Is New Nordic dead?

Table decoration at Alain Passard's garden near Paris, back in summer 2015
Table decoration at Alain Passard’s garden near Paris, back in summer 2015

Michael Booth’s scathing critique of New Nordic cuisine in an article published last November echoed a sentiment I’ve been feeling for a while: I see an abundance of restaurants claiming the New Nordic manifesto in word, but failing to carry it out in deed. In other words, there’s a lot of talk, but not much on the plate to show for it anymore.

In his article, Booth points out how René Redzepi’s Noma brought a necessary change to a region that had lost touch with its culinary heritage and gone down the path of fat and fast foods.

Unfortunately, a certain intellectualization seems to have replaced the original motives of the manifesto, which focuses on promoting values like simplicity, freshness, seasonality, and self-sufficiency. Too often, I’ve eaten meals that were more about the chef’s wild imagination and ego than serving good food cooked with skill.

My first visit at Noma in 2009
My first visit at Noma in 2009

I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that New Nordic is dead, or should be “put out of its misery.” Certainly the tired imitations should! But as molecular gastronomy before it, New Nordic brought a certain way of approaching food to the world’s attention before reaching a peak and waning. The media focuses on the worst effects of the hype, but both schools have left traces of their most desirable qualities behind in the global culinary repertoire. New Nordic chefs aren’t the only ones to have elevated the local or the vegetable–let’s not forget Alice Waters, Michel Bras or Alain Passard–but they have gone a long way toward making these qualities part of our conception of “normal” food.

That being said, I do think changes are afoot and many are appearing in Nordic kitchens. The founders of New Nordic cuisine themselves recognize the need to evaluate how their tradition has evolved and where it is going. Last year, Nordic Food Lab published an insightful article on this process. Rather than sound the death knell, they call for a thoughtful reconsideration: “It is a good time to re-examine our system of ideas, the principles of our ideology, to acknowledge what this movement has made so far and identify what it has not yet figured out. From this re-examination our cooking can only get better, our thinking stronger, our visions for what it means to cook and eat and live in this region more clear.”

"Molecular" liquid olives are still served at Adrià restaurants
“Molecular” liquid olives are still served at Adrià restaurants

So where is this re-examination taking New Nordic cuisine and the world culinary movement more generally? I’ve noticed several refreshing trends in recent meals. First, conceptualization is clearly taking a backseat to a more down-to-earth approach to food. Certain chefs–Magnus Ek and Mathias Dahlgren jump to mind–have adopted a modern bistro approach, allowing themselves and diners to loosen up a bit: no more pre-meal lectures about the deeper meaning of sorrel. We’re just having dinner after all!

Ingredients are returning to center stage: local is still important because it often guarantees freshness, but chefs are reaching more often for the best ingredients, not just the most traditional. The Nordic Food Lab points out that what constitutes a “Nordic” ingredient isn’t really clear. So instead of tasteless Swedish truffle, we can look forward to judicious use of truffe noire du Périgord.

Périgord truffles at Borough market
Périgord truffles at Borough market

We are also seeing the return of craftsmanship in the kitchen. Take Ekstedt, for example, where cooking meat is elevated to an art. Chef Niklas Ekstedt incorporates traditional Swedish cooking methods like smoking into his daily repertoire, creating a connection between past and present that is both intelligible and relevant. We’re seeing more culinary craftspeople set up shop everywhere from Brooklyn to Paris to Sydney, giving rise to a new generation of butchers, bakers, coffee roasters, brewers, and more. Chefs are turning to them for ingredients of quality, completing a virtuous circle.

Pizza at Bæst in Copenhagen. The charcuterie is home made.
Some of the best pizza I’ve had in my life was at Bæst in Copenhagen.

Finally, I’m thrilled to see a surge in Japanese-influenced cuisine. Japan never really left the picture, but as chefs around the world refocus on ingredient and craft, it’s only natural they look to Japan for inspiration: the country’s gastronomic aura is founded on masterful use of exquisite ingredients. Stockholm’s Frantzén in Sweden is a great example of this influence in a western kitchen.
Taken together, all this points to a more food- and people-centric experience rooted in place and skill, but open to the world. As intellectual gastronomy wanes, quality will return to something more tangible, sensed in a masterfully smoked salmon filet, a pearly constellation of ossetra caviar, or the springy heart of a freshly baked loaf. New Nordic is not going away–it’s become a part of the world’s gastronomic heritage–but it’s evolving to let the next new idea rise to glorious heights and leave its own mark on the way we look at, think about, and ultimately, eat food.

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