Noma ‘the Holy Grail’, culinary trails and the search for authenticity & identity.

Please, before you start reading this article I want to make sure you know that I am not trying to attack Noma or talk bad about the restaurant in any way. I just think that there is a much bigger ecosystem surrounding Danish gastronomy than Noma and the other top-rated, fine-dining Michelin awarded restaurants in the heart of Copenhagen. I am just one voice in the choir, and I am just an ordinary person trying to educate myself, so if you have any valuable insights, comments or different views on this subject, please do comment.

Last week I was in Sweden attending the World Food Travel Summit, an event organized by the World Food Travel Association together with the Swedish Tourism Board, VisitSweden. It was indeed wonderful to get to socialize with a bunch of people who share my two greatest passions; traveling and food. This whole event was based to a large extent on trends and developments in the Nordic food industry, with emphasis on Sweden, which is something I found both interesting and relevant, as I wrote my thesis on that exact topic, but in Denmark. During the days in Sweden I ate some of the most delicious dishes; cured reindeer, goat cheese, pickled herring, deer sausages, sea buckthorn, crayfish and shrimps, all with a Swedish twist. I have been drinking the most incredible beverages from Swedish apple juice and locally produced wine, to beer and ‘aquavit’, a traditional Scandinavian Liquor, which all made me realize (yet again) how rich ‘our northern European region’ is on local produce, traditional food and magical chefs and culinary pioneers.

One thing that I noted was that I kept hearing people talking about Noma and the great asset this one restaurant is to Denmark, both in terms of economy, cultural identity and Danes’ awareness of food, health and sustainability, as it uses local/regional sourcing and favors our ‘regions’ suppliers over people from far-away regions. I heard Matt Goulding from Roads and Kingdoms talk about the phenomenon ‘Nomanomics’, which basically is the effect Noma has had on Denmark. A domino-like effect, which made everything escalade in Denmark. It started a culinary revolution, which created an environment for chefs to unfold and help putting Denmark (or rather Copenhagen) on the world’s map of great culinary experiences, has had an economic impact on our capital city and as well as others (through the restaurant’s supply chain). So isn’t this all good? A happy story about a few guys from Denmark who set out to transform Danish gastronomy and ends up having an economic impact on the capital city, as well as the different links of the supply chain. I think we need to analyze the phenomena of Nomanomics more in depth.

Noma is one single restaurant. 20.000 people can eat there every year, and with a price tag of almost 1000 USD many ‘ordinary’ individuals will most likely stay away. Moreover, although I believe that Noma has done very much for Danish gastronomy and the way Danes see and experience food, I also do believe that Noma is only one dimension of Danish gastronomy.  It seems that everybody looks at Noma as the Holy Grail, a unique story of how few people can re-invent what is Danish and save our country on multiple levels.

I find this pretty frustrating. Don’t get me wrong. There is no doubt that Noma has done an amazing job helping to redefine and set new standards for not just Danish fine dining, but for Northern European gourmet food and experimental cooking and dining. I want to stress that this article is not a crusade against Noma, because I respect Claus Meyer and Rene Redzepi, along with the rest of the Noma crew immensely, but I do think we have to look at Noma with less romantic eyes and understand what Noma has done, and what Noma has not done. Let’s talk about the sustainability aspect. This is something that I have heard so many times: eating at Noma is more sustainable than eating at a French or Italian restaurant in Copenhagen. I don’t understand why people would say that? How is Noma any more sustainable than an Italian Restaurant in Copenhagen? I think it is worthwhile to remember that the distance from Copenhagen to Greenland (where some ingredients are sourced) is further than the distance from Denmark to northern Africa, and that the Noma cookbook has been printed in China, so why is it that Noma is seen as a success story when it comes to ‘local resources’ and ‘sustainability’? Italian restaurants might use Italian traditions and techniques to prepare meals but when preparing the fresh pasta they will not import Italian eggs, as this is a logistical as well as an economical nightmare, so let’s agree that both Noma as well as restaurants of foreign cuisines has a mix of local and imported ingredients. Talking about local sourcing of ingredients I think we should celebrate restaurants such as Kadeau instead, which basically sources everything from the Island of Bornholm, and reflects culinary history through fine dining and gourmet experiences.

Food helps define a country and says a lot about the regional/national culture and history, but if you ask me, Noma’s food doesn’t say much about Denmark – and I know that Noma is a portmanteau of the two Danish words Nordisk (Nordic) and mad (food), so Noma never claimed to serve Danish food, but rather Nordic. Still, looking at the Nordic countries I don’t remember that we ever ate ants and live shrimps; this is not (yet?) a part of our culture. Of course cuisines are evolving over time and we should be open to change. Change means to adopt and adapt, and without this the Italian food culture would not have been what it is today as the symbol of Italian food, the ‘pomodoro’, or tomato, didn’t see the Italian sunlight until it was brought back from The New World in the 16th century. Anyways, if you ask me, eating an ant is no different than eating a cow, so I am not against the fact that Noma serves them, in fact I think it is quite brilliant, but this is not (yet) a part of our culture.

Most elements of culture are rather perceptional and intangible. Food is one of the few tangible gateways to culture and therefore food should express what its region is all about. Take a look at India and think about their food culture(s) for a second. Indian food uses a great variety of spices and, for some, exotic ingredients, which are either native to the country, or which are easily grown in that particular climate, hence reflects both climate and geography. Also it reflects the country’s strong position in the spice trade between Europe, Asia and Africa during the Age of Discovery. The cuisine reflects religious beliefs, as there are many Hindus who do not eat beef and many Muslims who do not eat pork. Other Asian cuisines such as the Cambodian and the Chinese witness years of food scarcity in the relatively small amounts of meats consumed, as well as the, for some, bizarre varieties of alternative protein sources which can be found in regional foods and cooking. What I want to stress is that ultimately, food is history and food is culture.

Noma is an edible picture of the Nordic regions resources, rearranged and cooked in ways most people would never understand or be able to replicate at home, as these techniques require much more than the ‘ordinary’ home appliances. I think you get my point; Noma is only one element of the culinary unity of Denmark (and Scandinavia, and the Northern European countries), and we should also celebrate our culinary history by looking as such restaurants as Grød in the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen, which serves porridge – now this is a part of culinary Danish history!

Now, let’s talk a little bit about traveling, and the role of food when traveling. Let’s agree that everybody has to eat while traveling, some do it because they want to survive while others do it because they are interested in local cuisines and want to explore the culinary aspects of the destinations they visit. People going to Denmark, will they go to eat at Noma? Probably not. First of all, eating at Noma comes with a hefty price tag of close to 1000 USD. Moreover Noma serves food for 20.000 people every year and getting a seat at ‘the world’s second best restaurant’ is somewhat close to impossible, so alternatives should be marketed and made accessible for the ‘ordinary traveler’. Matt Goulding also talks about other restaurants in Copenhagen such as Relæ, and while these are good alternatives to Noma, are they what regular people seek? No. People might want to go to an expensive neo-scandi style restaurant once to see what all the fuss is about, but after that, they might just want to check out the local diners, have a hotdog, try a locally produced beer or grab a cinnamon bun.

If you are not Danish and you are reading this article I would like you to think about the culinary culture of Denmark and mention three ‘known’ dishes from this country. Oh, you cant? So you have heard about Noma, but you cannot mention one single element of the Danish food culture. How can a country have the world’s best restaurant three years in a row, and be home to Rasmus Kofoed, who has won the title as the world’s best chef, without people knowing what Danish food is? I would like you to do the same exercise, but instead of Denmark, think of France or Italy. Try to mention as many foods and dishes as you can possibly think of from either of these countries, and then try to mention as many fine-dining/gourmet/Michelin restaurants as you know. I am 100% sure that you know more about the food of the country than the ‘fancy’ restaurants. How can that be? Well, Noma is the uncrowned king of Danish food and has brought a sense of pride to the country as it has given foodies something to be proud of; a strong position as a culinary rich nation. To many people in Denmark, Noma means that Danish food has conquered the world and that our country has now been recognized as a country of great cuisine(s) and is now a nation with a strong culinary image. In this age of foodies and cooking shows, where cooking is seen as a ‘sexy pastime’, Noma has made Danes proud – and so should it!! It has given most of the culinary oriented Danes something to talk about. VisitDenmark, the national tourism board of Denmark, is using Noma as a one-way ticket to paradise, and is branding Copenhagen as the culinary capital of Scandinavia. If you are interested in culinary travels and you visit VisitDenmark’s website, chances are that you might read about Noma 20 times before you find anything about Danish beer, Danish cured ham, peasant food and ‘real’ Danish food such as delicious pickled herrings. Is our culinary heritage reflected through this website? No, not at all. Unless you very goal-oriented look for the culinary attributes of Denmark, all you find is Noma and high-class New Nordic Cuisine dining experiences. Why don’t we look at the Danish countryside? Why don’t we looks at the rest of the country and celebrate the local culinary cultures and treasures? Copenhagen. Copenhagen. Copenhagen. It is all about Copenhagen. There is so much more to Denmark than our Capital city, so why not look a little bit on the other aspects of the country? I hear that Copenhagen has seen an 11% increase in tourism after Noma started operating, but I would like to stress that in that very same period, the Danish west-coast has been suffering, and trying to recover lost markets from Germany has been difficult. Noma’s financial impact on Denmark is minimal. There is a supply chain and farmers around Denmark (and the rest of Northern Europe) might earn a buck or two, but 20.000 people is nothing when it comes to incoming tourism – anyways, many of these tourists are domestic travelers. Also, promoting local initiatives in Denmark means less leakage and allows more money to stay in the country. I am not saying that we should not support Noma, but when we source truffles from Gotland and game from Greenland there will of course be a financial leakage, which will not be there if we were to celebrate strictly local/national produce.

I know that Noma has given Denmark several things, and I am very grateful. Noma HAS indeed helped Denmark to gain recognition and has provided the country with a platform for chefs to be creative. Also, there is no doubt that Noma has been good for branding purposes, but I do think we should be more realistic, and analyze Denmark and the whole eating environment before we crown Noma and turn into a bunch of Noma Royalists. I, for one, think that VisitDenmark is doing a very bad job reflecting our food culture. Noma might be a part of our culture, and eating ants and live shrimps might soon be too, but there is more to Danish food than Noma, and there is more to Denmark than Copenhagen.

I would like to draw your attention to Sweden’s attempt to brand their country as ‘The New Culinary Nation’. This little video reflects Sweden’s diversity and reveals a nation with a broader culinary pride and understanding, and recognizes the country’s diversity: high-class dining and peasant food. This is something people can relate to. I think VisitDenmark could learn a great deal from this campaign. Using only Noma to promote Danish food trails is like using Taj Mahal to promote Indian culture, or the Eiffel Tower to promote architecture in France. Let’s agree that these are both important (and strategic!) elements, but are still just parts of a greater cultural and economical biome. Enjoy the video and please do comment!