Can the World's Best Chef Teach Danes the Joy of Hay?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ben Stansall / AFP / Getty Images

Chef Rene Redzepi of Danish restaurant Noma speaks to the media after winning first place at the S.Pellegrino 'World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards 2011,' in London, on April 18, 2011

Mette Kloppenborg never thought she'd see the day. For the past 25 years, the Jutland cook has worked to convince her fellow Danes to eschew imported tomatoes and cucumbers in favor of local, organic foods. But on Sunday, as she volunteered in her mud-caked boots on the fairgrounds of Copenhagen's MAD FoodCamp, selling fennel and celery, she realized she no longer felt so alone in her battles. "This couldn't have happened even five years ago," she says, gesturing around at the crowds perusing rare varieties of Danish honey and making paintings with cut cabbages. "People in Denmark are finally starting to care about food. Something's definitely changed."

It's not too great a stretch to argue that that something is thanks to René Redzepi. With his inventive dishes at Noma, which Restaurant magazine has declared best in the world for the last two years, the 33-year-old chef has taught the gastronomic world to appreciate the pleasures of what he calls new Nordic cuisine. Now, with the first ever MAD FoodCamp ('mad' means 'food' in Danish) which ran this past weekend, he's trying to convince his fellow Danes of the same thing. "For so long, we Danes didn't have a cuisine," he says. "We're Protestants, so food was just about sustenance, never pleasure. You eat your meat and potatoes and go back to work."

In 2004 Redzepi and his partner Claus Meyer published a manifesto, calling on chefs in the region to abandon their slavish adherence to the foie gras and cream sauces (and even foreign invaders like olive oil and lemons) which were then considered standard restaurant fare, and instead embrace local ingredients and native techniques. This early effort to create a Nordic cuisine was met with ridicule by locals who went so far as to tag him with a nickname that involves doing unmentionable things to seals. But with the new flavors and textures evoked by Redzepi's delicious dishes like hay-smoked quail eggs and sorrel-topped musk ox tartare, Noma soon became an international foodie destination. And the chef's ideals inspired dozens of young Scandinavian chefs to find new ingredients literally in their own backyards (and in forests and on beaches — foraging is an important element in new Nordic cuisine).

The MAD FoodCamp is Redzepi's effort to take that message about the pleasures of local food to a broader public. While a symposium held in a circus tent on the fairgrounds brought chefs, scientists, and policy experts from around the globe to discuss how to improve food, the rest of the festival was decidedly local. At a farmers' market, producers from all over Denmark sold pumpkins and herbs, while a series of workshops offered lessons in everything from composting to learning to cook with Danish seaweed. Appropriately enough, there was even a national hay contest (points awarded for aroma and flavor), now that chefs from Spain to California have followed Redzepi's example and adopted it as a cult ingredient.

Soren Wiuff was at the festival both to speak at the symposium and to sell the vegetables he raises on his farm outside of Copenhagen. When he first met Redzepi in the early years of Noma, Wiuff grew mainly one thing: carrots, and lots of them. But at the behest of the young chef, he not only learned to diversify into heritage breeds, but also began experimenting with his land's possibilities. Piling a bunch of dirty leeks onto the symposium stage, he explained how he discovered, for example, that native leeks left in the ground over winter breed delicious tiny onions just above their roots. Later, he was eager to talk about how his collaboration with Noma has changed his life. "Because of this new Nordic wave, other farmers are starting to get interested in this as well," he said with a bit of wonder in his voice. "People want to listen to me now."

And so, it appears, do ordinary Danes. Nearly 3,000 people bought tickets to the FoodCamp, despite volatile weather that at times threatened to turn the fairgrounds into a culinary version of the famously soaked Glastonbury music festival. As they tromped through thick mud on the way to lunch, university student Stine Palle and her friend Marianne Thejls, a teacher, marveled at the turnout. "Before, whenever I would try to tell someone about Danish food, I never knew what to say because it was all so bland," said Thejls. "Now, it's the most exciting cuisine there is."