By Meredith Carey. Photos: Getty.
Gambian immigrant Ali Sonko has spent the last 14 years cleaning fried moss, bone marrow, and various forms of foam off the plates of Noma diners. That is, if there's any of the minimalistic food left at the end of a meal. But just as René Redzepi's two-Michelin-star Copenhagen hot spot closes its original location, a new door opens for Sonko. The 62-year-old dishwasher is now co-owner of the new iteration of Noma.
In a Facebook post on Monday, Redzepi shared that Sonko and Noma's two restaurant managers now each own a 10 percent stake in the company. “I feel a special connection to Ali because my own father is called Ali and was a dishwasher for most of his life,” Redzepi told The New York Times. “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.”
Sonko immigrated to Denmark from the West African country of the Gambia in the 1980s after falling in love with a Danish woman (now mother to their 12 children) while on vacation. After working as a fishmonger, butcher, and door factory employee, he took an open position at the restaurant. He first made headlines seven years ago, when visa complications prevented him from traveling to London with the Noma team to pick up their first of four World's Best Restaurant awards. To support their colleague, the team wore T-shirts with Sonko's face on it to the award's gala. Two years later, Sonko joined the rest of the staff to celebrate their second World's Best win. Once Noma re-opens its doors in a new Copenhagen location, Sonko will take on a few new responsibilities, like serving as a host alongside the other partners, but told the Times he still hopes to spend at least half of his time behind the sink, washing dishes.
“I cannot describe how happy I am to work here,” Sonko told the Danish website BT in 2012. “These are the best people to work with and I am good friends with everyone. They show enormous respect towards me and no matter what I say or ask them, they are there for me.”
The dishwasher's promotion comes at an inflection point for Redzepi's Nordic minimalist creation. The restaurant plans to open its new Copenhagen iteration as an urban farm in December. And Redzepi and his culinary team are still on the road, organizing sold-out pop-up after sold-out pop-up, the current iteration of which is in Tulum. Sonko's move to co-ownership might not be the last surprise for the Noma staff. "This is only the beginning, as we plan to surprise several more of our staff with a piece of the walls that they have chosen to work so hard within," Redzepi wrote on Facebook.
This story originally appeared on Conde Nast Traveler.
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