The Secret Staff Rule that's Key to Noma's Hospitality Game

How the legendary restaurant makes sure you enjoy more than just the food.

|
21 February 2018, 12:00pm

All photos by Jason Loucas.

This article first appeared on MUNCHIES Denmark.

At precisely 12:06 on February 16, the first six guests walked through the doors of the new Noma. Outside the restaurant, it was still a construction zone—the race to the finish was so frantic that workers were nailing down planks for a walkway even as the first diners amassed at the front gate, and chef and co-owner Rene Redzepi himself was compelled to pick up a rake to comb down the mulch. But the guests barely noticed. Smiling, giddy, a bit awed by the moment, the six stepped tentatively through the oak entryway and found themselves immediately enveloped in a wall of human warmth. Fifty or so staff members—waiters, sommeliers, interns, cooks, and chefs—stood in a haphazard semi-circle, waiting to greet them. “”Hi!” “Hello!” “Welcome!” they each called, in a kind of tidal wave of salutation.

At Noma, they call it the big hello, and like foraging and ants, it has been one of their signature features for many years. Every table of guests that enters the restaurant is greeted by as many staff members as can reasonably be expected to drop what they’re doing and rush to the front. For the diner who experiences it for the first time, it is an almost indescribably lovely experience: the surprise of it, the warmth, the feeling of "all this, for me?"

Yet for all its conviviality, the origins of the Noma greeting are decidedly dark.

Redzepi grew up in Copenhagen, the child of a Danish mother and an ethnic Albanian father from Macedonia who immigrated to Denmark. When he was a boy, Redzepi, his twin brother Kenneth, and his parents would travel each summer to Dzepciste (though, being Albanian, they called it Xhepcisht) in the southwest corner of what is today Macedonia but was then Yugoslavia to visit his father’s side of the family.

One summer—Redzepi thinks it must have been 1989 or 90, when he was 11 or 12—they were there in the village on what was meant to be an extended stay. One night, though, after the boys had been put to bed, they were abruptly awakened. War hadn’t broken out yet, but there was always conflict in the zone, and something had happened that made staying any longer dangerous. “I was sleepy, and don’t remember much of what happened, except that we were packed into the car,” Redzepi recalls. “And there, through the red from the taillights I could see that my whole family had gathered in the courtyard, my grandmother, my dad’s brothers, my younger cousins crying.”

It was the last time Redzepi saw many of them. War would split Yugoslavia soon after, and by the time it was safe to return, he was deep into his career. But the image of that collective display of love—three generations gathered in a semicircle in the middle of the night to say goodbye—never left him. It would take a while before the memory of that traumatic night transmuted into the Noma greeting, but once it did, it became a crucial component of the experience.

“There’s something profound about it,” he says. “It’s so important to look your guests in the eye, and tell them ‘welcome.’ We can have the best menu in the world, but what makes it special is human contact.”

A sharp ‘guests coming’ from one of the front-of-house staff posted to spot arrivals door brings cooks and waiters running into formation. As service progresses, and everyone gets caught up tweezing the last herbs onto a plate or clearing the ever-expanding suite of wine glasses, the calls of ‘Guests! Guests!’ become a little more urgent. “When you’re in the middle of it, it can be hard to stop sometimes,” says chef de partie Fejsal Demiraj. “You can’t think about whether to go or not, because when you start thinking, that’s when you get screwed. You just have to go.”

Yet although it adds to the tension of an already intensely pressurised setting, no one has any doubts about whether it’s worth the effort. “Of course sometimes it’s complicated for the front of house to stop what they’re doing,” says general manager and Noma co-owner Lau Richter. “But it means so much to the guests. Sometimes you see them looking behind them to see who the famous person who arrived after them is.”

The kitchen shares that feeling. “Do I resent it? No fucking way,” says Demiraj. “It’s amazing, the best thing ever. When you see the guests, they look like they’re floating. It’s beautiful.”

With the opening of the new Noma, the greeting was adjusted a bit for the new surroundings. Now, because the front of staff house can watch guests approach from meters away through the recently-completed lounge’s big plate windows, no one has to wait outside to meet them first. It means the surprise can be even bigger. “I don’t want any dramatic gesture of opening the door for them,” Redzepi instructed on the first day. “I want them to open it themselves, so that it feels like a discovery.”

In the frenzy of getting through his first service, one intern, struggling frantically to keep up with the kitchen’s rapid-fire pace, ignored the call of ‘Guests!’ and stayed at his station, furiously focused on the task in front of him. Or at least he did until sous chef Stu Stalker spotted him. “When guests come, you go to meet them,” Stalker commanded as he sprinted across the kitchen to urge the intern toward the door. “You go, because you’re at Noma now. And that is who we are.”