Thursday, January 30, 2014

Not About Food

I've been gathering my thoughts on my experience at noma a couple weeks ago and while it seems I should discuss the food, it was something else about the place that made it distinctive. Besides, there are a number of far more able food writers who have already done so and while I'd love to get into the subtle flavor of bacteria and kelp, the experience is hardly just about the food.

Sure, the pacing, service, flavors, and plating were superior; unlike anything I've ever had, but it wasn't until after I'd finished my meal that noma truly transformed the way I think about a restaurant and the way I think about working teams in general. At the end of the lunch service I overheard a few other guests were going to tour the kitchen. It was a long shot, but I figured it couldn't hurt to ask if I could tag along, I did not expect a yes. Our server tried to set expectations by letting us know that it wasn't something most people did.

A few minutes later, we paid our bill and that was that. I wasn't disappointed to not see the kitchen, it was honestly an experience that left a want for nothing. In fact, the worst part about eating there, aside from how much it costs (something for another post), is that it comes to an end and you have to leave. But that was actually not the end. Our server, who was on her own account amazing, returned with good news. WE WOULD GET A TOUR.

We were introduced to one of the chefs who like everyone there, greeted us with a sincere warmth and interest in our visit. I know this might sound like it's just good service, but either everyone at noma has gone to acting school or they truly love what they're doing there.

We are shown around noma's kitchens during their preparation for the dinner service. During my entire four years at university, I worked in the dining halls. When a kitchen is in full tilt, the last thing you want is someone standing in the middle of it, getting a tour. We were exactly that, that couple getting the tour in the middle of a working kitchen. We were not just in the middle, we were literally in the way of approximately 60 people who were working furiously to make this experience happen.

But the fact that I felt that way was purely of my own construction. For every "sorry" that I'd given for being in the path of a chef, there was a smile, a welcome, and a "don't worry about it." Again, it was this sincere sense of appreciation for you, the guest, that came from every person, chef or otherwise. I looked at them star-struck, but they made you feel like you were the celebrity. They were real people back there, not too important for you, but on your level despite the acclaim of their restaurant.

In the 17 or so years of my professional career I've worked with more than a dozen teams on projects of all sizes. There are definitely many of them that I'd work with again, and some where I'd prefer a sharp stick in the eye. Of the best of them, however, I'm not completely certain I've seen anything like what I saw at noma. The respect for each other results from a cross-diciplinary approach and shared tasks.

Everyone learns and does all the different jobs there, which means everyone literally appreciates walking in each other's shoes. They also work as a team on tedious tasks. Rather than one person peeling 300 potatoes, 15 of them will do 20 each. By sharing in the toil, they both break down tasks into easier stretches and share in the execution of what is produced. The result is higher quality execution and happier people; the kitchen was filled with upbeat chatter and smiling faces, not to mention perfectly peeled potatoes.

By the end of the tour through the kitchens, I got the sense that people there not only appreciated that they were working in one of the best restaurants in the world, but they appreciated each other too. They also appreciated me, not because I my meal pays their salaries, but because I was also somehow part of their small world of mutual respect and appreciation. To say the least, it was this, not the food, that left the biggest impression on me. It was a truly inspiring end to a truly inspired meal. If you are lucky enough to have this experience, I'd suggest you do it. It's not bullshit, it's a lot of passionate people trying to make the best food experience in the world and they are doing a damn good job of it.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Not About Copenhagen

I can't quite remember the first time I'd heard about noma. I vaguely remember a friend telling me about it, and then I saw interviews with René Redzepi in the movie Three Stars, a documentary about the Michelin Guide and the chefs whose restaurants come in and fall out of that prestigious distinction.

I remember the Redzepi interviews; they stood in stark contrast to the rather hubristic interviews with guide director, Jean-Luc Naret, and apart from the interviews with the other chefs. Redzepi had a realist's approach as a restaurateur, focus on the food, but the bottom line is about booze. He was frank about how success as a chef meant more than cooking, something that some of the other chefs either failed to mention, or didn't know how to articulate.

Fast forward a few years and noma has quickly grown into a global gourmet concern. Redzepi's Alice Waters approach mixed with his entrepreneurism and focus on innovative, maybe controversial, food caught the attention of many food writers, including a staple-favorite, Anthony Bourdain.

Last October I was up late watching an episode of his CNN show, Parts Unknown, where he visits Denmark. But the episode was, "not about Denmark, or Copenhagen," it was about, "one man, and one restaurant." Bourdain hangs out with Redzepi for the day, both exude a certain stylized cool, both carefree but with a underlying seriousness that propels them into the spotlight.

Before his meal at noma, Bourdain wonders if this is going to be a bunch of bullshit. I'm a fan of his low tolerance for bullshit, exemplified in a No Reservations episode in Italy where he gets shit-faced as a result of a tour he's foisted onto where his guides throw frozen seafood into water for the camera.

By the end of his episode on Redzepi and noma, however, he seems genuinely convinced that noma is, in fact, not bullshit. Frankly, I don't identify as a foodie, though I have been accused and labelled as such, but if Anthony Bourdain says it's good, I'd be inclined to believe him.

As the episode runs to the end, Bourdain dines with noma alum and chef, Alessandro Porcelli. Porcelli poignantly points out that Redzepi is out to change the world, but doing it with one restaurant that seats 35 guests at a time is quite a challenge. I thought to myself, I'd like to be one of those 35 guests at a seating so I headed over to, and lo and behold, I find reservations for the next season OPEN IN AN HOUR.

So around 2a PST, I sat violently refreshing noma's reservations page until finally I was in. In a matter of minutes it was over. Two entire months worth of seatings were gone, but by some stroke of impulse, luck, and late-night delirium, I had managed to get one of them.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Monday, January 6, 2014

Course de Bruxelles

Since my last post I've put a few miles in around Brussels. Many of those miles were spent hopelessly lost in vaguely familiar corners, down winding streets with 5 names, in the cold battering rain. But then somewhere around 50 miles or so, I was getting less and less lost. If you can break the habit of running the same routes, it becomes one of the best exploration tools for learning a place.

Trying to get lost can be terrifying without a map, but also turns on a basic survival instinct. At first it will feel scary and strange, it will fill you with insecurity, but after you get over that, it turns into a liberating confidence. Now about 170 miles into Brussels, I'm fairly confident in my explored section of the city. Granted, it's mostly just a few miles around my apartment, but these routes are not just familiar, they are starting to feel like mine.

I was curious to actually see this new place that I'd claimed, but Garmin doesn't do multiple route overlays, and Strava charges you for their heatmap feature, so I decided to figure it out on my own. It took a little bit of perseverance, but it was a great way to learn the Google Maps API, and the resulting map provides great introspective details of my running habits here. I found it interesting that most of my runs are north/south, rather than east/west, I'm not sure why. It does motivate me to want to run east/west more often and to expand my known areas of the city.

A few technical bits regarding the map that I learned:

  • Garmin will export a KML file that the Gmaps API can render, so you don't have to run some crazy regex to extract LatLng points like I did at first.
  • The Garmin KML file, however, also includes a series of "track points" that it uses to animate a cursor on its website which obscure the polylines so you'll need to delete that from each KML file.
  • The Gmaps renderer caches KML files for some indeterminate length beyond 5 minutes to prevent denial of service attacks, so if you are wondering why your map isn't updating, it's not your fault.
  • You are limited to 10-20 KML overlays on a single map. If you exceed the KML data limit, none of the overlays will appear. Just keep commenting layers out until they appear again.
  • The "Googley" engineers working on the KML format thought it'd be cool to style your polylines with a hexadecimal system that is backwards from html so instead of the #RRGGBB that most of the modern world has used since the dawn of additive color theory, it goes AABBGGRR, AA is for alpha transparency (also very convenient as a hexadecimal rather than an integer, so 50% is 7F, not .5).
Other than that, it was fairly straight-forward and the examples provided were extremely helpful.