While Noma clears its tables, the culinary revolution it started has only just begun. But what is the appeal of this full-fuss culinary experiment, and where did it all come from?
The doors of Noma- ranked as the World’s Best Restaurant for three consecutive years by Restaurant magazine- are closed for now. But while one of Copenhagen’s best-known attractions clears its tables, the culinary revolution it started- what has now become known worldwide as “New Nordic Cuisine”- has only just begun.
In May 2016 the Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, visited President Obama at the White House alongside fellow Scandinavian leaders. During his speech Rasmussen sympathised with Obama’s frustration at being blocked by Congress and recommended he take up cooking as a way of cooling-off, hoping he would be inspired by the New Nordic movement.
So why has this obsession with eating moss and seaweed spray, like “hygge”, assimilated out of its homeland and struck a chord with Brits and Americans? After all, surely the precision and cleanliness found in New Nordic Cuisine is about as far away from the cosy indulgence of hygge as one can get?
And to call this movement a “revolution” would be no figure of speech: New Nordic has its own followers, leaders and even a manifesto; the “New Nordic Cuisine Manifesto” was conceived and formulated in 2004 by a group of Nordic chefs with ten simple aims:
- To express the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics associated with the region
- To reflect the changing of the seasons
- To base the cooking on the climates, landscapes and waters of the Nordic 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 the Nordic countries
Claus Meyer: Chief architect of the New Nordic movement
But the foundations of this manifesto were nothing new: “Every Man’s Right” or “Allemansrätten” is a fundamental principle of Nordic life, in place across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, allowing every citizen to roam and forage as they please.
While the freedom to fish and hunt remains protected, this communion with nature has undoubtedly had a profound effect on the region’s cuisine. So while René Redzepi, the former head chef at Noma and his team (known to him as his “Harlem Globetrotters”) may claim that they have achieved something truly original by searching for new ingredients in nature, a quick glance at this centuries-old Scandinavian way of life will reveal that this is far from the case. The truth is, there’s nothing new about New Nordic.
“The truth is, there’s nothing new about New Nordic”
So why, then, has the manifesto and its material product at Noma received such attention not only abroad, but in its homeland?
Jonaton Leer suggests that it might have something to do with the twenty-first century obsession with health and well-being. Leer points out that it took Meyer and author and professor Arne Astrup to publish a book entitled Ny Nordisk Hverdagsmad (New Nordic Everyday Food) to successfully provide the new wave of cooking with simple and healthy recipes for New Nordic to reach global recognition.
Perhaps the reason the movement was virtually unknown outside Scandinavia was simply because other cultures don’t place the same importance in putting real care into the recipes they produce; we have the same amount of time as the average Scandinavian but prefer to eat something substantial fast. This is something Astrup’s book sought to ameliorate.
In fact, the New Nordic movement has been criticised by OPUS for “going against everyday life” in tests, even in Scandinavia; while foraging may be a major part of the Nordic way of life, it is probably very naïve to suggest that Scandinavians would see New Nordic as a form of daily cooking. Bo Jacobson, head chef at Kronberg in Copenhagen, agrees with this and says that “New Nordic is simply there to please the journalists and provide some extra tourist dollars, excluding the general public entirely.”
In 2009 the Nordea Foundation gave the Danish research centre OPUS 100 DKK for a project designed to “democratise” New Nordic . The scheme aimed to compare people who followed the new regime with that of the traditional Danish diet, through home intervention and the provision of New Nordic school meals. And while the neutrality of this project have been frequently questioned, particularly as Meyer was working alongside scientists during the research, it has nevertheless done much to legitimise the movement for many Danes (much of the criticism has focused on the fact that when food sociologist Arun Micheelson criticised the OPUS experiment in his dissertation Astrup and Meyer tried to manipulate his findings and tone down the critique, something they later denied).
I believe that while the “Nordic Order” of foraging for fresh, organic produce has unquestionably been around for centuries, foreigners and even the Scandinavians themselves were oblivious of it simply because there had been no organised attempt to officially recognise it. And So Jönsson agrees. She says that New Nordic was “more a codification of practices than something new.”
This is in fact nothing original; one only has to look at Scandinavia’s most recognisable food, the smörgåsbord, for evidence of codifying age-old traditions: while the concept had been around for centuries, it took a chef in post-war Sweden, Tore Wretman, to name it the “true Swedish cuisine” and suddenly it was known across the world; the smörgåsbord is known globally only from a public awareness campaign.
“The smörgåsbord is known globally only from a public awareness campaign”
And Jonaton Leer points out that it’s not just food where we have seen an organised attempt to reorder traditions; the founders of the New Nordic manifesto were at least in part inspired by the DOGMA 95 movement by Lars von Trier to found a unified Danish form of film making.
Claus Meyer and his associates were smart to find the culture and exploit the “emptiness” of its label, putting it on an international stage.
But if the principles of New Nordic aren’t anything “new”, are they anything “Nordic”?
Early criticism of the movement being “too Danish” has been dispelled by a variety independent, governmental and inter-governmental organisations: the Swedish government launched a campaign entitled “Sverige: Den Nya Kulinariska Nationen” (“Sweden: The New Culinary Nation”) in 2008 and the Nordic Council promotes the movement across each of the Nordic nations.
All of this means that now it is not just the poster-boy of the revolution, Noma, that is picking up the attention, but numerous ventures across the region; from Frantzén in Stockholm, to Dill in Reykjavik and from Juuri in Helsinki, to Maaemo in Oslo. Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken Resturant in the Åre district of northern Sweden says that the Danes in Noma “put the spotlight on the fact that there could be great restaurants in a region that was previously gastronomically unchartered territory.” Nilsson states that he can’t be sure he wouldn’t have opened Fäviken without Noma but “it would have been harder.”
René Redzepi too rejects notions that his movement is not Nordic at all, but Danish; he points out that his “Mad” (Danish for “food”) symposium brings together chefs from across the Nordic region, as well as further afield.
But while the idea of New Nordic being too much of a Danish revolution may have been dispersed, criticism of it excluding non- Scandinavian cultures remains at large, and has even led to Laval Food director, Ulla Holm, going as far as declaring the movement “Fascist”.
Redzepi is quick to dispel this too. He reminds us that aim of the movement is in many ways to reject other culinary cultures and develop an entirely new Scandinavian way of cooking: “We don’t just substitute French ingredients for Danish ones, but use the Danish ingredients to form new ideas. But that doesn’t mean we exclude other cultures; at Noma I communicate in English, not Danish, as we have so many chefs from other countries.”
New Nordic has survived the criticism so far and casts its eyes to the future.
But chef Matt Orlando warns of the potentially devastating effects culturally should New Nordic grow too large and says there is now a real risk of formerly creative chefs being “put into a box” by the movement. Relæ Puglisi, a chef who left Noma due to its severely pressured environment confirms this and even goes as far as to say that New Nordic is “presented as an obsolete way of thinking that is not compatible with being a modern individual.”
But despite this criticism,while Noma’s warehouse is empty for now, the revolution it started has only just begun. Meyer, Redzepi and Astrup have moved on to inspire chefs across the Nordic region through their “Mad” symposium. And, while Micheelson, Orlando and Puglisi, among others, may have criticised the OPUS research, media coverage, particularly internationally has been incredible favourable, inspiring chefs across the world. While we may be sceptical of adopting it on a daily basis in our own homes, this full-fuss, original form of cooking has never been more appealing to foodies across the globe.
Noma will reopen this summer on an experimental farm, and, who knows, we could well see Obama taking a trip!