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Tales from Tulum | Hugh Allen

On November 2016, René Redzepi dropped the news that Tulum in Mexico’s Quintana Roo would be the location for his third ever Noma pop-up. The $600 tickets sold out in a matter of three hours when they went on sale.
We were lucky to score a ticket and experience the unique immersive pop-up not just from a diner’s perspective, but also behind the scenes where the REAL magic happens – in the kitchen.
We are beyond thrilled to take you behind the scenes in our “Tales from Tulum” series, as we interview a few of the Noma Chefs and team members that made Noma Tulum happen.
Before working at Noma in Copenhagen, Chef Hugh Allen worked as Chef de Partie at Vue de Monde in Melbourne Australia where he was awarded Gault & Millau‘s “Potentialist of the Year” presented by American Express in 2015. Now the Australian native is one of the youngest chefs in the Noma kitchen.
He tells us about his journey to Copenhagen, his experience with the Noma Tulum pop-up, and what is next for him.

The past few years have been big for you, first winning the prestigious Gault and Millau “Potentialist of the Year” award in Australia, then going to work at Noma. How did it feel to win that award for your work at Vue de Monde?

I felt pretty excited about it at the time. Gault & Millau was in its first couple of years in Australia back then and to be honest I didn’t know a huge amount about them until being nominated.
After winning, I was given the opportunity to travel through France and stage at a couple of 3 Michelin-starred restaurants (Le Pre-Catalan and Le Cinq). It was amazing to see and work with probably the best produce I’ve gotten to work with – especially with the fruits and veggies in France being outstanding.

|   Noma Tulum produce & ingredients

Tell us about the first day you arrived in Tulum.

Flying over from Copenhagen to Mexico was pretty unique. The pop-up had been in the planning process for months and months, so for the team to be altogether and flying to what at the time was a unknown place for most of us was a great feeling. When we arrived some of the FOH team meet us at the airport with frozen mojitos on hand. We had just left freezing Copenhagen, but in Tulum it was hot, humid and the sun was shining! We all got on a shuttle which took us to our hotels. Our hotels to say the least were far better than any of us I think expected; we had pools and some of us had rooftops with jacuzzis! The best part was that it was our home for the next three months.

How was it being surrounded by chefs of the calibre that were part of the team?

I’ve been lucky to work at Noma for nearly two years now. I have to say though, the calibre of our Mexican interns was super high, they were such a positive bunch of young cooks and brought a great atmosphere to the team. Chef Rene often said that if it were possible he would have taken them all back home with us! Unfortunately it’s not possible, but Noma did give two scholarships out for a couple of our Mexican interns who will be joining us this coming summer! Honestly, it’s always such a pleasure to work and learn from my fellow friends and colleagues every day.

|    Chef Hugh Allen prepping starfruit

What was your cooking experience prior to first working for NOMA, and how did you end up there?

I started my apprenticeship when I was 15 at a steak restaurant in Melbourne called  Rockpool Bar & Grill. The food there funny enough was also all cooked over wood fire; the food was simple and delicious with no compromise with the quality of ingredients. I think Rockpool Bar & Grill was an amazing place to start learning the fundamentals of cooking. After a couple years there I staged at Vue De Monde. After a week at Vue De Monde the chef at the time, Cory Cambell, offered me a job and I spent nearly 3 amazing years there where I got to surround myself with really driven and talented cooks.
I really wanted to venture out overseas. Noma, still now but also then, was seen as the temple of modern kitchens and the most influential operating restaurant in the industry. Chef Cory, my chef at the time, was a Sous Chef at Noma years back and put me in touch with them. I got an answer that there were no jobs at the time, but I could come for a trial; and tickets were booked!
After my trial in Copenhagen, I was told there were still no jobs, but that if I’d like to join them in their Noma Australia pop-up I could. I Spent a few weeks with them back home in Australia, which for me being from there was a great opportunity to see some of the indigenous foods that I’d never worked with before. After that, I spent some months in France travelling and staging around before coming back to Copenhagen to start full-time with the Noma team!
Noma is a different beast compared to what I was used to – to say the least. It’s honestly so fucking crazy!

|    Noma Tulum used only all wood & charcoal fire when cooking

What was the most challenging thing you experienced while working the Tulum pop-up?

100% the services, we did two sittings of guests starting at 17:30.
So, it would be a non-stop service for 5-6 hours, and it was so hot in the kitchen especially if you worked on a BBQ. We started having to buy electrolyte drinks because we would lose so much fluid.

|    Chef René Redzepi & the Noma Tulum team with Chef Thomas Keller

You had VIPs from all over the world. Was there anyone you were especially excited to be able to cook for?

For me and I’m sure for a lot of us, it was Thomas Keller. Chef Keller is one of the most influential Chefs ever, not with just his food, but also with his philosophies about kitchens and chefs. He is also one of Chef Rene’s culinary heroes, so it was a big one!

What was your favourite piece of equipment to work on?

BBQ, The kitchen at noma Tulum was purely charcoal and wood fire!
This brings many advantages of course with the flavor of the food being cooked over a wood fire or charcoal, but it also brought many challenges. For example: just to boil a pot of water, you would have to of light the grill 30-40 min beforehand. You can’t just turn it on as we would with our induction stoves in Copenhagen, everything took more time.

Would you say your experience made any specific impact on your approach to food going forward?

Yes, especially with the atmosphere of the restaurant. It was incredible sitting in the jungle having a meal; most guests took their shoes off and put their feet in the sand of the dining room floor.
Why does a restaurant need to have a roof? Why does a restaurant have to have a floor? Why does a kitchen have to have all this high-tech equipment? Noma Mexico had none of these, and it was probably the best restaurant I’ve ever seen.

What’s next for you?

Currently, we are getting ready for Noma 2.0 to open. So, my full time and attention are focused on that.

|    Chef Hugh Allen

Photography by Jaime Fritsch