are being dispensed with, and large quantities of Noma's crockery - which is made specially for the restaurant - have been commissioned. The drapes covering the windows on to neighbouring Brook Mews will be pulled back in an homage to Noma's canal views (so factor in a daily, rather than weekly window cleaning) and the room will be divided up by designer Guy Oliver to give a greater sense of intimacy.
In another homage to Noma - where chefs deliver dishes to the table - a main course at Claridge's will arrive courtesy of one of the kitchen team. Other than that, the service will rely on the hotel's five-star standards to charm diners, something that will be essential at the high price point, agrees Kochs.
It would be foolish to think nothing in this military-esque operation is going to go wrong, admits Nail, but the key is making sure that - despite all the disruptions caused by the Olympics - there is an answer at hand. Is one of those problems making sure that the whole venture turns a nice profit?
"It was always about the Olympics being on, and us thinking what we could bring to town," says Nail. "It is not the most lucrative enterprise, and we don't have a blank chequebook, but we're doing it for the prestige it will bring Claridge's."
Bearing in mind the laborious preparations, if they do manage to pull it off it will be prestige of Olympic proportions.
a taste of noma menu
The full five-course menu for A Taste of Noma has yet to be released; however, Caterer and Hotelkeeper has been given an exclusive preview of two dishes:
â- Radishes in a pot: a signature Noma dish featuring carrots or turnips covered in herb emulsion and served in a terracotta pot with edible soil made out of malt and hazelnut flour
rene redzepi profile
It has been a remarkable four years for René Redzepi since he flew over from Copenhagen to present at Caterer and Hotelkeeper's Chef Conference 2008, then known only among chefs and a foodie elite. His rise in stock is best illustrated with a Tweet the chef wrote earlier this year, recalling how in April 2008 Noma had 15 guests in all day and the same day four years later it had just under 1,500 on the waiting list.
It wasn't until 2010 that Redzepi became the culinary world's hottest property, when Noma was voted number one by The World's 50 Best Restaurants. After taking the top spot from Ferran AdriÁ 's El Bulli restaurant, Noma has now held the title for three consecutive years.
Situated in an old waterfront warehouse at Christianshavn, the concept for Noma came about because the owners of the building were given a grant to use it to promote Nordic culture. Redzepi and his team began experimenting with the area's natural produce, including seafood such as horse mussels and deep-sea crabs, as well as meat such as musk ox and lamb. Then there is the foraged wild food for which Redzepi's cooking is so famous. As well as the remarkable use of ingredients, the restaurant has become famous for its approach to service, with chefs delivering and explaining dishes to the table.
Caterer and Hotelkeeper caught up with Redzepi as he prepared to launch A Taste of Noma at Claridge's.
What attracted you to London and Claridge's?
Well, I don't think we will have the Olympic Games coming this close to Copenhagen any time soon, so this was an exciting opportunity to be a part of the experience.
What is the key to making sure that the essence of what makes Noma great is able to travel internationally?
We will come with our philosophy and general approach, but we won't try to replicate the Noma experience bite for bite. And we are using British ingredients instead of Nordic.
Are there any elements of a Taste of Noma that you think will prove challenging for your team?
It is always difficult to work in an unfamiliar environment, but Claridge's has been very supportive, so we are looking forward to it.
How do you feel when people accredit you with being so influential in 21st century dining?
Of course it is a great honour, but for me it is also hard to relate to. What matters to me is being in the kitchen as much as possible and continuing to try to improve ourselves in everything we do.
Where does your food ethos comes from?
It is a combination of many different things, but essentially it is rooted in where and when we are and trying to reflect this on the plate.