Denmark: Copenhagen 2.0

Copenhagen harbour and the Royal Danish Playhouse, with its waterfront café
Photographer: Ulf Svane

Can a single restaurant transform an entire city? With the relocation of the globally influential Noma, the culinary map of Denmark’s coastal capital is more intriguing than ever

Words GABRIELLE JAFFE
Photographs ULF SVANE

A gaggle of children wearing wellington boots huddles by the roadside. They stand behind a rope cordon, waiting to enter a field scattered with sunflowers. To one side, a grey heron stalks a large pond, to the other appear to stand several barns and greenhouses. At first glance, as I cycle by, I assume it is a nature reserve. But a small sign reveals the kids are visiting the new site of Noma, a restaurant that’s been voted the world’s best four times, where bookings for the entire season are snapped up in less than 24 hours.

As standard-bearers for New Nordic Cuisine, Noma and its charismatic chef/owner René Redzepi popularised foraging, fermenting and smoking, and led seasonality and hyper-localism to become fashionable in kitchens worldwide. Perhaps Noma’s most profound effect has been on Copenhagen, transforming it from a culinary backwater to a gastronomic capital (and adding some 10,000 jobs to its restaurant industry in a decade).

When Noma opened in 2003, its location on the east bank of Copenhagen’s harbour was relatively remote. More a rambling network of waterways and islands than a coherent neighbourhood, the district was historically disconnected from the wide boulevards and elegant townhouses to the west of the harbour. When I visit, I find an area transformed, now a living postcard for the sustainable Scandi lifestyle, packed with cyclists, canoeists and fishing vessels turned mansion-sized houseboats. A car-free bridge, opened in 2016, whisks people from the west of the harbour in minutes. After building an elaborate rock garden to deter tourists from gaping through the windows, Redzepi succumbed to the inevitable and this year relocated to the bucolic fringes of the eastern islands, rebranding as Noma 2.0.

To learn more about Copenhagen’s metamorphosis, I join a cooking class led by Trine Hahnemann, a celebrated chef and cookbook author. “I don’t think you can overestimate what René did for Copenhagen,” she says. “Before Noma, there were only high-end French restaurants for special occasions, or cheap takeaways. People didn’t eat out all that much.”

Trine shows me how to make Denmark’s traditional open-faced sandwiches, known as smørrebrød. Standing at the wooden worktop of Hahnemanns Køkken, her canteen and culinary school, she cuts a loaf of rye so richly dark its crust is chocolate-coloured. It’s a homely, soothing space, and we get lost in comfortable conversation as we top thin slices of bread with firm new potatoes and butter-fried onions, their warm scent the olfactory equivalent of someone in a woolly jumper giving me a hug. As we tuck into our creations, we flit from the rules of how to eat them (with a knife – only barbarians would use their hands) to Trine’s recommendations for the city’s best meals. “For 10 years, people have been travelling to Copenhagen just to dine at Noma,” she tells me. “And they needed somewhere else to eat while they were here.”

Hundreds of chefs have passed through René Redzepi’s kitchen over the years. Copenhagen has many restaurants opened by his protégés, offering a chance to taste Noma-influenced food in more casual – and affordable – settings. At Manfreds, the bare-walled wine bar opened in Nørrebro district by former Noma sous chef Christian Puglisi. Here, typically Nordic ingredients like rye crumble and buttermilk are used in surprising ways, adding a crunchy texture to beef tartare or a tang to Asian cucumber soup.

In Islands Brygge, an area known for its strikingly-designed harbour baths, Alouette is one of the latest openings by a Noma alumnus. To get in, I take a service elevator and pass through a hidden door in a graffitied corridor. The refined daily-changing menu mixes New American dishes like bread with apple bacon butter with demonstrations of Nordic techniques, such as guinea hen paired with a fermented gooseberry sauce. “It’s inspirational to be in Copenhagen,” Alouette co-founder Andrew Valenzuela tells me, as he plates my dinner in front of me in the restaurant’s open kitchen. Andrew was a rising star in California before handing his CV to René Redzepi at a San Francisco book talk.

To know more about how Noma transformed Copenhagen city from culinary backwater to gastronomic capital, check out LPMI’s December 2018 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.