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New Nordic Food Gods Loosen Up On Strictly Local Cuisine

The Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen is where chefs and social scientists explore the raw materials and flavors of Scandinavia.
Courtesy of the Nordic Food Lab
The Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen is where chefs and social scientists explore the raw materials and flavors of Scandinavia.

This story begins with a lemon. It appeared not long ago on a houseboat-cum-food lab docked outside Scandinavia's temple of local food, the restaurant noma, in Copenhagen.

"Isn't that, like, the forbidden fruit?," I ask. "Are you allowed to have a lemon here?"

"I don't know why that's sitting there," says Ben Reade, the lab's head of culinary research and development, looking perplexed.

An anthropologist, Mark Emil Tholstrup Hermansen, pipes in, "We have an Italian on the boat."

Reade concurs: "He needs a lemon every so often for staff food."

Hermansen remembers the lemon had actually been requested by the boat's resident flavor chemist for an experiment.

"I went to the restaurant and said 'do you have any lemons?' ... 'Yeah, we have Swedish lemons, you can have two of those.'" (Later, Hermansen admitted he may have been duped about the lemon's provenance.)

Here in the Nordic Food Lab, chefs, chemists and social scientists spend their days amid high tech equipment and old wooden barrels to find innovative ways to distill and enhance the flavors of Scandinavia.

For the last several years this tight clique has helped make these flavors — from reindeer to foraged funghi — among the most revered and emanated in the food world.

It all started with the Manifesto of the New Nordic Kitchen, drafted ten years ago by a handful of regional chefs. While none of its ten points explicitly reads "no imports," the overarching emphasis is on local ingredients. Once noma, with it's rigorous locavore philosophy, became the de facto poster child for the movement, this emerging style of cooking seemed to be less inclusive of morsels from far-flung corners of the world.

That may be why several star chefs in the region recently declared to the Danish newspaper Politiken that it's time to evolve — maybe even throw in a lemon here or there.

"For me, the words 'New Nordic cuisine' are totally dead," noma's René Redzepi told the paper. "And I've never liked it because it strips chefs in the region of their personality and puts them under the umbrella of 'New Nordic.' That's wrong, and many successful chefs around the Nordic region hate the label. They're sick of it."

Even Claus Meyer, perhaps the movement's most vocal champion, now co-owns a Copenhagen eatery featuring Singaporean street food. He tells Politiken, "The time has come to meet the world with open eyes. Now we know where we come from, who we are, and that we have something to offer. And that's why we can lift our gaze out of the furrows and use a little curry or a sliver of foie gras without being afraid of losing ourselves in the process." Or even a lemon.

Perhaps it's no surprise that these creative minds, a decade in, would be ready to push ahead to new frontiers. But you might expect a little resistance from tourism officials. After all, Copenhagen has seen a significant growth in tourism over the last few years, especially when compared to the European average.

Emil Spangenberg with Wonderful Copenhagen says the city's food festival, Copenhagen Cooking has doubled in size in just a few years and is now the largest in Northern Europe. In 2012, a full fifth of foreign articles on Denmark were about plate-gazing.

But officials like Christina Heinze Johansson with VisitDenmark seem to be reacting with typical Danish cool. "When noma was breaking out I got a lot of calls from journalists all wanting to get a table." That would have been during the three years noma held the title of "world's best restaurant." In 2013 it slipped to number two.

But she says that while the requests — and her pitches — have gotten more nuanced, the journalists haven't stopped calling.

Change, she says, is making the Scandinavian food scene stronger. And meanwhile, the fundamentals of the New Nordic kitchen (local produce, foraging, vegetables) are still cropping up on plenty of "hot for 2014" lists (including our own).

As Johansson sees it, the most essential quality of New Nordic as a concept (in food, architecture or film) is the ability to find luxury in simple things. That, she says, is something Scandinavians are inherently good at, and it's not something that's going to disappear even as the local restaurant scene evolves.

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After taking a semester off from college to intern with Vermont Public Radio in 1999, Sidsel was hooked. She went on to work as a reporter and producer at WNYC in New York and WAMU in Washington, DC before moving to New Mexico in 2007. As KUNM’s Conservation Beat reporter, Sidsel covered news from around the state having to do with protection of our earth, air and water. She also kept up a blog, earth air waves, filled with all the bits that can’t be crammed into the local broadcast of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. When not interviewing inspiring people (or sheep), Sidsel could be found doing underdogs with her daughters at the park.