Beyond ABBA, Roxette, and The Cardigans, Scandinavia is responsible for a long list of accomplishments: world-class athletes who put us to shame every Winter Olympics, not to mention world-champion Tennis players (Stefan Edberg and Bjorn Borg), Ikea discount furniture (and Swedish meatball-hocking food court), pacemakers, the GPS, Legos, Ingrid Bergman, the ultrasound, dynamite, zippers, and—oh yeah—the Nobel Prize. As if its influence weren’t already ridiculously widespread—from our flies to our hearts and iPods—Scandinavia now emerges as a global leader in cuisine.
With a population that’s less than a third the size of France’s—and half the size of Spain’s—Scandinavia has what can only be described as disproportionate strength in the arena of cooking. It’s like David and Goliath, except David is a region made up of several countries—Sweden, Denmark, and Norway—that’s finally discovered its culinary strengths.
But since Chef René Redzepi’s Noma ousted El Bulli as S. Pellegrino’s No.1 restaurant in the world, our collective culinary gaze is fixed on the comparatively uncharted bounty of Nordic cuisine. When we traveled to Sweden and Denmark this winter, we wanted to experience the cuisine—its origins, ingredients, and the passionate chefs that drive it—for ourselves. It may not have French pedigree or Italian tradition, but Scandinavia’s distinct culinary culture is certain to have a major impact on global tastes.
To witness some of the emerging talent yourself, look no further than our wrap up of the 2011 Arets Kock, the Swedish cooking competition that tests the skill of six chefs (the “kocks” in question) according to an annual theme (this year it was “Farm to Table”). The event started in 1983 when Scandinavian cuisine was defined more by outside influences—read: France and Italy—than home-grown ingredients. And though the competition is still rooted in classic techniques, it serves as a training ground for up-and-coming Swedish chefs—meaning the Arets (Best) Kock will be a chef to watch.
With chefs like Mathias Dahlgren, former Arets Kock champion, and Redzepi at the helm, modern Scandinavia is ushering in a transforming culinary movement: the cuisine of time and place—food that wholly reflects terroir, a singular ecosystem on a single day, or even within a single hour, on the pedestal that is a plate. The Scandinavian pantry is teeming with distinct, native flavors and flavor combinations—pine, caraway, oats, souvas, and cloudberries. And chefs are using this mosaic of ingredients, and their distinctive relationship to the land, to give Scandinavian and international diners a fresh look at the act, environment, and meaning, of eating. With a restaurant conceptually founded on a farmers almanac from 1560, Daniel Covet and Bjorn Olsson of F12 typify this effort to capture the ingrained character of the land and its people; each month has a theme, and each menu is informed by the chefs' cultivated relationships with local farmers. Dishes like “Hiking” and “The Wood Stove” celebrate a moment or idea as much as they celebrate versatility and beauty of Nordic flora and fauna.
Time and place have profound importance for chefs like Fredrik Andersson, whose combined professional humility and uncompromising stance on ingredients motivated him to not only eschew his country’s beloved seafood out of concern for the environment, but also to move his restaurant, Mistral, from Stockholm. In Enskededalen, Andersson found a quiet suburb with access to better product and a more direct, intimate connection with the land—making it easier for him to “convey the joy of a new day” in each and every dish. In both Sweden and the United States, chefs like Andersson are trading in urban conveniences for the creative freedom, integrity of product, and intimate connections between chef and land that only occurs beyond city limits.
Whether it occurs in a bucolic country setting or a well-equipped culinary laboratory, the connection between environment and creativity is paramount in Nordic cuisine. At the Nordic Food Lab, a think tank and research lab (by way of boat) is docked in the harbor near Noma. In this unlikely, but prolific, creative setting, Chef Redzepi’s team from Noma plus a slew of scientists and researchers explore the possibilities of Nordic ingredients, among other topics. Their discoveries—from the properties of seaweed to the genetics of native heirloom produce—benefit both Noma and the wider world of cuisine; the non-profit shares its research freely with others chefs, producers, scientists, and nutritionists.
We caught only a glimpse of Scandinavia, but it was a glimpse of some of its best chefs, product, and visionary ambition. We saw, and briefly tasted, its promise and we can’t wait to return for a second helping, and to track its influence on the evolution of global cuisine.
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