Claus Meyer, Denmark’s most famous food personality, lives in a handsome, sprawling house in western Copenhagen. There’s vaguely exotic electronic lounge music on the stereo, a Hans J. Wegner Ox chair in the living room and a big kitchen surrounded by pantries stacked with dried goods, but what Meyer really wants his visitors to see is in the stables behind the house. The horses are long gone, and in their place are stacked casks of juniper, cherry and mulberry, all filled with fermenting apple or plum juice. In his stables, Meyer is trying to make a Danish vinegar to rival the best vinegars in the world.
It’s a typical Meyer project, brilliant and vaguely quixotic; the sort of project that helped him rise from an evangelizing university student walking around the streets of Copenhagen, demanding that strangers taste foods he’d prepared, to a TV cooking-show host with a series of cookbooks and various food businesses, including two Meyers Delis, Noma (which offers modern Nordic-inflected cuisine) and a selection of regional preserves and prepared foods. This month, Meyer will introduce contemporary Danish food to U.S. audiences on American Public Television’s New Scandinavian Cooking.
"There is no great cooking without acidity," he says firmly, reeling off a list of ingredients that includes Spanish sherry vinegar and the tart Japanese citrus yuzu. "But in Denmark, all we had was industrial beet vinegar, the cheapest there is, without nuance or depth." His dream is to create a Danish equivalent of the famed Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.
For six years now, he’s been aging his own plum and apple balsamics. In the stables, we taste the younger vinegars; they are sharp and unrefined. Pretending I have an option, he says, "Would you like to taste the older vinegar?" Holding a candle, he follows me up the tiniest, slipperiest spiral staircase I have ever seen, each "step" a stick of dark, damp wood.
With the air of a book connoisseur selecting a volume to show off, Meyer chooses a five-year-old apple vinegar, the mahogany syrup burnished gold in the candlelight. The vinegar is extraordinary, clear and sharp; its purity and its history are a perfect example of the promise of the Nordic cuisine that is Meyer’s mission in life.
A lanky 43-year-old with perpetually mussed fair hair and flushed cheeks, Meyer has the air of a boy who’s just been chased out of an orchard. In 2004 he was a principal architect of the "Manifesto for the New Nordic Cuisine"; endorsed by some of Scandinavia’s greatest chefs, it called for the embrace of regional and traditional foods and a return to artisanal production. In short, Meyer is Scandinavia’s answer to James Beard and Alice Waters, a passionate, articulate spokesman for the wonders of the Nordic table, who’s eager to talk about Finland’s 50 different types of berries, about musk ox from the Arctic Circle, about how differences in salinity can affect the flavors of fish from the salty North Atlantic to the brackish or fresh waters of the Gulf of Bothnia.
But Meyer knew that fine Nordic ingredients by themselves would attract only limited attention; there needed to be a showplace where people could see and taste for themselves what Nordic cuisine could be. When a prime restaurant space became available on Copenhagen’s lovely harbor in an old warehouse (redeveloped as a center for North Atlantic culture), he approached René Redzepi, an extraordinary chef who’d made a name for himself at Kong Hans Kælder and Pierre André, two of Copenhagen’s finest restaurants. Together they opened Noma.
Redzepi was an inspired choice: He had trained in Denmark but had also apprenticed with some of the most influential chefs in the world. After time with Ferran Adrià at Spain’s El Bulli and Thomas Keller at Napa Valley’s French Laundry, he could pretty much work in any restaurant, cooking any food he wanted. That he chose to open a restaurant devoted to New Nordic cuisine was itself a bold declaration of intent.
The question for Meyer and Redzepi then became, what, actually, is Nordic food? Meyer says much of his passion for good food was a reaction to his childhood, claiming that he "grew up on tinned meat and frozen carrots." Redzepi’s early experience of food was far richer; his father was a serious cook, and when Redzepi used to visit relatives in rural Macedonia, he milked cows, churned butter and foraged for wild foods. Though both respected the traditions of Scandinavian food, heavily reliant on smoking, curing and other methods of preservation, they felt that their New Nordic cuisine should transcend those techniques and explore the region’s relatively overlooked fish, game and produce, from the Arctic tundra to the Norwegian fjords, as well as utilize more contemporary approaches to cooking.
To flesh out their ideas for Noma, the two traveled around the North Atlantic, tasting everything from horse mussels in the Faeroe Islands north of Scotland to auk intestines in Greenland. The trip shaped the manifesto for the new cuisine but also bedeviled Redzepi, who quickly learned that it was nearly impossible to get the astonishing produce he discovered to Copenhagen. Indeed, the chef says that when they opened Noma at the end of 2003, his biggest nightmare was trying to source his far-flung ingredients. Redzepi estimates that, compared to the average Danish restaurant, he currently deals with three times as many producers, who supply him with everything from Icelandic skyr (a yogurtlike cultured milk product) to surprisingly good truffles from Gotland in Sweden.
Noma is the sort of bare, beautiful space that articulates the purity of Scandinavian design. In the daytime, light pours in from large windows cut into the thick, whitewashed brick walls of the warehouse, splashing over bare smoked-oak tables and angular wood and leather chairs draped in sheepskins. The clientele is mixed, ranging from young people in jeans to sober-suited businessmen, and the service casual but quietly proud: The dishes are generally carried to the table by the chefs.
A meal at Noma is a flurry of precisely composed dishes that incorporate both familiar and wholly exotic ingredients, like musk ox or wild plants (in warm months, the cooks make frequent expeditions to the woods and the beaches, sometimes foraging with a naturalist for herbs and seaweeds). Redzepi says, "The taste of Noma is light, subtle. Clean. The flavor shouldn’t hit you in the face—you have to taste the food and find the flavors yourself."
There’s also a sense of playfulness that Redzepi cites as one of Adrià’s strongest influences on his food, and it’s found in dishes like an appetizer of sheets of deep-fried chicken skin and beautifully stippled, crispy cod skin (only slightly marine in flavor); a large potato chip dusted with dried seaweed; and a traditional Nordic flatbread served with a half-cooked egg yolk and a cèpe mayonnaise.
At the French Laundry, Keller’s delight in and devotion to seasonal and regional ingredients echoes Redzepi’s own interests. Today Redzepi serves musk ox from the west coast of Greenland with fragrant pureed apples and raw golden nettles, setting a reindeer-horn knife alongside the plate. A particularly striking example of the chef’s fondness for terroir is an unusual dessert: an airy sheep’s-milk mousse served with a brilliant green granita of local grasses that perfectly captures the citrusy flavor of the pale blades. In the hands of a lesser chef, the dish would seem an absurd indictment of foodie excess, but in the context of Noma, the dessert works perfectly.
Redzepi’s cooking has a number of distinct signatures. He has an almost surgically precise skill with acidity, using pickled elderberries to brighten the buttery sautéed lobster he serves with tapioca braised in vinegar, and spiking the winter salad that accompanies his pan-fried scallops with mountain cranberries and slivers of tart, unripe strawberry. Particularly novel is his use of grains, which show up both in and sprinkled on top of dishes, like a rich potato puree, dolloped onto a smooth gray rock and covered with a "soil" of toasted-black brewer’s malt, the grain sweet and slightly crunchy.
Grain is also a key element of the øllebrød, a traditional Danish dish of rye bread stewed with beer that has a puddinglike texture; Redzepi serves his version with a gelatinized milk foam and skyr sorbet. The dish is typical of Redzepi’s revolutionary approach to the region’s culinary heritage, which he uses as a source of inspiration, rather than as a rigid formula. For instance, traditional Nordic cooks used burned hay as an ingredient in brining marinades for herring; Redzepi takes advantage of the hay’s color and flavor, rolling pink cylinders of sweet king crab in the slightly bitter, black ash.
Meyer says that other chefs resent the simple, seemingly obvious idea of offering Nordic food in a town where fine dining has always meant French, and the speed with which Noma won its Michelin star. Redzepi shrugs. "When we began, they nicknamed Noma ’the Bloody Whale,’ " he says, mentioning a few other less printable (and frankly bizarre) Nordic food-based insults. But now more Danish restaurants are featuring regional ingredients, and more chefs are working in the New Nordic idiom—talents like Robert Wåhlén at Stockholm’s Leijontornet, Eyvind Hellstrøm at Oslo’s Bagatelle and Magnus Ek at Oaxen Skärgårdskrog on the island of Oaxen near Stockholm.
During one of my meals at Noma, the fire alarm goes off; it’s a false alarm, but the restaurant dutifully empties, cooks and diners rubbing shoulders slightly awkwardly on the dock as they listen for the all clear. While we’re waiting, Redzepi points out the Custom House, a new Terence Conran gastrodome across the water. He tells me it has an American-style bar and grill, as well as Japanese and Italian fine-dining restaurants.
He shakes his head. "We’ve spent too long looking outside our borders; there’s been an increasing McDonaldsization of our country," Meyer says. "This Danish-Nordic food movement is still in its infancy. Come back in 10 or 15 years, and you’ll see what we’re about. But I’ll tell you one thing: If the energy stays like it is now, we’re pretty much unstoppable."
Jonathan Hayes, a forensic pathologist, writes about food and travel. His first novel, Precious Blood, will be out this fall.