‘For things to remain the same, things will have to change’. That is probably one of the most famous quotes from The Leopard, a novel written by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. This is not what René Redzepi, chef of the world famous Noma has in mind. When he took the stage at Parabere Forum in Malmo last week he said that the problem is that everything needs to change. “My vision for Noma is not to be the best restaurant in the world but that it will be the best place to work in the world.”
The change he is looking for is not one that keeps everything the same but rather one that brings a fundamental shift in the restaurant industry. He is taking some of the most talked about issues in the world of work today such as equality, work life balance, the need to work in a comfortable and welcoming environment and improved working hours and in the process he is going through a reinvention not just from a culinary point of view but also from a restaurant management point of view.
A lot has been written about the new Noma from its design to the first ocean menu and its dishes. All you need to do is either go to Instagram or Facebook and search for Noma or else read articles and reviews about the restaurant in pretty much every newspaper worth its salt in the world. But what is more unique is the vision and the decision of Redzepi to focus on his well being and the well being of his staff.
“I want Noma to be part of that change. We do hire with gender ratios now, we never used to do that before,” he said at Parabere Forum, which organised a conference in Malmo to look at the different phases that characterise the entire food change from farming to consumer passing through the complex system of distribution.
Redzepi may have set the bar very high and some will say it is easier said than done because we all know that there are no short-cuts to getting to the top. But, at a recent visit to the new Noma the shift in philosophy and focus was evident from the word go. In the past years, Redzepi has been on a search for inspiration in different places from his pop-up restaurants in different continents (where he took the whole team with him including families) to the organisation of The Mad Feed, a conference that tackled some of the most contemporary issues facing society today (not just food).
That inspiration has not just trickled down to the food but also and in particular to the restaurant where you get the feeling of being outdoors in whichever part of the restaurant you are.
While most of the food critics will be focusing on the food and the execution (we are speaking about a restaurant and a chef that was at the top spot in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List for 4 years), other thought leaders and restauranteurs will assess whether the vision to have such a thing like work life balance is feasible and possible in the hospitality industry which is known for its brutal long hours of work.
To improve the work life balance, Redzepi has opted for a four-day week which gives the staff 3 days of rest. The restaurant is closed on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. But he has also focused on turning the work space into a place which is enjoyable to work in. The emphasis on ensuring that there is natural light in every corner of the restaurant (not just the dining areas but also the kitchens and all the work spaces) is bound to help his morale but also that of his staff.
The staff area is also welcoming with wooden tables and benches and place where the staff can relax, socialise and use social media. It looks more like a co-working space rather than a restaurant staff-room. It is also huge.
Then there is the focus on gender. The chef knows that if he is to push through the changes he wants to see through, he will need to bring women on board and also give them the responsibility. His head of the test kitchen and the one who presents many of the dishes at table is Mette Soberg. She and her team were behind most of the dishes of the relaunch.
The pace of innovation is changing. The way the restaurant has been rethought means that today, the menu changes three times in a year. That means that unlike in the previous restaurant where the test kitchen was consistently working on new dishes that would be introduced to the restaurant (including tests on a Saturday night after the service), here the focus is to work in cycles leaving more space for creativity and innovation and also downtime which is where the magic normally happens for creatives.
The restaurant has a brigade of over 80 people working there which also include a number of trainees that work for free. With a restaurant like this, the demand to work here and put that on one’s CV is huge. It is a known fact that doors open and interest increases when a trainee say that he or she has worked in a place like Noma. While there are critics who oppose and are strictly against ‘working for free’, in today’s gig economy, getting the necessary experience and having the opportunity to work alongside some of the industry’s best people should not be shunned at.
The spotlight is on Noma. Will it deliver the goods? Can it show the way of how a sustainable and modern restaurant could look like taking into account the wishes and needs of its staff and customers? Can world class and work life balance go hand in hand? Only time will tell. But, if there is someone who can succeed in this mission, it is Redzepi.