On tour

Michelin-starred chefs are popping up on the other side of the world, taking their whole staff – and sometimes the restaurant furniture too. Tina Nielsen takes a look at the big names swapping home for abroad

When René Redzepi, chef and owner of Noma in Copenhagen, announced that he would be moving the restaurant, staff and all, to Sydney for a 10-week stint in January 2016, he confirmed a trend for the world’s top chefs to stage international pop ups.

This summer The Fat Duck, usually based in the village of Bray in the UK, ended a six-month residency at Melbourne’s Crown Casino. Chef Heston Blumenthal moved the entire operation to Australia while the UK restaurant was refurbished. For the last two years the three brothers behind El Celler de Can Roca in Spain have closed their restaurant to go on tour for five weeks. And while Noma heads to Sydney, Alinea of Chicago will be popping up in Madrid and Miami during the first two months of 2016.

Gareth Sefton FCSI, director of SeftonHornWinch, says the motivation behind the pop ups is partly educational. “Chefs by nature want to share their own passion and creativity with everyone. They have a confidence in what they do and want as many people as possible to share their thoughts and ideas,” he says. “They will also find the different cultures they experience from working abroad influencing their own creativity.”

For Redzepi, this is his second major pop up, having staged a five-week period at Tokyo’s Mandarin Oriental hotel earlier this year. Escaping a dark and cold Copenhagen for the Australian summer is reason enough to swap locations for a few months. But with the Japan pop up costing a significant amount in terms of both money and effort – it involved taking 63 staff members to Japan, shipping furniture from Denmark and remodelling the dining room of the Mandarin Oriental – there is more to this than getting a bit of winter sun.

Redzepi told Saveur that temporarily moving his team to Japan was a way to shake staff out of their groove. “Getting out of your comfort zone is an important part of being a cook.”

After two years of planning a five-week run with 3,584 guests enjoying the tasting menu and another 60,000 still on the waiting list at the end, suffice to say the pop up was a success. Redzepi described the time in Tokyo as “the greatest learning experience in my life. We came back to Copenhagen more lifted than ever, with bags of energy and inspiration, and many new friends.” For Sydney every single team member from the dish washer to general manager will join Redzepi on his next adventure.

The Copenhagen restaurant will close while Noma takes temporary residence in Barangaroo in Sydney Harbour. “This is an opportunity to broaden our horizons, to expand our minds and our tastes as we delve into this magnificent landscape,” says the Danish chef.

But while Noma has made its name using locally foraged, often little known ingredients, on its journeys abroad it does not replicate any Nordic dishes. Instead Redzepi and his team have travelled extensively all over Australia and will, in a way, turn Noma Australian – using ingredients they can forage locally.

For some restaurants, opening in a different location during a refurb of their usual surroundings becomes vital. When Blumenthal announced the temporary move to Melbourne, he referred to the fact that the Bray restaurant had needed to be refurbished for a long time and it would have been impossible to just tell staff to walk away for six months.

As Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago explains when describing the plans for his pop up in Madrid and Miami: “We have a team of 70 people, many of whom have been with us for a long time and our moral code would not allow us to tell them that they are getting laid off during those three months,” he says.  “We have to pop up somewhere and generate enough money to cover payroll at the very minimum so we can retain the people so when we open again we have the same dream team as we do now.”

For staff, the opportunity to work in a different culture, learning to work with unfamilar ingredients, using new techniques and ways of working is exciting and helps to strengthen the team. Achatz is due to open his fourth restaurant with business partner Nick Kokonas and points to the importance of creating a culture where his team can grow. Many have been with him for a long time and he believes the change is important for them.

“Some have been with us since day one and it is a long time in fine dining,” he says. “We have a staff of nearly 300 and you start thinking a bit differently; providing a culture that people like to work in. What is more exciting for a group of passionate individuals than to be able to live in Madrid and Miami, understand a new cuisine and meet new people in the industry?” He expects the experience to satisfy a sense of curiosity and inspiration that they don’t normally get in Chicago, or “the kind of things that don’t translate to a spreadsheet”.

So much to learn

If the motivation behind the global pop up is experiencing new culinary cultures, discovering unfamiliar ingredients and learning how to do things in a different way, Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca from El Celler de Can Roca have taken this to a new level.

Among the courses on the tasting menu at the Girona restaurant, this year re-appointed the best in the world, is a selection of five different mouthfuls, concealed inside a paper lantern globe. Named Eat the World, it is the result of inspiration from the brothers’ travels.

For the past two years they have closed their restaurant for five weeks in the summer and gone on tour, taking in several countries around the world. Last year saw them cooking in Houston, Dallas, Monterrey, Mexico City, Lima and Bogotá while this summer they visited Buenos Aires, Miami, Birmingham, Houston and Istanbul. In a partnership with Spanish bank BBVA they have served spectacular dinners to appreciative diners in each of the locations.

For head chef Joan Roca, travelling is an essential part of their development. “We want to learn and get out of our comfort zone to realise that we still have so much to learn from different people and in many different places,” he says. The three use the trips to pay tribute to the local cuisines as they discover local ingredients, many of them iconic in each country – such as the beef, mate and dulce de leche of Argentina.

Though they are already recognised as the best in the world Roca says they continue to learn all the time, which is vital for their restaurant to keep evolving. “We pick up new techniques, new products and new cultures. During the tour we create many new dishes and some of them will end up on the menu back at El Celler,” he explains.

El Celler also travels with the full team of 40 members of staff. “It is essential for us that the team comes along,” says Roca. “For them it is a great experience to learn, serving as a kind of apprenticeship as we have to deal with many challenges in different settings.”

They also incorporate an educational element to their trips and work with local catering colleges in each of the cities. The brothers pick two students from every school who are rewarded with a four-month stage in the Girona restaurant. “We believe it is vital for us to work with students,” says Roca.

But the top restaurants don’t do this just to inspire staff and learn about new ingredients. There is an element of promotion and raising the profile of the restaurant. Achatz also thinks there are financial reasons. “In certain cases I do think there is a financial opportunity with a pop up, more so even than the flagship restaurant, which is something to think about,” he says.

He has a point, says Jimi Yui FCSI of Yui Design: “The chefs gain form the experience both in financial terms and also as a way to solifiy their brand.”

Achatz has done pop ups in the US, swapping with Per Se and The French Laundry, plus a residency in Eleven Madison Park in New York. “They are fun and great for the team. In some cases they can be financially beneficial.”

The culinary world is seeing an increasing level of collaboration among chefs. As Roca says, it is common sense for chefs to travel. “This is not only the best way we can learn, but also the best way for us to spread the word about or own cuisines,” he says.

Tina Nielsen

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