Meet the People Behind René Redzepi’s Noma Pop-Up in Tulum
The chef and his wandering band built a kitchen on a jungly plot of land by the beach and turned it into a seven-week-long experiment in finding deliciousness
“Pop-up” is a goofy term but there’s value in taking the restaurant show on the road. Earlier this spring—between closing the doors of its original Copenhagen location and renovating a new space—Noma moved the entire front-of-house and kitchen staff (and everyone’s spouses and kids) to Tulum. Noma Mexico was an exceptional, built-from-the-ground-up, open-air, wood-fired restaurant serving insanely interesting food to the very lucky few—and then it was gone.
René Redzepi Chef, Co-Owner
From: Copenhagen, Denmark. Age: 39. Has worked at Noma since 2004.
“Routine is comforting, but it’s dangerous too. Routine is how you become an old person on the inside. The success of Noma has been amazing, but success can limit you creatively. You keep exploring the familiar avenues that you know lead to success. Suddenly you have things to lose. You don’t want to fuck it up.
The original idea for taking these journeys was to travel as a kind of training camp for the new Noma. We thought, let’s shake up our lives, our work. We need travel to be inspired. I honestly think any business should, if you can, do this at a minimum of once a decade. Pack up your bags, move your kids, the entire office somewhere else and you will see how much it benefits you. Do the mind trick on yourself. Try it, and remind yourself you don’t know everything.
Most people can really use a change-up. Mads Kleppe, our sommelier, his roots are deep in the Scandinavian soil, so he’s been very stressed and nervous, but even he says, ‘I would never want to be without this.’
Of course, it’s easy to come to a new place and try something and end up looking like an idiot. You don’t want to do caricature. When we were testing out uniforms for the staff, somebody had brought some guayaberas. They looked okay on some of us, but the Danish boys in the kitchen looked like the tour guides in Cancún. Why put on traditional clothes when we’re not traditional?
We tested hundreds and hundreds of dishes, hundreds of variations of each thing. And we got to the point where our team had a very good eye for when something became stupid. I think we’ve figured out how to apply our way of thinking—in essence a Northern European way of thinking—to this different, tropical, spicy place in a way that truly, truly works. In a way that is not Mexican but respects Mexico.
What’s magic about these types of temporary displacements is: It’s this brief moment. It’s pure honeymoon. That’s travel. The world is an open map, and we should all be traveling. I think there’s something incredibly healthy about looking at other people. Can you imagine if Ducasse said, ‘Okay, let’s take my three-star restaurant in Monaco and go to Korea. We’ll study it for a year, read all the books we can, have local guides take us deep into the culture, to forage in the mountains and dive in the ocean.’ It would be extraordinary. You’d want to see what they came up with. They would have changed. You change for the better.
Uprooting yourself, your work, is a big shake-up. It’s analog, not digital. And each time, we come back home and it feels good, we’re happy. I don’t have that if I’m out for two weeks for vacation. In a way you fall in love again with your home. Even all the bullshit is okay with fresh eyes. For a little while at least.”
Katherine Bont Front-Of-House Team Leader
From: Sydney, Australia. Age: 34. Has worked at Noma for six years.
“The Mayan octopus, the sorbet made from native cacao from Jaguar, the dried powder of lima local, hearing the waves crash in the background whilst a wooden spoon dives into a cold broth of masa with frozen lime granité and flowers—each and every bite is etched in my memory in such a special way.”
Santiago Lastra Rodriguez Kitchen Manager
From: Mexico City, Mexico. Age: 27. Has worked at Noma for one year.
“The texture of the melon clam is incredible. I would never have expected such a clam. The culture is alive here. It is not like a museum. You go to the communities and find that they preserve their culture and traditions, things that have been there for thousands of years.”
María Deysi Tamay Yam Tortilla Chef
From: Yaxunah, Mexico. Age: 42.
“It’s incredible to sit down and watch how the chefs move in service. The most interesting thing I tasted here was the baked octopus dish. The sauce is familiar for us, but the taste is so surprising and just very, very tasty.”
Maxine Bird Chef de Partie
From: Hong Kong. Age: 25. Has worked at Noma for one year.
“The fruits here are like a new experience. To learn about the diversity of it, the difference in the types of corn, and what they do with it, has been fascinating. And I am surprised I still love tacos so much!”
Benjamin Paul Ing Head Chef
From: Ottawa, Canada. Age: 32. Has worked at Noma for three years.
“We built this restaurant in the jungle from scratch. Now I feel that nothing is impossible and we could do it anywhere in the world.”
Rosio Sanchez Creative Partner
From: Chicago, Illinois. Age: 32. Worked at Noma for five years before opening Hija de Sanchez, her taqueria, in 2015.
“There is never-ending knowledge in cooking. That and traveling are the ultimate inspiration. We tried fruits and vegetables from all over Mexico, comparing tomatoes from various regions side by side. We didn’t have to follow any rules as it pertained to Mexican culture; we respectfully allowed the ingredients to lead us. But of course there had to be tortillas!”
Simon Bursche Hansen Kitchen Manager
From: Lolland, Denmark. Age: 29. Has worked at Noma for four years.
“Some guests brought in honey ants from Hidalgo once, and we got to taste them. They were very special—almost the size of a black currant—and tasted so incredible.”
David Zilber Director of Fermentation
From: Toronto, Canada. Age: 31. Has worked at Noma for three years.
“The grilled epazote made me grin like a child on Christmas the first time I tasted it. Your mind often seeks to attach new flavors or experiences to things you already know, like a metaphor. It’s the moments when those metaphors break down that make the world new again.”
Eline Haugan Bordvik Chef de Partie
From: Røros, Norway. Age: 21. Has worked at Noma for one year.
“Since I grew up in Norway, we don’t have tacos as we do here in Mexico. We had bad Tex-Mex. I am fascinated that it seems to be the smallest, simplest places that have the most amazing tacos.”
Evelyn Yeung Chef de Partie
From: Long Island, New York. Age: 23. Has worked at Noma for two and a half years.
“The texture and the flavor of the guanabana fruit [soursop] is something that I’ve never tasted or experienced before in my life.”
Thomas Frebel Head of Research and Development
From: Magdeburg, Germany. Age: 33. Has worked at Noma for eight years.
“The most amazing bite I’ve eaten here in Mexico is the Jaguar chocolate in Tabasco. The quality of the chocolate and the balance of fruitiness, bitterness, and purity of flavor intrigued me. One of the most amazing things about Mexico is the diversity in the culture and ingredients: Every little town has its own mole; wherever you go you find new things you’ve never seen in any of the other places.”
Ali Sonko Head dishwasher, Partner
From: Jappineh, Gambia. Age: 63. Has worked at Noma for 14 years.
“The people we’ve met here are so nice to work with that it feels as if we are on a holiday, even though we work. We should be able to bring some of this back to Copenhagen. It is great for us to travel together. We never feel alone here. We are like a modern family. If you have a problem here, you know that your family—your friends and colleagues—will take care of you.”