Lichen and Reindeer: Cooking It Raw in Lapland

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Erik Refner

From left: Chefs René Redzepi, Daniel Patterson and David Chang forage for ingredients in the woods near the town of Levi, Finland

It was somewhere between the lichen-foraging and the reindeer slaughter that Claude Bosi decided to roast potatoes in the sauna. Like the other chefs participating in the Cook It Raw gathering, the French-born Bosi, who runs the kitchen of London's acclaimed Hibiscus restaurant, had been charged with preparing a dish that reflected his current surroundings. "What is more Lapland," he asked his fellow chefs in thickly accented, Inspector Clouseau English, "than a sauna?"

Founded by Copenhagen-based culinary consultant Alessandro Porcelli, Cook It Raw takes a dozen or so of the world's best avant-garde chefs to an interesting corner of the globe and asks them to use what they discover there to reflect upon the future of gastronomy — and, not incidentally, to make dinner. For its third gathering (previous ones took place in Copenhagen and Collio, Italy), the chefs traveled overnight by train and bus to a destination above the Arctic Circle. They disembarked in the Lappish town of Levi, Finland, where by early September it was already deep into autumn. The dense woods were tinged with yellow.

If that seems an unlikely place for an extravagant meal, that's kind of the point. "It's about chemistry," explains Porcelli. "Cook It Raw is about what can spark when you bring people together in a magical place. It's about making them think about the way they cook."

For most of the chefs, that meant forgoing heirloom tomatoes and foie gras for Lapland's rough herbs and root vegetables. During a foraging trip into a forest where wild mushrooms, berries and moss grew abundantly, some of the chefs seemed a bit flummoxed by what to prepare. "I have a feeling everyone is going to end up with some version of raw fish with lichen," said David Chang, of New York City's Momofuku restaurants, as he pulled a furry-looking specimen from the damp rocks.

The chefs from Scandinavia were more at home. Magnus Nilsson, who runs the restaurant Faviken in Sweden, dropped quickly to his knees and started digging in the black soil when he came across a patch of a fernlike plant with young shoots that, he claimed, "taste like green hazelnuts." René Redzepi, whose Copenhagen restaurant Noma was named the best in the world earlier this year, was similarly ebullient about what he found in the woods. "Taste this," he said, extending a flat piece of deep green lichen with ruffled edges. "It's what elks eat. And it has this incredible mushroom flavor."

But everyone had to adjust to cooking in conditions far removed from their sophisticated kitchens at home. Massimo Bottura, of Osteria Francescana in the Italian city of Modena, took his own sous vide machines with him and set them up on the floor of his bathroom to slow-poach the reindeer tongues he would serve the following night. To his chagrin, Bosi learned that a sauna is not quite hot enough for roasting potatoes; he had to settle for an ordinary oven instead, though he first packed his spuds with moss to infuse them with local flavor.

In the end, the meal was an apt reflection of its setting. Reindeer blood figured heavily. Daniel Patterson, of San Francisco's Coi, stirred it into a sauce to accompany his roasted beets, while Alex Atala, of Brazil's D.O.M., piped it between sheets of pasta for ravioli. And in homage to the slaughter he had witnessed that morning, Yoshihiro Narisawa, chef of Les Créations de Narisawa in Tokyo, splattered lingonberry juice across white bowls filled with bear consommé and hare meat. When he was done, the area where he had been plating looked like a scene from Halloween II.

After serving his dessert, Albert Adrià, the former pastry chef of Spain's much feted El Bulli, stepped outside into the cold night. Asked what he would take with him from Lapland, he responded, "This land that is at once so austere and so rich." And then, looking up at the northern lights as they flashed phosphorescent green against the black sky, he added, "It's a great metaphor for a dish."