Chefs cook with local touch

Photo shows a Nordic jury member at a dessert championship tasting a candidate's pastry. Picture: AFP

Sunday, November 14, 2010

NO OLIVE oil, garlic, lemon even chocolate: a new generation of Scandinavian chefs has broken the ice up North with a cuisine built around local, seasonal produce and pure, pared-down flavours.

Often trained abroad, many of these chefs are now coming home to Stockholm, Oslo, Reykjavik and Malmoe, turning their hand to local produce that was long dismissed as dull or austere.

"It's a cuisine born in a frozen land, and it takes that heritage on board," said Jean-Francois Rouquette, chef at the Park Hyatt hotel who recently invited Swedish duo Sebastian Persson and Ola Rudin to showcase their skills in Paris.

One of the drivers of the Nordic food revolution, the Danish restaurant Noma was this year named the world's best table by Britain's Restaurant Magazine, winning plaudits for radically local dishes such as radishes in edible soil.

Set up in a converted 18th century shipping warehouse, the Copenhagen restaurant took the crown held for four years by El Bulli, the famed table of the avant-gardist Catalan chef Ferran Adria.

Noma's young chef Rene Redzepi, who trained both at El Bulli and at the celebrated Napa Valley restaurant French Laundry, has banished the classic toolkit of gastronomy: foie gras and truffles imported from France and Italy.

Instead he made way for a new palette of flavours: musk ox, dried scallops, roots and elderberries.

In step with the Danish film directors who launched the "Dogma" charter calling for simplicity in movie-making in 1995, Redzepi and around 15 fellow chefs have published what they call a Manifesto for the New Nordic Kitchen.

Article one of the 10-point text pledges to "express the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics that we would like to associate with our region."

Many of the Nordic chefs grow their own vegetables, and gather wild produce in the forest, on the beach or in the fields. To keep eating local through the harsh winters, they dry, salt, smoke and pickle their food just like their forebears. "Finding good local produce is still a struggle. It's easier to get great products from Italy than from northern Sweden," said Rudin, who with Persson mans the kitchens of the Trio restaurant in Malmoe. "Nuts, mushrooms, berries, herbs, fruits, we pick ourselves. We go picking on Mondays," added Persson.

Adria's influence is obvious in the Nordic movement, his avant-gardist techniques, his concentrations of flavours and a certain balance of playfulness and perfectionism.

Inside the restaurants themselves, the number of settings is kept deliberately low 16, never more in the case of Trio with the dishes often carried out to the table by the chefs themselves.

"It links everybody together," explained Rudin, 31. The choice of working with the humblest produce like carrots or cabbage often comes as a surprise to gourmet clients.

"Afterwards people say, 'Ah, if I could cook cabbage like that!"' joked Linda Milagros Violago, the Canadian sommelier at the Trio.

Rudin says the challenge is "to make something brilliant with something simple," using very few spices. "We keep everything very Swedish, with pure and natural flavours." AFP