Noma's Rene Redzepi opens a $600 pop-up in Mexico

Mexican food delivers a slap to the face of flavour, says Rene Redzepi (centre).
Mexican food delivers a slap to the face of flavour, says Rene Redzepi (centre). Photo: Supplied

The hottest restaurant on the planet wastes no time making you feel like one of the luckiest diners in the universe. Champagne is poured the second you're seated and the first few minutes are a blur of colour and discovery (Pigs shiny with coconut fat! Ice-cream that sets the tongue on fire!) as a sea of people introduce you to dishes you are sure to be talking about well after the restaurant goes dark here, as planned, after a mere seven weeks.

Here is on the sand of the Yucatan Peninsula, under a canopy of palm trees, where one of the world's most renowned chefs has opened his latest pop-up, Noma Mexico.

"Setting up a restaurant in the jungle is one of our more challenging tasks," says restaurant manager James Spreadbury, whose colleagues sport shorts behind their aprons.

Rene Redzep at work in Tulum, Mexico.
Rene Redzep at work in Tulum, Mexico. Photo: Vincent L Long

Spreadbury is one of 145 employees, family members and guests of Noma in Copenhagen, hailed for four years as the "Best Restaurant in the World" and on hiatus since the end of last year, when the restaurant at the fore of the new Nordic trend closed for the second time in its history. The first was in 2015, when the team flew to Tokyo for a five-week pop-up. Success in Japan led the next year to Noma Sydney, which is where planning began for a seven-week run (April 12 through May 28) here in Mexico.

Such is the reputation of Noma and its chef, Rene Redzepi, that tickets for all the $600-per-person dinners sold out in two hours.

Back to the blur.

"We have to be the meal of the decade for people."

"Pinuela and tamarind," says a waiter, setting down cactus fruit that remains crisp despite boiling and gets its pow! from tamarind paste, mezcal drops and cilantro flowers. "It's not bitter or poisonous. It just feels like a lot of seeds." The dish is quickly followed by a ceviche featuring a queen clam from the Sea of Cortez, its maritime freshness flattered by powdered local lime leaves, and salbutes, sheer, deep-fried tortilla cups filled with dried tomato concasse and eaten with our hands. The fine crunch comes not just from the shell, but also from crickets from Oaxaca and grasshoppers roasted in garlic. Two young men ferrying a suckling pig, a mahogany prize splayed on palm fronds, sidle up to the table to let us preview a future course.

Noma Mexico almost didn't happen – repeatedly. Previous destinations had the immediate advantages of big sponsors (a tourism board in Sydney, the Mandarin-Oriental hotel in Tokyo) and ready infrastructure: airports, good schools and lodging for staff and family. Some members of the travelling food show also worried about political turmoil in the country after the US presidential election.

American Express and Colibri Boutique Hotels stepped in. Belatedly, the Mexican state of Quintana Roo also offered support. Redzepi, who says he has travelled to the country at least 25 times and briefly contemplated Ensenada and Oaxaca as backdrops, knew the potential of a pop-up in Mexico. To start, there was the country's amazing larder. "It's like looking at the stars and you say, 'pick one' " as your favourite ingredient, says the chef.

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To hear Redzepi, 39, tell it, no one eats with the exuberance of his host country. "You dive into it" in Mexico, he says. "You eat with your hands." In stark contrast to the dour meals he recalls from his youth in Denmark, "people are always reaching for things," he says, pretending to snatch food off a platter.

Redzepi, who spent five months researching the region, is also enchanted by what he calls "spice", in particular capsicum, or chilli peppers, native to the Americas. Having coached the world on fermentation and foraging, he and his kitchen crew now refer to heat as "the sixth flavour," after sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (a Japanese-coined word used to describe a pronounced meaty taste).

Diners first encounter heat in a visually arresting bowl of cool masa broth floating "flowers of the moment".It takes a few seconds, but droplets of habanero oil on the surface of the broth make themselves felt, loud and clear. The last course, chocolate sorbet served in pasilla peppers that have been simmered in sweet-sour melipona honey, goes out with a bang, too. "Diners were very sceptical," says Redzepi. "But it's one of the best desserts we've ever done." The intense chocolate and the chilli heat are dynamite; envision a Fudgsicle crossed with a firecracker.

More than a waylaid delivery, the staff's biggest fear is bad weather; Redzepi has budgeted for a single rain day. So far, so fair, but in the event of a downpour the team plans to block rain with tarp ceilings and install click-on tables on the perimeters of the kitchen. In the end, though, this is a tropical jungle. When a leaf falls onto your table, it's not a bother, but another pinch-me moment.

"We have a lot of Mexicans working with us," says Redzepi. "A lot to live up to."

By the end of the night, I feel as though I've met everyone who works at Noma, including the most famous dishwasher in the world, Ali Sonko, a 62-year-old Gambian native who helped open Noma in 2003 and was recently made a partner in the enterprise.

The extreme hospitality at Noma Mexico – confident, knowing, comforting – feels genuine. No doubt, it springs from the closeness of the team. The notion of family takes on new meaning when you consider the staff, made up of more than 20 nationalities, pretty much lives together for the lifespan of the pop-up, with only Mondays and Tuesdays off. Speaking of family, Redzepi keeps his biological tribe close. Along for the ride on this pop-up are his wife, three young daughters, twin brother (who performs maintenance) and mother-in-law, whose background in psychology makes her Noma's "well-being officer".

Redzepi has heard the criticism: Six hundred dollars is a lot to pay for a meal, especially a dinner that isn't easy to reach. "There's a Protestant reaction to spending money on food" that doesn't extend to indulgences including apartments, cars or clothes, he says, almost with a sigh.

But the chef says he believes in living wages for his staff and has partnered with a nonprofit collection of Mayan communities, Traspatio Maya, to provide crops including cilantro, corn and wild bee larvae. Local weavers made the adorable sisal turtles attached to the menus, brought out only at the end of dinner. "My conscience is clean," says Redzepi, who has also created a scholarship fund for Mexican culinary students.

This is expected to be the last pop-up before Noma 2.0 opens in Copenhagen in December with an experimental urban farm. While several new names have been considered, including Deep Blue and the Abyss – the latter rejected for what Redzepi calls its "last-meal implications" – the most celebrated chef in the world says he's likely to stick with Noma.

Wherever in the world he's cooking, Redzepi reminds his staff to reward diners for the effort they've put into the visit. It's a tall order: "We have to be the meal of the decade for people."

Noma Mexico runs until May 28 in Tulum, Mexico.

noma.dk/mexico 

US$600 per person (sold out).