Last Service: Reflections on Noma Mexico

When Noma Mexico wrapped last month, the transition was swift. In mere days, the temporary kitchen was dismantled, the staff began to pack up, and though some have taken extended hiatuses to spend more time in and around Mexico, most of the team was headed back to Copenhagen to shift gears for the reboot of Noma Copenhagen. Nostalgia for the turquoise shores of the Caribbean quickly set in. Just last week, René Redzepi posted a photo of multiple tins of caviar on Instagram with the caption: “Surprise lunch box today – I’ll trade it all for one handmade tortilla.” We get it; we, too, would trade most any world delicacy for a perfect, fresh tortilla on the beaches of the Yucatán.

In salute to the endeavor that was Noma Mexico, we ran a Tasting Menu feature that took a look at the entire menu. But in considering Noma Mexico’s success on the whole, we couldn’t help noticing that much of the press during Noma Mexico’s run was written by out of town food writers. But none of the accolades really addressed the most important critics of all: Mexicans. And many of the articles glossed over, or failed to mention, Rosio Sánchez entirely. Though, as the original announcement of Noma Mexico made clear, Rosio was one half of the collaboration: “An addition to our residency this time will be our dear friend and former sous chef at Noma, Rosio Sánchez together with her taqueria Hija de Sanchez. The creativity of the menu will be a joint endeavor. As one of the most talented chefs we know, and with Mexican roots herself, she will be a great guide for us as we delve into this culture and learn from it.”

Moreover, where was the coverage that celebrated the small army of dedicated chefs, research assistants, interns, and others that camped for seven weeks in homage to the beautiful culinary heritage of Mexico? The more we considered these omissions, the more we felt it important to add them to the canon of Noma Mexico’s legacy. As a final farewell to all things Noma Mexico, what follows is the musings by both Mexican chefs, journalists, and Rosio herself, as well as photos of the team from the last service on May 28, 2017. Mexico was the inspiration and, as with everything Noma takes on, the team made it happen, so this is a tribute to all of them.

Ali Sonko, dishwasher cum partner of Noma.
Welcome to Noma Mexico.

Thoughts on Noma Mexico from Mexican Chefs:

“For me, it was one of the best meals of my life, I’m very grateful for all the Noma team for coming to Mexico, and also for using our products in a different way.”

— Edgar Nuñez, Sud 777 + Barra Vieja + Burger Lab

“Noma, for me, was a great experience. I could tell right away, when I entered the restaurant, how much time and effort the team put in all the details, from the perfect lighting to the tables and chairs set up, plants, kitchen — everything was perfect. Even the music was really good bits of reggae, some classic rock. It also opened my eyes and made me think about how much products we have in Mexico and how we sometimes, as Mexicans, don’t value how good they are. Sometimes we need an outsider to come and tell us ‘Hey, cabrones, look at what you have here!!’ I look up to people that really inspire me and René and Rosio and the team definitely did just that — really inspired me to keep pushing and to be a better cook and restaurateur, to do more research, explore deeper and search for perfection.”

— Javier Plascencia, Finca Altozano + Misión 19 + Lupe!

“I had the great fortune to eat in Noma Copenhagen at the end of 2016, so when thinking of the Tulum pop-up, I imagined a more raw version of Noma. It certainly didn’t fall short of my expectations and left a great impression on me.  The work of René and his investigative team is to be admired. I believe that sometimes we ignore or don’t place enough value on all that we have to offer here in Mexico. We have so much, in terms of diverse ingredients, and it’s great to see someone remind us that there still remains much to be explored. The union of amazing Mexican ingredients and traditional techniques with knowledge of fermentations and umami created a mix of some of the best flavors in the world. However, I think this concept is something we can achieve ourselves as Mexicans, if we dedicate ourselves to the task of exploring and developing it more. I think it’s great that someone so known and admired considered Mexico for this project. It means opportunities for everyone and, above all, it’s global recognition for the wealth of Mexico’s biodiversity and cooking.”

— Pablo Salas, Amaranta + Público Comedor

“There are honorable ways to show respect for food and the work of people in everything that we do. Sensitive ways that trespass cultural borders. It’s clear to me that no matter the result or the profile, René and his team understand this and show respect for their roots and ours. Culture belongs to a place, a time and the conditions of the moment where that culture was born. We humans bring with us the weight of that and modify it to the use and needs of the moment. As cultures evolve, some concepts could be a matter of debate, but the only ways that never change are the ways of nature, which are perfect and forever. The word terroir could translate as “the application of human culture to nature.” Noma Tulum is Mexican food, seen through the glass of a Scandinavian chef who has outmost respect for Mexico. When this concept is well understood and properly executed, it creates an experience unique.”

— Diego Hernández, Corazón de Tierra + Verlaine

“There has been a lot of controversy about Noma coming to Mexico and the overwhelming price of their dinners, compared to their previous remote restaurants. Being a Mexican chef, it was important to base my opinion on the impact Chef Redzepi and his team would have on Mexico and its cuisine, without being influenced by all the articles written in the past couple of months. And even though Mexican cuisine was already in a very good place thanks to the promotion of Mexico by chefs like Enrique Olvera and Jorge Vallejo, the fact that a chef who’s had the #1 restaurant in the world fell in love with our country and dedicated over a year to researching product and traditions in every state, has brought even more  attention to this amazing country. Dinner felt like there was a lot of respect for México, and I’m glad that the part of the world that didn’t have a lot of information about our country and now does, thanks to chef René, will only help spread the word.

— Ruffo Ibarra, Oryx Capital

“Noma Mexico was Radiohead covering Vicente Fernandez’s ‘El Rey’ — would you listen?  Of course you would.  It was a love letter to Mexico, written by René and all of his talented chefs.  It was him shining a light on the bounty and culture of Mexico.  At a time when people are talking about building walls, this was an experiment encouraging the world to re-evaluate how important and beautiful Mexico really is.  Two days after we dined at Noma, in Tulum, I had one of the best meals I’ve ever had, at Quintonil, in Mexico City.  And I think that is the point.”

— Val Cantu, Californios

Cerdo pelón, fried soft shell crab and fresh milled corn from Yaxunah.
Just cooked octopus being removed from corn leaves, the vessel it's baked in.
2. Melon clam from the Sea of Cortez

Thoughts on Noma Mexico from Mexican Journalists:

We caught up with writers Natalia de la Rosa, the editor in chief of Menú food section of Mexican newspaper El Universal, and Issa Plancarte, freelance food writer for various outlets including Revista HojaSanta, Vice, and Univision about their experience and takeaway from Noma Mexico.

When you heard René Redzepi and Rosio Sánchez were headed to Mexico, what was your reaction?  

Natalia: I was interested, though the price of 600 USD made it a little bittersweet, since it was clear it was an event for exclusive people. 

Issa: I was super excited about the project because I know how much Mexico means to both of them. When I read the announcement I was deeply touched by the words René wrote about what made him want to do a pop-up here. I knew that it would certainly involve lots of research and hard work but I wasn’t ready to witness how much impact my country made on the whole team.

How was your overall experience?

Natalia: Great! the food was amazing and the beverages too. A memorable dining experience, for sure.

Issa: It was amazing. Hands down, one of the greatest food experiences I’ve ever had anywhere in the world. To be part of something so great that shows what my country is all about was a chilling moment for me. The amount of detail, research and care for our ingredients was mind blowing. I loved seeing how excited the team was about being in Mexico, but also how having dinner made you part of something really special. It was truly great to taste ingredients I’ve eaten my whole life under a new light.

Were there surprises you encountered in terms of native ingredients, how they were used?  

Natalia: Not much. I’m a food journalist and I was familiar with most of the ingredients, except some native ants they brought from Copenhagen. The use and combination of ingredients and the sequence/story that the tasting menu told was the extraordinary part.

Issa: Yes, the octopus in dzikil pak blew my mind, the tenderness of the meat is something I’ve never tried before and I don’t think I ever will [again]. The richness of its sauce, the flavor of the tortilla with the richness of the Yaxunah’s corn was just perfect. Is just one of those dishes that shouted “This is Mexico!” but in such a delicate, elegant and full of flavor way, but also in some sort of weird déja-vu way.

Do you think the menu represented Mexico well? 

Issa: It absolutely did. And what is most important about it, it represented the whole country, from Ensenada, to Oaxaca, to Mérida to Quintana Roo. The team traveled around the country for months doing research and it showed big time in the menu.

How do you think it was received by general public Mexicans who attended?

Natalia: The Mexicans that attended were very happy and enthusiastic. The general public had mix reactions about it, calling Redzepi “food colonialist” or the “international spokesperson of Mexican food.

Issa: There was a lot of negative feedback at first when the project was announced because of the price to have dinner there. But what I witnessed during the dinner was people being amazed at every bite, people laughing, people walking around to take a look at the kitchen, people relaxed and just enjoying the overall experience.  You could see smiles everywhere.

Do you think it had any impact on the community?

Natalia: I believe it did but only for the time they were here. It still remains to be seen if other chefs are going to work with the communities he [Redzepi] worked with or the produce, ingredients he used. 

Issa: Absolutely. Not only by the fact of having people flying from all over the world to attend a restaurant made from scratch in the middle of the Mexican jungle, but the local producers received a huge impact from it. One of the greatest things about Noma is that it created a lot of jobs and made small producers grow a lot of ingredients for the restaurants, and I’m taking about really small producers who grew everything in their backyards and sent it everyday to the restaurant. Having a whole restaurant with 145 people move to Tulum for a seven-week adventure that worshiped Mexico brought nothing but a lot of good deals to the region. 

Chef Rosio Sánchez.
A Mayan woman shaping masa for the menu.
The Noma Mexico team.

Last Thoughts, a Q&A with Rosio Sánchez:

What was the most interesting new ingredient you worked with?  

Jackfruit. I had never tasted it before. The flavors are like seven different fruits all rolled up into one. 

Most difficult ingredient or technique to understand or master? 

Bee larvae because it is simply too hard to remove from the comb.

Will you apply any of these new flavors or techniques back to Copenhagen?

I’m inspired to use all the fruits and herbs at Hija de Sánchez, but unfortunately, they do not grow in Copenhagen so I cannot apply them to my taqueria.

Most surprising things about running a Mexican restaurant in Mexico?

How much fun it was!

The Copenhagen model of Noma is inherently different than the Tulum model of Noma. Biggest challenges in Tulum that you witnessed?

To me, it felt a lot easier than the Noma in Copenhagen. Peoples attitudes were better.

What will you miss about Mexico?  All of the fruit! 

How, specifically, did this experience affect you, given what you’ve created as Mexican legacy in Copenhagen?

It’s given me more confidence to continue to push at Hija de Sánchez, to make it the best Mexican eatery in Europe. It strengthened my love for Mexico.