As the crown of Nordic cuisine, Noma has held the title as the best restaurant in the world for three consecutive years. What is the key to their success? According to CEO Peter Kreiner, it is humbleness, attention to their surroundings, and a willingness to learn.

How is the best restaurant in the world managed? Is there a strategy to become the world’s best? And what could other organizations learn from them? We came to Noma to talk with their CEO Peter Kreiner in order to get these questions answered.

From a distance, the characteristic rough brick walls of the North Atlantic House at Christianshavn and the name of the restaurant meet us. Being an acronym between the Danish words ‘nordisk’ (Nordic) and ‘mad’ (food), Noma conceptualizes the founders wish of redefining the Nordic cuisine.

“Is it me you are looking for?” Peter Kreiner welcomes us from the rustic rear entrance of the prestigious restaurant. We now have the privilege of stepping through the backdoor to a myth of modern gastronomy. While leading us up the staircase, Peter Kreiner chats with us as we slowly approach one of the most mythological places of modern gastronomy – the Noma kitchen. We walk into a room filled with modern and fascinating kitchen facilities. A dozen chefs are concentrated working in the test and production kitchen, and Peter Kreiner’s workspace is situated next to an indoor herb garden. We get settled in a VIP-like room with the unpretentious name ‘staff room’. With a beautiful view over the harbor, we are ready to begin the interview.

A humble number one

Even though Noma has become a star on the gastronomic sky, Peter Kreiner does not come forward as an assertive or boastful CEO, rather, quite the contrary. He emphasizes that the restaurant must have a humble approach to its guests: “We are here for the guests and we shall be humble towards them. […] We have to be able to be totally absorbent to the guest.” We learn from Peter Kreiner that being part of Noma is not just about working at a respected restaurant; it is also about responsibly representing the restaurant in your spare time. At school, in the nightlife or in the city in general, the staff of Noma should be relaxed and humble. Humbleness is thereby not only presented as a core value, but as a practical guideline. Or as Peter Kreiner puts it: “Under no circumstances shall we be the ones that dance on the tables.”

It can seem paradoxical that the best restaurant in the world is situated in Denmark. A country often associated with the infamous critique of individual success in the Law of Jante. Nonetheless, Noma has been able to turn this seeming contradiction into a great success. A key to understanding this dynamic could be Noma’s concept of humbleness. As Peter Kreiner expresses it: “We want to show that we can make something unique, while not better than anyone else, but just as good.” Many people might say that Noma is actually better than most restaurants and maybe even add that it is the Law of Jante keeping Noma from moving forward. But on the contrary, we could ask whether it would be possible to create Noma without a humble attitude? When Rene Redzepi, head chef and co-owner of Noma, was on the cover of TIME magazine he was depicted on his knees in the grass looking for herbs. This is a far cry from the typical master chefs that we see in magazines and television. We should not underestimate how important it is to Noma to express a humble attitude – we might even say that it is part of the Noma DNA.

When Peter Kreiner looks at applications to Noma he does not focus much on the professional CV or obtained specialist skills. He focuses more on adaptability and the candidate’s willingness to learn. To be part of Noma the candidates have to be willing to unlearn static structures and previously attained skills. As an example of the adaptability required, the chefs rotate between the different cooking stations in the kitchen in order to master the different aspects of cooking. Thus being highly flexible and ready to give a hand or step in if someone is sick is important at Noma. So it is crucial to be able to let go of your own ego in order to show a humble attitude towards the Noma project.

The Noma chefs at work - photo by Nima Baharlooie

The Noma chefs at work – photo by Nima Baharlooie

Becoming their best

Peter Kreiner explains that maintaining a humble attitude is not only key to their public image; it is also a way of maintaining focus on the ultimate goal. As Peter Kreiner puts it: “The day we start to think that we are the best, we are definitely not the best anymore.” Noma is striving for perfection and they want to achieve it two times a day – at lunch and dinner servings. But perfection cannot be conceptualized in awards, prizes or Michelin stars, at least this does not seem to be the perfection Noma is striving to achieve. The prizes and stars, reassuring as they may be, play a surprisingly small role in the story of Noma, as Peter Kreiner tells it. Instead their goal seems to be based on a gut feeling. They know when they have realized the full potential of the Noma project “but there’s still some way to go”, Peter Kreiner says.

This gut feeling is also important when deciding which inquiries to respond to and which to respectfully turn down. Peter Kreiner has introduced a fairly simple test in relation to this selection: “does the inquiry help develop us as a restaurant, as a kitchen, or does it give us some money [that] in other ways could help us reach our goal.” Now this might be easier said than done. When is the money generated on a project sufficient to outweigh the loss of focus from their main goal? For Peter Kreiner, the distinction seems rather easy to make; it is all about maintaining money as means to an end.

“Out here we are doing something untraditional: We need to make money, but it is not the only sanctifier. I believe that if we need to make something that gets us elected as the world’s best, but at the same time only think about profit maximization, then it will collide. Those two things will clash.”

Noma needs to make money in order to survive, and as CEO this is one of Peter Kreiner’s main responsibilities. Being the CEO he of course knows exactly how to improve their poor operating margin. “We could start by putting some more tables in the restaurant, […] remove some of the most complicated dishes, then we could fire half of the chefs and have double seating”. By implementing these measures he reckons that they could increase their revenue by 300-400% per year. This however would compromise their overall goal, which is why they have resisted making these changes. Since Peter Kreiner entered Noma, they have even shut down the otherwise very profitable banquet room. It was deemed to divert too much focus away from the main restaurant.

When further questioned on Noma’s strategy Peter Kreiner emphasizes progress as a key strategic focus. “We want progress, both on the plate and around us.” Progress is in no way unrelated to their overall goal of perfection: it is a necessity for achieving it. One of the measures they have implemented to achieve constant progress is daily evaluations. They want to learn from their successes as well as their failures. The events of the day therefore are evaluated each night after all the guests have left the restaurant, in order to learn from their experiences and make sure that each day is a step in the right direction. Evaluations, however, are of no use if you cannot act on issues arising from them. Here Noma’s relatively small size is a major advantage. The process from thought to action is extremely short. As Peter Kreiner puts it: “If we decide to do something, we do it.” He is aware that some might not thrive in an environment like that, but for him it is perfect. It creates a dynamic culture, which allows continuous progress and development.

And Noma is constantly developing. The key issue for Peter Kreiner is that they do so at their own pace, and that they are able to choose when and how to develop. At the time of this interview they are at the beginning phases of a complete architectural redesign of the restaurant. Peter Kreiner emphasizes that this is not due to external pressure but “more because we goddamn need to.” By constantly being ahead of their critics they ensure that the new initiatives they engage in do not compromise the overall goal. Steering clear of external criticism is therefore not only a matter of protecting their brand, it is also a measure of their uncompromising focus on reaching perfection by avoiding any unnecessary disturbance or obstacles.

One of the recurring themes during the interview is Noma’s focus on becoming the best rather than being the best. Many outside of Noma would probably argue that being named the best restaurant in the world for three consecutive years would make it a matter of being the best instead of becoming, but as should be obvious by now, this is not the case for Peter Kreiner and Noma. Rather it is a continuous progress towards realizing the original idea behind the project.

Peter Kreiner in the 'staff room' - photo by Nima Baharlooie

Peter Kreiner in the ‘staff room’ – photo by Nima Baharlooie

An inspirational project in the making

A key to understanding the Noma project is that it originated from Claus Meyers’ aspirations. He was inspired to create unique food with local Nordic ingredients while encouraging the Danes to embrace the ingredients from their own backyards. To put it simply, the ambition was to make a difference within the Danish food culture, and this led to founding Noma as well as other initiatives. It took inspiration to launch Noma, and today it produces inspiration. It is inspiration in the making.

Peter Kreiner is aware of the inspirational aspects. He explains that Noma is more than just fine dining. One specific way Noma carries an inspirational banner is by pushing creativity among its employees through what they call the Saturday Night Project. Every Saturday night, after the guests have left the restaurant, the chefs are offered the opportunity to present something creative to each other that they have been working on lately. It could be a dish with a personal touch, ideas on how to combine ingredients, or something else, as long as the chefs create something new. Peter Kreiner explains that “many talented chefs are not skilled in creating their own dishes, and some have never even tried to do so, and this is something that we want to change.” As such, Noma is not just about exploring and creating food, but also about continuous learning. By encouraging development and inspiration, the aim of the Saturday Night Project is to make the chefs into more capable chefs who eventually find their own signature. In this way, every Saturday night is part of the inspiring environment in Noma.

But being creative and coming up with ideas is a challenge. And Peter Kreiner has his own little formula on how to face a challenge: “If you know you have a challenge, and you try to attack it from every possible angle, then sooner or later you will get to a solution – it’s all about willingness.” Peter Kreiner explains that Noma looks for this kind of willingness in their employees. Whoever works at Noma should aspire to achieve something great and be willing to go the extra mile to achieve it. In other words, like most other organizations, Noma looks for passionate and dedicated employees. But as the Saturday Night Project indicates, hiring passionate and dedicated employees is not enough. To foster passion and dedication through and through requires an environment that will enable the organization and its employees to move forward. This is why inspiration is important. Inspiration produces a determination towards something better. Noma is not leading when it comes to salaries, Peter Kreiner openly admits, however, we find that Noma does lead when it comes to inspiration. Besides humbleness, inspiration is also what enables Noma to execute on par with other elite restaurants.

What fascinates us about Noma is not only that it is among the elite, but also that inspiration plays a crucial part in the Noma project. We have to ask what other organizations could learn from Noma? Peter Kreiner does not expect everyone to be among the elite, but he believes that it is crucial to foster the right circumstances for those who aspire to. “Setting a bar and then tell people that they can’t rise above it is not inspiring”, Peter Kreiner says. He continues to explain that everyone can learn from others, but the important thing is to get inspired to create something unique. As an example, Peter Kreiner mentions that Noma has been inspired by el Bulli, The Fat Duck, among others, not regarding gastronomy but on how to run a successful business. In the end what really matters for Peter Kreiner and his employees is to execute and fulfill the Noma project. Just like the chefs gets inspired to eventually find their own signature and create their own unique food, Noma is a constant movement towards fulfilling the original inspiration and idea behind the project. At the end of the day, this is what defines an inspiring organization – it strives towards its own goal.

What we learned from Peter Kreiner is that following a given recipe will at most reproduce what has already been done; but setting your own goals and reaching them might lead to something unique. Yet, Peter Kreiner is a realist. He understands that reaching your own goals is a long haul and cutting corners is not an option. It requires humbleness, willingness to learn and continuous progress towards your strategic goal.

About The Author

Kasper Worm-Petersen
Managing Director

Kasper is Managing Director and co-founder of Grasp. He is passionate about education and the intersection between the humanities and business. He is currently finishing his MSc in Philosophy and Business Administration from Copenhagen Business School and is a Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum.

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