COOKING THE FUTURE: What’s next for New Nordic Food?

-Somehow it feels like we are cooking the future. Chef René Redzepi is talking into his cell phone camera with a contemplating look on his face, talking about the new menu on Copenhagen based Noma from late June. The vegetable season. The next picture on his Instagram story is a poll on  the question: «Does the future belong to the plant kingdom?». More on the answer to that poll later. But first, let's have a look on what new Nordic cuisine is all about.

One of the main focuses of new Nordic cuisine is sustainability. When the New Nordic Manifesto emerged in 2004 the aim was clear; It was a branding tool and guideline to make healthier food for us living in the Nordic countries and for nature here, through the use of local and seasonal produce. The twelve Nordic chefs who created the manifesto was looking to protect and celebrate bio-diversity, not only in the Nordics but worldwide. This paved the way for a re-found pride for traditional Scandinavian food, and a decade filled with dedicated chefs turning every rock in the quest for finding substitutes for foreign ingredients. By digging into old recipes, old techniques, and the Nordic fauna.

Today, sustainability still is the central core of New Nordic food. But something is changing, and one of the shifts in new Nordic cuisine is indeed something we can taste. 

Diverse quality products

The international spotlight on new Nordic cuisine has made a significant impact on our food culture. One of the effects is that we now see a larger diverseness in quality products being produced locally. Like ricotta cheese and mozzarella from Osteverkstedet in Lillesand, and ham from Suldal with the same high-quality as the well-known Parma ham. The worlds best cheese 2016, Kraftkar, was made in Tingvoll, a tiny place midway up the Norwegian coast. Just a few years ago, it would have been entirely out of the question to buy this kind of products in Norway instead of in Italy. The reason for the new development is, of course, complex, but can be boiled down to two things: Economy and demand.

 Carrots with Norwegian ricotta and barley at Colonialen Kranen. 

Carrots with Norwegian ricotta and barley at Colonialen Kranen. 

New Nordic cuisine strengthened the demand for Nordic produce. And the intense and strict locavore focus from chefs and restaurants has been prominent in the sense that a bigger slice of the payment now goes directly to the farmers. Thus strengthening their economy and giving them a steady income. Along comes more attention to how the farmers and fishermen's work and perhaps a confidence to develop new products and invest more in production. This meaning more new ingredients on the menus at the restaurants, and an even tighter bond between restaurants and farmers.

Changing the flavors of new Nordic food

New Nordic cuisine has since the beginning been about cooking ingredients exclusively from the Nordic terroir. And until now, new flavors have meant foraging new, natural, local ingredients and finding different ways to use them. Like with the ever so tasty ‘pistachio’ ice-cream made from rowanberry-sprouts at Restaurant Bare in Bergen, or the roses frequently used on the Noma menu.

 Sea urchin with peeled pumpkin seeds covering rose infused cream at Noma.

Sea urchin with peeled pumpkin seeds covering rose infused cream at Noma.

But what's new, is the exploration of our ability to grow new products that is not necessarily a natural part of our climate. The chili-production is blooming in Norway, through small producers such as Arctic Chili, Heat of Norway and Voss Extreme Chili. Lysverket, the seafood restaurant in Bergen, is one of the restaurants playfully fitting Asian flavors into their incredible local new 'Fjordic' approach.

There are several indications that chefs are getting restless, looking out for inspiration, and even loosing up on the strict geographical rules on where to source the produce from. The juice with Iranian saffron I had when I visited Noma in March is one indication. The Australian truffles they have on their current menu is another.

 Shellfish dumpling at Lysverket

Shellfish dumpling at Lysverket

New Nordic cuisine and sustainability

When reopening earlier this year, Noma decided to divide their menu into three seasons, pinpointing the essence of seasonality. In my eyes, the three parts - seafood, vegetables, and game - also suggests three development areas for a sustainable Nordic cuisine:

Finding new ingredients, going greener and getting deeper in touch with our roots.

In the seafood season, Noma explores the use of relatively unknown or unused ingredients when cooking broth on Faroese seasnails, and turning thin pieces of squid into pasta. Discovering new components is not only a way to secure the originality and creativity in the New Nordic trend, as we have already touched upon, but it is also a crucial sustainability aspect for decades to come, as the world population is estimated to grow by 2 billion before reaching 2050. For that reason, there is no doubt in my mind that we will see more experimental seafood, and more vegetarian food in new Nordic cuisine in the years to come. There is an apparent shift in Nordic restaurants towards more vegetable-driven menus, with less meat, more in contact with the soil of the Nordics. Where restaurants like Credo in Trondheim and Renaa in Stavanger are developing an even closer relationship with the farmers to be able to work as sustainable as possible. 

 Potatoes and herbs at Tango, Stavanger

Potatoes and herbs at Tango, Stavanger

This fall, Noma will start their third phase - the game & forest season - focusing on the Nordics most abundant time of the year, showcasing wild meat, berries, fruits, and nuts. Most of the meat I get served on Nordic restaurants these days is either ecological chicken or lamb. I hardly see any moose, deer or wild birds, except at top restaurants such as Maaemo in Oslo. At a time when there is so much moose in the Norwegian woods, that they are starving to death due to too dense population, I have to ask: Where are all the hunters among our chefs?

A Nordic way of eating

The new Nordic manifesto never said anything about the visual style or how to serve the food, but somehow this grew into a fashion anyway. Restaurants in dark green and blue colors, with bare wood furniture, and raw ceramics. And for some reason, perhaps because new Nordic cuisine was sparked in the context of the world-class modern kitchen, it has for some time been tied to long and formal set-menus.

Now, restaurants such as Lysverket and newly opened Nova in Bergen are toning the luxury down, to a more suitable and humble setting and serving, more in line with the Nordic «we are all equals» mindset. In this sense, the new Nordic restaurants are becoming even more Nordic, through a more confident stage of the trend. 

Waiters have been spending so much time talking about how sustainable the restaurants are, that now when they are more in line with nature, they can finally let the shoulders down. Long speeches by the tables are fading out, and restaurants are moving towards a looser and shorter service. The guests have more money than before and are eating out more frequently. They don't have the time for, nor do they want to pay for, forever long stories in service.

The way ahead

To get back to the Instagram poll on Rene Redzepi's account. 78 % of the respondents claimed they believed the plant kingdom to be the future. 22% did not. Results from an Instagram poll is of course completely unreliable, but it adds up with the trend we see at top restaurants in Norway today.

For new Nordic cuisine to survive and keep its influential position it needs to develop. That is what we are seeing across Scandinavia today. It's getting hotter, greener and looser. With more freedom and fewer rules, in the kitchen as well as the dining room. But does that mean the end of new Nordic cuisine? Not at all. This is how it will survive.

Amanda Bahl