That makes for fascinating culinary coverage, but the singular problem with these reports from the field is that few if any of the writers have worked in Adria or Redzepi's kitchens. And so as someone who has at least spent six weeks in Noma's as a stagier, I never cease to find some amusement in stories proclaiming the reason why certain dining establishments rise above the rest. For in their desire to address these lofty concepts of creativity and locality, they fail to appreciate the real lessons of professional cooking -- lessons which could (and should) be applied to any field, from politics to engineering to academia.
Undoubtedly, these are simple lessons. Their plainness and brevity speak to a universal applicability; The world's best restaurants offer unique insight into basic ideas with the potential to make a lasting human impact. I am not joking when I say everyone should have the opportunity to work in a kitchen; it would make for better and more productive citizens.
Beneath the clocks in Thomas Keller's world-renowned New York outpost, Per Se, there are small signs: "Sense of Urgency." Or, put differently, as a Noma sous chef delicately told me while I was spinning what might have been the 80th potato spiral of the day for the restaurant's famous egg dish, "Hey Tom ... why don't we hurry the f---k up, eh?"
I say that not to embarrass the sous chef in question, or to reflect poorly on my time in Copenhagen. In fact, I mean the exact opposite. The chef was unapologetically correct. You have to move faster. You have to push yourself. There is no extra time. If you drag your feet, even for a half second, there is a chance you will get caught in the rush of service.
One night at Noma, as I tended to the outdoor grill area and swept ashes off the ground in the Scandinavian summer night, I was so lucky as to happen upon Redzepi yelling at that same sous chef. Curiosity got the best of me -- I couldn't help but listen:
"Why did you do that?"
"I'm sorry, chef."
"If you were sorry you wouldn't have done it."
"I'm sorry, chef."
"You're not sorry, you're sorry now ... I'm just asking you not to screw up. Is that really so much to ask? This is unacceptable. It's just unacceptable."
At Noma and at other top restaurants, anything but striving for complete and total perfection is a disgrace. And to be frank, it is still a disgrace even outside of those top kitchens. The lesson here is just as simple as having a sense of urgency: Don't bother doing anything but your best. Don't half-ass anything. It's either perfect -- or it's not.
Kitchens are so adamant about this fact that the French word, soigné, is to cooks a sacred maxim: "Make it perfect." There are no shortcuts at Noma, and there shouldn't be either when key business decisions are made, or when politicians wrangle in Washington over farm subsidies, or when a college student writes a paper for his Shakespeare class. They are all one and the same. It's not always easy; sometimes the shortcuts we take are almost unconscious. But we must strive to address these faults and to do better the next time.