Noma Mexico Goes Beyond Delicious
"To say all food must be delicious is like saying all painting must be pretty, or stories must be happy."
The jackfruit came on the night bus from Tabasco. Packed in a cardboard box amongst parcels and suitcases, between kids with headphones and sleeping gray-haired campesinos, on a beat-up bus loaded with the human capital needed to massage, manicure, pedicure, rub hot stones on, remove seaweed with shovels from the sight of, twist towels into woodland creatures for, ferry mixed drinks across hot sand towards and minister to the whims of the welter of tourists in Tulum.
The crate of star fruit came in from Chiapas. The cacao beans from Yucatan. The octopus, currently being massaged by an Australian chef named Kane, came from Nayarit and the melon clams, which only three men know how to harvest, from four hours off the coast. The four pigs heads on the grill, flesh tightening around their teeth into a posthumous rictus, were until recently attached to bodies rooting around Chiapas. To this jungle kitchen traveled fruits obscure and fruits common, cacti and bromeliads from across Mexico, insects from the jungle and field, bivalvia and octopodidae from the Sea of Cortez and corn from centuries ago stream in daily in plastic crates, in pickup trucks and, in the case of the jackfruit, passenger buses.
The man who summoned all these things here, the pied piper of product, is about the only thing around here that is not local. He is the pale-skinned hazel-eyed lightly-bearded Dane named Rene Redzepi. Recently, or at least since he opened Noma for one month on the jungle side of Carretera Tulum in April, it should be noted his skin is a bit tanner and his hazel eyes sparkle with a bit more fun than usual.
When it was announced that the restaurant Noma would cease to exist as we knew it in Copenhagen at the end of 2016 and transmute into a farm in the long-term and a series of pop-ups restaurants in the short, and that the first pop-up of this era would be in dreamy beach town Tulum and that that dinner there would cost $600—actually $750 with tip and tax—many, myself included, greeted the news with an eye roll and a “fuck that ish” dismissiveness.
No one can begrudge a man his vacation. Despite Denmark’s utopian labor laws, Redzepi worked himself up like a lab test routinely for the last fourteen years when Noma was up and running. Besides, the appeal of sun, surf and sand—and jungle, fields and deserts—is self-evident. So on one hand, go ahead: disfruta y diviértete, Renecito!
But the brick-and-mortar Noma, on the banks of the Kobenhavns Havn, was so much more than simply a restaurant. The greatness lay in its relationship to the buildings, people, country and culture that surrounded it. Redzepi is a chef by profession, a visionary by providence and a proselytizer by passion. Noma became a global movement by the grace of his ability to look at that which surrounded him and to see in what was undervalued value. This applied not just to fronds, fjords, fish bits and ants but to the bearded farmers and sweatered fisherman who stare with Scandinavian pride out from the pages of his 2010 book, Time and Place.
The resonance of Noma was especially profound for it was Redzepi’s homeland upon which he gazed and not, say, a boho bougie bobo playground for questing one percenters. So I was worried for never is a thing as disappointing as when it was once great or showed the promise of greatness.
Also craw-sticking too was the possible bigfooting. Who was Redzepi to “discover” Tulum when guys like Eric Werner of Hartwood a few hundred meters away had been there since 2010 and Arca—less celebrated, much better—was run by a chef from San Francisco and a chef from Zihuatanejo? Of course, LMFAO that Werner, a New York chef, “discovered” Tulum when food ways in Tulum date back to 1500 B.C. Sheer tosh. But at the same time it’s hard to shake the slight acrid odor of Henry Morton Stanley narcissism from Redzepi’s choice of location.
And then, as it so happened, I ate at Noma. After a friend-of-a-friend bailed on a friend—with friends like these, who needs friends?—I found myself traipsing through the fronds, Noma-bound. And Noma did as Noma does: It changed everything.
To the extent that it is a restaurant—and we’ll get to that a little later—Noma is an ecstatic one. Ecstatic is used here in the original Greek sense. It forces one to stand (stasis) outside (ek) oneself. It shakes you like a coconut tree until your preconceived notions fall and crack open. Over four hours and fifteen courses, what a restaurant is, what a pop-up restaurant is, what Mexican ingredients are, what is food and what art, what is the point of eating all, also what is Redzepi’s relationship to Mexico, what is delicious and does it matter gradually slough away until at the end of the meal—for me, at 1:30 a.m.—you’re left feeling raw and vulnerable, shaken, stirred and moved in the middle of the jungle with the ocean in earshot.
Along Carretera Tulum waft tan women in flowing floral dresses and men to whom sweet-smelling leisure adheres like cat hair on Scotch tape. Walking southerly, these lotus-eating pleasure-seekers peel off into restaurants like Hartwood, Arca, and Cenzontle. There they can find delicious food which, like Noma, draws from nearby ocean and jungle. At Hartwood, they worship at the foot of Warner’s facility with fire as the modern-day Prometheus sweats it out in front of the flame. He chars beets till they look like dark carmine boulders and octopus tentacles until their limbs become crunchy arabesques. Nearby at Arca, beautiful waiters silenced our table at first with their cheekbones and smiles but after we finally recovered our wits enough to order, with the toothsomeness of seared quail on medjool date mole and the zip-zap wonder-trap of charred snap peas. There’s also bread and that the world’s best sourdough is found in the middle of the Mexican jungle only adds to Arca’s wonder.
I’m guessing many of you who are reading this have eaten food at some point in your lives. And to those accustomed to eating food, what one eats at these places is comforting and recognizable. They are really good versions of what has hitherto been had. But if you make it through the four guardsmen of Noma who stand khaki-clad and smiling along the road waiting for guests, what comes isn’t food, really, at least not in anyway I recognize it. Take, for example, the first course that arrived, “piñuela and tamarind.” Bromelia pinguin, piñuela, is a type of bromeliad that, in its raw form, looks like an elongated shallot. It is prized during times of drought by animals and children alike, since its fruit retains moisture. In fact, in these dry times, the field from which this piñuela was drawn had to be fenced off to ward away rogue piñuela-pluckers. (Shortly after the fencing was installed, the milpa, or farm, on which it was grown burned, perhaps in retribution for the fencing.)
These pinuelas arrived here thanks to Santiago Lastra Rodriguez, a young Mexican chef who is in charge of finding purveyors for Noma’s kitchen, and also through the research and travels of Redzepi’s advance team, which arrived months before and includes Lastra Rodriguez, Rosio Sanchez and head of R&D, Thomas Frebel. The rekkie team traveled Mexico from cabeza to culo before these doors opened, tasting. Sanchez has always been Noma’s flavor genius; Frebel, the intellectual pragmatist and Lastra Rodriguez, halfway between fixer and purveyor whisperer. I say purveyors but, as Lastra Rodriguez notes, they aren’t purveyors but just people who know people who grow stuff. We, diners, are then people who know people who know people who grow stuff too.
If you eat too much piñuela raw, it fills your mouth with blisters. So at Noma it is blanched until the flesh is milky, moist and white. The hard outer skin is peeled off and splayed. The slightly tart innards are dotted with grasshopper paste onto which adheres delicate coriander flowers. They arrive, upright on a leaf, like tiny flower-covered odalisques. Floral, vegetal, instinctual and insectual, the pinuela popsicles are delicious. The pleasure comes not only from the flavor but from the newly discovered (to me) ingredient. This happens over and over again from melon clams, the size of a Kate Spade clutch, to the tiny carmine fruit of the jiotilla. But for those who eat for pleasure, the pleasure of discovery is not a newly discovered pleasure. It is why we eat far and wide.
Half of what is eaten at Noma is delicious. The better half is not delicious, perhaps not even pleasurable to eat. What those courses do is take you by the shoulders and rattle your mind around until you see clearly what is what.
Take, for instance, the leaf-y char-y sea-y taste of an envelope made of grilled hoja santa leaves within which Rosio’s mole and dried scallops inside compete for attention. Or savor the intensity of the silky brown dzikilpak which arrives like sateen sheets under a single coil of tender Mayan octopus, as coy and soft as a sex kitten. There’s the brine-rich alarm clock in the fresh Bahia falsa oyster piled inside a “taco” made of Chaya leaf (Mayan Tree Spinach).
By any normative definition of delicious these are too strange, too strong, too intense to be delicious. It’s a matter of taste, sure. Many people to whom I’ve spoke say it was delicious to them. But I suspect that we lack the vocabulary to talk about food when the goal ceases to be deliciousness and becomes something else, something more profound. We use deliciousness to mean good. But we need another word for great.
For now, because so few chefs dare to aim elsewhere, the only word to describe these flavors—and the universe in which they arose and combined—is Noma-y.
To say all food must be delicious is like saying all painting must be pretty, or stories must be happy. Nothing is as deadly to art than claiming artists must please. When I think about the art that sticks with me, that shoved me from where I was standing and what I was thinking, pretty paintings are few and far between. The angular figures full of angst and sallow of skin that stare out from Egon Schiele’s portraits, the brash slashes of Franz Kline’s brushes, the infuriating near-worlds of Atwood, the rank odor of death in Levi, Davis at his most dissonant, Mingus shouting, blue notes, bee stings, packages tied up in string. These are my favorite things: often beautiful, extremely profound but seldom pretty.
So it was with Noma, a $600 meal I left half uneaten but completely sated. To finish everything on the plate—or more likely, the leaf—at the moment, seemed besides the point. Firstly, one needs only a glimpse of enlightenment to understand it. Secondly, one doesn’t pig out on communion wafers and to some extent that’s what dinner is at Noma, a bow to the project behind it. The meal is not just a gesture or a symbol. It isn’t incidental to the project of Noma nor is it the sum of the project. It’s simply one aspect, albeit the most visible, tangible, digestible and easily sellable.
Walking through Noma’s open-air kitchen during afternoon prep, the hot humid air is cut through by oceanic breezes. Nearly 90 chefs are bent over their stations, busily and intently remaking the world around them into something Noma-y. In the evening, as the sun sets, diners will gather around tables to devour in a few minutes that which took hours, days, months to create. And in a few weeks’ time, the kitchen will be empty too. The chefs will have gone home too and the spotlight moved on. Like a mandala, Noma will have been blown away. Jackfruit will still grow, swaying on trees, bright green and fantastic. But from the night bus arriving from Tabasco, they’ll be gone.