“Some people see going to Noma as a religious experience,” said Michael Bom Frøst, a food scientist and director of the nonprofit Nordic Food Lab, which was established by Noma’s owners. This was several days before my own meal at Noma, and we stood in the lab’s shiny test kitchen, inside a houseboat moored across the canal from Noma. The brilliant Nordic sun shone in the bluest Nordic sky as we ate a pink ice cream made from seaweed and looked across the cold water toward Copenhagen’s center.
Copenhagen has become the epicenter of the “new Nordic” cuisine, which has supplanted Spain’s formerly avant-garde molecular gastronomy as the latest, buzzy Big Idea in international cuisine.
“High-level chefs change the world in ways that are unprecedented,” Frøst said. “They change the way we view food.”
In this case, he was talking about René Redzepi, Noma’s chef and the high priest of the new Nordic cuisine. The 34-year-old Redzepi had done stints early in his career at the late El Bulli near Barcelona (then still considered the best restaurant in world) and the French Laundry in Napa Valley before returning to Copenhagen to work at the fancy Kong Hans Kælder. In 2003, restaurateur Claus Meyer tapped Redzepi to open Noma in an 18th-century warehouse. Fast forward less than a decade. In April, Time magazine listed Redzepi as one of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World.”
Around the time of Noma’s opening, Redzepi and Meyer, along with other young chefs, drafted a new Nordic cuisine manifesto (because you simply can’t have a movement without a manifesto). They called for, among other things, “purity, freshness, simplicity, and ethics.” The new Nordic chefs promoted the sole use of seasonal, Scandinavian ingredients — which meant, for instance, no olive oil, no lemons and no pasta — and a return to traditional Scandinavian techniques such as pickling, smoking, curing and fermenting. The idea was to force creativity by setting limitations.
Here’s how new Nordic cuisine came to be identified: ingredients such as sea-buckthorn or Douglas fir or gooseberries or deep-fried moss; cellared or slow-cooked vegetables and under-ripe fruit; dishes served on pieces of wood, rocks, seashells and tree branches; a focus on fish and veggies, rather than meat. Dishes, plated with wild grasses and leaves and such, mimic nature, with a fashionably mussed-up aesthetic, compared with the geometric, architectural plates of molecular gastronomy.