To say my husband is a perfectionist would be the understatement of the year. He once told me that his favorite quote was one from Chef Thomas Keller. The gist of the quote is that perfection doesn’t exist, because once you hit it, the bar is immediately raised. I both love and hate this about my husband. In the kitchen, this desire manifests itself into the pursuit of knowledge and the constant push to dig deeper. It was with this quality in mind that he applied to be a Stagier (fancy word for intern) at the number one restaurant in the world, Noma. The hate part meant we would be apart for three months. The love part meant I got to visit him.
I arrived in Copenhagen on a Friday. Jetlagged and blissfully excited, we ate lunch at Noma on Saturday. Then in the late afternoon we headed back to Noma to prep for Kevin’s Saturday night project. Every Saturday after dinner service, Noma is filled with a different air of excitement as staff prepares for projects. Projects are meant to highlight a technique or an ingredient that facilitates a discussion among the broader group and sparks creativity. Each Chef de Partie has to submit a dish once a month. Stagiers can participate but most choose not to. The result is an average of four individuals presenting each week. Each participant explains their dish to Executive Chef Rene Redzepi and to the staff; it is tasted, and then openly discussed. What could have been different? Why did they choose a particular temperature or spice? Do people like it?
The opportunity to present a dish to an incredibly talented group and in particular a man who has redefined food both within Copenhagen and globally was one that Kevin couldn’t pass up. Lucky for me, he decided to wait until I arrived. He had been conceptualizing his dish for weeks, tinkering with ingredients, and discussing ideal techniques. All of this in his “free time”, an average shift was 12 hours. The base of his dish was a fermented roasted pig head. Deboned but left in its entirety, he had rolled it, cured it, roasted it, and then sliced it into discs. The meat was tender and extremely flavorful and the roasting after its cure had created an almost crispy outer layer. The one problem was that it was a bit salty, what had started out as only 2% salt had compounded throughout the aging process. He spent most of the first 24 hours of me being there deliberating on his fear that it was too salty. What could be done to offset the dreaded salt?
Acidity accentuates salt while sweetness cuts it. The pickled turnips had to be adjusted to ensure they accented the overall dish as opposed to overpower it. Koji, Japanese fermented barley, was pressed into tiny cakes and lightly fried. The sweetness from the Koji process and the browning from the skillet provided just the cut we needed. Once the flavor profiles were aligned we turned to plating.
The dish was finally ready to present. There was a confidence and ease to his movements. He instructed the 3 man team in plating the dishes. They were so focused that no one noticed Chef Rene at the back of their group listening to the instructions. The dish was presented and one by one each staff member took a bite, immediately stepped back and allowed the space to be filled by another inquisitive mouth. What had taken weeks to envision and hours to execute took no more than 3 minutes to be devoured. Looking for approving head nods, smiles and any form of approval it was the longest 3 minutes I have experienced. I think Kevin was holding his breath. What did his peers think? What did Chef Rene think? Did he have what it took?
The dish was a success. They spent several minutes discussing technique, analyzing the different components, and wondering about other applications. Chef Rene and the staff loved it. At that moment I saw Kevin’s shoulders relax for the first time since I arrived. At the moment the three months of being apart for the pursuit of knowledge and growth were worth it. At that moment my husband knew just what the road ahead could hold.