If you asked me to tell you what Scandinavian food is like, I would provide you a list of unappetizing dishes with names just as unsatisfying as their tastes: surströmming (fermented herring), gubbröra (oldman’s hash), or perhaps a fat piece of blodpudding (blood pudding).
The geographical challenges of a freezing climate and sparse sunlight, coupled with the historical obstacles of endless warfare and subsequent socialist rule, did not provide ideal conditions for the Scandinavian gastronomic culture to flourish. But a few years ago something changed.
Despite all the odds, the monotony and grayness that defined the Scandinavian restaurant scene was being replaced with creativity and color. After having spent most of my life frequenting the same five restaurants, my family and I suddenly found ourselves overwhelmed in an avalanche of options. We now had a range of eateries to choose from: fusion foods, all-vegan, Mexican (yes, Stockholm was introduced to good Mexican food in 2012).
Gone were the days of salmon sloppily tossed on a traditional Swedish Rörstrand-porcelain plate! At one point, I almost forgot that not all food comes on chunky wood-platters. Meatballs, the cornerstone of the Swedish cuisine, became the rarity while bone-marrow with smoked parsley became the norm.
After centuries of being mocked for our conservative, unimaginative, and, at times, revolting food, Scandinavia became one of the hottest and most avant-garde culinary hotbeds in the world.
Unlike many other revolutions in history, the origin of the Scandinavian Gastronomical Revolution can actually be pinpointed quite easily. The true standard-bearer that led the battle against leverpastej (liver-“paté”) and falukorv (repulsively over-processed sausage) was noma, a restaurant in Copenhagen.
What many fail to understand about noma is that the food is Scandinavian only by origin, not by culture or tradition.
Since it’s inception in 2003 by Danish chef Réne Redzepin, noma has consistently been ranked as one of the top restaurants in the world. The name is a portmanteau of the words Nordisk (no) and Mads (ma): Danish for “Nordic Food.” Redzepin found inspiration in the local Danish environment with its unique flora and fauna, and created culinary marvels by combining local herbs, mosses, meats, and insects (yes, insects!).
The menu at noma constantly changes based on the availability of ingredients. Past dishes have included dried-carrot sorell, cod-liver and milk crisp, and live fjord-shrimp. If you know Scandinavian cuisine, you will immediately notice that noma is not producing typical Scandinavian dishes.
Although noma has been credited for “reinventing” Scandinavian food, the dishes at noma have very little in common with traditional Scandinavian cooking. Some critics have tried to creatively categorize noma as “New Scandinavian Cuisine”, but Redzepin persistently rejects the term.
What many fail to understand about noma is that the food is Scandinavian only by origin, not by culture or tradition. Noma’s dishes do not have roots in traditional Scandinavian cuisine; instead, Redzepin has used local Scandinavian ingredients to come up with new and revolutionary creations.
Because noma’s concept involves the transformation of local ingredients, the restaurant has been able to expand into other regions of the world while staying true to its core mission. Noma has had explosive success with its worldwide “decamps,” which are temporary visits in prestigious restaurants and hotels in Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York, and rural Australia (as of next year.)
These international chefs are whipping up vastly different dishes from what one might expect to be served at noma in Copenhagen because these chefs are finding inspiration in soy rather than moss, cuttlefish rather than Muikku, and clotted cream rather than filmjölk.
Many other restaurants jumped on the “local-ingredients-as-inspiration” bandwagon. This trend is not limited to Michelin-star restaurants in Scandinavian cities like Frantzén in Stockholm, Fäviken in Åre, or Maaemo in Oslo: the trend has even found its way to Providence, Rhode Island.
In June 2013, Ben Sukle opened the restaurant birch on Washington Street in downtown Providence. Hailing from Pennsylvania, Sukle attended culinary school at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, and did a month-long guest visit at noma in Copenhagen.
Restaurants like noma and birch prove that when you limit your scope, you can actually foster creativity.
Much like noma’s Redzepin, Sukle never set out to reinterpret pot-roasts, chowders, or other typical New England dishes with birch. Instead, he wanted to be creative with the rich environment around him to create something completely new.
“I want to show the best of what Rhode Island can produce,” Suckle said when asked about the philosophy of his restaurant. “The fish, the shellfish, the farms: we have such an abundance!”
While most restaurants acquire their food from three to five suppliers, whose produce comes from all over the globe, Sulke is more eclectic with his sources and more focused in his scope. birch uses between five to six vegetable farmers, two fishermen, and two meat farmers all based in Rhode Island (although some of the meat comes from Vermont).
Sulke strives to be sustainable; thus, he carefully relies on smaller producers for his ingredients. “You’d be surprise at how much they can produce on a small plot of land if you know how to do it,” he said. “At the end of the day, there are only so many things you can do with a turnip, but I create my menu with whatever the farmers have and I use it until they don’t have it anymore.”
Coming up with a new dish at birch can take anywhere from a few hours to several months, “Sometimes I go and think about recipes for years, there really is no formula,” Sulke explained.
Every Monday, all five chefs at Birch must come in with two ideas. Then each Wednesday, the chefs spend the day experimenting with dishes. “It really is trial and error—90 percent of the dishes fail. But over time you build up a pantry and you can begin applying techniques to new items,” Sulke said referencing how they have applied the technique of umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums) to local vegetables.
Restaurants like noma and birch show that you don’t need to source ingredients from around the world to create masterpieces in the kitchen. They prove quite the opposite: when you limit your scope, you can actually foster creativity.
Noma was the hero Scandinavia needed, not the one we deserved after we conceived the horror that is surströmming. Redzepin and subsequently Sulke distanced themselves from the traditional dishes of their culture; thus, they curated menus based on what was locally available and found ways to make these unconvential ingredients taste great.