A transition is underway at Noma, in Copenhagen. Matt Orlando has left his post as the restaurant's head chef to open Amass, his first restaurant. His replacement will be chef Dan Giusti, who made a name for himself at Washington, DC's 1789. It's a rare thing for a chef these days to wait until he's thirty-five — especially after two different stints in René Redzepi's kitchen and serious time spent at Per Se and The Fat Duck — to set off on his own. Orlando could have done this years ago, but he's followed the disciplined, old school path taken by guys like Jonathan Benno instead. You cut your teeth until there's no doubt that you're ready.
Orlando finally started feeling that way last year, and he intends for his restaurant along Copenhagen's harbor to be his in every sense of the word. He's obtained an old warehouse space in an area that is being developed into a community of artists, architects, and other creative types. The food at Amass will be ambitious, but the setting warm and casual. There will be no printed menu, because Orlando wants to put himself in the farmers' hands and change the menu constantly. "I want them to tell me what they're most excited about and not have them cater to my exact needs," he says. From that materia prima, he and his team, which is made up of some Noma and Per Se alums, will compose dinners of eight to ten servings, where the snacks will not come at the beginning of the experience but rather will be integrated into the progression of the meal. You might get a serving of fish liver or cheek at some point, for example, hinting at a more conventional piece of fish that's to come. "Offal isn't new," says Orlando, "but I think it's important to open people up and make them realize that there's more than just the beautiful piece of the fish."
He envisions the restaurant as a fluid space, where the PDR, the offices, the wine cellar, and most of all, the kitchen, are not blocked off from the dining room. "There's a lot of mystery in restaurants that I want to do away with," says the chef. He's making sure that he'll be able to wave at departing guests at the end of the night, even if he's at his desk putting in orders for the following day. As the restaurant's name suggests, it should be a place to gather people, products, and ideas, without pretense or exclusion. The greatest challenge? Harnessing the ideas he fell in love with in Redzepi's kitchen and allowing his former boss to lend his influential support to the venture without having guests at the restaurant reduce the experience to a Noma clone.
Orlando was recently in New York City, where he invited me for a coffee at Sweet Leaf in Long Island City, his old stomping grounds. There he spoke about his decision to leave Noma and his plans for Amass. Here's the Q&A:
What are you doing stateside?
I visited my family in San Diego for two weeks and did a charity dinner out there.
Are you done with Noma?
Officially, yes. But I'll be around a couple of days a week until the end of February.
Your replacement is set?
Yes, Dan Giusti. I actually worked with him at Aureole thirteen years ago, when Charlie Palmer was still there.
How old are you? What was your involvement with him getting the head chef gig?
I'm thirty-five. He was an apprentice there from the CIA when I was chef de partie. I didn't speak to him until about two years ago. He worked in Italy for several years and was the head chef at a place called 1789 in D.C.. We got in touch again because he found out I was head chef at Noma and contacted me saying he wanted to drop everything to come and work there. He moved to Copenhagen with his girlfriend and became a chef de partie, even though he was more than that. That happened around six months before I told René that I was going to be leaving.
So, I groomed Dan up the whole way, without really telling him. He almost left, actually, because his girlfriend wasn't too happy. I just told him what the deal was, and it ended up fine. The girlfriend, who has a Finnish passport, used to work for the CIA. She's legit. Our PR girl was leaving, so I went to René and told him that we should maybe hire her. We did. She's an assassin. It's great.
Like a weird happy family.
It is. So many guys move to Denmark to work at Noma with their girlfriends, but if you're not Danish or don't speak Danish it can be difficult, so they end up leaving.
Tell me about finally making the decision to leave.
Well, when I moved to work at Noma, it was no secret that I'd eventually want to open my own place. I was very upfront with René about that, and he said he would never hold me back. To the contrary, he said he'd give me anything I'd need to make it happen. He's been so supportive.
How would you describe the restaurant?
It's on the harbor and looks directly onto the field where they do MAD. It's insane. I love Brooklyn, down South, where all the old abandoned warehouses are. I used to ride my bike down there all the time when I lived around here. This has that feeling. It's an abandoned shipyard which, if all the lease contracts go through, will be occupied with architects, designers, and artists in the next six months. It's very eclectic and raw. It has so much potential to grow, so to be a part of the beginning is special.
And in terms of the food?
It's going to be a lower price point that Noma. I want people to come more often. It will obviously less than 24 servings, which is what we do at Noma now. I guess the best way to summarize the major thing, is that a lot of chefs specify exactly what kind of product they want: the carrots have to be a certain size, and they'll tailor their offering to your needs. What I want is to have the farmer come and tell me what the best tasting thing he's got available is, and we'll work off of that. So, the menu is going to be changing constantly. When I was at Per Se, we'd change the entire menu everyday, which was extremely challenging, but later realized how special that was.
I'm not saying that I'm going to change the menu every day, but that spirit of constant rotation will be a part of it.
Also, it's most definitely not going to be a Nordic restaurant.
To ask a silly question, what will the food look like, then?
It's hard to say what my food will look like. The biggest challenge, because is it's inevitable, is someone writing or tweeting that a dish looks just like Noma. The influence will obviously come in, because the style and philosophy have been a major part of my life.I don't want to necessarily separate myself from it totally, since I honestly think it's the best food in the world — I left the Fat Duck because I thought that. But I don't want people to come there and say, "I just ate at Noma yesterday, and this is exactly the same." That's going to be my biggest challenge.
It's going to be a dynamic restaurant not only because there will be that rotation in the food. There's also going to be no menu. And the food will have to change constantly to justify that lack of choice.
The exterior of Amass [Photo courtesy of Matt Orlando]
You're doing a tasting menu only?
It will be somewhere between eight and ten servings. Not to give away too much, but a lot of restaurants do snack servings at the front and then you start the meal. I want to integrate the snacks into the meal. I want to try to create a connection between the snacks and dishes that come before or after them. It's nothing new to serve offal, but I want the guest to realize that yes, one of the courses will be a beautiful piece of fish, but I'm also going to make you eat the skin, the head, the liver, maybe before you even get that beautiful fish. Tons of people have written about that disconnect where people don't really acknowledge where the food really comes from, and I think this is a fun way of counteracting that.
There will also be a communal table, according to the Politiken article?
I'm into having a really fluid, transparent environment. I don't want there to be barriers. The kitchen is usually a very mysterious place to people, which is why kitchen visits still have this magic to them. I want guests to feel like there is no part of this restaurant — the wine cellar, the chef's garden, the offices, the kitchen — that they are not going to be exposed to. The kitchen is wide open to the restaurant. There is a loft where the private dining room is. That's currently covered by glass, but we are going to take that out so it's not blocked from the space. Same goes for the offices. So, if I'm putting in an order at the end of the night and there's a table leaving, I can wave and say goodnight from up there. The wine room is going to be up there, and the private dining room will fit around 15.
There's also going to be, eventually, a room where we'll have meats and vegetables pickling and aging.
The communal table is going to be right in the middle of the dining room and fit ten people. You can only book a maximum of four people at the table, so you know going into it that you're going to be sitting with strangers.
Will that feature the same menu?
I don't want to do too much too fast, but I think it will eventually evolve into a longer menu. I just need to feel it out first. I think it's going to be a louder table than all the others, because these people will be talking to each other and it's a larger group. I want it to create a buzz in the dining room so that if someone comes in and sees what's going on, they come out of the experience saying, "I want to sit at that table next time!"
Are there any dishes you have in mind already?
[Takes out his phone and shows me a photo. I ask what it is.] It's A cod head with crisps of the skin and an emulsion made with the roe of the cod. Guests would have to pull the meat off the face.
I did that at a dinner at Volt, in Maryland. I did it as a passed canapé. In the first half hour of canapés, no one had tried it. It took one brave person to try it, and after that, everyone was eating it. The meat is absolutely delicious. I like the idea of helping people get through that initial mental block — that hump. I hope — hope — that it can make people more open in future dining experiences.
You're in your mid thirties, and now is when you're setting off on your own. That's pretty rare these days, I'd say.
I worked for a gentleman by the name of Francis Perrot in San Diego. He was very French, and I was around 21 when I started working for him. It was like cooking out of Escoffier, to the extreme. He had worked for Robuchon, for example. He didn't take a head chef position until he hit the age I am now, more or less. He told me about how many young kids were leaving too early to open up their own places, either because they just did or because someone gave them the money to do it. Your repertoire is limited, and you really truly need to feel like you know what you want to do. I went off of that advice my whole career. Obviously, there are times when you get frustrated working under someone else. But you need to really feel that before you go off. I was waiting for that.
It's very rare. People make the jump too soon.
It brings to mind Jonathan Benno, who stuck it out for a while before opening his first place.
He's been one of the biggest influences of my life. He, Francis, and René have been the biggest influences on me. Because he waited, he managed to be a great craftsman but also brilliant manager. That's so rare to come across. It's mind-blowing. He knows what's going on at every table during service, and he can cook.
Have you set up your team yet?
My kitchen team is pretty much set. I didn't want to take a lot of people from Noma, but there are some, and I wanted to have someone from Per Se. Only if you've worked for Thomas Keller will you understand certain things...
Well, for example, the organization: it took me so long to get people to cut the labeling tape instead of ripping it or biting it off. So many people couldn't grasp that. I would take full containers of something out from the fridge, notice the ripped tape, and just start saying, "What's wrong with this picture? What's wrong with this picture?" The cook would say he didn't know, and I'd just dump all the contents into the garbage can. It's so simple and it saves everyone time.
Are you a hardass, would you say?
I think I'm very fair. I like things done a certain way. Thomas Keller is one of the fairest people I've ever worked with. When you're expediting service, you'll feel him breathing on your neck, because he's watching what you're doing. He'll never say something during service. He'll write it down while you're working and then take you aside and explain it all. I'm not saying I don't yell, but I don't yell often. When I do raise my voice, they'll understand that there really is a problem.
Do you make a connection with your cooks or do you think it's important to be the boss and somewhat separated?
I definitely think it's essential you make a connection with your cooks in a personal way. If you separate yourself like that — there of course has to be some, since you're the boss — but you need to connect and understand what's special about someone.
So you'd go out for a few drinks with the guys?
Definitely. I might not stay for the after party, since no one would want me to be there. But yeah, I want the guys to be open with me in ways that they may not have been able to be with other chefs in the past.