Four years ago, Noma clinched the top spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list – the fourth time in half a decade it had landed this honour. Ascending the stage at London’s Guildhall, an exuberant René Redzepi looked back on the remarkable journey his Copenhagen dining room had taken since it opened in a then-derelict area of Christianshavn in 2003. Its menu of local, often foraged produce, served up on artisanal dishware in a pared-back space, upended popular expectations of what fine dining should be. ‘We were the geeks in the class of fine linens and expensive wines,’ mused the head chef and co-founder. ‘And look at where we are now, celebrated for all the experiments. Wood sorrel conquered caviar!’ Having made New Nordic into the culinary movement of the decade and turned the Danish capital into a gastronomic mecca, Noma was assuredly the most influential force in food since El Bulli. But in Redzepi’s view, they were nowhere near the finish line. Turning to his team, he continued: ‘We have to stay there on the edge, looking for our next move. The road is not paved in front of us, for we want to be the ones laying the bricks.’
As it turned out, the next moves included pop-ups in Tokyo, Sydney and Tulum, each more wildly popular than the last, as well as two sibling restaurants, 108 and Barr (W*220). More importantly, there’s been bricklaying in the literal sense, about a kilometre north-east of the restaurant’s original address. Here, in a sizeable strip of waterfront overlooking the hippie enclave of Christiania, is a new home for Noma, a place for Redzepi to press reset, and then dream bigger than ever before.
On this plot of land is an artificial mound once part of Copenhagen’s medieval defence system, and underneath, a vast Second World War-era arsenal. When Noma’s CEO, Peter Kreiner, first stumbled upon the spot, the arsenal was covered in graffiti, its grounds strewn with litter. Still, he and Redzepi felt an immediate affinity for it. ‘This was a space where we could be close to nature,’ Kreiner says, ‘and create this amazing new place to live out the next chapter in Noma’s life.’ With the aid of an investor, they bought the site and drew up plans for its transformation.
Enter Bjarke Ingels, the boundary-busting architect who had made his name with the subterranean Danish Maritime Museum in Helsingør. Ingels became friendly with Redzepi and Kreiner after he organised the first board meeting of his practice, BIG, at the original Noma, so it’s no wonder he was the first architect to come to mind for this project. Two other practices were brought on to offer competing proposals, but it was BIG’s plan – a cluster of seven small buildings forming a village that ‘breathes and lives’ – that emerged as the clear choice. ‘The vision relates to Christiania,’ explains Redzepi, ‘where they build in a chaotic way that nevertheless allows for a very enjoyable environment.’ Each building would be formed of a different material, chosen for its specific purpose. Meanwhile, the arsenal would be converted into facilities including a fermentation room, a prep kitchen and a staff dining room, and three separate glass structures would serve as greenhouses, and a bakery and test kitchen. And there would be plenty of land left to turn into an urban farm, and grow up to 15 per cent of the ingredients on the menu.
Much as Redzepi was thrilled with BIG’s concept, he was keen to bring someone else on board for the interiors – to offer a different perspective and make the village a little more kaleidoscopic. So in early 2017, he called on architect David Thulstrup, whose work he’d discovered on Instagram (it was Thulstrup’s house for photographer Peter Krasilnikoff, see W*205, that particularly caught Redzepi’s eye). Thulstrup was asked to create spaces that reflect Noma’s heritage. ‘They wanted something liveable, but with a dash of cool,’ he says. Accordingly, he drew inspiration from residences rather than restaurants.
One year on, the buildings and interiors are complete, and the new Noma is welcoming its first guests, who follow a cobblestone path into an understated metal-clad entrance pavilion. To better convey a sense of home, there is no front desk, just a series of wardrobes where guests can leave their coats. And perhaps their shoes as well, seeing as there’s a rugged Scandinavian terrazzo floor underfoot. The same sandblasted floor extends through all the circulation spaces within the village, which are lined with skylights to heighten guests’ awareness of seasons. ‘When it’s snowing a lot,’ says Ingels, ‘you will feel like you’re walking inside an igloo.’
At the opposite end of the entrance is the service kitchen. BIG situated this at the heart of the village, so guests can witness their dishes being assembled, and experience the energy of the kitchen. Likewise, staff can check on the progress of individual tables. Unlike a standard restaurant kitchen, there are few metallic surfaces save for a raw steel canopy. Chefs work at oak-clad kitchen islands, specially developed by Thulstrup and Belgian manufacturer Maes Inox. These are complemented by an open brick barbecue inspired by Noma’s Mexican sojourn. The adjacent waiters’ room, in black concrete, adds to the village’s textural diversity.
Next door, the 40-cover main dining room is the largest new building within the village, and architecturally the most complex. The barn-like structure is made entirely of wood, with a unique wall concept inspired by a spot at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts that had cubes of end-grain flooring. From these sprung the idea of creating the dining room’s walls with stacks of wooden planks, their thin end grain exposed on both the interior and exterior to become wonderfully tactile, three-dimensional surfaces. The eventual structure took 46 cubic metres of oak, and about 250,000 screws to complete. Similarly, the flooring is in solid oak, in larger planks supplied by Danish specialist Dinesen. Made from trees that are up to 200 years old, this HeartOak flooring has occasional cracks, which Dinesen craftsmen have repaired with precise butterfly joints. It’s a technique that preserves the unique character of each original tree. In the view of fourth-generation owner Thomas Dinesen, to do anything else ‘would be disrespectful to the trees, and to all the foresters who have tended to them’.
Naturally, the wooden space is populated with wooden furnishings. Redzepi wanted a dining chair with a neutral design but plenty of personality – and armrests. It was agreed a new chair would be created by Thulstrup and Brdr Krüger, a local joinery workshop that had already created custom chairs for another New Nordic cuisine pioneer, Kadeau.
The resulting design’s seating angle gives it a slight formality, which is offset by the subtly organic forms of the armrests, back legs, and swooping backrest; each component is seamlessly joined without a single nail. The majority of the chairs have been smoked and oiled to achieve a dark, luscious tone, while others have been coated in a mix of natural plant oils and waxes to retain a lighter hue. To provide a dash of warmth to the design, all backrests were then wrapped – and the seats woven – in paper cord by a local weaver who had trained under Hans J Wegner.
Jonas Krüger of Brdr Krüger describes the chair as among the most challenging pieces of furniture his workshop has produced: ‘The precision detailing is done most effectively on CNC machine,’ he explains, ‘but it takes craftsmanship and an eye for detail to keep each line seamless.’ True to Noma’s ethos, the chair has an unostentatious complexity. ‘We built on Danish tradition and added something new and light,’ says Krüger. ‘We’re calling it “Arv”, or “heritage”, to capture that feeling of standing on the shoulders of giants. Before Noma, Danish cuisine was meatballs and potatoes. Like the design greats, Noma has become an integral part of our heritage.’
Within the main dining room, ‘Arv’ chairs encircle oak tables also by Thulstrup and Brdr Krüger. These sit underneath designer Jonas Edvard’s pendant lamps, crafted from limestone from the Fakse region of Denmark. Scattered among tables are logs of salvaged pine – darkened by centuries spent submerged in Copenhagen’s harbour – some freestanding and others stacked into a waiter’s station by cabinetmakers Malte Gormsen. Natural light floods in through skylights, as well as large sliding windows that look out to Christiania across the water.
Around the corner is the private dining room, clad entirely in Dinesen Douglas fir and lined with floor-to-ceiling windows. Its centrepiece is a long oak table by Brdr Krüger, lit by a series of pendant lamps made by Edvard out of compressed seaweed. On the opposite side of the village, meanwhile, is a lounge with handmade brick walls and a stepped oak roof, where guests can relax after their meal around a fireplace. There, bespoke pieces by Thulstrup and soft furnishings by Faroese designer Ragnhild Hjalmarsdóttir Højgaard are mixed with classic Nordic pieces.
Thulstrup is determined that the village change with the seasons, by rotating smaller design elements and even adapting lighting to suit climate conditions. The latter requires some cutting-edge technology developed by local designer Michael Anker and Austrian brand XAL. Each of their lighting fixtures can be adjusted digitally to provide a ‘warm, fireplace-like experience in winter’, explains Anker, and cooler light in summer, so ‘it’s as nice sitting inside as it is outside’ – all the while keeping a high colour rendering index so that the food and the space can be perceived as accurately as possible.
All tableware from the original restaurant having been sold off at auction, Noma tasked glass artist Nina Nørgaard, who had already produced pieces for the old Noma, to design a whole new set of glassware. With the exception of the juice glass, which was moulded, each individual glass was blown by hand, with each stem dragged out from the glass’s bowl instead of being attached as a separate piece, making for a sturdier body but also adding to the difficulty of production.
Accounting for the different styles, Nørgaard had to deliver 2,000 glasses in under six months. Six hours a day, in a precisely choreographed sequence, her colleague Jason Svendsen would do all the blowing while she kept an eye on the measurements, and shaped each glass. ‘It takes a lot of energy to work with glass,’ she says, yet she deemed the project special enough to work through her pregnancy, taking only two weeks off after the birth of her baby. She is in awe of Noma’s willingness to work with studio glass at such quantities. ‘I haven’t seen another restaurant invest in glass like this,’ she adds.
The ceramics were an even greater undertaking, for the new Noma divides its year into three seasons. The winter months are dedicated to Scandinavian seafood, early summer to early autumn sees a plant-based menu, while early autumn to January focuses on the flora and fauna of the forest. Each season calls for its own style of presentation – blues for the seafood season, pinks and greens for the vegetable season, and earthier tones for the game and forest season. So effectively, Noma would require three times as many ceramic pieces as before. This ambitious project was entrusted to stylist Christine Rudolph, an old friend of Redzepi who had styled both of his books.
Rudolph and Redzepi quickly agreed that the resulting selection should have a wide range of textures and shapes, rather like the ceramics most people have at home, and Rudolph found five different artists to work on the project: the youngest, Oslo-based Anette Krogstad, produces painterly pieces, while the eldest, Astrid Smith, is a retired art teacher in Funen who makes richly textured creations. They are joined by Janaki Larsen, who mainly works in monochrome but was persuaded to create a range of pale blue pieces; Karina Skibby, director of historic workshop Hjorths, who works with local clay in Bornholm; and Finn Dam Rasmussen, who specialises in salt-glaze pottery. Rudolph helped them refine their designs, and organise larger-scale production at another facility in Bornholm, called Den Danske Keramikfabrik. ‘This wasn’t a full-time project, but it felt like one,’ she exclaims. But the people made it worth her while: ‘René has an amazing vision, and it’s been so much fun.’
Further design elements are in the works, with restaurant manager James Spreadbury and front-of-house team leader Katherine Bont working on uniforms with local brands Hansen Garments and Norse Projects. They are creating what is essentially a capsule collection of clothing that staff can freely mix and match – ‘We want everybody to be able to show their personalities,’ says Spreadbury. Uniforms aside, Noma has more artworks to commission, and plenty of planting and landscaping to do. So it may be years before the village is entirely complete, but what is there now is enough to delight even the most exacting guest.
It goes without saying that the project has been demanding for everyone involved, be it in terms of skill, imagination, and perhaps more crucially, time. Thulstrup, for instance, had seven days to draw up his initial proposal for the interior design, while Brdr Krüger was given only five to develop the first prototype of the ‘Arv’ chair. In the end, what has made it possible is a shared love of adventure – as Kreiner describes it, Noma’s collaborators ‘are not afraid of trying new things. They haven’t come to where they are just by doing what everybody else does.’ And the experience of working for Noma will make a significant difference in their career, if the track records of their predecessors – including local architects Space Copenhagen are anything to go by.
Redzepi, too, has every faith in Noma’s new home. ‘We’ve squeezed out every single dime, and we’ll be in debt for a while,’ he admits. But in doing so, he and his team have laid the bricks for decades ahead of exploration, of vanquishing caviar with wood sorrel, and once again reshaping the way the world thinks about food. ‘I believe in this project,’ he beams, ‘and I believe that here we can build something for a lifetime.’
Refshalevej 96, Copenhagen, noma.dk