The World’s Best Restaurant Is Betting the Farm on Its Future
When the culinary world is looking for inspiration, it turns to Copenhagen. The Danish capital, home to Noma, repeatedly named the “World’s Best Restaurant,” is the point from which many of the most dominant food trends in high-end cooking emanate. Foraged ingredients? Fermented foods? Dishes scented with pine needles? Anything garnished with nasturtium leaves or flowers? It can all be traced back to the work of chef Rene Redzepi, who, since opening Noma 12 years ago, has slowly turned the focus of Michelin-starred kitchens away from the Mediterranean and toward the North Sea.
After New Year’s Eve 2016, however, things are going to change significantly: The restaurant will close and move to a new location that will feature an extensive urban farm, The New York Times reported on Monday. Furthermore, the restaurant will only serve vegetarian food during the spring and summer months. “The world turns green,” Redzepi told the Times. “And so will the menu.”
“I thought that we were just about to announce it dead,” Cynthia Sandberg, who runs Love Apple Farm in Santa Cruz, California, said in an interview. By “it” she means farm-to-table, which she knows a thing or two about: At the height of summer, Sandberg grows more than 300 cultivars of vegetables, herbs, fruits, and edible flowers—100 of which are tomatoes—for chef David Kinch’s restaurant Manresa in nearby Los Gatos. “If René Redzepi is going to do it, it will give it another shot in the arm,” she continued.
With the likes of Dan Barber, the chef at New York’s Blue Hill, questioning whether farm-to-table is truly sustainable in his 2014 tome, The Third Plate, and restaurants across the country branding a few window boxes of herbs and lettuces as “farms,” the culinary trend has become more of a marketing device than a philosophy in recent years. “People have become jaded,” said Sandberg, who believes that, in many instances, “farm-to-table” has become little more than a catchphrase. But doing farm-to-table the way Kinch and Sandberg do—and the way most expect Redzepi plans to do—requires real dedication and is prone to countless potential setbacks. “This takes a lot more effort than just throwing some seeds in the ground and just watering them,” Sandberg said.
But a dedication to local ingredients has always meant something very real and stringent at Noma, where you won’t find any olive oil or lemons—hallmarks of the Mediterranean culinary tradition that rely on a temperate climate to grow. Rather than warm-weather-loving cilantro, you might find a dish at Noma garnished with a type of wild beach grass that tastes surprisingly similar. Which is to say, a Redzepi-helmed farm will likely involve more than growing herb garnishes and microgreens for the kitchen and will instead take after farms like Sandberg’s, Barber’s, and those owned by Alain Passard, who gave up on meat-centric cooking at his Paris restaurant L’Arpège way back in 2001.
“It makes sense to do it here,” Redzepi told the Times. “It makes sense to have your own farm, as a restaurant of this caliber.” Though the property is currently occupied by an old warehouse, and the site of the farm—the size of which is not yet clear—is beneath concrete, the chef described an ambitious plan that includes a rooftop greenhouse, a floating garden plot on the nearby water, and a full-time farmer with a crew to tend to it all.
All of which will cost a lot, Sandberg warned: “One of his biggest challenges is, number one, the expense of it is going to be huge,” she said.
In Santa Cruz—where she grows nearly all of the produce used in Manresa’s kitchen, save for stock vegetables such as onions and carrots, and space-hogging corn—it takes six people six hours to harvest the farm, which they do twice a week, year-round. And then there’s all the work it takes to produce a harvest: tilling, seeding, mulching, weeding, staking, pruning, watering, etc.
Even with 80 acres of fertile Hudson Valley farmland and a 22,000-square-foot greenhouse to grow and raise produce and livestock for Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Barber still works with a network of area farmers to supply his two restaurant kitchens. For most chefs who work with their own farm, ingredients grown on site supplement those purchased from other growers. When I ate at the French Laundry a few years ago, for example, just one dish out of the nine-course menu—a fantastically sweet and creamy cabbage soup—relied predominantly on the restaurant’s three-acre garden.
But all the investment that goes into growing your own ingredients pays off with flavor—that is, if everything goes according to plan. “David can’t buy a tomato at a farmers market that tastes as good as the tomatoes that I grow,” said Sandberg, who teases more out of the farm’s namesake crop—pommes d’amour, or love apple, is French for “tomato”—through seed selection, applying special soil amendments at just the right point in the growing cycle, and limiting water before harvest so as not to dilute the flavor. Working closely with a farm can also provide a kitchen with familiar ingredients in a different form, such as the fava bean leaves and flowers that Kinch began to cook with at Manresa years ago, and that have since shown up at farmers markets and on other restaurant menus.
But unlike a mistake made in the kitchen, setbacks on the farm are less forgiving—whether they are brought on by weather, pests, or blight. “If you screw up your tomatoes one year, you have to wait a whole another year to figure out if you can do it right,” Sandberg warned.
Elsewhere in Scandinavia, another young Nordic chef has been doing something similar to what Redzepi is proposing—but far away from the hustle and bustle of a city. Magnus Nilson’s Fäviken, with its spare, 12-seat dining room, is set on a 20,000-acre farm and hunting estate in northern Sweden, which provides the kitchen with everything from root vegetables, to trout, to wild mushrooms, to game meat. But making that all last throughout the year is a bit more challenging when you’re at the same lattitude with Greenland, where the growing season is far shorter than on California’s Central Coast.
“The big challenge is to keep the flow of produce going the whole year so that you have the same quality, no matter what the season,” Nilsson told Eater in 2012. “In the summer, there is so much produce up here. You get anything and you get any quantity. In the winter, who knows? So for us it’s all about planning and acquiring enough quantity and storing in the right way so we can account for seasonal fluctuations and even everything out.”
In France, Passard is able to grow more produce than he needs for the kitchens at L’Arpège—where Nilsson once worked—but he has still needed to expand his farming operations in the 15 years since he moved meat to the margins of his menu. His original plot, in the Loire Valley, provides more temperate weather, while a second site, farther north, offers the cool weather and harder winter freezes that root vegetables and stone fruit, respectively, need to thrive. As Sandberg put it, “There is not one piece of terroir that can give a Michelin-starred restaurant all of its produce.”
But the chilly latitudes of northern Europe can coax exciting flavors out of vegetables grown there. Take the Faroe Islands, where 50-degree days mark the dog days of summer. That’s where Francis Lam found Leif Sørensen working with turnips that taste like pears. He wrote in 2014 for Bon Appétit that the humble root vegetables grown in the cold island dirt were “crunchy and juicy and sweet,” and another yellow variety “tasted like a cantaloupe.”
And just as it eschews lemons and olive oil, Noma doesn’t mark summer with a rash of tomato-based dishes either, “because tomatoes are not able to be grown properly” that far north, Sandberg said. So if Redzepi does indeed breathe new life into farm-to-table cooking, it will very likely look and taste different than what has come before, once again showing off just how much diversity and flavor can be wrested from Danish soil—soil that will now be cheek-and-jowl with the kitchen where the ingredients are prepared.