Tulum, Mexico (CNN) — How much would you pay for the hottest meal ticket in town? In a world where access is everything, high rollers (and even medium rollers who throw caution to the wind) are willing to shell out big bucks for exclusive experiences and their ancillary bragging rights.
Tickets to a $750, 15-course tasting menu (which includes drink pairings and service) at Rene Redzepi's Noma Mexico pop-up in Tulum sold out in three hours in December 2016. For those who didn't snag a ticket, there was still hope.
Earlier this year, American Express refreshed its benefits for Platinum Card holders, including expanding its "By Invitation Only" program, a series of rarefied and bespoke cultural experiences. (Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserve cards provide similar premium offerings.)
One of these By Invitation Only events was entrée to the long-since sold-out Noma Mexico. (American Express was a partner and helped to finance the pop-up.)
Other than the mysterious and adventurous meal, the itinerary included a full-day of activities starting with access to Noma's renowned chef, Rene Redzepi and his team, as well as a foray behind-the-scenes of Noma Mexico's operation, from tasting indigenous ingredients and local Mezcals to a tour of Mayan ruins.
Whole grilled pumpkin with a kelp and avocado fudge
Jason Loucas Photography
Noma Copenhagen is one of the world's best restaurants (literally, it was named World's Best Restaurant four times). Chef Rene Redzepi started planning the next evolution four years ago, and at the end of 2016 he closed down the operation in Copenhagen for the year to finalize and build out the new Noma.
In the interim, Redzepi and his team took their act on the road to create Noma Mexico. Redzepi has helmed three previous pop-ups, starting small with a 10-day stint in the summer of 2012 at Claridge's in London, then Tokyo in 2015 and Sydney in 2016.
In Tulum he and his team of 145 people (90 from Denmark, the rest local) fashioned a dreamlike, tranquil outdoor restaurant, where there was once only jungle. When the whole thing ends, 7,000 diners will have been served, including free meals for local culinary students.
The Redzepi way
While Noma Mexico received heaps of press and praise, it was also a target of occasional censure about perceived cultural and economic insensitivity (an issue that arose in both Tokyo and Mexico). Some argue that $750 for a 15-course meal in a region where locals struggle to make ends meet is not right.
Redzepi knows this, and doesn't shy away from the discussion.
"We come here for a brief moment, to travel through and learn." Redzepi says. "Some say it's amazing. Other people say we shouldn't be here." He later added, "When you come into other places, you have to do the homework, work with the community, and do something that's real."
How it's done
Melon clam from the Sea of Cortez served with beach herbs and mandarin
Jason Loucas Photography
Redzepi and his team are all scholar-chefs. They do exhaustive research before entering a new country -- studying every aspect of the area, its history, its cuisine and local ingredients, along with the mores, sensitivities and traditions of each locale.
Almost everything at Noma Tulum was made in Mexico -- the tables, the chairs, the dishes, the utensils -- and all of it will be sold off when the run is over. Nearly all of the ingredients were sourced in Mexico by Noma project manager Santiago Lastra-Rodriguez, who is Mexican and traveled hither and yon, meeting local farmers and purveyors, making contacts and friends.
Redzepi also has a very personal connection to Mexico and its people -- this most recent time marks his 25th visit to the country. He's started a scholarship program to train young chefs who might not otherwise get the chance to cook professionally. And though it's not yet formalized, he's working on it.
"I have many ideas on how to build on Noma Mexico, one of which is the scholarships, which is starting to be a regular thing: Two annually. Let's see if we can build up a fund that can make a difference to a lot of people," Redzepi says.
A perfect day in Tulum
Platinum Card members enjoyed a packed day with the Noma crew, starting with brunch with Redzepi and company at Le Zebra, the hotel across the street from the restaurant, which was prepared by his friend and fellow chef Roberto Solis.
Later, at the restaurant, guests were treated to a Mezcal tasting with Noma sommelier Mads Kleppe, a seminar on all the indigenous ingredients weaved into the menu by Noma project manager Santiago Lastra-Rodriguez, a tour of Mayan ruins, afternoon tacos (courtesy of chef and Noma alum Rosio Sanchez of Hija de Sanchez in Copenhagen).
Redzepi characterized the menu as "Mexican ingredients clashing with Scandinavian culture." Dishes included queen clam from the Sea of Cortez, Russian caviar served with coconut cream in (what else?) a coconut, a mix of tropical fruit spiced with local chiles, an oyster taco, a tostada with ant larvae (ascamoles) and pork tacos from a roasted suckling pig.
As of May 28 Noma Mexico is no more, and when Noma Copenhagen reopens, reservations will always be there for American Express cardholders, with more exclusive events to come.
Whether or not you choose to pony up for premium cards and their insider access, let us leave you with one final thought from Rene Redzepi that he shared towards the end of Noma Mexico's run.
"I think we should all be traveling much more, exploring better. I'm happy to bring my kids, and tell them that there are other ways of looking at the world."