A culinary movement that is both ancient and modern has washed through the world's top kitchens.
No one saw this coming.
In the last five years, a new culinary movement has washed through the world’s top kitchens, flowing not from Spain, France or the Mediterranean, but from Copenhagen, Stockholm and points as far north as Lapland.
“I would never have imagined that my first major trip as a chef would be to Scandinavia,” said Jordan Kahn, the chef of Red Medicine in Beverly Hills, Calif., who is making his way to Copenhagen this week. Kahn, an alumnus of exalted kitchens like the French Laundry and WD-50, is making the pilgrimage to attend MAD FoodCamp, a public food festival and professional symposium that has attracted global food stars like David Chang, Andoni Aduriz and Michel Bras.
The style of cooking is most closely associated with FoodCamp’s host chef, Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen. It is sometimes called “new Nordic,” although he and some other chefs from the region prefer the broader label “authentic cuisine.” It is earthy and refined, ancient and modern, both playful and deeply serious. Instead of the new (techniques, stabilizers, ingredients), it emphasizes the old (drying, smoking, pickling, curing, smoking) with a larger goal of returning balance to the earth itself.
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Using rutabagas and whey; pine and juniper; and shells, hay, and twigs as its kitchen tools, it seeks to turn the culinary dial back toward the natural world.
“The huge wave of technical cooking has passed,” said Rosio Sanchez, a pastry chef at Noma, who grew up in Chicago and has worked in some of America’s most technologically advanced kitchens, like Alinea and WD-50. “I came here because I wanted to get more into the product.”
FoodCamp is the first large-scale public event to coalesce around the movement, which has received extensive financial support from Nordic tourism and business. (In an open letter in The Guardian on Aug. 14, Redzepi laid out the aims of the festival, and why he thinks governments and citizens must concern themselves with food.) These relatively robust European governments hope to attract some of the culinary tourism that Spain has enjoyed in the last decade, led by the pioneering chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli.
But the funeral meats for El Bulli, which closed permanently on July 31, were still warm when it became clear that the attention of many chefs had already strayed to the north.
Evidence of the Nordic invasion is everywhere, once diners know the signs: cellared vegetables, unripe fruit, conifers, buttermilk and whey; rocks, shells and twigs used as serving pieces; garden scraps like radish leaves, turnip tails and nasturtium pods whorled, piled and clustered on the plate as if by waves or wind. In the era of El Bulli, high-end plates looked tight, geometric, slicked-down; the new Nordic dishes have bed head, with artfully ruffled herbs and tufts of grass sticking out everywhere.
The movement already includes chefs in Helsinki and Stockholm, farmers in Sweden’s remote Scandinavian mountains and hunters in Lapland, where some of the most brilliant chefs in the world recently feasted on smoked reindeer, ash-roasted beets and bear-leg broth. Cook It Raw, an annual gathering of chefs in the wild, was devised by the Noma team in connection with the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit.
American chefs who were there, banking fires and foraging in the permafrost, say that the experience taught them that the challenges faced by Nordic chefs — of cooking seasonally but well, of seriously engaging with agriculture and history and of making age-old food delightful to modern palates — can be taken up by any chef anywhere.
“Right now this is a powerful paradigm, centered around one charismatic individual,” said Daniel Patterson, a chef from San Francisco who is a participant in Cook It Raw, which will be in Japan this fall. “But this is exactly where food should be going, in America and all over the world.”
Nordic chefs tend to agree, though with more measured enthusiasm.
“There have always been amazing restaurants in Scandinavia, but people outside didn’t know about it,” said Magnus Nilsson, a young Swede who cooked for three years at L’Astrance in Paris. He moved back to rural Sweden in 2008 to work at Faviken, a 24,000-acre estate in ski country where he now raises most of the ingredients for his kitchen. (Using local ingredients, even in the depths of winter, is one of the hallmarks of this cuisine.)
“We say goodbye to fresh ingredients on the first of October, and then we don’t see them again until April,” he said. People from the region have long been behind-the-scene powerhouses in top European kitchens, frequently winning prestigious competitions and, as in the case of Nilsson, helping French chefs earn their Michelin stars.
But until recently, the chefs agree, there was little interest from the public in transforming Nordic food into global haute cuisine. “The food culture in Scandinavia is very old, but the restaurant culture is very new,” said Mathias Dahlgren, a star chef in Sweden who has two restaurants in the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. Dahlgren grew up in Umea, where, he said, his favorite dinner was “basic home cooking, you know, like roasted moose with carrots and cabbage.”
To enjoy this cuisine, it is not necessary to eat moose, or even regional classics like dill, herring and salmon. Micah Phillips, a pastry chef who has worked as a bread baker and a carpenter, made stunningly fragrant Nordic desserts at the short-lived Compose restaurant in TriBeCa, using apples and oatmeal, perfumed with hay and pine. (He apprenticed last year at Noma.) But he also served an extraordinary lavender cream on lemon-perfumed shortbread.
To focus only on the ingredients of that region, chefs say, is missing the point.
Ryan Miller, the chef at Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York, who worked in the Nordic region last year, explained. “It’s not like I learned about some new Danish cheese and came back and put it on my menu,” he said. “I learned to respect organization and education and making food in the most natural way possible.”
The movement can be traced to 2004, when a dozen prominent chefs from around the region signed a Kitchen Manifesto agreeing to rededicate themselves to “purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics” in cooking.
No one then foresaw that it would lead to extreme innovations like Redzepi’s vintage carrot, left in the ground for two years and then roasted whole in goat butter; or Dahlgren’s sourdough-battered haddock, served on branches of juniper; or Nilsson’s dish of root vegetables, with a sauce of cream whisked with vinegar-fermented beer and a garnish of salted cod roe.
Nor would it have seemed possible that seven years later, some of the manifesto’s ideas would be wafting across restaurant tables in the United States. But this movement has been helped along by other trends: interaction via social media, the rise of English as a common kitchen language (displacing French) and the newly high status of cooking among the educated classes.
In 2006, Redzepi made some decisions that have rippled through American restaurants. He decided that he and his cooks would communicate in English, not Danish; that Noma would welcome as many apprentices as the kitchen could hold; and that his own commitment to cooking with a sense of place was insufficient. “We were cooking creme brulee with Danish cream and sugar, but it was still creme brulee,” he said.
He drew a circle roughly 44 miles around the restaurant, forcing creativity to sprout in a culture that values perfection. “Rene had to crack that Scandinavian mold, sticking to the rigor with the ingredients but opening it up,” said Wylie Dufresne, one of the first chefs in the United States to champion Redzepi’s work.
What makes this incarnation of locavore cooking more than a stunt, and how does it differ from the highly seasonal California cuisine familiar to Americans?
The people of the Nordic region say that it’s the knowledge that a chef brings to the kitchen, the extent to which his (so far, all the major Nordic chefs involved are men) experience of the world is expressed in food. And as it turns out, a huge amount of work goes into making wild herbs, bitter greens and root vegetables appealing in a world where cheeseburgers, foie gras and tomatoes are available all year round.
Kahn’s restaurant, Red Medicine, could be described as a Vietnamese-American restaurant. So it is surprising to find that it also partakes of the rustic ideals of the Nordic movement (it, too, has a manifesto). His food springs and curls off the plate, with fronds every which way and a freshness that evokes Vietnamese food without being identifiably seasoned as such.
And he has moved beyond foraging for herbs, a skill he developed at the French Laundry, to raising them in the wild. In some far reaches of Malibu, Calif., where the terrain is wet and green, he found lamb’s quarters, wild fennel and watercress. Recently, he has begun planting edible nasturtium and herbs in some of these out-of-the-way spots, making rounds with a cooler every Sunday to see what has come up.
“Chefs have always tried to get their hands on every ingredient available,” he said. “To limit yourself to what is around you goes against your training, and that adds another dimension to the work.”