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Deep Dive 29 Nov 2021 - 8 min read

How expat Ben Liebmann, $700m MasterChef licensing architect, ended up COO at the world’s best restaurant, tasked with scaling Noma through creativity, media; streaming platforms now coming back for seconds

By Paul McIntyre & Brendan Coyne
Noma Ben Liebmann Rene Redzepi

Ben Liebmann (left) René Redzepi: Selling pots and pans and rolling out restaurants around the world wasn't Noma's style. It's thinking bigger – aiming to create "the next iteration of food media". Pic: René Redzepi by Even Sung

The founder of Noma, the world’s best restaurant, hired the man behind the $700m MasterChef juggernaut – and hand-picked by Elizabeth Murdoch to run Shine360 – to scale his world renowned Copenhagen fine dining establishment and brand. But René Redzepi and Australian expat Ben Liebmann didn't want to take the same TV show, steak knife and pans approach as proven TV cooking formats, nor the path trodden by the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver. Instead scale would come through 'restrained creativity'. The number crunchers shook their heads. Liebmann delivered the pop-up sensation, Noma Sydney – which sold out 5,500 seats in three minutes. The team renegotiated the commercial contracts that underpin fine dining’s wafer thin margins, launched spin-off – but entirely different – restaurants with Noma’s top talent. And Noma is about to launch its first series via a global streaming platform, with a slate to follow. Just as it starts, Liebmann’s leaving, heading back to Sydney without a gig yet.

What you need to know:

  • Noma was recently named the world’s best restaurant for a fifth and final time (a rule change means it can’t win again).
  • Former Shine 360 global boss Ben Liebmann is bowing out at the top, the Noma COO returning to Sydney in the new year having grown the business via “creativity”, flipping the usual celebrity chef road to greatness and eschewing the MasterChef franchise model he turned into a $700m “juggernaut” for Elizabeth Murdoch’s former production group.
  • Noma’s recipe for success sounds extraordinarily similar to the values oft-espoused by advertising holdcos: “creativity, purpose and people,” says Liebmann. And genuine diversity of talent, which is now bearing fruit in a series of spin-off restaurants – but created with ex-staff and entirely separate from the Noma brand.
  • Next is a Noma-led series with a global streaming platform, set to announce within days. But it’s anything but your usual cooking show. Liebmann hopes it will usher in “the next iteration of food media … with purpose and impact at its core”.
  • But Liebmann will watch it from Australia. He’s returning to Sydney – without a gig lined up.

Noma Sydney went on sale at 9am. I was going into a meeting with Foxtel and texted the team in Copenhagen managing ticket sales to call me if there was a problem. Three minutes later I got a text that said ‘we’ve sold out’. We’d sold five and a half thousand tickets in three minutes. And that was that moment of realising not only the power of Noma, but really the power of food.

Ben Liebmann, COO, Noma

Ben Liebmann’s path to Chief Operating Officer at the world’s best restaurant was far from planned. A marketing exec with Warner and Vodafone, he then oversaw licensing at Fremantle before being handpicked by Elizabeth Murdoch to run Shine 360, first in Australia and then globally out of London, on the way building MasterChef into a $700m juggernaut.

But a “sliding doors moment” changed all that, with Liebman dropping a near two-decade career in marketing and media to join forces with Noma founder and genuine master chef René Redzepi, whose Copenhagen restaurant recently took the world’s best restaurant crown for a fifth – and final – time.

Seven years on – with Noma now on a major diversification trajectory and with a global streaming platform about to announce a major Noma-created series  – Liebmann’s returning to Australia, and he’s keeping us guessing on what’s next.

“That’s because I don’t know,” Liebmann tells Mi3. “It’s the first time in my career I’ve pulled the ripcord without a landing spot.”

But there may yet be a few more Noma collaborations in the offing.

"Sliding doors": From MasterChef to master chef, to Noma Sydney 

René Redzepi thought Liebmann had come to sell him something. Instead, the Noma mastermind ended up hiring him to run pretty much everything but the restaurant.

“It was a sliding doors moment to be honest. We connected on social media back in 2012, 2013 when I was entrenched with Shine in London. Six months later I was in Copenhagen with my family and he said come and say hello. We met in the test kitchen above the old Noma, talked about the intersection of our two worlds, where food was meeting media, and after about 15 minutes he said ‘So what do you want to sell me?’. I said ‘nothing’, because that was the truth. And I think it was my first realisation that everybody who comes through Noma’s doors is usually trying to pitch him something,” says Liebmann. “I hadn’t come with any agenda. I had literally just come as a fan of the restaurant and as a student of this kind of intersection of the creative and commercial worlds with a view to connect. And I think the purity behind it is what kind of created the foundation that led me here today.”

At that point, Liebmann had built MasterChef into a $700m “juggernaut, produced in 45 or 50 countries around the world and broadcast in over 100” with spinoffs across publishing, live events, digital products and platforms with massive partnership and sponsorship programmes raking in the cash for Shine.

“I was very content doing that, it was my first professional connection to the food world, seeing how powerful food was … I knew at that point it was becoming social cultural currency.”

But the Noma connection lay dormant until two years later, when Liebmann and his family had packed a shipping container and were returning to Sydney for life post-Shine.

As luck would have it, Noma was at that point doing the first of its pop-ups in Tokyo. Liebmann stopped in for a post-service drink with Redzepi.

“He said, ‘maybe we should do Sydney next, do you think that’s possible?’ And famous last words, thinking it was just going to be like television production or a live event, I said, ‘of course it’s possible.’ And that was my beginning of my time working with him. I was off the plane in Sydney, I think the first of February 2015, and a week later I was traveling to Margaret River to see possible locations for what would eventually be Barangaroo in Sydney.”

Noma Sydney went off, literally.

“We went on sale at 9am. I was going into a meeting with Foxtel and texted the team in Copenhagen managing ticket sales to call me if there was a problem. Three minutes later I got a text that said ‘we’ve sold out’. We’d sold five and a half thousand tickets in three minutes. And that was that moment of realising not only the power of Noma, but really the power of food,” says Liebmann. “Ever since then, I've increasingly seen that it is currency, whether the consumers in terms of what they buy and the restaurants they dine out in, the TV shows that they consume or from the brand side, viewing food as the vehicle with which to reach their audience and their customers.”

The pop-up opened on Australia day and closed at the end of March. “I think we, as a family, had just unpacked our shipping container of everything we brought back from London when René said, 'how do you feel about coming to Copenhagen?'” says Liebmann. “So I rang my very patient and understanding wife and said, ‘how about we repack that shipping container?’”

One of the key principles of Noma's success has been this idea of creativity with constraints; that when you put constraints upon creativity, it forces it to break through. And René's challenge to me was, 'how do we build a business that doesn't look like the traditional restaurant or hospitality group?'. And that was an extraordinary challenge. If he had said, 'just do what everybody else had done before', I probably wouldn't have said yes.

Ben Liebmann, COO, Noma

"The invitation was to help build Noma outside of the four walls of the restaurant”. At a basic level, says Liebmann, that was no different to building out TV products outside of the four walls of television. But Noma wanted to do it “in a way that hadn’t been done before”, eschewing scale from building restaurants around the world or celebrity chef TV shows a la Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Nobu.

"One of the key principles of Noma's success has been this idea of creativity with constraints; that when you put constraints upon creativity, it forces it to break through. And René's challenge to me was, 'how do we build a business that doesn't look like the traditional restaurant or hospitality group?'. And that was an extraordinary challenge. If he had said, 'just do what everybody else had done before', I probably wouldn't have said yes."

The obvious thing would have been to build more capacity. But if anything, Redzepi wanted fewer people in the restaurant “because that would allow us to focus more on the creative output of the kitchen of the R&D team and the test kitchen”.

The demand was such that Noma could have expanded by orders of magnitude and still left punters scrambling for reservations.

“When the restaurant first took that number one spot, it was truly transformational. A restaurant that served at the time 45 people twice a day was immediately sold out three to five months in advance, had a waitlist in the tens of thousands,” says Liebmann. “At that time, others would have said, ‘We're going to open other restaurants. We're going to open Noma in New York, London, Tokyo and we're going to scale it. But that’s just not what René wanted to do. He's driven by something very different. He likes being in his restaurant. He's not driven by traveling the world, shaking hands and kissing babies, he's driven by creativity and the experience of his guests.

“So they were the constraints: I don't want to expand the restaurant; I don't want to scale it internationally; I don't want to do the more traditional licensing program, including things that I had done with my team with brands like MasterChef; come up with something different.”

What we did was not necessarily reinventing the wheel – it was just building a better race car. So we structured our deals somewhat differently. We brought on board new partners, and we found a better way to package and develop our rights. Those commercial partnerships are what underpin many fine dining restaurants, because the margins of fine dining are very low single digits. So everything else that wraps around it is really what sustains it.

Ben Liebmann, COO, Noma

Creativity as growth engine: Building beyond Noma

Noma’s recipe for success sounds extraordinarily similar to the values oft-espoused by advertising holdcos: “creativity, purpose and people,” says Liebmann. Meanwhile, genuine diversity has also paid huge dividend, and is now allowing Noma to scale by helping staff launch their own restaurants as part of the group.

Liebmann says Noma’s talent is literally “the United Nations … there are three or four other Australians, from Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. We have people from pretty much every country around the world, and they come to Noma to be a part of something extraordinary. And what that has allowed René and the team to do is develop talent, but to also spot extraordinary talent.”

Over the last five years, that has led the group to back its talent to launch their own restaurant ventures, such as former pastry chef Rosio Sanchez’s four Mexican restaurants, cantinas and taquerias in Copenhagen.

“We decided we would take the limited capital that a fine dining restaurant would have, a lot of sweat equity, and some of the halo from the brand, and we would invest in some of our talent, help them realise what was their vision for hospitality. And we've done that three or four times. Each of those places, each of those talents has their own purpose and their own identity. Some of them have visions of creating ‘scalable restaurants’ around the world and possibly going into consumer products and possibly going into film and television. And what's right for them isn't necessarily right for Noma, and vice versa,” says Liebmann.

“So not wanting to sound too commercial about it, but we created with them a portfolio where each of them is nurtured to be the best that they can be and to realise whatever it is that they want to achieve,” he says.

“None of them are in the likeness of Noma. Each of them has their own place, from fast casual through to finer dining. But all of them are distinct, all of them are built on the shoulders of extraordinary talent. And that was one of the key ways that we went about starting to expand beyond what were the four walls of restaurant Noma.”

Meanwhile, Liebmann also got creative with Noma’s existing commercial arrangements, without which, he says, no top end restaurant would survive, given wafer thin margins (he reckons fine dining would give publishing's paltry margins a run for their money).

“What we did was not necessarily reinventing the wheel – it was just building a better race car. So we structured our deals somewhat differently. We brought on board new partners, and we found a better way to package and develop our rights,” he says. “Those commercial partnerships are what underpin many fine dining restaurants, because the margins of fine dining are very low single digits. So everything else that wraps around it is really what sustains and allows it to continue growing.”

We acknowledged that through the success of the restaurant, René had been given an extraordinary platform to elevate the stories of us [humans]. This idea that food is the through-line that connects communities and cultures around the world, that through food, you can explore any issue ... and that we would stand on the shoulders of giants – the TV formats and things like Ugly Delicious and Chef's Table and Parts Unknown – to create something that we hoped would be the next iteration of food media ... And now we have the beginnings of what Hollywood calls a slate.

Ben Liebmann, COO, Noma

Noma – the streaming empire

Liebmann says his Noma title, Chief Operations Officer, "is probably a misnomer, it's chief marketing officer, chief strategy officer, chief growth and revenue”… pretty much everything but the “extraordinary creativity” behind the dining experience. But he has leveraged significant media experience in Noma’s latest venture – a series days away from being announced by a global streaming platform.

“René and I started talking about media the first time we met, back in 2012, 2013. But we really started talking about it again in late 2018, and he'd been thinking about an idea of a story that he wanted to tell ever since that first time that I had met him – and now was the time to do it,” says Liebmann.

“René was not interested in doing a series about himself. He was not interested in doing a series about the restaurant – he wasn't even motivated to be on screen. What the two of us acknowledged was that through the success of the restaurant, he had been given an extraordinary platform to elevate the stories of us [humans].

“This idea that food is the through-line that connects communities and cultures around the world, that through food, you can explore any issue – the environment, sustainability, diversity, social justice, commerce, culture, history, and that we would stand on the shoulders of giants; the TV formats and things like Ugly Delicious and Chef's Table and Parts Unknown to create something that we hoped would be the next iteration of food media. And that would be food media with purpose and impact at its core, food media that would reconnect audiences to the food system and through the food system to the planet.”

Hence in early 2020, a partnership with Endeavor Content was inked. Within three months, Covid hit, with restaurants taking the hardest and earliest hits.

“That was a curveball but is actually gave us nine months to focus on what would become this first series. We have an extraordinary writer attached. We have an extraordinary Hollywood studio director attached. René will be the voice of the series, and we hope it will usher in that next generation of food programming,” says Liebmann. “And that was one of the challenges that René threw to me when I first joined at the beginning – whatever we do, let’s not do what has been done before. Let’s do things that push boundaries,” he adds. “And we have what Hollywood calls the beginning of a slate.”

The last 18 months gave us all pandemic resolutions, and mine was to possibly veer back towards the world that I'd come from, which was more brand, more media. I haven't decided if I'm going to start something. I haven't decided if I'm going to join somebody.

Ben Liebmann, COO, Noma

Liebmann’s next move?

Liebmann will watch the Noma series from Sydney, where he and his family will return early in the New Year.

“It’s bittersweet. This has been one hell of a ride," he says. "I've been a part of a team that has climbed Everest many times. From those pop-ups to the birthing of a media venture and everything in between, it's been a really extraordinary experience. But it's time. And I think the last 18 months gave us all pandemic resolutions, and mine was to possibly veer back towards the world that I'd come from, which was more brand, more media.”

That said, Liebmann thinks there will be one or two more collaborations with Noma and Redzepi to come.

“I haven't decided if I'm going to start something. I haven't decided if I'm going to join somebody. There's still some time to run here, and there are still some things that I want to do with the team before I close that chapter. But in the meantime, I'm just enjoying the conversations and really just getting that sense of what it is and with whom I want to do it next.”

He’ll not be short of suitors.

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