This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of the restaurant world's hottest tables.
[Photo: Ali Kurshat Altinsoy]
You've somehow landed a table at Noma, the toughest reservation in the world. You've planned a trip around that one meal, and no matter how much you end up enjoying it, you probably won't be able to come back for a while, if at all. When the moment comes and you finally pull up to the wharf on which the restaurant lies, it is James Spreadbury's job to make you feel at home.
He usually greets you outside the restaurant, champagne glasses already in hand. Once that's through and you've taken in the view of the harbor, you go inside for three or maybe five hours and realize that he and his staff really are among the best in the world. That's largely because they never wave it in people's faces. The restaurant eschews pomp in favor of warm, playful, and sincere professionalism, and James is responsible for keeping things that way.
How'd you come to do what you do at Noma?
I have now been with Noma for almost four years. Coming from Australia, I've always loved adventure and traveling, and I wanted to live and work somewhere exciting.
I had heard of this small restaurant in Copenhagen doing something special, so I moved there and knocked on the door.
I guess it was not the plan to stay this long, but I was drawn by this group of people who wanted nothing more than to give their guests the best experience possible and open them up to new things.
Can you talk a little more about what you did before coming to the restaurant, and what it was like "knocking on the door"?
Before I left Australia, I was running a restaurant in a wine region called McLaren Vale. It was great, but I wanted to grow and be a part of something else, something more.
I was recommended by friends to go to Spain or France or London, which would have been great, but I had my heart set on trying out for this restaurant in Denmark. It just sounded unique, and I knew I loved Scandinavia, too. I literally packed up my life, leased my house, and moved here. I knocked on the door with a CV. I didn't want to apply for work before I left, as I thought any negative response would sway me from leaving. So I just left. One thing led to another, everything felt right, and I am still here.
How did the nature of your job change when the restaurant was catapulted to the top of the rankings and became the most in-demand in the world?
Obviously working in this business, no matter where you are, you have a responsibility to deliver. This situation made us recognize our responsibility to do so was of even greater importance. We didn't know this would happen, and of course we had to learn and grow with it, creating new and more defined systems.
But the most satisfying part was the pride and the bond created. It strengthened our team even more. And the reward of having so many happy guests is why we do what we do.
What do you mean by "creating new and more defined systems"?
That's mainly in regards to the reservation system, and how we dealt with the increase of requests. And as a whole, defining more and more who we are and what it is we do.
Do you have people try to come in without reservations? If so, how do you handle those situations? Has it ever worked out for the people that try?
We have so many requests, and we understand that it can be difficult to get a table with us. We try to make it as easy for people as possible, but at the end of the day, we only have twelve tables.
It can be hard when we are in the middle of service, looking after the guests, and people walk in off the street wanting or thinking they have a reservation. Our time is dedicated to those with us, but of course we explain the situation in the kindest way possible. Occasionally it has happened that we have a late cancellation and someone calling or dropping by gets lucky!
Do you have regulars?
We have a few people that have been coming since the days we were much less busy. These people have developed a close relationship with us and have become our friends — they have a deep understanding of us, what we do, and who we are.
What are some of the strangest requests you've had to accommodate?
Luckily nothing too strange, really. People generally like to just go with the experience.
Are there any requests you haven't been able to accommodate?
Most commonly the request for tables, or return bookings. It's hard to tell a guest that you have formed a great relationship with just over one evening that you cannot guarantee them a table to return. The demand we have for tables is so high, and we have systems in place to make it as fair for everybody as possible. Unfortunately, it's often that I can't accommodate these requests, although I do try.
People often speak about the nerves that set in before dinner at a special restaurant like Noma. How do you make newcomers feel at ease?
Our whole team works so closely together. We have a strong belief that we are inviting people into our home. We want everybody to feel as comfortable and relaxed as possible so they can enjoy the experience to the fullest. We feel honored that guests travel, sometimes from far away, to visit us and make that effort. We generally make close relationships with all our guests — if they allow it — and try to make them feel as much a part of everything going on around them as possible. We try to make them feel like part of the family.
Service is so much more than a set of rules and standards to follow. You really have to be there for the guest and adapt to situations. And be yourself and let your genuine personality show. It's so important in creating that connection with the guests.