Mette Søberg, from Copenhagen, 32, at Noma since 2013. Three years later she took over the test kitchen, the creative lab of the restaurant with 3 Michelin stars and 5 awards for best restaurant in the world
Danish Mette Søberg, 32, born in Copenhagen, is one of the most quiet and important figures of the latest decade at Noma. She runs the R&D segment, the test kitchen that directs the creativity of the most influential restaurant in the world. We meet her on a sunny morning in the dining room, surrounded by the tall grasses in the garden, and with the Copenhill incinerator puffing smoke on the horizon.
«I started this career not because I wanted to become a chef, but because I loved cooking», she sums up, «at 18 I attended a cooking school. The Danish method forces you to practice right away, and I loved this very much. I worked for 3 years in a traditional historic seafood restaurant. Then I went to Marque in Sydney, Australia. Chef Mark Best wrote a nice letter to his friend René Redzepi. It was 2013, I was 23. Coming from Copenhagen, saying no to Noma was not an option».
How did you start managing the test kitchen?
I was hired soon after the 3-month internship. For 3 years I worked in the kitchen: in pastry-making and in all the other stations. I arrived in the test kitchen in 2016, soon before the pop-up restaurant in Sydney. René saw some potential and when we returned, he asked me to run the lab. To me working in creativity, something to which anyone who arrives at Noma aspires, was a dream.
How many people work today in the test kitchen at Noma?
We’re 5 regulars plus a variable number of people who come and go. Compared to the past we try to get the cooks more involved, because we stopped the Saturday night project events, that moment when each one of us could present his idea at the end of the service to René and all the most important chefs in the team. These days it makes no longer sense to have people stay until late at night, at the weekend.
What is the end goal of the menu at Noma?
The focus is flavour. While in the past dishes were loved by 50% of the clients, and hated by the other half, today our main goal is to make delicious food, that everyone can like. A goal we try to accomplish even though we know it’s impossible, because we all have different palates. And most of all, we like to have clients think of what they are eating: we don’t want to serve safe, boring dishes. We like to make them think of unusual journeys. It’s what we do by serving a steak of scoby (the starter of kombucha) or a tartare of marinated duck heart, served with its beak. Dishes that try to grasp the attention, that make people think outside their comfort zone.
Mette Søberg and René Redzepi, 44. In 2023 Noma turns 20 (and Mette celebrates her 10th anniversary here)
How long in advance does the test kitchen work on a menu?
Three months before the debut of a menu, under normal conditions. But it often happens that ideas and preparations from years before will converge into a dish. It’s the result of long conversations with all the producers with whom we work. Hence, ideally, much longer before.
Working in such advance, do you imagine dishes with ingredients that still don’t exist?
Yes, it happens often, especially with the summer vegetarian menu: we start to think in February about dishes that will be presented in June. It’s an abstract work, in a way.
How can you work in abstract?
Some menus are driven by the choice of the ingredient, others by a complex combination of ingredients, flavours, and techniques. In the first case, more frequent with the vegetarian menu, it’s harder to imagine a journey long in advance, for instance work with tomatoes in February. But there are always some products available all year round, like oil, vinegar, kombucha, fermentations. This helps us. In the second case, it can take us even two years to get to a satisfying result.
Isn’t it frustrating?
It is. Working with creativity creates a twofold feeling: the frustration of an aborted experiment but also the huge joy of the result we’ve reached.
What is the most common reason why a dish will not see the light?
As I was saying, our main focus is flavour: we don’t promote any dish on a menu that to us is not truly delicious. And if a dish doesn’t convince us now, it could take a new shape in the future. To this day, we conceive solutions that are born from ideas that were born in the days of the first Noma [before 2018]. Every idea returns in some way. This thought helps you to tolerate small failures, or a broken track.
Is there an archive of interrupted experiments?
Only in our notebooks and in the photos on our mobile phones. Documenting is essential but writing and documenting in a certain sense stops the creative process. This is why the only recipes we write properly are those of completed, successful experiments [They’ve recently published “Vegetable, Forest, Ocean” with recipes from the latest menus].
Does the final judgement go to René Redzepi?
No, the entire team decides. But René spends a lot of time with us, and during the development and tasting phases. In the first two months, we focus more on researching the components and the techniques. Then you need to taste, taste, taste. Sometimes even 20 times to say a dish is successful.
Does a test kitchen have a big impact on the budget of a restaurant?
Indeed. The stuff is the largest cost , because we all work full time. But products cost too: sometimes we work with hundreds of langoustines. And of course, it often happens that we reach a dead end.
Does the test kitchen imply you’re always stuck in the lab?
No, luckily not. Before opening the new location of Noma we left for a long trip in search of ideas and inspirations. Two months in Greenland, Iceland, Far Oer… We visited restaurants, fishermen, ate in the homes of ordinary people. In north Sweden we dined in a lavvu, the typical tent of the sami, Finno-Ugric people who live in north Sweden. They cooked for us all the parts of a reindeer: bone marrow, blood, even the penis [the reindeer penis salad is one of the most talked about recipes at Noma of this year]… Every day was an unforgettable experience. Over time, we tried to replicate these for the guests of the restaurant. Like the scallops eaten alive in Norway: you could feel them moving in your mouth. Impressive.
What is in your opinion the food of the future? The one with unexplored potential.
In terms of product, seaweed and underwater vegetables. In terms of technique, fermentations. Over the years we have developed 150 fermented products but we use very few of these in the menu. When you get into this field, you understand how huge its horizons can be. The number of flavours that can improve a tasting or a dish is terrific.
Would you go back to be a tout court cook?
In a certain sense, I never stopped. In the first 3 weeks of each menu, I stay in the kitchen to make sure that everyone has understood not so much the details of the flavours, but the overall spirit. But when I go back to the test kitchen, I’m as happy as a little girl in a candy shop.
Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso
Gabriele Zanatta’s opinion: on establishments, chefs and trends in Italy and the world
born in Milan, 1973, freelance journalist, coordinator of Identità Golose World restaurant guidebook since 2007, he is a contributor for several magazines and teaches History of gastronomy and Culinary global trends into universities and institutes.
Scoby steak, the kombucha starter, one of the steps in the summer-vegetarian menu at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. The establishment, opened in 2003 in the old location in Strandgade 93, has 3 Michelin stars and was the World’s Best in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2021
René Redzepi, in the middle, with part of the staff at Noma
Rene Redzepi and part of his team of Noma in Copenhagen, proclaimed in Antwerp (Belgium), best restaurant in the world by the World's 50 Best 2021 (photo instagram)