Interview: Noma’s COO Is Driven by More Than Financial Gains

On Monday, September 24, Skift Table hosted its first ever Skift Restaurants Forum.

The day-long event featured interviews with restaurateurs, technology leaders, operators, and chefs, as well as an audience of over 300 people from across the restaurant industry.

Don’t mistake Noma chief operating officer Ben Liebmann’s corporate background for someone who’s business decisions are driven solely by financial impact. Ever since joining Noma nearly three years ago, Liebmann has been approaching his position in ways that you don’t often hear from the person in charge of restaurant operations: for example, when deciding whether Rosio Sanchez, one of many talented chefs to be backed by Noma, should move into international expansion, Liebmann explained that his first question isn’t, ‘What market would best support a Rosio Sanchez taqueria?’ but rather, ‘Where does Sanchez want to travel?’

When Liebmann and Noma’s head chef and co-owner René Redzepi were deciding to invest in Richard Hart, a former Tartine baker who wanted to move to Copenhagen and open his own place, they knew it was a good decision not based on Hart’s business plan, but rather his fundamental character as a person. Once that was established, the rest flowed easily. As Liebmann put it, when Hart sent the email asking Noma to invest in his business, “the email from René was just one line that said, ‘I guess we’re getting into the baking business.'”

And the financial gains, while not the first thing discussed, are still apparent: Hart’s bakery opened this week to a customer line stretching around several blocks, and probably won’t be dying down anytime soon.

Liebmann was interviewed by Jason Clampet, Skift Table General Manager and Skift co-founder.

Read More Recaps and Interview Transcripts From Skift Restaurants Forum

Skift Table: Ben, I want to thank you for joining us for the second time, even though this is only our first event.

Ben Liebmann: Thank you for having me back, especially after that jacket.

Skift Table: Ben joined us in our first event in London, a year and a half ago. It’s great to have you back. I don’t know if people have heard, there’s a restaurant called Noma in Copenhagen that reopened this year after taking some time off. I don’t know if you’re responsible for sucking up the entire travel budget of every major U.S. publication or not, but we’ll start with a softball: get us up to speed with what Noma is right now, 2018.

Liebmann: Look, we’re not that different from what we were in February 2017 when we closed in our last location, but we’ve moved and we’ve evolved. I think René was entering the 14th year of Noma, and I think if he was here, in fact, I think he talked to Rafat about it last year, about that the team’s creativity was only going up in increments, and that the idea to move was as much about the next ten years. It was about shaking the system up and forcing them to think about creativity and craftsmanship in completely different ways.

And then layered on top of that, there had been these three pop-ups that we had done, or two at that point, when we closed. We did Mexico last year, which was driven by his fear that we would move to another location and then just go back into doing what we’d always done. Those pop-ups, those residencies, are ultimately these extraordinary immersive research trips, for us to learn from other cultures and other communities, and become better at what we do.

We reopened in February 2018. We’re closed at the moment. Previously Noma’s menu, which is a tasting menu, followed that traditional paradigm of 13-14 courses, starting with snacks, working up towards the main, primary dishes, then something sweet, tea and coffee, and that was the end of it. René wanted to completely change that paradigm as well.

Now our year is divided into three distinct seasons, and each season has a distinct menu. We opened with winter, which is an ocean-based seafood menu, where every course contains something from the ocean. We just completed our second season, which was summer, which was a complete celebration of the plant kingdom. There was no meat, no seafood of any kind. On the 9th of October we will reopen for our third and final season of the year, which is our fall menu, a game and foraging-based menu.

Skift Table: It’s kind of like when Springsteen did his tour and would do one album from start to finish. But he also sprinkled some greatest hits in at the end of the set, like—

Liebmann: We’re not sprinkling the greatest hits. Never want to set a low bar or a low challenge. So as to say, each season has a new menu and next year those menus will not be repeated again. So when we open our fall menu on the 9th of October, give or take a week or so, the R&D team will then start developing the first seafood menu of 2019. And that will be a completely new menu all over again.

The team is, in effect, creating three new, completely original menus every year. Which makes me tired just thinking about it.

Skift Table: Yeah, I can imagine. So, you’ve had two seasons of that and I know you’re back and everybody of course wants to book Noma. How does that make you think differently about reservations and getting people in, or is reservations not a concern anymore, cause it’s gonna be sold out anyway?

Liebmann: The one thing that’s changed between, if we were to call it the old Noma, and where we are today, was we now do pre-payments, so everything is prepaid in advance. And that’s something that we started doing with the Australian popup. It was just the dynamic of what it was that we were trying to do, and the way that we were trying to do it meant that we needed that cashflow to fund those popups, those residencies.

They’re not small tasks, for those who have ever followed what we do when we do those things. So that’s kind of carried on now. But really that’s been the only shift in the reservation model. We did the seafood menu last Tuesday, I think we reopened it, or we opened it. We open reservations three times a year.

We used to open reservations four times a year, well actually 12 times a year, we would open it three months ahead, one month at a time. Now we’re really just opening three times a year, three distinct seasons.

Ben Liebmann, the Chief Operating Officer of noma, speaking at Skift Restaurants Forum in New York City on September 24, 2018. Skift Table / Dan Loh

Skift Table: Why does any restaurant or restaurant group need a COO, one kind of Noma specific and then also generally? Is it a GM with a better title and better hours? What does it mean to the core of your business and how you operate and think about things?

Liebmann: Look, I don’t know if every restaurant does. I’m fortunate that this one decided that they wanted that. And the role has evolved for me. I’m coming up on three years with the team now. When I joined I was moving back from London to Australia, and was leaving my career in television. For those who are looking at me now, behind the scenes, not on camera. I was leaving-

Skift Table: You look pretty good.

Liebmann: Thank you. Thanks for radio. I was leaving that and René was thinking, they were about to open the popup in Tokyo and it was, “Let’s do another one in Australia, and let’s just see what happens.” And that’s where it began. At the time, René and some of the team had just decided to start a business with Rosio Sanchez, one of the former chefs.

And that was really the business at that point in time. There was Noma, this restaurant of which there will only ever be one, that had just started its first international popup, was dreaming of its second, and then we had a partnership with a former chef opening a taqueria in a food market in Copenhagen. Ever since that time I think our ambition to back our people has grown, which has just meant perhaps there is more of a need for some commercial rigor and some strategic thinking to support that underpinning of creativity and craft. Which has been and will always be the center of what we do.

I think, if it was commercial and strategic first, I wouldn’t be here. That’s not what motivates me to be a part of René’s team. But we would look like a very different organization.

Skift Table: You mentioned Rosio, I’m sure you have talent just flooding through the kitchens all the time. How do you identify talent first of all, and then think about, “Okay, how do we help these people go and do something else?” Cause, as you’ve said, there’s only gonna be one Noma, despite Vegas wants one, Miami wants one, Moscow wants one. But identifying this talent almost this organic way to spread Noma, how do you pick that out of the kitchen or identify it even outside of the restaurant?

Liebmann: Yeah, I mean René would be the better person to talk about why certain people have succeeded in the Noma kitchen, and why he has wanted to, as he’ll often say, “Grow old with people” and have these people around him. It is a focus on creativity, it is a focus on craft, but he will also say it’s that innate drive. And some people have it, and some people don’t.

All of the people that we’ve been fortunate enough to work with, whether it be Rosio, Richard Hart, Thomas Frebel, they tick all of those boxes. They are, in our minds, the most creative of their field, they hardest working of their field, and at the end of the day, they’re good people.

How do we support them? It depends, there’s no one rule. There are some circumstances where we have provided capital, we have provided sweat equity. Some of them where the association to René and Noma is perhaps more of it than others. And we’ll take a position in those businesses that reflects that. And then there are others where we’re getting into business with people who have access to potentially other sources of capital and we’re taking a smaller role in the background.

The underpinning in all of it is talent, it’s people. There’s not one commercial or strategic rule or kind of matrix that we have to tick every box before we’ll do it. We do fundamentally start with, who are these people? What is their vision for their project? And they are their projects. How can we genuinely add value? Rather than just kind of clipping the ticket as it goes through. And how do we help them realize what is their dream, their vision for their business?

Skift Table: You mentioned when we talked the other day, you wanted, “Not the best restaurant in the world, but the best restaurant to work at.” That could sound like a platitude. How do you actually make it something that’s not? How do you make it real?

Liebmann: That’s something that René will talk about daily within Noma, that that’s what motivates him now. Maybe that’s partly because he has achieved some of those accolades of being that best restaurant. He’s not necessarily motivated by those things on a daily basis now, he’s motivated to support the people that are around him, to create a positive change.

How is that happening? At a business level, we are constantly changing and tweaking the way that we do business. Whether it be doing a luncheon at dinner service, or doing a dinner with a turn. Whether we’re doing five days a week or four days a week. You know, what he’s trying to do is give his people a quality of life and and experience that perhaps he wasn’t, and some of the people of his generation weren’t afforded.

Even the popups, again, I think if they were driven purely by financial metrics, we would be doing them very differently. When we do them-

Skift Table: Because you take everybody.

Liebmann: We do take everybody. From the dishwasher to René, and everybody in between, plus their families.

Skift Table: That’s a terrible idea, right?

Liebmann: Which hat am I wearing? These are immersive research experiences, but they are probably also the most expensive team building exercises in the world. But what they’ve done is they’ve created a bond, and a trust amongst the team that just drives people to be the best that they can be. I think creating that best working environment for himself and his team.

Again, how can you say to somebody, “Well, I’m gonna leave my home for 12 weeks, and I’m taking my wife and my children, but you can’t. You need to leave your girlfriend, or you need to leave your family behind.”

Skift Table: And then we’re gonna outsource your job to somebody else-

Liebmann: Correct, so how could we do that? How could we be genuine about what we say, about who we want to be as an organization, and the way that we want to support our people, if we weren’t prepared to take everybody and their families with us?

Skift Table: You mentioned talking about Richard, who’s opening the bakery on Sunday, and the kind of work-life balance thing. Richard came to you guys and said, “I don’t wanna wake up at 3:00 AM and be a baker.” That’s such a traditional role for bakers to be sleep deprived. How do you make a bakery work when you wake up at a decent hour?

Liebmann: A little bit of technology, but not too much. Richard had gotten to know René over the years through his time with Tartine, he was the head baker at Tartine for five years. I remember getting an email from René maybe three years ago, I was still in Sydney. It was a forward of a note that Richard had sent him that was saying, “Look, I’ve decided I’m gonna leave Tartine, it’s my opportunity to create something in my likeness. I don’t want do it in the U.S. I’ve got four boys and I want to raise them somewhere else. And if there was an opportunity to talk to you guys about perhaps lending your support to what it is that I want to do, I’d love to have that conversation.”

The email from René was just one line that said, “I guess we’re getting into the baking business.” And that was because of his belief in Richard. Richard is one of the most extraordinary people in the world, and I’d say that first, above his skills as probably being one of the best bakers in the world. He’s an amazing person. He is a leader in the truest sense. Not only does he not want to wake up at 3:00 AM in the morning and go into a dark bakery to bake, he wants to be there to send his kids off to school, and likewise, he can’t look at his team and say, “But I expect you to be there at 2:00.”

So we are using some level of technology to ferment the bread and arrest it at the right point in time so that they can turn up at 7:00. But whereas, many other commercial bakeries are now focusing on central bakeries or commissaries, baking at kind of more of a industrial scale. Richard is baking by hand throughout the day, so that may mean when you turn up at 7:00, what you’re looking for won’t be there, but it’ll be there in twenty minutes time. Because they are baking everything by hand and throughout the day. I think that’s changing the expectations of the consumer.

We will focus on the consumer, in the sense of, Richard wants to deliver them the best quality bread and the best quality cakes, but he wants to do it in a way that he thinks gives that customer the best quality, the best quality experience, but also, having a happy team. It is perhaps cliché, but if you have a happy team, you will have the best product in the world.

Noma chief operating officer Ben Liebmann speaking at Skift Restaurants Forum in New York. Skift Table / Dan Loh

Skift Table: You’re going into year two now with your partnership with Rosio, or year three?

Liebmann: It’s actually coming into year three.

Skift Table: Thinking of her as your first experiment of doing this, what have you learned in the first couple years with her two places or three places that are open?

Liebmann: She has two taquerias. She has her restaurant which opened in November last year, and we’re in the process of looking at what the next one might look like. She’s extraordinary to work with. Again, one of the most creative, one of the most talented people that’s kind of come through the ranks. And very clear on what it was that she wanted to do. If we could bottle that combination of that clear distinct vision of what it is that she wanted — what she wanted to do was to cook the food of her heritage. She was born in Chicago to two Mexican immigrants, but to bring that authentic heritage of Mexico to northern Europe, and to do it in her way, with her take, using local ingredients, where the most authentic ingredients couldn’t be sourced. If we could bottle up that kind of clear vision, that determination, that focus on quality, we would be an amazing business.

Skift Table: How’s it changed how you think about doing investments and this idea of Noma as an incubator in developing talent?

Liebmann: I don’t think it has changed. That process started before I joined. Rosio had opened her first taqueria before I joined the business. I just think they’re getting much clearer on identifying those people, and that it really is those three areas: having a clear sense of purpose is an amazing thing for a young chef to have, having the talent to back it up, having the drive to back it up. If you can combine those things, that’s where you’ve got a really sweet combination, and they’re the people that we want to ultimately support and be in business with.

Skift Table: Is she opening a place in New York soon? Because I liked when she was at Shake Shack.

Liebmann: She’s doing a popup here actually, yeah she is. It’s sold out, so it doesn’t count as a plug. She’s part of the Seaport Series in October. So she is doing something here. Would she open something here? We are looking at international expansion with her. Where she wants to go, we will follow her. Copenhagen is ultimately where her home is, but also there’s the places that she wants to travel to. We’ll look at it through that lens before we look at it through the lens of where there is a market opportunity.

Skift Table: Right, but that tends to be kind of the backward way that a lot of places think about it. They’re like, “We need a steakhouse here, so let’s do Noma Steak.” Not to keep pushing on this, but how do you keep justifying the touchy-feely on the business side too? You’ve made it work, but a lot of people are not gonna-

Liebmann: We have so far.

Skift Table: Yeah, a lot of people aren’t gonna do that.

Liebmann: No they’re not. I often-

Skift Table: And did it cause you to change your way of thinking about business operations?

Liebmann: You mean, me personally? 100%. I’ve come from big corporate enterprises, whether it be in the music industry or the television industry, which are focused on scale for scale’s sake. And brand building, and brand exploitation, and all of those things, which were amazing experiences to be a part of at the time. But if I felt that we were veering into that direction, I probably wouldn’t hang around. Some may see it as touchy-feely, some may see it as complete commercial madness, in terms of the way that we focus on the things that we focus on, and being motivated by the things that we’re motivated by, but it makes a lot of sense. At least, it makes a lot of sense to us. Our view is that if you can back the right people, help them realize their dreams, and help them be as successful as they want to be, then perhaps money will come from it.

We were talking about the idea of the triple bottom line. Companies like Lendlease have that. I wouldn’t say we articulate it in such a formal or a corporate sense, but financial results are one of the metrics that we measure the success of who we are. The others are the impact on community but also the people around us. Just as to say, ensuring those products are the best that they can be.

Skift Table: Took a few questions from the crowd here. Any examples of front of the house talent development that you are proud of?

Liebmann: Again, I’ll talk about Noma as the example. We’ve had people like Lau Richter, who’s actually just now left to become the General Manager of Restaurant Barr, which is another restaurant that we’re involved in. James Spreadbury, who joined Noma five or six years ago and recently became the Restaurant Manager there. René will say, “a very large part of Noma’s success is its sense of hospitality.” Which is, I think, unique to who we are and the way that we do our business. And that has been driven by people like Lau, and by James, by Kat Bond and the talent that they have brought in and developed from the ground up.

We’re very fortunate, in that sense, to have them. They’ve been a huge part of what we do. I’ll often say to people, if you dine at Noma, the taste of the dish that you had will be forgotten. That’s a given, the DNA and the biology of who we are, that you’ll forget the taste of a dish within a couple of days, if not a couple of weeks. A year or two later you may remember a couple of the dishes — unless you’ve got Instagram with you — but you’ll remember a couple of the dishes that you had. What you will never forget is that sense of hospitality at Noma, and that’s driven by that front of house team.

Also, that model that René introduced a couple of years ago, which was bringing chefs from being behind closed doors and being in the basement, into being front and center. Those chefs bringing the food that they have created in the kitchen, bringing it to you, and explaining it, and creating that bond between the kitchen and the guest.

Skift Table: Which is, I imagine, a challenge. Just that they’re used to being in the kitchen and the interaction there and having to almost change hats halfway through.

Liebmann: Yeah, but I think at the same time, it’s a sense of pride. It’s something for a chef who has worked extremely hard either to create something or to be a part of developing it and producing it, night after night. To be able to bring it to a guest, to explain it to them, to see the experience of that guest as they taste it, gives something back to the kitchen in the same way it gives to the guest as well.

Skift Table: The chef of Saison in San Francisco sued employees, claiming they stole the restaurant’s trade secrets. Is that influence or theft?

Liebmann: I can’t really comment on what another chef has done or doesn’t do with his employees. The way that we view, I guess, the intellectual property of the restaurant, it is purely collaborative. There is a team of 12 people in the R&D kitchen, there are 60 people in the kitchen, in terms of chefs at various levels, chefs and cooks, who have helped influence those dishes. We don’t view it up here in the traditional sense, certainly not in the way that I would have in my previous corporate life.

I heard a story last week about certain chefs who will withhold ingredients from their recipes for their cookbooks. So that they can’t actually be perfected at home. For us, that’s complete madness. Be confident in yourself, know that you’re creating more than just your recipe, you’re creating an experience, and share it. Richard’s the perfect example of that. Richard wants people to come into the bakery, he wants to give them his sourdough starter, he wants to teach them how to be a better baker at home. If that means they buy a little less bread, then so be it, but if it builds a connection with him and his team, then that’s ultimately what it’s about.

Skift Table: That’s great. Well, thanks for being here today, Ben.

Liebmann: Thank you for having me again.

Read More Recaps and Interview Transcripts From Skift Restaurants Forum

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