Something inspiring in the state of Denmark

If fine dining in the 1970s and 1980s was defined by nouvelle cuisine, and the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s were the province of “technoemotional” cuisine (or whatever you want to call it), my prediction is that the next decade will be characterized by what could be called the “Danish model.”

I first heard about René Redzepi and Noma a couple of years ago in a blog post by AJ Kinik at …an endless banquet. I spent a fair bit of time after that trying to track down Redzepi’s first cookbook, to no avail. (The best I could do was whet my appetite reading recipes  by Mads Refslund – who was associated with Noma when it opened, but left early in the project – in issue 88 of Art Culinaire Magazine.) So, naturally, I was thrilled when it was announced that a new Noma cookbook would be published this year.

Now, having read all the non-recipe sections of Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, plus many of the recipes, I have mixed feelings about it. It bears several hallmarks of being a rush job, with abundant typographical errors, ingredients listed that aren’t called for in recipe directions, and obscure or regional ingredients that aren’t sufficiently explained or contextualized. (The glossary gives entries for “blanch,” “emulsify” and “granita,” but not  “apple balsamic vinegar,” which is ubiquitous in the recipes. “Instant food thickener” is given a uselessly circular definition, and recipes call for pectin without specifying high-methoxyl or low-methoxyl.)

At the same time, I feel like the recipes, as such, aren’t the point. They’re already almost moot, since so many require ingredients that can only be sourced in the Nordic countries. Really, that’s the point: these recipes reflect one chef’s interpretation of the products of his terroir. Rather than a cookbook, Noma should be viewed as a map of a thought process. It’s a thought process that’s lucidly explored in the book’s essays and photographs. And it’s a thought process is definitely not limited to the Nordic countries.

What really excites me about Noma’s approach to cooking is the possibility of applying it right here in Canada. Noma co-owner Claus Meyer’s “Manifesto for the New Nordic Kitchen” could easily be tweaked to become a manifesto for a new Canadian cuisine. Canada and Scandinavia share many features, culinarily speaking: a climate that ranges from boreal to arctic, an unremarkable – or at least unremarked – traditional cuisine, and access to a wide range of underutilized foraged foodstuffs. Reading Redzepi’s diary of his travels throughout the region to source ingredients, I was reminded of Martin Picard’s travels through the Gaspé and the Îles de la Madeleine to source seafood. I think Redzepi’s way of looking at food could easily and beneficially be applied in various parts of Canada.

It’s an approach that has certainly worked well in other places. Sean Brock, for example, has adopted similar methods at McCrady’s in South Carolina. (See Art Culinaire 97 for more on Brock.) As fine dining swings away from a “caviar, truffles and foie gras” model and toward one of “it’s always advisable to use a very good sardine instead of a not that good lobster,” I’m encouraged by the thought of chefs exploring the ingredients that grow well in their native climate, and creating food that reflects the place where it’s produced, rather than trying to live up to a model created elsewhere, whether it be France or Spain or California. Or even Denmark.

For more on Noma and René Redzepi, I strongly encourage you to read the foreword to the previous Noma cookbook and to watch John Sconzo’s video of his visit to Noma’s kitchen.

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