In November 2004, a group of chefs met in Copenhagen to draw up a way forward to revolutionise Danish cooking. Now a pan-Nordic movement, it’s spread to New York and La Paz…
‘Noma 2.0’ opened to its first guests in February 2017. 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 lists exceed a thousand and it set up ‘pop-up’ ventures across major world cities. Noma, and the ‘New Nordic’ revolution it embodies, seems to be stronger than ever. But why, and how, did this culinary experiment 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.
“Denmark didn’t have the culinary heritage of countries such as France, Spain or Italy,” Claus Meyer tells me over Zoom. “Those countries have been producing world-class food products for two hundred years or more. Denmark never made any attempt to produce delicious food products. We were focused on the production of bulk products. We never had ingredients such as truffles from Liguria, almonds from Cordoba or foie gras from the Gers… an infinite amount of delicacies linked to a certain space. But what we do have is an abundance of wild nature and a climate with much light and long growing period. So this combination of a mass influx of light, a noticeable temperature variation between day and night, and a strong growing period, are precursors for extrmely delicious food.”
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. 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.
But, 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. “I came across a survey last year,” Meyer tells me, “that said before 2012 only 1/10 tourists came to Denmark for the food (the other nine came despite it). These days it’s totally reversed: 85 per cent are coming for the food. We’ve seen a doubling in the number of tourists coming to Copenhagen during the past seven years.”
“Before 2012 only 1/10 tourists came to Denmark for the food (the other nine despite it). These days it’s totally reversed: 85 per cent are coming for the food”
Meyer went on to work in New York and, through his Melting Pot foundation, he took ‘New Nordic’ to impoverished Latin America. “We went to the Highlands of Bolivia,” Meyer explains. “We were 4,400 metres above sea level and we set up, in the poorest capital of Latin America, fourteen cooking schools graduating thousands of students a year, along with Gustu, a fine dining restaurant run by indigenous Bolivian youth. It confirmed the idea that food is a very powerful instrument that can be used to fight injustice and give hope to many areas of the world.”
He also reinvigorated areas of the Nordics where foraging was already strong. “We were a bunch of Danes who launched the movement,” Meyer explains. “But we invited the top Francophile chefs from each of the eight Nordic geographical regions to co-author the Manifesto. They all went home, so now you have places like Koks in the Faroe Islands, considered one of the best restaurants in Scandinavia. But we were not trying to build a brand like McDonalds, Starbucks or Burger King. We were building a vehicle that would catalyze the transformation of our food technique and connect professionals and consumers. So now our process has successfully occurred, it’s the new normal and the notion of ‘New Nordic’ will more or less disappear.”
Nowadays Meyer has left Noma in the hands of René Redzepi, who’s opened pop-up restaurants in Sydney and Tokyo, with waiting lists well into their thousands. Even the president of the United States knew about ‘New Nordic’. And, maybe now he’s left office, Obama really is searching for that recipe for lame duck.
This article is a Fika Online exclusive.