Kenneth Foong: We've Dramatically Changed the Way We Work at Noma

23 September, 2021
NOMA_INTERVIEW_ARTWORK_©FINEDININGLOVERS

Illustration by: Alberto Grasso / Giulia Masia / Fine Dining Lovers

In its announcement, the Michelin Guide says owner Rene Redzepi’s newly crowned three-Michelin-starred Noma “has a strong connection to nature” and that “its holistic approach sees unusual seasonal ingredients showcased in creative and complex dishes”. If it sounds like a concept Noma has always been pursuing - it is. It also begs the question: what did the New Nordic restaurant do differently in the past 12 months to gain traction for its third Michelin star?

“I do not think we have done anything differently, per se,” Foong says about the food, noting at the same time that to make themselves more accessible during the pandemic, they reinvented themselves temporarily as a burger and wine bar last May. During this period, they served in excess of 40,000 burgers within a period of five weeks. But Noma in its current iteration is one that, he feels, is truly coming into its own. “We are really finding our rhythm - it just so happens that this current iteration is also one that the guide identifies with.”

Noma compares itself more aptly to a multi-disciplinary tech firm, and Foong elaborates that the restaurant’s approach to selling its dining experience is multi-dimensional, with experts running different departments and asking questions such as how they can stimulate a guest before they sit down at the table. This approach, for instance, has led the team to create a garden where guests walk through as they make their way to the main building for dinner, charging them on a multi-sensorial level even before they’ve had their first bite of food.

“We are constantly asking ourselves these questions and pushing the envelope,” he says. “I think any organisation, restaurant or not, can take a page out of our book in terms of creativity within a scalable organisation.”

In Foong’s opinion, Noma achieving its third star is akin to building a monumental structure. “I happened to come in at the last phases and placed the last couple of tiles down,” he says, emphasising that the majority of the foundation that led to the restaurant’s accomplishment was laid by his predecessors  - Benjamin Ing, Dan Giusti, Matt Orlando - and their teams.

But he also attributes Noma’s phenomenal success to Redzepi’s razor-sharp focus on enhancing staff wellbeing.

During the Parabere Forum in 2018, the Danish chef famously said that his vision for Noma was “not to be the best restaurant in the world but that it will be the best place to work in the world”.

“We have dramatically changed the way we work,” Foong lets on. “We rarely work more than 12 hours a day and are constantly pushing each other to work smarter, not necessarily harder, re-looking at how we structure the day and whether we can make things run more efficiently.”

Noma makes a very deliberate effort, he adds, to steer itself away from the systemic issues so ingrained in the cooking profession. Thus, decisions are made to ensure that everybody works less, has more time off, has the highest tier of healthcare, the highest salary, etc. “I have never worked in a restaurant with such a strong mandate towards the wellbeing and interest of the staff,” says Foong. 

The 32-year-old also says that the team is cooking at an “extremely high level” and that, when it comes to the performance of staff, it is “not completely laughable” to draw a parallel to that of a professional athlete. “Most people forget that cooking professionally is very physically demanding, and being stronger and faster really does improve your performance and endurance in the kitchen,” says Foong, who cycles and adheres to a strength training routine. Like him, a large majority of the Noma team also does some sort of physical training in the morning before coming to work.

Additionally, Noma has held meditation and yoga workshops to build mindfulness. In a world filled with so much digital stimuli, the Singaporean chef says it helps him to sharpen his focus and quiet his anxiety.

“While some individuals may find the all-encompassing nature of our business daunting, this is the first time in my entire career where I feel that my lifestyle is built around becoming better at not just my job but also my personal life.” 

 

A day in the working life of Kenneth Foong at Noma

10.00 Arrive at Noma, clean the kitchen floors, start mise en place.

11.00 Breakfast of Japanese style rice bowl (pickles and eggs).

11.30 More mise en place.

14.30 Breakdown kitchen and set up for service.

14.45 Taste through each section, conversations with section leaders and sous chefs on issues encountered and possible service concerns.

15.00 Early dinner and final prep for service.

16.00 Pre-service meeting.

16.45  Restaurant opens and first guests arrive

21.30  Breakdown kitchen completed followed by end of service meeting to discuss dietaries and other restrictions for next-day menu

22.00  Leave for home 

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