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The Nomafication of Nordic Food

René Redzepi transformed the world’s perception of Nordic food. This isn’t necessarily a good thing.

René Redzepi changed everything. No one Nordic individual has done as much to capture the attention of food writers and enthusiasts worldwide as Redzepi, who has attracted them to the region in droves since opening Noma in 2003. In the years since, both his name and that of his iconic restaurant became synonymous with “New Nordic” cuisine and the sleek, earthy aesthetic he pioneered.

Over just a handful of years, this vision propelled Copenhagen from a culinary wasteland to a food lover’s dream, and united the region’s individual countries into one gastronomic behemoth. The New York Times called his food inventive and witty, two adjectives that food critics would have been hard-pressed to apply to any pre-Redzepi restaurant in the Nordic region. Noma went on to repeatedly land on top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014); he was declared a “God of Food” by Time magazine in 2013.

But it takes more than one individual, even one as formidable in his field as Redzepi, to redefine an entire region’s cuisine and to generate a sense of cultural unanimity. In 2004, on the heels of Noma’s debut, came the New Nordic Manifesto, the brainchild of Danish restaurateur Claus Meyer (co-founder of Noma) and University of Roskilde researcher and lecturer Jan Krag Jacobsen. They invited 12 Nordic chefs — Redzepi among them — from across the region to draft and co-sign a set of food principles reminiscent of California cuisine’s commitment to local, regional, and sustainable food.

The success of the manifesto, which was released at a symposium in Copenhagen, was soon balanced atop a three-legged stool of government tourism budgets, international food writers, and ambitious chefs hungry to overthrow the old order and willing to break the first rule of being Nordic: Thou shalt not express pride. (The ethos is so deeply ingrained in the Nordic psyche that the Danes and Norwegians even have a name for it, janteloven, the Law of Jante.) Classic Nordic food — overcooked pork and prepeeled potatoes (or, if you were lucky, smørrebrød) for the Danes, and dense bread, mushrooms, and salmon anything for the rest of the region — gave way to reindeer served on a bed of moss and vintage carrots, a testament to the popularity of the manifesto’s seventh tenet: to develop new applications of traditional Nordic foods.

One of the curious effects of New Nordic cuisine is that food enthusiasts the world over now associate Nordic cuisine with a region in a way that its own residents do not. Fueled by social media and food publications, “New Nordic” is considerably more familiar to outside observers than traditional Nordic dishes are, generating a misleading sense of what is authentically Nordic. Redzepi himself credits his cooking style to his Macedonian upbringing and once noted that “Denmark has more in common with Germany than with Finland or Norway, especially when it comes to food.”

Nevertheless, here we all are — Finns, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, etc. — under one umbrella of Nordic cuisine, putting on a nice face for the world, which, understandably, knows little of our petty, intraregional animosities. Gone are the overcooked potatoes, thank goodness. But gone from popular display are also any dishes that do not fit Noma’s signature aesthetic. And while comparing salmon soup and Karelian pies with haute cuisine is unfair, the French and Italians identify with their high-end cuisines, whether or not they consume them regularly. Nordic people not so much. Yet.

The New Nordic Manifesto’s success was undoubtedly chef led. But 5.4 million euros from the Nordic Council of Ministers, an official consortium of Nordic members of Parliament, to build a tourism industry and cultural identity around it helped. (The council has doled out the money to the New Nordic Food Program since 2007.) This month, Redzepi’s nonprofit, MAD, announced plans to open an educational center in Copenhagen with funding from the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food. And 15 years after the manifesto’s debut, investments continue to pile on from individual countries eager to generate tourism revenue.

Small-scale culinary tourism has been a mainstay of Finland for decades, thanks to its so-called Everyman’s Rights law, which allows people to forage even on private property. But in the post-Nordic Manifesto world, the monetization of those rights has been kicked into high gear. Sweden has the same Everyman’s Rights law, and promotes it heavily: Visit Sweden, the country’s official tourism board, pushes Facebook and Twitter advertisements encouraging tourists to visit Sweden to forage and cook with Michelin-starred chefs. The advertisements are part of Visit Sweden’s 2017 investment of 40 million SEK, or around $4.3 million USD, over four years into culinary tourism. The sum comprises the majority (but not all) of the money spent on promoting Sweden as a food tourism destination. Contributors to these efforts include the Swedish government, the European Union’s Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, and regional tourism organizations.

“The New Nordic food revolution isn’t a coincidence. It happened for a reason,” says chef Titti Qvarnström, who was the head chef at Michelin-starred Bloom in the Park in Malmö, Sweden, until 2017 (and who, I learned later from the ads, is among the chefs you can dine with in a beautiful Swedish forest). “There were many lucky factors that worked together, but it’s been a political agenda to turn this around. It was launched at the right time by the right people.” A 2018 report entitled the Solutions Menu, published by the Nordic Council of Ministers, outlines this process, looking at the politics, strategy, and goals of the New Nordic Cuisine movement: increase healthy living, promote sustainable food consumption, attract tourists, and create a new food identity.

Sea snails on Noma’s first seafood menu.
Sea snails on Noma’s first seafood menu
Jason Loucas/Noma

Qvarnström’s hometown underscores just how dramatic an impact this strategy has had. A former shipbuilding town, Malmö suffered a bruising economic downturn in the ’90s. In the aughts, it became known in the region for absorbing an influx of Danes whose non-EU spouses were barred from living in Denmark by the country’s notoriously restrictive immigration laws. It’s not the sort of place you expect to find haute cuisine. And indeed, despite Bloom in the Park’s success, New Nordic has been a hard sell for many locals: “If it’s not for everybody, we don’t want it,” is a refrain Qvarnström encountered often in Malmö.

Restaurateurs in neighboring Denmark are familiar with skepticism from locals. When chef Nicolai Nørregaard opened his groundbreaking restaurant Kadeau on the remote, sleepy Danish island of Bornholm, he encountered his share of Danes looking for a classic dish of meat, potatoes, and sauce, perplexed to find dishes like kohlrabi, black currant, and Nobilis fir, or wood ants on scallops and asparagus with pickled pine leaves. But, unlike Qvarnström, Nørregaard found local skeptics to be more forgiving. “Even Danes who can’t afford it or think it’s a little ridiculous are still proud of what we’re doing,” he says. Which makes sense: Those of us who come from small countries tend to be acutely aware of our countries’ international reputations which, if you’re Nordic, include admiration of our health care systems and designers. Accolades for our food count toward that net positive, and the international attention is undeniable. At Kadeau’s Copenhagen outpost — for which Nørregaard earned two Michelin stars — roughly 80 percent of the clientele on any given night is non-Danish.

Nørregaard, who was among the earlier adoptees of the Nordic Manifesto’s call to arms, credits international media with bringing attention to the region. “I like that people write about it,” he says, “even though it’s sometimes inaccurate.” He notes that the attention has generated an influx of investor money from local accountants and lawyers and, more recently, monied angel investors, putting every talented sous chef in town within arm’s reach of their own restaurant.

Though the buzz may be lost on locals with no ties to the restaurant world, it has fundamentally changed what it is to be a chef in Copenhagen. Anika Madsen, head chef of Kadeau’s sibling Restaurant Roxie in Copenhagen, offers diners dishes like North Sea cod “wasabi” with turnips and grilled beetroots with spelt porridge, gherkin gel, and duck hearts. She began her studies in 2010, dodging Copenhagen’s ’90s restaurant doldrums entirely. She cites the city’s bustling restaurant scene as a reason she chose to pursue a career as a chef. “It’s a playground,” she says. “You don’t have classical techniques like the French. You can’t look it up in a cookbook. You can’t Google it. You have to make your own way.”

Similarly, Qvarnström, who describes her food as focusing on the here and now (a common theme in New Nordic cuisine) feels affection for, but little allegiance to, a Nordic past. She says donkey rhubarb is her favorite wild herb. “It’s not native here, but it’s spreading because it really likes it here.” In other words: A food doesn’t have to be Nordic to be Nordic cuisine. After all, what would Italian cuisine be had the tomato not immigrated to Europe from the Americas?

Not all chefs agree that the past should remain in the past. Helsinki, which, like Copenhagen, had an expensive and disappointingly sparse restaurant scene in the ’90s, differs in that it has a long tradition of fine dining restaurants serving Finnish food. Unlike Denmark, Finland drew its food influences from its neighbors and former ruling powers, Sweden and Russia. Tony Öhman, the head chef of Lehtovaara, a Finnish restaurant that is older than the country itself, is more interested in perfecting and preserving traditional Finnish food than rethinking it (think: pickled herring, smoked salmon, black rye bread, chanterelles cooked into a cream sauce, and elk that’s been stewed, smoked, or dry cured). “I cook classic Finnish food because otherwise it will disappear,” he says. Öhman seems bemused by the notion that seasonal, regional cooking is new Nordic. But even at Lehtovaara, which adheres to seasonal foods and high-quality regional suppliers, the menu is seldom exclusively Finnish; French dishes and techniques makes regular appearances. And although the Finnish fare at its Sunday brunch will knock your socks off, it’s not exactly Instagram friendly.

Juha Harmaala, co-owner and general manager of Restaurant Pelikan in Stockholm, doesn’t see New Nordic as a threat to traditional Swedish foods. Pelikan has been serving meatballs and herring since 1733, and Harmaala says a day doesn’t go by that one of his customers doesn’t tell him that they first dined there as a child with a parent or grandparent. “Somehow classic Swedish food stays in Swedish minds and hearts,” he says. “They always come back to it.”

Perfecting a dish that delights the average local attracts an altogether different type of chef. While Öhman is interested in honoring and safeguarding traditional methods and dishes, Qvarnström, Madsen, and Nørregaard are interested in upturning the old ways altogether. If they had much regard for what came before, they probably wouldn’t have staged a revolution in the first place. And given that 43 percent of non-Danish tourists now cite good places to eat as a reason to visit and 26 percent visit Denmark specifically to taste local food, restaurants like Lehtovaara and Pelikan stand to reap the benefits of that revolution, too.

Unlike the rest of the world, the chefs I spoke with don’t view New Nordic as a type of food, but rather a cultural shift that liberated them to do whatever they wanted in a region where uniformity and modesty were the norm. None see other types of Nordic cooking styles as a negation of what they choose to create in their own kitchens. That mindset tracks perfectly with a key Nordic characteristic: up close there’s regional diversity and cultural richness. It only looks like a succession of Noma plates from the outside, because that’s all our tourism industry wants to sell, and much of what outsiders want to buy.

But with great hype comes a lot of hot air, and Nørregaard and Harmaala both worry that the region’s restaurant scene is experiencing a bubble. The problem with bubbles is no one knows when they will burst, or what comes after. If the ubiquity of California cuisine is an indicator, there isn’t any going back to how it once was, but as soon as another region figures out how to rebrand its cuisine and dethrones New Nordic, paying the bills will depend on a restaurant’s ability to draw locals as well as tourists.

Eeva Väänänen Moore is a Finnish-American culture writer and political communications professional.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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