One might think that the inspiration for the latest wave of local, seasonal cuisine in the U.S. would be found nearby, but some chefs are actually finding it in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“We have kind of a nose-to-tail philosophy with our vegetables,” said Jordan Kahn, of Red Medicine in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Kahn is one of many chefs who have been influenced by the rustic-yet-refined aesthetic, the modern sensibility, and conservationist approach that define New Nordic cuisine.
At the heart of this culinary artistic school of thought is Noma, the restaurant in Copenhagen whose co-owner, Claus Meyer, worked with other Scandinavian chefs in 2004 to promote a “Manifesto of the New Nordic Kitchen.” That document advocates seasonal cooking with a focus on products that thrive in the Nordic countries (the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark and Sweden, plus Iceland, Finland and surrounding islands and territories), while also keeping in mind health and animal welfare.
Tone down the focus on Nordic ingredients and you have the outline for the approach many independent chefs are taking with their food these days. Aspects of it include less formal dining spaces (earthenware instead of China, wood and stone instead of white tablecloths), ancient techniques such as charring and fermenting, new culinary approaches that make use of the science education chefs got during the Molecular Gastronomy movement, and a desire to coax flavor out of every bit of an ingredient — like Kahn’s nose-to-tail approach to vegetables.
It’s no coincidence that Noma’s gospel is spreading. The restaurant tops many lists of the best restaurants in the world and has replaced elBulli, Ferran Adrià’s avant-garde restaurant and laboratory which closed last year, as the most desirable stop for aspiring chefs to rub shoulders with their peers and exchange ideas with the world’s brightest culinary minds.
Noma has made that process easy. Executive chef René Redzepi runs an English-language kitchen and takes on as many stagiaires, or unpaid interns, as he can handle.
“It was amazing. It was definitely a learning experience. Every time you turned the corner, there was so much happening in the kitchen,” said Scott Winegard, culinary director of Matthew Kenney’s culinary school and M.A.K.E restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif., who worked in Noma’s kitchen with about 20 other stagiaires from October through December of 2011. “I was really excited about finding this restaurant that had this philosophy about [being] really positive about vegetables. … I think everyone that leaves there definitely brings a lot with them and it sticks with them for a long time, probably forever.”
Changing chefs' view of food
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Kahn of Red Medicine, an alumnus of the kitchens of influential chefs like Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz, went to Redzepi’s MAD FoodCamp, a culinary symposium and food festival in Copenhagen, and was struck by the length that farmers and artisans there went to for great products.
“There must have been 100 varieties of mushrooms,” he said. “I’ve never seen as many apple varieties in my life.”
The experience gradually changed his approach to how he looked at food. Driving from his Beverly Hills restaurant to the Santa Monica farmers market in Los Angeles, he would stop in a canyon to forage wild fennel — something he’d also done when cooking in Keller’s The French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley.
“We started enjoying going to forage more than we enjoyed going to the market,” Kahn said.
Eventually he stopped going to the farmers market in favor of urban foraging — something espoused by Noma, whose detractors joke that the chefs pick weeds from the sidewalks. But that use of every bit of foliage you can find is part of the hyper-seasonal, super-local approach that is part of New Nordic cooking.
Kahn points out that that’s different from the find-dining approach in which you only use the very best part of an ingredient — “only the heart of the fennel, the center of the orange; everything else goes to staff meal. I think it requires more creativity to use things like the heart, the ears, the eyes, the tongue” — or the skin of a pear, which he makes into tuiles.
He also dehydrates cucumber peels, vacuum-seals them with brine, strains them, roasts them and returns them into brine, and people think it’s seaweed. “It’s the flavor of oxidized and roasted chlorophyll. It tastes like the ocean,” he said.
Also in the vein of using everything, he curdles almond milk by gently bringing it to a boil. He salts the curds and puts them on top of local sea urchin, and he cooks the whey into a tuile that accompanies the dish. The dish is also garnished with a mousse of horseradish that’s infused into raw buttermilk that has been strained, aerated and frozen. It’s also garnished with kelp foraged by the same Santa Barbara foreigner who secured the sea urchin and kei apples, which aren’t apples at all but a bright orange, sour fruit that reminds Kahn of sea buckthorn — a favorite sour element of New Nordic chefs — but with “almost tropical notes.” He gets the kei apples from a biodynamic farmer in Los Angeles.
The Scandinavian aesthetic
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At Skál — pronounced “scowl,” which is the prevailing toast in Icelandic — in New York City, Canadian chef Ben Spiegel is using what he learned cooking for two years in Scandinavia, including five months at Noma.
“What I learned a lot over there was just about quality of products and designing dishes that in a way are quite austere, but at the same time flavorful and very light,” he said.
That includes a beef tartare made out of hanger steak, a naturally chewy cut that he makes chewier by cutting it along the grain instead of against it. He mixes in little neck clams, some of which are coarsely chopped so their chewiness contrasts with the chewiness of the beef.
“Others we mince real fine so you get the same kind of protein action that you get with an egg yolk,” he said.
He emulsifies the minced oyster with buttermilk that he uses to ferment ramps, and some fish sauce. He also adds the ramps to the dish and garnishes it with nasturtium leaves and garlic chive flowers.
The Scandinavian aesthetic is also brought to bear with Speigel’s lamb dish, which uses the Nordic practice of cooking in hay, which imparts a grassy, nutty flavor. He mixes rendered beef fat with rice flour and coats a lamb saddle with that and lets it age, refrigerated, for two weeks. He said the coating of fat allows for aging without evaporation, making it more cost effective and less wasteful. He cooks the lamb in a 300-degree Faherenheit Dutch oven with toasted hay and burning leeks. He garnishes it with leeks that have been marinated in beef fat, grilled and puréed, along with grapes, bottarga and cured hazelnuts.
Spiegel’s “last season’s potatoes” reflect the conservationist approach of Nordic cooking. “We have a producer who basically harvested a ton of these butterball potatoes, and then she forgot about them,” Spiegel said.
As a result, they were partially dehydrated and a little shriveled, and thus had an even more intensely nutty flavor than butterball potatoes usually have.
He poaches the potatoes in saltwater and mashes them thoroughly. “Work it like you’re making butter,” he said. That activates the starches, making the potatoes “kind of gluey,” but giving them a creamy mouth feel, which he accentuates with some grapeseed oil.
Contact Bret Thorn at email@example.com.
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