Culinary Journeys

Noma meets Nahm: Behind the scenes of the Gelinaz! Chef Shuffle

Lara Dunston, for CNN. Photos by Terence CarterUpdated 14th July 2015
Editor's Note — This story complements the Culinary Journeys TV series, airing monthly on CNN International. See more of the show here: www.cnn.com/journeys. Share photos of your own Culinary Journeys on Instagram with the hashtag #CNNFood for a chance to be featured on CNN.
(CNN) — It's summer monsoon season in Southeast Asia, yet the snacks on the wooden plate in front of us remind me of autumn leaves in Europe.
As I bite into the sheer, crispy sheets of compressed cabbage, I could be eating a European take on an Indian papadum.
But then there's a flash of Singaporean Kaya toast sandwiches brought on by a spread of roasted durian puréed with young green salted tamarind.
It is deliciously wild East-meets-West food, like nothing I've tasted before.
And the likelihood is I'll never taste anything like it again -- and nor will anyone else here at Nahm, chef David Thompson's award-winning Bangkok restaurant.
The dishes have been created, for one evening only, as part of a groundbreaking experiment to shuffle the chefs of the world's top restaurants.
Behind tonight's Nahm menu are some of the team from Rene Redzepi's Noma in Copenhagen -- currently #3 on the World's 50 Best Restaurant's list, where it held the number one place for four years.
A plate of Thai basil, flowers, green pepper, cucumber and salted green tamarind accompanied the main courses -- a dish sous chef Thomas Frebel said contained the most "Noma DNA".

Shuffling the world's greatest chefs around the world

For foodies, there could be few gastronomic experiences more exciting than sampling a unique, unrepeatable meal.
Halfway around the world in Paris, where chef David Thompson is dishing up Thai-inspired French cuisine at Alain Ducasse's opulent Plaza Athénée restaurant, the diners are equally as privileged.
As are the punters at the 35 other restaurants across the globe participating in the global Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle.
Orchestrated by Andea Petrini and Alexandra Swenden, founder-curators of Gelinaz!, a cooperative of culinary adventurers, the transcontinental shuffle required 37 chefs to commit to trading kitchens for a few exhilarating days.
Upon landing in their destination, their mission was to get a crash course on the restaurant's cuisine before creating a degustation menu of dishes made with the local ingredients.
Chefs were assigned randomly and diners, who bought tickets via the Gelinaz! website, kept in the dark until they were seated (or at least they would've been had it not been for social media leaks).
Senior members of the Nahm and Noma teams play up to the camera for a video to announce which mystery chef was in the Bangkok kitchen. It was meant to be a secret that it was Redzepi, however, rumours had already spread around town.

Pulling 37 chefs out of their comfort zones

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the diners at Nahm were chefs and restaurateurs from Bangkok and beyond, making for a kitchen of nervous young cooks fearing failure.
But, as Redzepi told his team at Nahm, that's exactly what the Gelinaz! Shuffle is about.
"This day is about collaboration, we have to find a way to collaborate," he said. "It's also about learning new things. It's about taking risks. Everybody opens up their kitchens, no secrets, just come and explore."
He added that although failure was an option, it shouldn't stop guests from having a good time.
Chef René Redzepi gives a pep talk to the team about the philosophy behind the Gelinaz! project as many of the Nahm staff were unaware of just how many of the world's best chefs had swapped restaurants on this day.
The possibility of failure had been on Redzepi's mind for a few days -- and not only because of the risky nature of the venture.
The chefs were cooking with ingredients they'd never used in countries they'd never been and kitchens they'd never used, staffed by teams who communicated in languages they didn't understand.
Redzepi said he took comfort in the fact that 36 other chefs were facing the same challenges.
"It really is a forced learning experience," Redzepi told CNN.
"Gelinaz! is all about encouraging creativity, collaboration and experimentation, and really pushing culinary boundaries."
If the event wasn't nerve-wracking enough, just hours before he was due to fly out of Copenhagen Redzepi's wife was rushed to hospital and into emergency surgery with a burst appendix.
He stayed behind to wait until she was out of danger, sending his two sous-chefs, Dane Thomas Frebel and Australian Beau Clugston in his place.
A Nahm chef takes a photo of the finished soft shell crab with aubergine soup. It was standing room only in the packed kitchen as Nahm chefs jostled excitedly to see what the Danish cooks had done with Thai ingredients.
Over the next two days they treated the Nahm kitchen like a laboratory, testing and experimenting with ingredients, checking in with Redzepi by phone.
By the time their boss arrived in Bangkok on the day of the event, Frebel and Clugston had finalized the menu.
Redzepi listened patiently as Frebel and Clugston talked him through it, only showing concern at the mention of pork crackling in a dessert.
He didn't demand a change, despite a collegial phone call from Paris in which a cheeky David Thompson urged Redzepi to change the entire menu to put his staff through their paces.
Call concluded, Redzepi passed on Thompson's best wishes to the team.
"David's ready. He's doing a curry sole... he's happy about that one," Redzepi reported back.
"I really want to see what he does to Alain Ducasse's restaurant. David said he wants to be here to see what's happening. I feel the same. I want to be at my restaurant too."

"They're tough critics"

Despite Thompson's mischievous idea, Redzepi gave his blessing to the menu.
"If I interfere at this point, I know I'm going to mess up everything," he said. "I know I'll probably want to go in and change quite a few things. But they are the two people I work closest with so I don't doubt that we have something that represents what we do. I can see that on the menu."
Three hours later, after the first sitting of diners were nearing the end of their meals, and Redzepi had delivered scores of dishes to tables, the chef returned to the kitchen, somewhat baffled and slightly exasperated by the silence in the dining room.
Among the 15 courses served were "soft shell crab with aubergine" (left) and "corn with nahm pla raa."
We watched Nahm's waiters hurry by us, transporting trays of stunning dishes from the pass to the dining room -- dishes like the opening course of "green mango, coconut flesh," a palate-cleanser with the multifarious textures of Thai desserts that local diners adore.
The gelatinous flesh of young coconut, cooked and dried chewy seaweed, and a granita made from jasmine flowers, swam in the clear juice of green unripe mango, served in a half coconut shell sitting on a bed of crushed ice.
It was surprising, delicious and delightful, as were 14 out of the 15 courses.
Only one course disappointed -- an "unripe watermelon" that wasn't as pickled as intended.
Yet Redzepi reported back to the kitchen that he'd received very little feedback and that diners had been quiet.
"Nobody has said anything about the food. They're tough critics," he said, shaking his head.
"It was always going to be a risk. This business is all about expectations and who knew what their expectations were. Maybe they thought they were going to eat a Noma meal. The most important thing is, this is a learning experience."
While there were plenty of offers to take the visiting chefs out for a night on the town, Redzepi and the Noma boys opted to celebrate with the Nahm chefs at a modest local Thai place with fried chicken, grilled pork, beer and local rum.
After the last diners had left and the kitchen had been scrubbed clean, Redzepi, Frebel and Clugston eschewed a VIP after-party to join the young Nahm cooks for cold beers, Thai whiskey and Isaan (northeastern Thai) street food at a rustic neon-lit family eatery down the road.
All doubts appeared to have been wiped from the chef's mind.
Redzepi sat down, after having personally congratulated every one of the proud young cooks, exchanged bear hugs, posed for group photos, and even received a peck on the cheek from a petite Thai chef who gushed that the experience had been the highlight of her life.
He grinned happily, sipped his beer, and said, "This is what it's all about."
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