05.21.12

Denmark’s New Nordic Cuisine Beyond Noma

It may be the best restaurant in the world, but Noma has a lot of interesting and creative competitors in its own country. Sophie Menin forages for the best culinary stars in Denmark.

The story of Noma is a modern-day culinary fairy tale. The Copenhagen restaurant rocketed to international prominence when it replaced El Bulli as the world’s top restaurant on the influential San Pellegrino list in 2010 and remained in the number one spot in 2011 and 2012. With the swift swing of a pendulum, conversation in the food world shifted from molecular gastronomy in Catalonia to the New Nordic Cuisine in Copenhagen. Réne Redzepi, Noma’s visionary executive chef, became an instant global celebrity.

Today most people who follow restaurants know Noma, yet few outside Denmark realize Redzepi is far from a lone maverick. The new Nordic cuisine is nothing short of a national movement, complete with a manifesto and an army of acolytes. Talented young chefs dedicated to exploring the intersection of Nordic food and Denmark’s unique landscape abound in Copenhagen, which earned a total of 14 stars from the Michelin guide this year.

This new generation of Danish culinary professionals are in rapture over the notion that their asparagus possesses a distinctive, woodsy flavor due to spending three to four weeks longer in the earth than asparagus from France or England; that rapeseed oil is creamier than olive oil and has a higher smoke-point; and that shavings of unripe gooseberries can have the same effect as a squeeze of lemon.   

For those willing to journey outside the capital and experience the northern reaches and outer islands of Denmark, the new Nordic cuisine has produced three standout restaurants: Jutland’s Malling & Schmidt, Funen’s Restaurant 5, and Falsled Kro. All are run by young, gorgeous husband-and-wife teams, in which the husband helms the kitchen and the wife commands the dining room. These restaurants are modern, yet upon visiting them, one is brought back to simpler times when the world’s top dining establishments were family rather than corporate endeavors.

Malling & Schmidt is widely considered to be the most important restaurant in Denmark outside of Noma. Chef Thorsten Schmidt is a master of marrying the pyrotechnics of molecular gastronomy with the purity and unadulterated aesthetics of Danish design. In a restaurant that fills all the corners of a white villa in the thriving seaside university town of Aarhus, he showcases the foods of Jutland, the Danish peninsula bordered by Germany and the North Sea.

Picture Alice Waters in the kitchen with the painter Joan Miró and you get a feel for the creative atmosphere.

Malling & Schmidt’s immaculate lab-like kitchen opens onto a spare lounge with modernist furniture. Tables are simple wood planks that showcase the work of the six designers Schmidt commissioned to craft serving sculptures, the most spectacular being a wooden bird’s nest used to present smoked quail eggs infused with pigeon jus. Menu highlights include lobster “à la press,” with unripe gooseberries, new potatoes, lovage (an herb similar to celery leaf), aged Svenbo (a cheese akin to Emmental) and hay-smoked egg yolk. Rikke Malling, Schmidt’s partner and wife, ensures seamless service in a warm, relaxed atmosphere. She has curated a world-class wine list focused on small European producers.

Restaurant 5 takes its name from the first number of the zip code for all towns on the island of Funen. Located in Svenborg, the harbor town on Funen’s southern coast where yachts and freight ships parade against a pastoral backdrop, the restaurant is decidedly more casual than Malling & Schmidt, but the kitchen is no less serious. Its British chef and owner, Jeff Scott Foster, trained at Le Gavroche in London before wedding Nina Brix, a Funen native and his partner in the restaurant. Here sustainable seasonal ingredients from the island are a starting point for culinary expression; in fact, 90 percent of all the raw materials used by the kitchen are sourced from Funen’s 1,100 square miles. 

Meals begin with a glass of sparkling apple cider from nearby Ørbæk and a cakelike focaccia made with local rapeseed oil. In season, the fish course may be an artful assembly of coriander-cured cod with rosehip ketchup, pickled cucumber, Fjord shrimp, and wood sorrel, and the meat course may be a delicate fillet of veal poached in a fragrant herb bouillon with smoked marrow. Desserts are made from local fruits, cheeses, and chocolates. The restaurant takes special care to create memorable dining experiences for the entire family. In lieu of a children’s menu, young diners are given activities such as mixing their own sauces or decorating parfait glasses for Knickerbocker sundaes.

The Falsled Kro dining program foreshadowed the new Nordic cuisine by nearly 40 years. The celebrated restaurant in a coastal Relais & Château property opened in 1971 under the leadership of the French chef Michel Michaud, who was charged with creating a menu marrying French cuisine with Funen’s natural bounty. Ellen and Jean-Louis Lieffroy took over shortly afterwards. They built a smokehouse, planted extensive gardens, and curated an enviable wine cellar.  During his nearly 40 years at the helm of the Falsled Kro kitchen, Jean-Louis Lieffroy earned admirers the world over for his seasonal “almanac” cooking.    

In 2009 chef Per Hallundbæk and his wife, the manager Randi Schmidt, were given the task of reimagining Falsled Kro for the new millennium. Hallundbæk, who is known for clean, light-drenched cooking with a Nordic twist, expanded the gardens and orchards and placed vegetables at center stage in preparations such as white-and-green asparagus with langoustines. He also created dishes that directly mirror Funen’s countryside, such as Bucks in the Forest, which pairs venison with ramson (wild garlic) and sweet woodruff.  

Dedicated culinary artisans have emerged throughout Denmark to support these chefs’ efforts to forge a cuisine that is authentically Nordic. Karsten Kjer Michaelsen created AquaVitae Sydfyn, the first distillery to craft fruit spirits using produce from orchards at the northern boundary of the zone in which it is possible to cultivate apples, pears, cherries, and plums. Jørgen Hoff of Gundestrup Dairy and Brewery makes a specialty beer from the whey of his soft smoked Rygeost cheese. Konnerup is infusing world-class chocolates with aromatic ingredients from the Scandinavian countryside. Even Arla, the global dairy company owned cooperatively by 10,000 Danish farmers, now has a research laboratory called Unika (Utopia) dedicated to making small-production artisanal cheeses using raw milk and indigenous leaves, needles, root, and seeds. 

It is said that the new Nordic cuisine has two spiritual fathers: Thomas Keller for his purity of ingredients and deep connection to the natural world, and Ferran Adria for his artistry and freedom from traditional French cooking (though devotees of the Nordic style reject what they perceive to be Adria’s proclivity for deception). Picture Alice Waters in the kitchen with the painter Joan Miró and you get a feel for the creative atmosphere. Danish chefs are finally doing what Danish architects and designers have been doing for a hundred years: bringing nature indoors with a playful flight of imagination. 

While NOMA is Denmark’s culinary Cinderella story and Copenhagen is now a world-class dining destination, the broader more compelling narrative may not be that of a new cosmopolitan hotbed of culinary tourism, but rather the tale of an entire country redefining itself through gastronomy. There are a lot of places in the world to travel to eat deliciously, but there are few where cooking holds such a sense of urgency and excitement.