Dish you were here: Irish chef Trevor Moran (left) at Copenhagen's Noma, where he and his colleagues (below) create simple but succulent dishes in a minimalist setting. Photos by Ditte Isager
When Dublin chef Trevor Moran got a job at the restaurant voted best in the world -- Noma in Copenhagen -- he knew he had to step up to the plate.
In a fiercely competitive environment, Noma's chefs are expected to be creative and dream up their own original dishes. Trevor decided to do something daring with a staple of the Irish diet: he served raw potatoes.
It was a spectacular failure -- but one he can laugh about now. His colleagues still slag him about it, but Trevor went on to make them eat humble pie with a knock-out dish made with pork and Icelandic seaweed -- about which more later.
Getting to work at Noma has been a dream come true for Trevor. He first came across the restaurant while travelling through Copenhagen with a friend. One taste and he knew where he wanted to work.
"Now when the guests come in, I think back to when I ate here first. I want to give everyone the same experience I had."
Trevor has come a long way since his first job as a chef at the Dun Laoghaire restaurant Brasserie na Mara.
On his first day, he laughed off instructions to 'make ice cream'. "I told them, 'Feck off -- ice cream is something you buy'. I didn't know you could make it," he laughs.
Yet Trevor fell in love with cookery, moving on to work at top Dublin restaurant Mint in Ranelagh under celebrity chef Dylan McGrath.
But the lure of the little Danish restaurant was too strong. Trevor, from Stillorgan in south Dublin, sent in an application for a job. He got lucky: he is now chef de partie at Noma.
The restaurant has held two Michelin stars since 2009, and in 2010 was named the best restaurant in the world by the S. Pellegrino Awards, an influential survey of critics and chefs run by Restaurant magazine.
Based in an old warehouse on the waterside in downtown Copenhagen, Noma has employed a string of young Irish chefs since its establishment in 2004.
The first thing that strikes you about the restaurant is its simple décor. Everything is stripped down there. The tables are wooden, the walls, painted brick. One of its most famous dishes is called 'radish served in soil'.
The chefs themselves bring the food out to the tables, chatting to guests to put them at ease. This unusual approach has won accolades from throughout the world of cuisine.
A typical working day for Trevor starts at 5am, when he treks out into the countryside around Copenhagen to forage for herbs and berries in the undergrowth.
Later, the ingredients he collects will be prepared in the kitchen and served up to discerning dinner guests.
Under head chef René Redzepi, the restaurant is at the heart of an ambitious effort to re-invent cuisine from the ground up.
Led by the work of the gastronomic non-profit Nordic Food Lab, Mediterranean staples like olive oil, long dominant on the fine-dining scene, are rejected out of hand.
The Noma menu contains only ingredients that are local to Denmark or neighbouring Scandinavian countries, and is altered daily as ingredients come in and out of season.
Any herb, berry or grain, however unfamiliar, is fair game to be incorporated into the new 'Nordic cuisine'.
The potential of sea buckthorn, an orange berry that grows on a prickly bush, was discovered this way.
The berry is not usually eaten, but samples were taken back to the restaurant's food lab, experiments were run, and soon enough a dish was born.
"The idea is that if you find two things growing near each other, they'll probably work well together in a dish," says Trevor.
"We found sea buckthorn growing near some hip roses, a beach variety of rose. We pickled the rose petals in apple vinegar for about a year. Then we combined them with the juice of the sea buckthorn berry, and the result was just incredible."
Having worked at Noma for the last two years, Trevor dreams of taking the Noma ethos back to Ireland, and opening up his own place.
"Nothing extravagant, maybe a small 20-seater." he says.
"But most importantly, cooking from the land.
"There's a lot to be said for the boys in the kitchen going out and picking their own stuff from the beaches. Nobody does that back home."
One of the most important things Trevor wants to take back to Ireland is the new Nordic cuisine's simplicity and lack of pretension.
"You could walk in here wearing a pair of tracksuit bottoms and a hoodie, and no one would bat an eyelid," Trevor says of Noma.
"At the end of the day, we're just a bunch of young guys who want to do honest food for people and make people happy.
"In Ireland, dining out is seen as this really expensive thing with tablecloths and wine, where you have to dress up. But those days are over now."
But if it's all so simple and unpretentious, why does a meal there cost €150 a head? "I think it's pretty reasonable," he says.
"There might be 30 guys in the kitchen, doing 25 or 26 different servings for you. Noma certainly doesn't make money from the food alone. All the head guys cycle into work; no one drives a fancy car.
"In some Michelin-starred restaurants, you might pay €60 for a starter. That's outrageous, I would never pay it. But here, you get what you pay for."
Trevor's favourite dish at Noma appears on the menu for just a brief period each year, when the chestnuts come into season.
"We order the chestnuts every day, and sit around and taste them early in the morning," he says.
"If they're not good we don't use them, but at some stage they become incredibly flavourful and sweet. We serve them raw, sliced up with the eggs of the bleak fish and some fresh walnuts."
The chefs are asked to present a new dish of their own invention every week or two.
Redzepi gathers together the restaurant's 40 staff in the kitchen, and watches as the new dishes are prepared. They then taste the results, and issue judgment.
"Everyone gives their input on what works and what doesn't work, whether it's something to abandon or if you should go further with it," says Trevor.
"You're under a lot of pressure. It's hard to find time during the week to work on your dish. It's a challenge, but it tightens you up as a chef."
However, it hasn't always worked out. "My first dish was pretty silly," he tells me.
"Someone told me that raw potatoes were something not interesting or palatable to eat, so I decided to prove them wrong. I failed. Raw potatoes are simply not delicious. That's it. I got flak about it for weeks, being Irish," he laughs.
Since that experience, however, he has had more success.
"The restaurant gets a lot of meat in, whole pigs, which are hung in the meat fridge to intensify their flavour.
"I thought that if I wrapped some pork in Icelandic seaweed and let it hang, it would put a sea-mineral flavour into the meat. So I hung some pork neck for 10 days in seaweed butter, and served it very simply with some cooked salads, sea lettuce and apple puree."
The dish was a hit.
"Everyone was like, wow, this is actually pretty amazing. I got really excited. Now I'm just going to work on it for a while, and see what I can do."
Who knows, one day Trevor Moran's exotic dishes could be coming to a restaurant near you.