The Nordic Food Revolution: Foraging in the Forest with the World's Best Chef

By Claudia Voigt in Copenhagen

The appetizer consists of juniper twigs in a flower vase, and a main dish of elk tongue comes to the table with a sheath knife. Copenhagen's Noma is one of the world's most unusual restaurants. For many gourmets, it's also the world's best.

René Redzepi pushes the dried leaves aside with his foot to reveal small, succulent leaves. They could be crocus sprouts, or something completely unpalatable. "Give it a try," he says, twisting a plant out of the earth with a practiced hand. "The roots are often the best of all at this time of year," he says, blowing off the dirt and serving up the small, wrinkled plant on his palm. It tastes onion-like.

We are on a parking lot a few kilometers outside Copenhagen, next to the kind of recreational area often seen around major cities: a muddy patch of grass, three cars and a few paths into the woods. Redzepi wants to see how far along things are in nature on this March day, and whether young dune grass, wild horseradish or fresh moss is growing yet. He suggests we take a walk.

The man digging for greens on this early spring day has a hands-on attitude and an expectant look in his eyes. He is 33. Some 800 critics, chefs and restaurant owners have just voted him the world's best chef -- for the second time. This honor was long bestowed on Spaniard Ferran Adrià and his restaurant El Bulli near Barcelona, but in 2010 Redzepi's Copenhagen restaurant Noma moved into first place on a list of the world's 50 top restaurants.

Redzepi tries to remain modest. "Do I believe that I'm the best cook in the world? No. Do I believe that you can determine which restaurant is the best in the world? No. But it was a democratic election and, hey, I'm thrilled to accept the results."

Nordic Mad

Gourmets from all over the world make pilgrimages to Noma in Copenhagen. The name stands for "Nordic mad," Danish for "Nordic food." The prix fixe lunch menu costs €150 ($218), and the dinner menu is €50 more expensive. Reservation requests are accepted on the website only once every three months. The last time, 24,000 requests were received within a few hours.

The miraculous cuisine at Noma is created exclusively with Scandinavian products, including fish, mussels and meat from the Nordic countries. Most of all, the chefs at Noma work with vegetables and herbs that grow wild in the region. Redzepi is something of a druid in the world of haute cuisine.

Noma serves such oddities as live crabs, deep-fried roots, the dried "skin" from sauces and strawberries with hay and chamomile. Many items are served raw. Anyone craving foie gras or entrecôte will be disappointed at Noma, where the accent is Scandinavian instead of French. But Redzepi's cuisine does not adhere to any traditions. Instead, it reflects raw Nordic nature -- for which Redzepi has been showered with awards. He is said to be the greatest talent since Paul Bocuse, one of the inventors of nouvelle cuisine.

As we walk through the woods, Redzepi suggests leaving the path because that way there will be more to discover. He's wearing white sneakers, gray jeans and a comfortable jacket. He wears his hair long and parted on the side. He could just as well be a musician or an athlete. His squash racket is in the trunk of his car. He plays squash every morning.

Redzepi keeps his eyes on the ground, searching for edible plants. Small dandelion leaves catch his attention. They have a nutty flavor, but the moss is dry and from last fall. We walk through a mixed forest not unlike the forests of northern Germany. The dominant colors are gray and brown, interspersed with the occasional green of a fir tree.

No one but Redzepi would think of searching for culinary delights in this forest. "Take a taste of this evergreen," he says. The scent of tangerines rises from the needles when they are rubbed between the fingers, and the light-green tips taste lemony. Redzepi explains how his chefs at Noma cover cauliflower with these branches and cook it in the oven at a low temperature, allowing the oils and aromas of the Danish forest to infiltrate the vegetables.

159 Kinds of Horseradish

He discovers the richness of an Arabian bazaar in the deserted wilderness of the north. "There are 159 varieties of horseradish in Denmark alone," he says. "Some taste as spicy as wasabi, while others are as mild as milk." This year, he says, spring is coming at least two weeks late. He yearns for the green colors and freshness of the season.

For decades, Danish cuisine was notorious for things like boiled pølse sausages, Danish pastries and perhaps for Swedish meatballs, like the ones served at Ikea. So how does someone hit upon the idea of opening a restaurant in a country not known for its cuisine? Particularly a restaurant that utilizes the most outlandish local products? And how does he manage to turn it into one of the world's best restaurants?

When Noma opened its doors seven years ago, crème brûlée was on the menu. But crème brûlée, even if it's made with Danish cream and Danish berries, says Redzepi, is still a French dessert.

At the time, Redzepi was working 80 hours a week -- and asking himself what for. The money? Not enough to satisfy him. A Michelin star? Okay. Two or three Michelin stars? Even better. But working for the recognition of others seemed superficial to Redzepi. Success, he says, is too fleeting.

Northern Cuisine

Redzepi has an ambitious goal: He wants to change the food culture in Scandinavia. He's made great strides in that direction, now that international gourmets have started to rave about the new "northern cuisine." Other young chefs in Copenhagen, Århus and Stockholm are following his lead, using local products and creating dishes unique to the European north.

Farmers in these regions are growing heirloom varieties of vegetables again and trying to offer a wider range of products. In addition to selling their products to expensive restaurants, farmers also sell directly to consumers at local markets. The Noma cuisine, with its highly nutritious ingredients and inventiveness, is even catching on among amateur cooks because it satisfies a desire to eat healthy food that isn't as boring as traditional organic food -- and because, in a globalized world, it creates a connection to the places where we live.

Before Redzepi opened his restaurant in 2004, he worked for a time at the French Laundry in California and under Adrià at El Bulli. Adrià still writes him the occasional e-mail today, to ask how Redzepi is doing and how he is coping with success.

"My experiences in California and Spain inspired me to let me inspire myself," he says. The sentence sounds tailor-made for his memoirs. And how is self-inspiration accomplished? There were many impulses, Redzepi replies, starting with his dissatisfaction with the Danish-French crème brûlée. And then there was a trip to the beach just after he'd opened his restaurant. Redzepi, who is constantly trying out plants to see what they taste like, was chewing on a blade of dune grass. It tasted like coriander. How is it possible, he asked himself, that a wonderful spice has been growing here for centuries and no one knows about it? What else is just waiting to be discovered in this gray country? Exactly how blind has everyone been?

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