Q & A with Chef Sean Ehland, Part 2: The Best Thing He Ate at Noma, Plus Foraging in the Castle Yards
In Part 1 of our interview with chef Sean Ehland, we learned his thoughts on the ever-present culinary school debate, as well as how he pestered his way into a stage at Noma via the restaurant's reservations email. In Part 2, we learn what working in such a sophisticated kitchen is like, as well as how he feels when he takes a meal quite literally from the farm to the table, all on his own. We also discuss just how much he'd love to get into the Wolvesden.
Photo by Shauna Miller
When we left off, Ehland was telling us he spent three months emailing Noma, hoping for a chance to work there.
SI: How many emails did you send to them?
SE: I don't know exactly. Definitely over 10 within three months I think.
SI: When you finally got there, what was your experience like? What did you do in that kitchen?
SE: I was one of the stagiers [people who stage, or work for free for a time to learn a new cuisine or technique]. People like me just working for free trade experience. It was a machine. I think that's the best word to describe it. There were just so many people, it had to be completely perfect. You can definitely tell they're striving to maintain the number one spot, and for their third Michelin star. It's seems prevalent that everyone there has the same mindset that everything must be absolutely perfect and of the best quality. An eye for detail, definitely. I definitely gained from that, as well as from moving extraordinarily fast, and being very precise.
SI: Do you feel like it changed you as a chef?
SE: It changed the way I think about food, and I had to definitely change...at least in Pittsburgh, it's always a line kitchen setup--one cook works the sauté station, one cook does the grill station, one does the vegetables and starches, and everyone slides the plate and puts their own step on. But there, it's a brigade system. I'd read about it, I was familiar from just knowing about it, but I'd never worked in it. To have five or six cooks working on the same plate at the same time, it was amazing to watch.
SI: Can you explain the difference between a line and a brigade system?
SE: The line system, from my experience, I guess it varies with every kitchen but if I worked the sauté station, I had five or six appetizers and five or six entrees, and I'm responsible for every protein such, or really like the whole plate. I was responsible for every bit of mise en place for it, as well as plating it and saucing it.
But [at Noma] it was just a complete team effort. Stagiers didn't get to see much service there, which I understand. I was a little saddened by it ,I guess. But still, to be a part of all the little projects I was doing all day--to see something that I was working on all day go onto a plate was really neat.
SI: Did you get a chance to taste dishes at NOMA?
SE: Oh yeah.
SI: What were some of the best things you ate there?
SE: There were a few times when there were parties in the upstairs production kitchen, and while we were still finishing up what we were doing for the day, we'd find out they plated one too many or something broke and they couldn't serve it. One of the things that was really awesome was a langoustine, a whole tail of langoustine. It was just served on a rock with an emulsion with some...I'm not even really...the kitchen was sprawling huge. There were things going on that I didn't even get to see, it was so big. But you just picked the tail up with your fingers and swiped it through the sauce. There was a crumble on top of it, that was it. The simplicity of it was amazing. It was a gigantic ocean rock, so just the feeling of eating a langoustine off an ocean rock.
SI: How long were you at Noma?
SE: I was at Noma for three weeks.
SI: What the story with the trip you took afterwards?
SE: After that, we went foraging. We went to this castle on the other coast from Copenhagen, about an hour's drive, and we went foraging for ramson. It's a plant similar to a ramp, but it goes to a flowering stage and produces a berry that when you salt them for about two months and cover them with vinegar, they're local capers.
So we went foraging for that in this area called Lammefjord. It's a region of the area. There's a town called Horve with a castle called Dragsholm Slot, which is the oldest castle in Denmark that's now a hotel with two restaurants in it. The chef that takes care of foraging at Noma is really good friends with the chef, Claus Henriksen, who runs the kitchen there. He'd done time at Noma. He was a sous chef in the early days.
So I met him, and I got the opportunity to go out [to the castle] for a week. I took that because they would house me for free as well. It was so isolated that they had to house their employees. That was really amazing. It's in the heart of farmland--the entire castle was surrounded by farms, and we could go and pick all the produce for the night's menu at 2 p.m., eat staff meal, and then prepare the vegetables there one hour out of the soil to serve to guests. That was probably the most life-changing experience ever.
SI: In what way?