Rene Redzepi is in love with Mexico, its way of eating, and its tacos. In a Good Food exclusive, Jill Dupleix catches up with the highly influential chef behind Noma on his seventh research trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, before opening Noma Mexico in April 2017.
Q. Wow, Mexico. Why?
A. I have been lucky enough to go to Mexico for our family vacations for the past 10 years, and I always wanted to bring Noma here after the pop-ups in Tokyo and in Sydney. You can come here and experience something authentic, as it has been for the last 800 years. It's like time standing still. To see a culture of eating like this is mind-blowing, and to see it thriving is inspiring. They eat so well.
Q. What you really mean is "because, tacos", right?
A. Ha ha, yes! To me, it's almost the perfect way of eating. Ever since Rosio (Rosio Sanchez, former Noma pastry chef) opened her taqueria Hija de Sanchez in Copenhagen I have fallen more and more in love with that way of eating.
It's so different to Japan, where we did our pop-up in 2015. Everything in Japan was eaten with tiny sticks of wood, you never touch anything. In Mexico, you touch everything, you put your hand in it and on it, and eat with your hands.
Q. Why is everyone suddenly in love with Mexican food?
A. Maybe because more people have been to Mexico, and tried the real thing? It's a perfect way of eating, of celebrating, of sharing. It's also the level of freshness, acidity and spice throughout; it's very explosive. There is nothing that is mild here, nothing that will pat you gently on the back. It's a slap to the face of flavour.
Q. Is that something you want to build into the Noma Mexico dining experience?
A. Of course. The main things we are very inspired about in our research are the sauces – the salsas – and also the masa, the mother of the tortilla. Marinating the dried corn in a high alkaline solution then boiling and grinding it gives you a thousand different dishes. It doesn't matter if you're in a fancy place or in a poor community sitting by the fire, you are going to eat masa. It has been such a single point of focus for them for so long, that we should also focus on it in the development of our ideas.
Q. Tell us about the site of Noma Mexico.
A. We're actually helping to build it right now, in the jungle at Tulum, on the Yucatan Peninsula. We have two full-time building project managers handling all the details. It has a very typical "just after the beach" jungle vibe, with lots of trees and vegetation. It's beautiful, and very tropical, with palm trees and banana trees.
Q. Yes, but – jungle. Anything dangerous out there?
A. In the jungle behind the restaurant where the mangroves start, there are caimans (members of the alligator family) but we don't see them regularly. There are also jaguars and snakes and spiders. And mosquitoes, which are the most annoying factor.
Q. You brought your entire restaurant team to Australia last year for a 10-week pop-up. Are they all going to Mexico?
A. Yes, we are all going, so 65 staff (and probably around 11 children again) – I think all up it will be 90 people. We book everything, handle everything, rent apartments for them, handle the flights, and pay for it all. It's the biggest challenge, and very expensive.
Q. Hence the $600-a-head price tag on seats when you open in April, and the tie-up with American Express?
A. It is always going to be expensive. We know people said that in Australia and in Japan when they didn't feel they could afford it. But this is different, there are different economies here, and greater challenges. We decided as a team, either we do it or we don't, and we really wanted to do it.
Q. You didn't consider just doing a taco stand on the beach and being done with it?
A. I think if we did that, it would be arrogant, because tacos here are so good; they have been doing it for thousands of years… and here we are, a bunch of Danes coming here and doing a taco stand? No. We have to come here and be who we are and be inspired by the culture here and the cooking but to do it in our way.
Q. We remember how excited you would get in Australia as you trampled through mangrove swamps and dived for shellfish. What are the Mexican equivalents?
A. I had one of those moments today, in the most mosquito-laden place I have ever been in in my entire life. I was in a swamp in Tabasco and we were looking for turtles. And just as I was thinking, 'What on earth am I doing here?', one person points over to an alligator sitting on a rock, not even 20 metres from us. That was a wild experience.
Q. So if you are opening in Mexico are you still coming to Melbourne in April for the World's 50 Best Restaurants shindig?
A. No, I won't be able to make it. I will be somewhere barefooted in Mexico, peeling a chilli, raising a glass of Mezcal to you all.
Noma Mexico runs from April 12 to May 28, 2017, at Carretera Tulum a Boca Paila, about 90 minutes' drive from Cancun International Airport. Two dinner services will run Wednesday to Sunday. Partners are American Express and Colibri Boutique Hotels. Bookings open 10am Eastern Standard Time on Tuesday, December 6 (2am December 7 in Melbourne and Sydney) at noma.dk/mexico and costs $US600 a head including drinks, plus tax and service.