by Alice Florence Orr
CW: References and allusions to eating disorders
I don’t recall how I knew to meet him at ten to five on the corner of Nansensgade. It was one of the omissions that influences the shape of my memories more than what remains. I remember thinking it was an odd time of day, but men often schedule strange appointments when they have better things to do. They’re always fitting me around a lifestyle they aren’t willing to inconvenience just for my sake. I keep telling myself to become equally inflexible, to cease appearing so perpetually idle. On that day I was curious enough to agree, and so continued my pattern of arriving when called and leaving when asked. I avoid lingering too long. I can give myself that much credit, at least.
It is easy to ignore one glaring inconsistency when you pretend not to see the smaller ones, circling like pilot fish around a shark. He didn’t have my phone number. Not even my email address. How he contacted me, I cannot say. It was an anomaly that, even now, I leave only superficially examined.
I arrived five minutes early. A— was already waiting. I locked up my bike and joined him outside a pale façade. Two large windows emitted neon pink light.
“You look great,” he said. “Denmark suits you.”
“It’s all the fresh air.”
I asked him how he was doing, why he was in the city. He was wearing dark shades and blue jeans. You could tell he wasn’t Danish. He paused time enough for a drag of an absent cigarette.
“I’m swell. Just needed space to write. Deadlines. Yada yada. Fresh air, huh? European cars are too small to efficiently poison you. My old toys were bigger. I hear this city is supposed to be some sort of utopia.”
The corner of Nansengade turned out to be a ramen joint open for only a few services a day: lunch and dinner. He told me that we needed to get in before the rabble, that this was why we were there before the sun had fully set, but I wasn’t used to being outside of a crowd, habituated to the enveloping feel of a city street. When I turned, people had begun gathering behind us in small clusters. It was only Tuesday.
The place was Tokyo style, twenty-one seats. We were let in at exactly five o’clock and told to sit anywhere. I could tell the staff recognized him. They looked at me curiously, but only for a moment, after which I disappeared. The menu was a simple affair. A handful of ramen options and a couple of starters. He asked for the Shoyu and the hay-smoked hamachi. I, the edamame with freshly grated horseradish. I wondered what sort of person this made me. The sort of person able to order a side dish that cost 45kr. The sort of person who enjoyed the fresh version of a food that most people can only access from a jar. I wondered if it made me any sort of person, if food could define identity like that, the same way that lack of it seemed to starve me of personhood.
I was limited to the veggie ramen, so I asked for that.
He started telling me about the meal he’d had at Noma a few days ago.
“Find someone to take you,” A— said. “Hell, take yourself. Reservations are a bitch, what can I say? Stranger things have happened.”
He asked me if I had ever tried a cloudberry. His eyes were expansive, a plunge into water indistinguishable from the horizon. He said: “do you know what a cloudberry is?” When I shrugged, he smiled, confessing: “nope, me neither.”
They made ice cream with roasted kelp. I thought I was biting into a mussel, but it was actually dessert. A crazy, stinky sugar kelp tart. Fuck me. A bitesize powerhouse. It’s seafood season, in case you hadn’t guessed.
Eating at Noma is unpredictable, that’s how it’s billed, but every dish is familiar. Don’t ask me how that makes sense. A meal there is nostalgic, but for what? How can I be nostalgic for something I’ve never eaten before? Memory of a memory. I suppose it was like being back in France. I was a little kid again. Except they kept refilling my wine glass.
He paused, watching a waiter approach.
So I guess it really was like being a little kid in France again.
The waiter leaned over the counter and asked if we wanted plastic bibs. Apparently, we did. A— asked for their homemade chilli paste. I surmised that he was either a regular or had impeccable recollection. It’s a bittersweet thing, to remember with such clarity.
The waiter was young and wore a hat. He introduced himself to us as Kasper. Somehow he managed to make his hat look fundamental, as if all other servers were missing this edifice, a population divided by pre-hat and post-hat levels of consciousness. I imagined Kasper crawling out of Plato’s cave, cap in hand, mud encrusting the turn-ups of his slacks.
“Of course,” Kasper said, in reply to the chilli request. He told us that the paste was made with fermented Anaheim chillies, a statement I took to be significant and impressive, as was expected of me.
“May I bring you a few other small dishes for your enjoyment?”
A— said: “sure, but you have to watch this one.” He gestured towards me. “She could eat you out of a kitchen.”
Kasper looked at me for only the second time, seemingly reassessing whatever first impression he had formed. His face twitched with an expression that might be generously interpreted as a smile.
A— continued his story. He had eaten at Noma before, four years ago. They filmed it for television. But this time nobody had known he was coming. Nobody except someone named René and a few of the chefs. He slipped in and left with ease. Whether the surrealism of the experience could be attributed to Noma’s recent closure, rendering the restaurant nearly mythical, or because the menu had altered again, becoming a dégustation seemingly recovered from Atlantis itself, he could not say.
After a moment, a pause, occupied by a glancing inspection of the chilli paste just arrived, he said: “but to call the meal ‘unreal’ doesn’t cut it. It didn’t feel the same as when we’re filming, when everything feels stage-managed. Smile for the camera. Give us a bit of B roll. Having visual evidence of something, you’d think, would make it more real. Everyone staring, looking right through you. Roll camera. I’m always playing myself like a fucking actor. I’m James Dean, accelerating straight ahead in my Porche 550 Spyder. Straight for that goddamn sedan.”
I watched the chef lower baskets of noodles into a bubbling metal vat. I asked him if he felt like his whole life was a performance.
My favourite dish was the cured trout roe, he continued, ignoring my question. It was magnificent. In the shape of a starfish with these little bits of dehydrated plum. “Have you started eating meat yet? Or are you still living in denial of the pleasures of the flesh?” The roe was outstanding. Could’ve left the sea snail broth.
I felt mildly repulsed in a way I could only liken to watching a video of two people having sex in a way you’d never considered appealing. Sucking toes. In full view of the public. Repulsed, but quietly excited.
“What people don’t remember when they meet René,” he said, leaning in close, “is that he didn’t make all these innovations in cuisine just because he is half-Danish. He made them because he is also half-Macedonian. Art isn’t made by people on the inside. It’s not made by the fucks that fit in.”
The starters came. The edamame looked like someone had ejaculated feathers over it. The hamachi was pale and simple, three rolls of raw fish garnished with micro sea vegetables. It was the most Danish-looking Japanese he’d ever seen. We were brought the fried chicken, house kimchi, and a tiny sandwich that Kasper called a “pork tonkatsu sando”.
“Can you really stomach all those courses? You don’t ever feel too full to finish”
Scooping several edamame out of the bowl at once, he laughed. You talk like being a glutton is hard.
After chewing and audibly swallowing, his tone levelled. “Sure. It’s a hell of a lot of food. Even with the tiny portions, it’s rich. Especially if it's a meat-heavy selection. But if they’ve paced it correctly, it should be no problem. Just avoid eating anything made of potato. Unless it’s drenched in a sexy sauce. And only use bread to soak up juices.”
His eyes flicked towards me when he said “juices”. It was the isolated moment he’d said anything suggestive in my presence.
Retracting his look, he turned instead to the broth being ladled into bowls on the other side of the counter.
“Oh man,” he murmured. “The atmosphere, it’s like nothing else. All these people paying astronomical amounts of money to stuff themselves silly. Don’t tell anyone,” he whispered in a comical, affected way, “but on occasion, I’ve drunk too much and eaten too fast and thrown up in the little boy’s room halfway through a tasting menu. I’d never tell the chef. It would destroy the man. Turn him to the bottle.”
“Right,” I said. “Kind of like having an eating disorder.”
I paused to consider the difference between bingeing on trout roe and bingeing on supermarket doughnuts. I thought that it probably had something to do with money and turned away from the question. Not once in my life had I ever ‘stuffed myself silly’. Nothing ever tasted good enough. Most of the time, after a few mouthfuls, delicious things turned to sandpaper on my tongue.
The ramen arrived in deep bowls. As we ate, he gave me pointers on how to fully appreciate the dish. His fingers gripped the chopsticks. He raised the first bite, explaining that noodles were supposed to be eaten in small portions, lifting only a few strands at a time to minimise the inevitable splatter of opaque broth. It flew everywhere regardless, putting our bibs to use. Eating in this minimal way allowed one’s mouth to attend to the flavours, much like sipping only a small amount of wine onto the palate. The noodles, hand-cut and textural, were to be consumed quickly, finished off before one slurped the broth from the bowl.
I could taste the richness, the umami, dense and viscous. I’d heard about chefs accessing the ‘fifth flavour’ with various ingredients and methods: boiling down animal bones to liquefy the marrow; roasting tomatoes to produce a caramelised tang. In a pinch, the forgotten rinds of parmesan tossed in the bin could also be salvaged for a base, simmered slowly with garlic and offcuts.
Kasper did not return to our table, an attempt at nonchalance about as subtle as grating truffles on mac n’ cheese, but he glanced often in our direction, monitoring the progress of our meal and self-consciously adjusting his hat. I knew, without turning, that the people sitting at the window were watching too. I tried to mirror the ease of my companion. Pretended to be someone who often accompanied famous men to dinner on weekday nights.
I resigned from observing the activity around us and returned attention to my companion. He was unfocused, head turned downward towards the dregs of broth. His fingernails were bitten short, as were mine. Clothing impeccably pressed, his neat collar brushed against unshaven skin. Had it been two days? Three? I wished that my noticing these things meant that he belonged to me, if only a little, as though people could belong to others merely by being considered at close distance.
As we left, he hesitated beside the door. Even in the evening air, heavy and smelling a touch like the sea, he couldn’t release the expectation of a film crew. The setting of the scene.
He told me that he’d often emerge from a restaurant intoxicated, stuffed and swaying, ready to lurch into the nearest cab or locate his friends in an underground bar. But instead, he would be made to repeat the moment of his arrival, entering the restaurant or diner, shack or dive, over and over. Perpetually, until his real entrance had been not only emulated but surpassed, embellished with small talk and camera angles. It was a relief to simply leave and not dwell on how we got there. He lit a cigarette. I exhaled.
He leaned close to my ear and said that it was his time to leave. I nodded, unsure if he would even see my gesture. I’d thought often of him since we first met. The scene replayed in my mind, our conversation swirling like sediment in wine. Every so often, when another man offered me something in a low voice, I heard reverberations of him. His presence is worse whenever I refuse a taste of something fried, buttery, or laced with syrup. I try to embody him. A man who consumes everything and feels no fear.
No – I want more. He does not merely embrace life, but openly invites it. He had told me about his boyhood fantasies. Rather than wallow in dreams of adventure and seersucker suits, he had supplanted them, made them his life in a way that warranted documentation through images, rather than the other way around. These days, it seems easier to construct a cinematic existence, to hope that the poetic might become authentic by virtue of a generation’s determination to make it so. There had been many occasions, upon being offered a cigarette, or a bowl of pasta, when I would look up at another man and see A—’s eyes, hear his voice goad me: writing about life is great until you realise you’ve wasted your youth never having actually experienced the shit you’re fantasising about.
As I listened, I was sure the voice speaking was a memory. I was sure –
Sitting with him in the ramen bar was the sort of situation that would have been easy to release myself from, to simply ride home and eat a plate of steamed carrots and go to bed. But the version of me that excused herself from living was becoming tiresome. I was losing faith in her narrative.
What do you want? the city asked. I hesitated, no longer entirely sure. Instead of answering, I said goodbye and left the place, retracing steps back towards Nansensgade and my bicycle. I was quite alone.