Meet Marc Blazer, talent collector, dream enabler and the man behind the Noma brand. He talks to Jeni Porter.
As chairman of Copenhagen's Noma, Marc Blazer can dine anywhere and receive VIP treatment.
It says a lot about Blazer's low-key style that on his second night ever in Sydney he went anonymously to Paddington wine bar 10 William St, sat up at the bar, and raved about its snow pea sprouts with smoked oil, chilli and garlic.
It was early February and Noma was nearing the end of a five-week stint at Tokyo's Mandarin Oriental. Blazer and chef and co-owner René Redzepi were already working on the next residency, so he made his first trip to Australia, visiting Sydney, Margaret River and Perth. Six months and many false starts later Redzepi announced he would relocate Noma to a new space in Sydney's Barangaroo precinct for 10 weeks and apply his acclaimed inventiveness to Australia's bountiful native produce.
Speaking in Copenhagen, Blazer, a Dutch-American who calls himself a "recovering banker", almost winces when he says that the costs of the exercise are so high Noma will most likely make no money from it.
"I'm nervous about this," he says." You don't bring 100 people halfway around the world with the aim of making money."
But taking Noma to Australia will extend the reach of one of the world's most highly rated restaurants, and function as a case study for an ambitious business model and, most importantly, he says, "make René and the team happy".
Blazer bought a controlling stake in Noma for an undisclosed amount in June 2013. He'd set up the New York-based Overture Investment Partners specifically to invest in talent-driven hospitality businesses and, as he says in banker speak, "build the brand equity". Noma and its charismatic founding chef were a perfect fit. The 12-year-old restaurant makes a slim profit margin, but Blazer believes there's huge potential to make money off the brand.
"Investing in restaurants is nobody's idea of a good idea, but it's what you can do around it," he says, likening it to the way luxury fashion houses use haute couture to set their identity. He has no desire to meddle in the way Noma is run; rather, "I view my job as giving life to René's dreams," he says. He also wants to make Redzepi rich. (Notwithstanding Noma's success, Redzepi has only recently bought his own home.)
Blazer's motives are hardly altruistic, but he's impassioned when he talks about how much celebrated chefs do for so little personal gain. "So much of the value that these guys generate is given away. Given away!" he says, citing books, events, and television shows that trade on chefs' fame. "They have not yet grasped the power of their brands."
Blazer's laid-back style belies his determination to be a disruptive force in the culinary world, compelling the "commercial guys on the good side of the deal" to share the booty. Starting with Redzepi, he wants to create a portfolio of talent - a kind of premier league of chefs - with Overture remaining behind the scenes, "being the dream enablers and focusing on making our talent very, very wealthy". Ergo, Blazer and his Overture investors.
Redzepi has never been motivated by making money, but Blazer's backing has given him more power to dictate his destiny by delivering him joint control of Noma. It also settled a deep rift with the other founding shareholder, Danish food entrepreneur Claus Meyer. In Blazer, Redzepi says, he has a true partner, "Somebody who actually wakes up in the morning and goes to work for the betterment of our restaurant without other vested interests, which is the first time I've had that in a partner and that's really helpful in my daily work."
Blazer had never been to Noma until he considered investing in it and fends off questions about his favourite dish. "I have a very unromantic view of this asset class," he says, adding, "I'm not a foodie per se." Nevertheless, hanging around Redzepi has rubbed off on him - he's even started posting food shots on Instagram.
After Australia, Redzepi will return his focus to Copenhagen where he has long dreamed of opening an unpretentious restaurant serving good food to a lot of people. "I don't have to paint the future for him; I just have to help him get there," says Blazer. Two years after investing in Noma he feels as though "we're just getting into gear for the next decade of Noma".