What It Was Really Like To Work At Noma

We check in with some of its most successful veterans

On December 31, 2016, Copenhagen restaurant Noma will serve its last dinner in what has been a choreographed bow for chef-owner René Redzepi. The closure was announced over a year ago with fanfare, and the promise of big things to come with an urban farm and a new location on the outskirts of the gritty Christiania neighborhood. So while the world waits for Redzepi—a new Nordic pioneer who piqued a global interest in foraging and northern European products like sea buckthorn—to open a new restaurant and concept sometime in 2017, where are high-flying gastronauts supposed to go?

The answer might be to follow Noma's alumni. The shuttering of The World's Best Restaurant™ places a new focus on the many Noma chefs who have opened restaurants around Copenhagen over the past decade. Some have stuck with Redzepi's precise plating and heady fine dining theatrics (and usage of fruit ants), while others have turned more casual and even simplified their menus to a single dish. But after hunting down many of the alumni (each with a good Redzepi story to spill), it's clear that Copenhagen has been the biggest winner, as the once-sleepy city of just more than half a million is punching well above its weight with some of the most exciting restaurants in the world. "He is extremely supportive of all of his sous-chefs," Rosio Sanchez, formerly the restaurant's pastry chef and current taco chef, says of Redzepi. "He's like, 'Go out into the world and do your thing.'" And they've listened. Here are a few Noma vets to watch.

① Christian Puglisi
Chef-owner at Relæ, Manfreds & Vin, and Bæst
Worked at Noma: 2006 to 2009
Puglisi had a nomadic beginning. At the age of seven, he immigrated to Denmark from Sicily with his Norwegian mother and Italian father who worked front-of-house at an Italian restaurant in Copenhagen. The business was in his blood, and as a young man, he moved to France for an apprenticeship, before arriving at Ferran Adrià's El Bulli in Spain, and then eventually finding himself back in Copenhagen to work as Redzepi's sous-chef. Relæ, which opened in 2010, was Puglisi's clean break—a restaurant that was pioneering with its price point (offering a very affordable four courses for $45, considering high food and labor costs, and the city's pesky 25 percent VAT) and location. Relæ's street, Jægersborggade, on the outskirts of the Nørrebro neighborhood, was once home to junkies and street gangs before a revitalization, with the young chef leading the charge.

The restaurant exploded in popularity and gained wide acclaim from the Michelin Guide and beyond. Puglisi has since opened a successful wine bar (Manfreds), bakery (Mirabelle) and a pizzeria from the future (Bæst)—with a crusty and slightly funky biga dough, and fresh ricotta produced from eight pampered dairy cows at his Farm of Ideas. Think of it as the Danish cousin of Dan Barber's Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.

On Redzepi's reaction to him leaving Noma: "He was like, 'I cannot be mad at you. I am a fan, and it will be a great restaurant.'"

② Rosio Sanchez

Chef-owner of Hija de Sanchez
Worked at Noma: 2009 to 2014
Sanchez, who is Mexican American and was born in Chicago, worked at wd~50 in New York City before moving to Copenhagen to serve as the restaurant's pastry chef. After six years at Noma—and many experiments with Oaxacan corn at the restaurant's famous R&D lab—Sanchez was ready to strike out on her own and make tacos for a living. Copenhagen will never be the same. She imported equipment from Mexico City for nixtamalization (the ancient Aztecan method for making fresh masa, the root of a quality corn tortilla) and started exacting her own recipe. Soon, she opened her first location of Hija de Sanchez in the popular Torvehallerne market, where tacos stuffed with pork belly carnitas, lengua and crispy fish skin, and gooseberry salsa are big hits.

On Noma's wide-ranging appeal: "Do you know how many people have eaten at Noma? One of the most insane moments was for one of the MADs, and out in the dining room with Ferran Adrià and Alain Ducasse and just everybody you could think of. There was a buzz."

Chef Rosio Sanchez | Photo: Kylejohn Photography

③ Matt Orlando
Chef-owner of Amass
Worked at Noma: 2010 to 2013
Matt Orlando is an American. Matt Orlando casually says he works more than 100 hours a week. Matt Orlando has a Souls of Mischief tattoo on his right forearm. Matt Orlando is gangster. How he ended up opening his restaurant, Amass, is a story of hard work.

He worked at The Fat Duck in London and Per Se in New York City before finding himself the head chef at Noma. "The number one lesson that I took away from Noma was that you have to set goals, which are somewhat unattainable," he says, reasoning that this is the only way to truly see how far you can push yourself. When his time was up and blessings were given (Redzepi is an investor in Amass), he knew that his menu should be based around a large garden, which he calls the "soul of the restaurant" and where he grows 80 varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs.

On the dangers of working in the kitchen: "I found myself in the test kitchen in the middle of an ant tasting, and we were all daring each other to eat the largest of the ants. These things had huge pinchers and were downright aggressive, to the point that they were attacking the end of the knife that we were trying to pick them up with."

Chef Matt Orlando | Photo: Mikkel Heriba

 Søren Ledet
Wine and Restaurant Manager of Geranium
Worked at Noma: 2004 to 2005
Geranium, the world's 28th best restaurant and one of only two three-Michelin-star restaurants in Northern Europe, is located on the eighth floor of an office tower adjacent to the local soccer stadium. On game days, diners and chefs alike can hear the faint roar of the crowd. But the main event takes place in the 36-seat dining room, where chef Rasmus Kofoed (a Bocuse D'or gold, silver and bronze medalist) has teamed up with longtime friend and former Noma executive assistant chef Ledet. Ledet worked at Noma during the heady early 2000s, well before the restaurant's global rankings, when the kitchen had a staff of seven and skepticism was high for the budding new Nordic movement. "We were called seal fuckers," Ledet says with a laugh. "It was a difficult time at Noma, because there was a lack of understanding for what we were doing," he recalls. But, certainly, times would change.

On his craziest Noma story: "We were asked to prepare a birthday dinner for this iconic wine importer at a castle outside Copenhagen. René had asked the castle's kitchen to do some simple mise en place for this classic musk ox dish we were doing at the time. Well, an hour before service, I get a call from René saying that everything was a total disaster and that I had to prep for a catastrophe. So I had to quickly do the mise en place and get my ass to the castle. At the end of that service, I started smoking again after taking five years off. René had a tendency to do this, which shows you how everything had to be perfect for Redzepi."