Art on a Platter: The Nordic Food Revolution

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By: Elna Nykanen Anderss | May 23, 2011

Roughly a decade ago, I don’t mind confessing, I was learning how to eat sushi. In the late 1990s in Helsinki, foods that involved chopsticks were the newest of the new, and the establishments serving them included a handful of suspicious Chinese restaurants and a single decent Japanese one. In the same way, pizza had been new and exotic to my parents when it arrived in Finland in the 1960s, as had oranges to my grandparents in the 1930s.

Foreign foods have always had a special draw for us Northern Europeans. Our own traditional food culture consists mostly of potatoes and preserved things fetched from the forest or the sea—foods that have the potential to taste great but that tend to become slightly monotonous in the long run, especially as the manufacturing process of much of it has been industrialized. But the desire to find and taste new things is not, of course, unique to us. Nobody wants a nasty surprise served on a plate, but many people are prepared to pay large sums of money to be served nice, or at least interesting, surprises. Being able to impress, and to deliver the unexpected, has become a big part of today’s restaurant dining experience.

When molecular gastronomy arrived a few years ago, spearheaded by El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià, it sent shockwaves around the world. Any self-respecting chef was soon experimenting with Adrià’s texturas, the seemingly magical compounds that allowed the Spanish chef to create such mind-blowing dishes as “frozen chocolate air,” “gold-tinted caramel of quails’ eggs,” and “liquid ravioli.” Adrià himself denounced the term “molecular gastronomy,” and maintained that his cooking was not about molecules; it was about breaking a basic food item down in order to understand why it has the texture and flavor it does, and then reconstructing it in a way that challenges preconceptions about how something should look and taste. Adrià’s experiments led his restaurant being chosen as best in the world four times in a row.

Today, the world’s best restaurant is said to be found in Copenhagen, Denmark, and it’s not based on molecular gastronomy. Like El Bulli, this new champion, Noma, headed by chef Rene Redzepi, has started a trend that has spread like wildfire across the Nordic countries. In the process, the concept of the New Nordic Cuisine has become known in food-loving circles around the world.

Noma’s food philosophy is about simplicity, pure ingredients and local produce—but it still has the ability to surprise. Noma has put aside foreign influences, such as olive oil, foie gras and sun-dried tomatoes, in favor of Nordic ingredients: mushrooms, wild berries, and leaves from our forests; slow-growing fish from our cold waters; milk from cows grazing in our pastures. The real feat of the New Nordic Cuisine—the thing that makes it “new” —is that it avoids the dullness mentioned earlier. By using only the best ingredients, finding forgotten ones, and combining tastes in unexpected ways, the new Nordic chefs (Redzepi in Copenhagen, Mathias Dahlgren in Stockholm, Antto Melasniemi in Helsinki) have gotten us enthusiastic about Nordic food again.

Photography by Eiler Forssius

Another aspect of the New Nordic Cuisine is its unique plating. Scandinavian design is also experiencing a period of revitalization and, especially in Finland, it is happening in parallel with the food revolution. At first glance, food and design might not seem to have much to do with each other, but when you speak to Ville Kokkonen, design director at the legendary Finnish furniture producer, Artek, a different picture emerges. Kokkonen has recently been involved in several events combining the two disciplines, including the creation with the German artist, Tobias Rehnberger of a “secret” restaurant in Frankfurt, which features a surprise menu, and Hel Yes!, a pop-up restaurant in London that showcases Finnish food and design. In the latter, some of Finland’s top names—Harri Koskinen, Linda Bergroth and Heikki Salonen—were commissioned to design the restaurant’s lighting and interiors, as well as the waiters’ clothes.

“Food has everything to do with design,” says Kokkonen. “Eating has to do with the space and the senses. Is the space minimalist or not? Is the dining set vintage or brand new? How are people placed in the room? Everything can be orchestrated.”

Photography by Eiler Forssius

Even Antto Melasniemi insists that the dining experience is an entity consisting of space, time, and food: the design of cutlery, crockery, and the interior are important tools that a chef should master.

“In a way, the food is a given—it has to be good. What makes a difference is how it feels to be in the space,” says Melasniemi, who is currently working on his next project, opening a series of pop-up restaurants with the Spanish food designer Martí Guixé.

The new Nordic cuisine movement is a food and design phenomenon, but it also says something about us Finns, Swedes, and Danes as people. No longer are we looking outside of our borders to find new experiences; we have finally started to appreciate the things we have at home and, what’s more, believe that they can be something worth telling others about as well. Who knows—maybe the Japanese will soon start learning how to eat beech leaves, lingonberries, and Swedish squid.