There’s been a lot of talk about ‘New Nordic’ recently, as the world-famous Noma reopened at its new site, a former navy building on the border of Christiania…
‘Noma 2.0’ opened to its first guests in February. It has space for only forty guests, is only open four days a week, and has a tasting menu set at a starting price of 2,300 DKK (£270). Despite this, its waiting list currently exceeds a thousand and it plans to set up more of its ‘pop-up’ ventures across major world cities next year. Noma, and the New Nordic revolution it embodies, seems to be stronger than ever. But why, and how, did such a perverse culinary experiment ever manage to shake up the gastronomic scene not only of Scandinavia, but of the world?
In May 2016 the Danish prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, was in Washington to visit President Obama alongside fellow Scandinavian leaders. At dinner Rasmussen was invited to toast the president and his legacy. During his speech he sympathised with Obama’s difficulties in passing legislation: his own attempts had been hampered by propping up a minority government and Obama’s by deadlock in Congress. As a way of cooling-off Rasmussen said that he’d taken up cooking, and he recommended the president do the same. “I think you could be inspired by ‘New Nordic’ cuisine,” he joked, “it already involves such edible rarities as ants, moss and bark, but I’m sure you could be helpful in our search for a recipe for lame duck!”
Twelve years earlier Denmark had experienced a culinary revolution, complete with leaders, an army of followers and a well-defined a cause, epitomised in a simple but all-encompassing ten-point manifesto:
- To express the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics associated with the Nordic region
- To reflect the changing of the seasons
- To base the cooking on the climates, landscapes and waters of the region
- To combine good taste with modern knowledge of health and well-being
- To promote the variety of Nordic producers and spread the word of their cultures
- To promote animal welfare and a sound production process
- To develop new ways of using traditional Nordic products
- To combine the best Nordic culinary traditions with those from abroad
- To combine self-sufficiency with regional sharing of high-quality projects
- To join forces with various professions associated with food production to the benefit of all who live in Scandinavia
The New Nordic manifesto was the brainchild of Claus Meyer and René Redzepi, then well-respected Danish food mediators and critics, now best known as the co-founders of Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, an institution that became a flag-bearer to the ‘New Nordic’ movement and was named the ‘World’s Best Restaurant’ for three consecutive years. In 2004 Meyer brought together eleven other chefs from across the Nordic region to discuss his vision. For days the chefs debated his proposal, and eventually they published the manifesto.
“As Nordic chefs,” they declared, “we have found that the time has come for us to create a new Nordic cuisine; one which in virtue of its good taste and special character compares favourably with the standard of the greatest cuisines in the world.”
A meeting was swiftly arranged between Nordic agricultural ministers, during which the ‘New Nordic Food Programme’ was launched and injected with a €3m investment by the Nordic Council. Restaurants loyal to ‘New Nordic’ sprung up from Oslo to Helsinki. On a boat in Copenhagen’s harbour, twenty metres from Noma’s original site, chef Lars Williams set up HQ: an independent, non-profit lab to act as an informal testing ground.
The recipes developed in Williams’ lab were, unsurprisingly, mere dreams to the average Dane. ‘New Nordic’ was a culinary revolution for elites – those with time, energy and money – what Meyer called “culinary capital.” Such inegalitarianism became too hard to bare. In 2009 the Nordea Foundation gave 100m DKK (around £2m) to OPUS, a research company based at the University of Copenhagen, so it could develop a project aimed at democratising the order. Families were selected at random, so too were schools, each one having to source, prepare and eat a range of recipes pioneered by Williams and his team before reporting back on how their lives had changed.
The results were clear: New Nordic en masse was impossible. Time – or lack of it – had proved the biggest barrier, as had unavailability and unfamiliarity with the ingredients. Bo Jacobsen, head chef at Restauratør in Copenhagen, said the scheme proved ‘New Nordic’ was just an attempt to “impress journalists, food critics, and not least each other.” In an article for Politiken Ulla Holm went as far as to call the ‘New Nordic’ order “fascist.” Socially, the revolution was foundering. Financially too, it was fast running out of steam. Since its initial €3m investment, the Nordic Council had cast New Nordic off to fend for itself. In Denmark the national government had, seeing a revitalised cuisine as part of its new, hip, identity abroad, seized an opportunity. But the other Nordic governments were slow to pick up the baton.
“Bo Jacobsen, head chef at Restauratør in Copenhagen, said the scheme proved ‘New Nordic’ was just an attempt to ‘impress journalists, food critics, and not least each other.’ In an article for Politiken Ulla Holm went as far as to call the ‘New Nordic’ order ‘fascist’.”
This changed, however, in 2008 when the Swedish government launched a campaign entitled ‘Sverige: Den nya kulinariska nationen’ (‘Sweden: The New Culinary Nation’). Unlike Meyer’s scheme, the aim of this project was to promote New Nordic oversees rather than domestically; in a sense pretending that it was already firmly established at home. Of course most Swedes were just as unwilling as the Danes to change their normal way of cooking. Dinners were held at Sweden’s embassies in Berlin and Vienna, with VIPs invited to taste “the new Swedish way of cooking”, the Swedish Embassy in Bucharest contributed to a television programme featuring a Romanian celebrity chef exploring Stockholm’s New Nordic scene, and the Swedish government sponsored programmes from Jamie Oliver’s Jamie Does Stockholm to an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table filmed at Fäviken restaurant, deep in the Swedish wilderness, featuring head chef Magnus Nilsson.
It failed, but it reminded Swedes that they were not new to culinary experiments. Brännvinsbord (literally ‘schnapps table’) was a buffet of meat and fish popular in the houses of the upper class in Sweden and Finland during the sixteenth century, designed to be an appetiser before the main meal, often some five hours later. Nowadays we think of its seventeenth-century successor, the smörgåsbord, as being a main meal in itself. But this shift in attitudes only came about during the Stockholm Olympics of 1912 when, struggling to find a national dish to serve, restaurants catering for foreign visitors decided to amalgamate a selection of different – but visibly Swedish – ingredients, creating one large, memorable dish. The campaign to make the smörgåsbord Sweden’s national dish was picked up in the 1950s by chef Tore Wretman who, with his French training, added a few southern European ingredients and sold it through his internationally successful cookbooks. Today the smörgåsbord stands proudly in buffets from New York to Tokyo.
In his journal The Rise and Fall of New Nordic Cuisine Jonatan Leer says that the organised codification of a traditional foraging culture into ‘New Nordic’ and the brännvinsbord into the smörgåsbord proves the movement is anything but radical. There’s nothing new about ‘New Nordic’, it confirmed. With a manifesto, leaders and government-backed campaigns it has only been made to look revolutionary. The appeal of such a fiddly way of cooking has captivated chefs across the world. When Noma opened pop-up restaurants in Sydney and Tokyo the waiting lists were well into their thousands. Even the president of the United States knew about it. And, maybe now he’s left office, Obama really is searching for that recipe for lame duck.