Interning at Noma Copenhagen: Nicole Server on Working with Chef Rene RedzepiJanuary 8, 2020
- Mikka WeeWords
I was once banned from Reddit for spamming Anthony Bourdain’s Ask Me Anything thread. “You are not allowed to do that,” responded Reddit in bold, red letters as I fervently pressed the Enter key, acting as if the whole world’s existence depended on it. This was not the first time I’ve tried to catch the attention of one of my chef crushes. As embarrassed as I am to admit it, I’ve sent out a bunch of fan mail to CNN, Momofuku, and a few restaurants around the world in the hopes of getting a personalized response from the chef. (Back in the day, I was one of those girls who sent mail to Aaron Carter, The Spice Girls, and The Backstreet Boys.) Our attempt to re-create David Chang’s ramen gnocchi was done with the underlying intent for him to notice us, being hardcore, die-hard fans of his culinary art. Anthony Bourdain’s books pile up my bedside, and there was a time when I had to delete all my Steam games to accommodate all episodes of No Reservations and Parts Unknown on my computer.
When I first heard that Rene Redzepi was opening Noma in Tokyo, I thought it was an April Fools joke. Part of me couldn’t believe it, but part of me also felt hopeful—Rene Redzepi and I are now breathing the same continental air (!!!). Now all I need to do is get a reservation (3 months waiting time, from what I am told), psych myself out during said waiting time, and practice my speech, which will surely fail me in the fortunate event that I even get to utter a very shy “Hi” when I see him. I will melt for sure. And that is why, when I was introduced to Nicole Server, a former intern at Noma Copenhagen, I was beyond thrilled. Hearing about her stories in the Noma kitchen under my love’s Rene Redzepi’s direct supervision made me realize that there is so much more to the genius behind the world’s best restaurant. Her stories and nuggets of wisdom that she picked up in Noma, if anything, only heightened my respect and reverence for Chef Rene Redzepi.
“I knew early on that I wanted to be a chef,” Nicole tells me. “Growing on, I would help my aunt bake apple pie whenever I got the chance—I just loved cooking and being in the kitchen!” Having attended Assumption College for high school, Nicole went to DLS-CSB for college where she graduated cum laude for BS-HRIM (Bachelor of Science in Hotel and Restaurant Institution Management), majoring in Culinary Arts. “I think what made me fall in love with food was its ability to not only bring people together, but also to invoke so much emotion.”
Noma is San Pellegrino’s Best Restaurant in the World—and it has won the top spot for 4 years now: 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014 (it won #2 in 2013). As a young chef, Nicole says that apart from the numerous things she has yet to learn, there are also so many ideas that have yet to come out and be shared. “I wanted to have the opportunity to work and learn from the best,” she says. “Cooking is my passion. Food, to me, has always been a form of art. I am always looking for new ways to reinvent classic recipes through modern techniques, and I knew a stage in Noma would help give me the exposure [and culinary experience] I needed.”
Nicole interned at Noma Copenhagen for three months, and she recalls that applying for an internship there was the most nerve-wracking experience in her whole life. “I was nervous and scared. Tens of thousands of people apply monthly for the same internship, so why should they pick me? I was very pessimistic about the odds of being accepted, but I pushed back all my worries and hesitations and went for it anyway.”
Nicole’s story is proof that sometimes, all you have to do is to go for it, because out of the tens of thousands of hungry, wide-eyed applicants, she was chosen and she bagged that Noma internship. “When they replied, my heart literally skipped a beat. I was overjoyed that there was even the smallest possibility of getting accepted into the internship program of the world’s best restaurant.” She recalls the tedious process of sorting out all the visa requirements, “you wait for around 2 months and 3 weeks in total for your visa to be processed. It was very stressful and arduous, but nothing good ever comes easy. And in the end, everything worked out anyway, so it was worth all the trouble.”
And after those three months training under Rene Redzepi, Nicole reels from the experience breathless and filled with awe. “The level of talent, knowledge, and passion of each of the chefs is unimaginable. There’s no kitchen in the world that can compare and/or function the way Noma does. Everyone is driven by pure passion and love for the craft. The transition is quick—you get thrown into production or service from day 1. There isn’t much time for explanations and definitely no time for spoon-feeding. You always have to be on your feet, you have to be quick and each and every one of your movements needs to have purpose.
“Chef Rene Redzepi is exactly what the media celebrates him for— a genius. His senses (taste and smell especially) are on a completely different level from anyone else’s. He can detect the flavors of each and every ingredients in a dish despite how small the amount was added. He’s also the most creative person I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. The way he thinks of ingredients, flavor combinations, new menu techniques, theories…they are so out of the box that you’re challenged everyday, you learn something new every day, or you change your way of thinking about something.
“The biggest challenge I faced in the Noma kitchen was the constant pushing of myself both physically and mentally. Physically, because of the long hours and grueling jobs like carrying 75 kilos of cabbage up the stairs, meticulous tasks like picking ants and cleaning moss while still having the energy, focus, and precision needed for service. Mentally, because of the massive amount of talent in the kitchen—it’s such a competitive environment where everyone is something or someone in his/her part of the world and everyone is competing to stand out. You constantly have to push yourself to be better.” But overall, Nicole says that the biggest challenge, really, was the weather. “It’s so cold and windy! I wear 4 layers of clothing to work everyday; it’s insane. It really makes you appreciate and miss the warmth of the sun in Manila,” she laughs.
Another memory Nicole recalls with much fondness was during her second week of internship where she was given the responsibility of setting-up and doing plating for the very first time. “My heart literally felt like it was going to jump out of my chest, and the whole time, I kept thinking to myself: ‘YOU CANNOT F**K THIS UP! There’s no room for mistakes. Breathe. You can do this.’ I was so scared, I was shaking! But in Noma, you don’t have time to be scared, you don’t have time to doubt yourself, you only have to get the job done and get it done perfectly. I was 100% sure I was going to make a mistake and get thrown out of the kitchen, but thankfully, all 15 plates went out and the sous chef gave me a pat on the back. I was so relieved and it gave me the confidence boost I needed.”
Though Noma has definitely widened Nicole’s exposure to food, having consumed tartare with wood ants, which she says is the weirdest thing she’s ever made at the restaurant, our homegrown balut still tops her list of weirdest food eaten. As for her favorite dish, she tells me about a butternut squash dish cooked in rosehip seed oil, roasted kelp, roasted beechnuts, caviar, and a butter-barley emulsion. “The flavor combinations, the textures in your mouth, and the simplicity of the ingredients all made it a spectacular dish.”
With an internship experience thousands would kill for, Nicole keeps it real. “As cliché as it may sound, if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen,” she firmly responds as I ask her about the best advice she could give to young aspiring chefs. Work aside, life in Copenhagen is very easygoing for Nicole. “People here love to drink and spend their evenings by the lakes, in the parks or in pubs with a good bottle of wine, some beers and amazing company. It’s more laid-back than Manila. People here have more of a pub-culture rather than a party culture. The weather is crazy, the wind is so strong sometimes that you can literally get knocked down, it snows/rains at random times of the day and the sun goes down at around 4/4:30pm everyday.”
Talking to Nicole felt like I was learning these things for myself—maybe I would never catch myself breaking a sweat at the Noma kitchen, but what Nicole imparted to me were lessons that are relevant in different aspects of life, parts that are not only limited to the kitchen, but beyond it. “The best thing I learned from the Noma kitchen was essentially the importance of finesse, perseverance, and passion. From Chef Rene Redzepi, it would have to be humility, the importance of being constantly curious, and the importance of being open.
“Contrary to popular belief, Chef Rene Redzepi is THE most humble and down-to-earth guy you’ll ever meet. He’s actually a normal human being like everyone else (all the interns and chefs idolize him so its pretty normal for newbies to freak out, or get a panic attack whenever he sits down for staff meal and starts talking to you). He doesn’t let fame, fortune or success get into his head, and I think it’s a big factor in Noma’s ability to keep pushing boundaries and setting the bar higher each year. One of my best memories with him was when he sat beside me during one of our family meals and we talked about the Philippines, my career goals, and my family. Never in my entire life would I’ve imagined that I would ever get to sit next to my idol and have an actual conversation with him. It was such a relief to find out how much of a normal person he was. He’s so easy to talk to, he was so interested in our country and surprisingly, he knew my name. He even gave me a set of his books “Noma: A Work In Progress” signed them and wrote me a little note on one. He also took a selfie with me!
“Chef Rene Redzepi also taught me to question things, to look at things from a different point of view, to ask WHY can’t it be done differently and HOW it can be done differently. It’s this questioning of things that leads to the creation of new dishes, new cooking methods, new flavors that we initially thought was impossible to achieve.
“Lastly, he taught me about the importance of opening your mind to other cultures, other ways of thinking, other ingredients, etc. Just because it isn’t a common practice in one place, doesn’t mean it isn’t done anywhere else. He taught me the importance of not limiting my research/studies to what we know to be acceptable/true/tried and tested in Denmark, but to be accepting and open to practices and methods in other countries. Chef Rene Redzepi has literally traveled all over the world from Poland, the US, Mexico, and now to Japan all in search for knowledge. He’s open to everything each country has to give him and absorbs as much as he can from their culture, takes whatever he learned home and puts his twist on it. He never stops learning.”
So what’s next for Nicole Server? “Keep cooking!” she laughs. “For now I’m still living the dream, cooking and learning as much as I can.” And I cannot imagine her doing anything else.