Chef Paco Morales has a lot of ways of talking about his cooking. Many of them seem to involve some form of the word excellence. One involves Game of Thrones. My favorite way that he explains what he’s doing at his Michelin two-star restaurant, Noor, just outside Cordoba, Spain, is that he imagines that he’s the private chef for the And al-Rahman III, the 10th-century caliph of Al-Andalus, as Andalusia was then known.
There are a number of reasons this makes sense. During the more than 800 years that southern Spain was under Moorish rule, Cordoba—which in medieval times also, remarkably, embraced Christianity and Judaism—was the Rome of its time. There’s countless proof of this in the city’s literature, architecture and culture. (It home to four UNESCO sites, including its garden courtyards and its gigantic mosque-turned-cathedral.)
All of which is to say that when Morales began looking for inspiration in his hometown, he found plenty of it. In one way or another, much of that literature, architecture and culture would work its way into Noor. The name means “light” in Arabic, and it’s one of the most dazzling restaurants anywhere.
That starts with the presentation—not just the colors and arrangement of the food on the plate, but of the plates themselves. Every item on the 18-course tasting menu is served on its own specific piece, with its own particular cutlery. Actually, every dish in the restaurant’s five-year history has been. Lately it’s ceramics painted with swirling, black and white designs, and lightweight tableware inspired by the tiles of Andalusia, which are 3D-printed in-house. Unlike at too many fine dining restaurants, every piece is also functional—there’s no struggle to scoop something off a show-off plate that’s exactly wrong shape.
Everything plays into the Thousand and One Nights fantasy. Servers present each course in perfect synchronicity, often joined by the chefs. They practice this regularly.
It’s a cooking that’s not about feats of chemistry. The technique is obviously there, but it’s not what you notice—there’s not a spherified olive in sight. Rather, what you notice is the ideas, the new ways of working with ancient ingredients and the fierce commitment to his concept.
But ultimately, Morales is not just a cook for imagined royals. He’s a gastro-archaeologist, a chronicler of history but also an interpreter. He worked in his family’s restaurant after his eighth year of compulsory education, then went to culinary school and ended up in the kitchens of legends like Mugaritz and elBulli. Anyone who passes through elBulli, he says, learns a lot about creativity.
Along the way, Morales, who had been bored with school, became fascinated with history. It was like he woke up, he recalls. He went to the library. He poured over translations of key texts that provide an understanding of the food and cuisine of Al-Andalus. He worked with scientists and hired a historian, Rosa Tovar, as part of the opening team for Noor.
According to the beautiful book about the history of Noor (it’s a book-length topic), he was “dreaming of rediscovering an important part of Spain’s history in order to showcase it, although this does not mean foregoing the extremely contemporary filter that characterizes his cuisine: ‘We want to do something different and unique, with references to the present day,’ he [announced]. ‘Noor cuisine will have my style, my soul.’”
He more than succeeded with that goal. Each “season” of Noor has reflected a different century.
In the restaurant’s first year, 2016, that was the 10th-century Caliphate of Cordoba. In 2017, it was the 11th-century Taifa Kingdoms. In 2018, it was the 12th and 13th-century Almoravids and Almohads (other caliphates). It’s too complicated to explain all that history or exactly how it played out in each year’s menu (beyond the fact that tumultuous times sometimes lead to a culinary and creative flowering), but it’s worth noting that none of them had what are now staples of Spanish cuisine, such as tomato, potato, corn and carob.
Creativity thrived within his self-imposed limitations. Flavors, combinations and techniques may be new—“we re-imagine the past,” he says, “we don’t re-create it”—but everything is done with respect for the area and its history. “We cook time, we cook ideas, we cook concepts,” he says now. “We try to cook beauty.”
After a pause for a retrospective and a pandemic, 2021 was a important year. In September Moor moved into the 15h century—meaning ingredients that were brought back to Europe from the New World in that era. As someone who greatly enjoys a good tomato, I was excited for this development.
When a few journalists flew in from around the world to talk to Morales and try the new menu, some of my colleagues worried that the place would lose its edge—that Noor would stop being Noor if it was no longer defined by what it lacked and instead used the full range of flavors available to any restaurant in the world today.
As he explained to us at one of his favorite restaurants, La Cuchara de San Lorenzo, Noor is still very much Noor. He and his team are still cooking beauty. The cuisine still has his style and his soul.
In a 2018 documentary, Morales said, “For me, being a chef is serious business. It involves sacrifice, respect, work, value and a great deal of responsibility. We shouldn’t forget that cooking has to be a generous act.”
There’s absolutely a generosity in his cooking. He learned all these things about the history of his hometown, and now he’s sharing them with the world—and in the most visually remarkable way. Everything is prepared with care, and my word, the details!
It’s hard to pick the standouts from among the 18 courses—the roasted pepper with sardine in a velvet of its own spines with caviar? The polenta with pine nuts and saffron? The marinated shellfish in cucumber dressing with chickpea hummus, kefir snow and squid? The more omnivorous members of my group raved about the final savory dish, pigeon with dark chocolate. I did find great joy in the tomatoes, served with anchovies, pickled mandarin, monkfish in brine and tamarind.
Morales singles out the pistachio karim (Arabic cream) with smoked herring caviar, green apple and black bread as a particularly emblematic dish. “You couldn’t have that anywhere else,” he says of his latest incarnation of a dish that has been on the menu since the first season. “Thanks to our work on this,” he writes in the book, “I came to the realisation that, season after season, by analysing each ingredient, we learn so much more about each one of them.”