Immigrant dishwasher becomes co-owner of famed Danish restaurant Noma

Ali Sonko, a Gambian migrant who got his start here as a dishwasher, has been promoted to part owner of Noma, making him a powerful symbol of immigrant success in a country increasingly hospitable to them. — Picture by Laerke Posselt/The New York Times
Ali Sonko, a Gambian migrant who got his start here as a dishwasher, has been promoted to part owner of Noma, making him a powerful symbol of immigrant success in a country increasingly hospitable to them. — Picture by Laerke Posselt/The New York Times

COPENHAGEN, March 3 — After working as a farmer in Gambia, Ali Sonko left for Copenhagen, where he eventually became a dishwasher at Noma, a Michelin-starred restaurant famed for experimental creations that have included, among other things, edible dirt.

This week, more than three decades after he first arrived in Denmark, Sonko, a sprightly 62-year-old with a wide smile and 12 children, was promoted to part owner of the restaurant, widely regarded as being among the world’s best. He instantly became a powerful symbol of immigrant success in a country that is increasingly seen as being inhospitable to immigrants.

After 14 years of cleaning the plates at Noma after meals that have included live shrimp, ants that taste like oranges, and sea coriander, Sonko will now take on added duties as host. The restaurant, which recently closed its original branch, will reopen in December in a new location, retooled as an urban farm.

Sonko says he plans to spend at least part of his time by the sink at the restaurant, which has won the top spot on the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list four times. The list is one of the most sought-after honors for restaurateurs.

“I am so happy,” Sonko said in an interview yesterday, referring to his promotion and making it clear he preferred washing dishes to talking about politics. When asked about immigration in Denmark, he said, “Everybody does their best.”

René Redzepi, 39, chef and co-owner of Noma, is celebrated as a leading light of New Nordic cuisine, a culinary movement defined by the foraging from nature. He said Sonko’s promotion had particular resonance for him as his own father, a Muslim Albanian who was born in the former Yugoslavia, had worked as a dishwasher after he came to Denmark in the 1970s.

“I feel a special connection to Ali because my own father is called Ali and was a dishwasher for most of his life,” he said in a phone interview from Tulum, Mexico, where he will be temporarily hosting a pop-up restaurant. “He has spent every hour of his life at that restaurant, works hard and hardly takes a day off. He is a great example of an immigrant done good.”

(Redzepi said Sonko and two managers received a total 10 per cent stake in the holding company that owns the Noma brand; Redzepi owns roughly 20 per cent, while the remainder is spread among four business partners.)

Sonko’s dishes-to-riches story began 34 years ago when he left his native Gambia after falling in love with a Danish woman while on vacation in Denmark. After moving there, he worked as a fishmonger and a butcher, and in a window and door factory. Redzepi said that Sonko spent all of his spare time with his children on his days off from the restaurant.

While he says he has enjoyed sampling Noma’s dishes, including ants and the edible dirt — actually made from malt, malt flour, hazelnut flower, sugar and lager — he prefers having African food when cooking at home. “I love peanut butter sauce with rice, " he said. He is building a small hotel back in Gambia that uses an old gas stove that came from Noma’s kitchen.

 

Ali takes down the sign

A post shared by Rene Redzepi (@reneredzepinoma) on

Several years ago when members of the restaurant staff travelled to London to receive an award and Sonko, a Gambian citizen, was unable to join them, the staff wore T-shirts emblazoned with his face.

Sonko’s ascent from immigrant dishwasher to restaurant owner — which has grabbed headlines around the world — comes at a time when Denmark has been immersed in a culture war over Danish identity amid a simmering anti-immigrant backlash fueled, in part, by the success of the far-right Danish People’s Party.

The latest flashpoint in a loud debate over immigration occurred this week when the country’s minister of integration, Inger Stojberg, lashed out at a middle-class family of Syrian refugees, whom she accused of abusing the Danish benefits system and called “greedy” in an opinion article in BT, a Danish newspaper.

Two years ago, the Danish government took out advertisements in the Lebanese news media that appeared calculated to discourage migrants from coming. It has also passed a law requiring newly arrived asylum seekers to hand over valuables, including jewelry and gold, to help pay for their stay in the country.

Redzepi said the country’s increasingly cold attitude toward immigrants sent the wrong message. “You can’t demand that an immigrant adapts and accepts the code and jungle laws of a place,” he said, “unless they also understand that they are welcome and wanted.” — The New York Times

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