What Would the Vikings Eat?
René Redzepi's NOMA cookbook, distilled.
When Danish chef René Redzepi opened his restaurant NOMA in 2003, at the age of 25, the rest of the fine-dining world in Denmark was all but ignoring Scandinavian cuisine, working primarily in French (or Italian) idioms. Redzepi broke the mold. An idealist, he sought to create a serious restaurant with a completely Nordic menu. At first he struggled: He found himself making French dishes with Danish accents—like crème brûlées flavored with a bit of sea buckthorn (an indigenous seaside berry). But he dug into his desire to "get the essence of the region"—as he said at an event I attended a few weeks ago—and minimized the Gallic echoes.
Redzepi developed something old and new at the same time: traditional Nordic foods—reindeer, cloudberries, esoteric herbs like woodruff and Jack-by-the-Hedge—refined in a kitchen with the highest technical standards. (Redzepi spent time in Ferran Adrià's and Thomas Keller's kitchens.) At NOMA, sorbets are blast-frozen in PacoJets, sauces cooked and emulsified at once in Thermomixes, and broths are strained through Superbag filters. After some years of mockery (early on, NOMA was uncharitably nicknamed the Seal Fucker), NOMA found its footing and soon an almost unimpeachable reputation. To wit: This year, S. Pellegrino anointed NOMA the best restaurant in the world. And now, Redzepi has a stony tome of a cookbook, NOMA: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, to confirm his iconic status.
Copiously illustrated with photo spreads of craggy Scandinavian landscapes and still lifes of local ingredients, the NOMA cookbook is a beautiful document—and a good case study in the edible wit that is the hallmark of contemporary haute cuisine. Each dish is presented as a sort of ecosystem of its own. Hare, for example is surrounded on the plate by the wood sorrel, heather blossoms, and nuts that it might have romped among in its lifetime. Snails are served amid actual moss. The intention of the dish, Redzepi writes, "is to re-create the habitat of the snails."
At this point you might be saying to yourself, "I don't think they sell wood sorrel (or Danish squid, or cloudberries) at the local grocery, and I don't own a PacoJet." Indeed, the NOMA cookbook qua recipe book is as good as useless to American home-cooks who are not Nathan Myrhvold. It does, however, offer a sense of how the most talked-about young chef in the world might influence restaurateurs in the United States. Here, then, is a list of Redzepi's signature gestures that may drift, like a rogue iceberg, from the fjordlands to our lands.
No, not actual dirt (though I suspect Redzepi wouldn't be horrified by traces of the real thing on principle, if not in practice). Instead, Redzepi's kitchen has come up with a decorative edible dirt made of nut meal, malt flour, and beer that comes to look like soil after a two-day drying process. He uses this faux dirt in landscapelike plates with little vegetables popping out of it, or sprinkled on top of truffle meringues. Even when he's not working with faux dirt, similar attempts to evoke literal earthiness turn up here and there, including a crumby truffle granita blackened with squid ink.
The Forest on the Plate
Foraged edibles like mushrooms and mountain huckleberries have long been a part of haute cuisine, but Redzepi takes this concept to the extreme, putting the actual wood into woodsy. At NOMA you might sample meringues made with birch bark, a sauce infused with wood chips, spruce shoots decorating fresh-made cheese, or a bouillon of thuja (arborvitae) cones.
Food on Rocks
One iconic NOMA dish, a pristine langoustine tail, is served perched on a rock, dotted with oyster emulsion and dusted with seaweed powder—the very tidal landscape in which a live langoustine might flourish. Dishwashers in trendy restaurants, beware: You may soon have to add to your list of workplace woes strained muscles from lifting stones and bruised toes from dropping them.
Elegantly Brutal Décor
The NOMA dining room has a stern, windswept charm to it: bare tables, rugged beams, the aforementioned rocks, and sheepskins draped over Danish modern chairs.
Baking meat in hay is an old technique, but hay is a major motif in Redzepi's world—a symbol of both traditional agriculture and summertime. At NOMA (and perhaps at a striving eatery near you one day) you'll see hay-infused cream- and oil-based sauces, torched hay reduced to ashes and used as a sooty garnish for leeks, and a gently pickled quail egg brought to the table in a smoking nest of hay.
In winter, Redzepi frosts his food with icy garnishes. He coats frozen potato crisps curled like pencil shavings with a milky yogurt glaze and surrounds little toasted meringues with cold crumbles of herbal tea granita. And because even the most driven chef can't resist the occasional bit of tongue-in-cheek kitsch, he offers a snowmanlike sorbet tower dusted with yogurt snow, complete with a tiny carrot nose.
Normal people discard the slippery skin that forms over heated milk; NOMA chefs harvest it and serve it as a sort of dairy-only crêpe alongside musk ox, say, or local truffles and salsify, or grass, flowers, and herbs. As artist Olafur Eliasson writes in his forward to the cookbook: "The garnish had come from the field where the cow that had supplied the milk had walked, grazed, and defecated. There was no doubt about it: my mouth was exploring every area of the field."
If NOMA's palate is pretty severe in the winter months, Redzepi goes all out when summertime finally brings intense color to the Scandinavian landscape. A dish called "Red Nuances of Lobster" hits crimson in all forms: lobster tail, rose petals, currants, radicchio, red currants, seaweed, and beets. Another dish, "Grilled Lamb Shank and Ramsons Leaves, Yellow Beetroot, and Elderflowers," examines yellow with the same dogged intensity.
Because of his dedication to native ingredients, Redzepi uses mead, red currant wine, birch wine, and beer where one might usually expect to see grape wine. Though he still employs grape wine from time to time, its relative scarcity is a reminder that long before the expansion of viniculture, Nordic people had derived their own ingenious means to tap alcohol's unruly pleasures.
Redzepi takes locavorism, which Americans typically associate with Alice Waters-style rusticity, to the next degree, marrying a lyric survivalism with a high-tech aesthetic. It's hard to say which of his innovations will find a foothold in the United States, but here's hoping Redzepi's imitators don't imitate too literally. If next-generation chefs find inspiration in the ancient heritage of their own territories and start crafting elegant food with wild, woodsy ingredients, that's good for Redzepi as a trend-setter and good for curious eaters. If they import musk ox and reindeer from Scandinavia or put on dinner-theater productions of The Vikings, we may need to eat in for a while.