How could I not have spotted the warning signs? The bare tables; the leather aprons; the beards. Certainly, by the ‘appetiser’—a single sprig of bitter weed whose flowers we were supposed to nibble virtuously—through several minimalist, meagre mouthfuls of fermented grains, slimy seaweed, carrots, endless sorrel and pork, it was clear that the kitchen at this particular restaurant had long ago abandoned any commitment to hospitality, any spirit of generosity, or even just ‘giving us stuff so we wouldn’t feel hungry’. It was now purely focussed on self-pleasure.
“The chefs aren’t cooking for their guests, they are preaching to each other in silence via the medium of food, like mad, aproned monks.”
I’m not talking about the self-pleasuring that goes on in the kitchens of Mexican restaurants when Donald Trump is in the house, but a kind of culinary onanism common to restaurants inspired by the New Nordic food revolution. Here, the chefs aren’t cooking for their guests, they are preaching to each other in silence via the medium of food, like mad, aproned monks. This is manifesto food. Polemic on a plate. And I’ve had my fill.
New Nordic was born in a manifesto, of course, one clearly inspired in its back-to-basics, hair-shirtedness by the Danish Dogme film movement. And it was brilliant. Properly revolutionary, and so desperately needed in a region which had lost all contact with its culinary heritage and indigenous ingredients. I was living in Copenhagen at the time and was probably the first foreign journalist to write about restaurant Noma. I got to know the people behind this New Nordic pioneer, chef René Redzepi and food entrepreneur Claus Meyer. I even ended up MC-ing Noma’s first food festival, the MAD Symposium, in a circus tent on a piece of industrial wasteland beside the harbour. It was a blast.
Ten years ago, Noma’s local/seasonal edict was literally a life-saver in countries like Denmark, Britain and the USA—the fat lands of fast and frozen foods—less so in countries that had never lost their sense of season and terroir in the first place (France, say, or Italy, which had brought us Slow Food years before, or Asia, Africa and, like, you know, most of the rest of the world). But, today, thanks to the countless wannabes who have foraged in Noma’s wake, New Nordic has run its course as a global food movement.
New Nordic is dead. It is no more. It is the Norwegian Blue of the culinary world.
Very few chefs have the unique combination of humility, vision, good taste and sheer bloody-mindedness to follow Redzepi. Thus, too often, when you dine with the leather-apron-and-beard brigade—my recent unfortunate experience happened to be in Helsinki, but might just as easily been anyway in Europe or the US—you feel short-changed by miserly portions, misused techniques and ‘poverty’ ingredients. Shot of whey, anyone?
“Noma was never a strictly ‘local’ kitchen: it sources ingredients from thousands of kilometres away in the Arctic, and serves chocolate, wine and coffee.”
So what are the warning signs that you are in for an edible lecture? It’s usually already spelled out in the sanctimonious tone of the menu. Just because something is ‘locally sourced’ does not mean it will taste better, nor be any more ‘ethical’ for that matter. In fact, Noma was never a strictly ‘local’ kitchen: it sources ingredients from thousands of kilometres away in the Arctic, and serves chocolate, wine and coffee. It is ‘regional… with exceptions’. ‘Everyone likes a bit of chocolate at the end of the meal,’ Redzepi once told me, affably, and he has since become an evangelist for Mexican food and most recently was behind a pop-up restaurant in Tokyo and recently announced the restaurant will be moving temporarily to Sydney next year.
The trouble is, many less talented chefs have interpreted Noma’s amazing success as license to lecture their guests, not just with the tropes about ‘local and seasonal’ or ‘letting the ingredients speak for themselves’; you see it too in the blinkered reverence for natural wines. If my sommelier wants to play wine roulette he should do it on his own dollar: please don’t risk mine on something which, seven times out of ten, is going to look and taste like pee.
You see Noma’s less appealing legacy, too, in the grey ceramic plate with a tweezered moss-and-twig garnish arranged parenthetically around its edge, and a yawning, hungry space in the middle as if someone’s stolen your steak. You see it in the fruit leathers which taste of sick, and in the carrots. Always with the carrots.
Nobody likes cooked carrots.
“When I hear that a plant has been foraged in an urban environment, all I can ever think about is dog piss and pollution.”
I don’t want beetroot in my dessert ever again. I don’t want raw celeriac, no matter how thinly sliced. I don’t want my meat encrusted in hay. Enough with the bitter beach herbs. There’s a reason no one ate them before 2005, even though they were free. When I hear that a plant has been foraged in an urban environment, all I can ever think about is dog piss and pollution. In the old days, we used to wait for strawberries to turn red before eating them, ‘cos they were better. Oh, and don’t trouble yourself fermenting stuff unless it actually makes a positive difference to the flavour. Stoneware is a really lazy choice in 2015, as are bleached bones used for shock value. Ditto live stuff that wriggles when you try to eat it. Tablecloths are not ISIS. They do have a place in a civilised society, not least in improving the acoustics which are invariably terrible in New Nordic joints. And while we’re at it, is it me or does the aroma of pine remind everyone else of toilet cleaner?
May Noma live long, but New Nordic is as dead as one of those wrinkly prehistoric guys they pull out of Danish swamps from time to time. And just about as appetising.
More by Michael Booth:
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