Beyond Herring: How a Country With Limited Resources Became a Centre for Food Creativity

René Redzepi brought his childhood experiences of foraging local ingredients in Macedonia to his Copenhagen restaurant Noma
René Redzepi brought his childhood experiences of foraging local ingredients in Macedonia to his Copenhagen restaurant Noma | © Pierre Deschamps / © Magnolia Pictures / Courtesy of Everett Collection / Alamy Stock Photo
Want a douglas fir-infused spirit that changes subtly with the seasons? Come to Copenhagen. A 50-course tasting menu with a political agenda? You’ll find it in Copenhagen. How about a protein-rich Dogless Hotdog made from micro-algae? Copenhagen again.

Copenhagen has been a culinary marvel for a while now – with young chefs arriving from around the world to take on unpaid stages (internships) at the city’s top restaurants, in order to learn from its kitchen innovators.

But it wasn’t always that way – for a long time, Danish cuisine mostly revolved around pickled herring, pork and potatoes, and certainly wasn’t renowned as being particularly delicious, nor experimental. “Thirty years ago, it was nothing interesting,” says food critic Rasmus Palsgård. “You could find a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants, they were completely French,” he explains, but the general standard of Danish restaurants in the city was very different to today. “Mainly the restaurant scene was dominated by places serving industrial products.”

“The rest was not worth travelling for,” says Palsgård. “There were talented chefs focusing more and more on vegetables and local products – it’s not like they didn’t exist, but it was a tiny group of chefs and they weren’t shouting about what they did.”

The turning point can be traced easily back to Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant, which culinary entrepreneur Claus Meyer and chef René Redzepi opened together in 2003. Redzepi’s upbringing in Macedonia, where his family foraged, grew vegetables and kept animals, hugely influenced his approach at Noma.

Noma was a game changer for the culinary scene in Copenhagen | © Y.Levy / Alamy Stock Photo

“I think the main reason for the success is that Noma started appreciating local products and becoming proud of them,” says Palsgård. “Most chefs thought you had to import from France and Italy, but they started realising that you can actually find some pretty interesting stuff here – all the species of grains, wild herbs, local animals, game, mushrooms.”

Change didn’t happen overnight: in the early days, Redzepi would serve French dishes such as crème brûlée made with Danish cream and wild berries. “But then slowly they created their language,” says Palsgård, explaining that the kitchen favoured more and more foraged ingredients, further exploring wild Nordic flavours. The pivotal moment came in 2005–6, he says, when this new way of championing Nordic ingredients really began to take off.

Mark Emil, an Oxford-educated Dane who came to work with the Noma team after Redzepi read his article about food and identity, says Noma pioneered “time and place cooking – an expression of a particular place and time in a meal.” The restaurant has gone on to establish a generation of chefs not just in Copenhagen but around the world.

Noma restaurant was one of Copenhagen’s first restaurants to serve food based solely on Nordic ingredients | © Y.Levy / Alamy Stock Photo

“It’s less about Nordic cuisine as such; it just happened to happen here – you can take similar approaches all around the world,” says Emil. Copenhagen’s chefs became very good at “expressing nature” in their cooking by using wild ingredients from the local area. “I think it broke down the walls and the paradigms of French cooking, of molecular gastronomy, and broke down boundaries of how to explore the world through your palate.”

The change has permeated home kitchens, too – in Copenhagen and beyond. Palsgård suggests that while Danes aren’t cooking New Nordic fine dining at home, it has got more people interested in using better produce. “People are interested in cooking, maybe following the seasons a little more, pickling, preserving, fermenting and so on. Not everybody can afford to go to a Michelin-star restaurant, but most people will be able to try the best croissant or the best sourdough bread they can find. It’s democratising the good taste and the good flavours. It’s more accessible than ever before,” he says.

More affordable restaurants have opened up (Palsgård recommends Kaptajn, for stylish Nordic design and affordable food cooked at a high level, and Selma for creative takes on smørrebrød). Many are run by former fine-dining chefs from Copenhagen’s big-guns, such as Noma, Geranium or Amass (which is in turn run by a former Noma chef), who want to use quality seasonal ingredients in a more simple, informal way. “Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to find a restaurant that isn’t run by a former Noma alumnus,” adds Palsgård.

Noma shifted the focus to local, seasonal ingredients | © Niels Quist / Alamy Stock Photo

Emil is no different – he went on to co-found the distillery Empirical Spirits in 2017, with Lars Williams, whom he met while working at Noma. Rather than layering flavour on top of neutral alcohol, as most spirits-makers do, they bring cooking expertise into the alcohol-creation process – as well as fermentation techniques that Lars honed at Noma. Their Flora Danica spirit is made with douglas fir and other Danish wild botanicals, while a spirit called “Fuck Trump and His Stupid Fucking Wall” is made with habanero chilli, with a base of pearl barley, Belgian saison yeast and koji.

“I just got blown away by the obsession about flavours, ingredients, processes,” says Emil about his time at Noma. “We wanted to look for ways to have that same obsession with ingredients, processes, flavours and the micro-view that you have in a restaurant but flip that into something that could travel and be shared across the world.”

Like top chefs, Emil and Williams value close relationships with producers, and everything they make is seasonal. The use of fresh ingredients can affect the taste of the drinks they create – the flavour of a douglas fir needle changes noticeably depending on whether it’s used in spring or autumn, which they allow to influence the final product. At their central Copenhagen location (where they also run guided tastings), they also make hot sauce, shoyu (Japanese-style soy sauce) and kombucha, for a selection of “provisions” (condiments) as well, which help use up some of the spent grains from the alcohol-making process. These appear at the pop-up events they run with restaurants in cities around the world.

Fresh ingredients take centre stage at Noma | © Giovanni Tagini / Alamy Stock Photo

Empirical Spirits isn’t alone in the drive to do things in unique, hyper-focused ways in Copenhagen. When he created his 50-course tasting menu at the restaurant Alchemist, which confronts diners with political and ethical issues – from cod jaw topped with edible plastic to a blood diamond gazpacho – Rasmus Munk drafted in experts ranging from food philosophers to dramaturgs to get the overall experience just right.

Noma continues to innovate, too: with lofty-sounding positions including a head of culinary research, who ensures dishes come to the table correctly from behind the scenes, studying everything from consistency to temperature. Their work goes beyond perfecting their Copenhagen spot – for example, the restaurant’s Mad Symposium happens every year to discuss the future of food, and it’s also working to support restaurants that are adapting to the current coronavirus crisis.

Since the introduction of New Nordic cuisine, Copenhagen has been a culinary destination for some years now – and it’s still pushing forward and innovating like never before. At Amass, head chef Matt Orlando caught public attention by shutting off the power during the middle of service to mark Earth Hour in 2017 – forcing chefs to get creative with raw ingredients and cooking with fire.

Restaurant Noma started the movement that has turned Copenhagen into a foodie destination | © Giovanni Tagini / Alamy Stock Photo

Like other major cities, the appetite for sustainability in the food sector is a significant one. Simon Perez, a chef and food designer at Ikea’s Space10 food lab in Copenhagen’s Meatpacking District, says of the city’s developing food scene: “The biggest change for me has been the shift from just making delicious and extraordinary experiences to really start pushing a more sustainable food agenda.”

That Ikea – the sixth-largest food chain in the world – chose to bring its food-innovation lab to Copenhagen says a lot. The lab’s main aim is to find ways of producing food to support the world’s population as it grows, creating “future-proof recipes that played around with different future food trends, from cooking with algae to using recycled coffee grounds to grow mushrooms and then make a delicious ramen out of them,” says Perez.

And the algae? That’s turned into a hot dog, made with spirulina. The micro-algae contains 50 times more iron than spinach and more protein than a real hot dog – the UN called it the “most ideal food for mankind.” It doesn’t have a reputation for being particularly delicious – but then if anyone can turn that around, our money’s on Copenhagen.

Chef René Redzepi’s Noma has exported its alumni to restaurants around the world | © Giovanni Tagini / Alamy Stock Photo