In the grocery stores of Chicago the leafy green, Escarole, a less bitter member of the Endive family, still sounds foreign. The lemony, berry tones of Sorrel is only to be found at relatively expensive, grassroots farmer’s markets, and it’s sold in small quantities. On the other side of the Atlantic, Rene Redzepi, owner of Noma, once exalted as the world’s No. 1 restaurant (now it’s at No.2, none too shabby) is leap years ahead —or should we say, behind—us, navigating the riches of all plants, weeds, roots and shoots alike, with equal parts wonder and expertise.
At his restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen, Redzepi restricts himself to ingredients solely based in the Nordic region. The only exceptions might be coffee, and perhaps, on great occasion, the cocoa bean. But that’s it. You are more likely to find pine and carrot on Noma’s dessert menu than chocolate cake.
Currently, Noma costs about $800 for a 20 course meal for two (including a very expensive bottle of wine) in a secluded, gorgeous and immersive restaurant.
But if we all (starting with chefs) became a little more educated about our immediate environments…could this be the future of dining? With concerns about carbon emissions accrued during imports and the flavorless produce that often accompanies it, perhaps not just local, but hyperlocal cuisine will become standardized in the future. The infinite numbers of plant varietals might be folded into mainstream cooking in a way that would allow soil to rest and recover, and food supplies wouldn’t be as vulnerable to pests and disease, since only a few types of edibles would be decimated during an outbreak.
Chef René Redzepi spends much of his time exploring the native landscape of Copenhagen, finding unique flavor properties about not just the conventional plants that we normally find in grocery stores, but their accompanying blossoms, stalks and branches—even bark and cricketpaste (exactly how it sounds) find their way onto his menu. Not only does he pluck less popular foliage, he also experiments with non-traditional preparations. On PBS’ Mind of a Chef, Redzepi and Chef David Chang bite into an apple that he had saved from the prior year’s yield. Another recipe involves a 2-year old “vintage” carrot.
Redzepi even has a dish called “trash dish”, where he makes use of conventionally “old” vegetables, delicately layering the skin of scalded milk on top as a sort of flavorful blanket (above, with lovage and potatoes.) Combine that with his use of crickets and ants, and the principles he runs his restaurant on start to align very closely with environmentally conscious ones, especially when you consider that global food shortages might propel bugs to be a more widely used source of protein (and please excuse my eurocentricity here). Not to mention Redzepi employs biodiversity in his cuisine in a way that makes ramps and amaranth sound as mainstream as apples and oranges. He views commonly discarded elements with a new lens, and using creativity, skill, and yes, quite a bit of expensive equipment, has turned it into his own brand of hyperlocal, visually stunning and unanimously exalted cuisine.
If Redzepi’s approach trickles down into restaurants that are not prohibitively expensive for most of us, if botany and cooking become more closely intertwined, local gastronomy could evolve to incredible new heights, and evolving with it, new attitudes on the natural world and waste. Food waste, both industrial and at home, accounts for something like 40% of the edible food produced in America. Creative ways of seeing, borrowing from the history of our foraging ancestors and the advances in technology from our present day kitchens, allow for us to capture the romance of a quick grilled asparagus sieved into a brilliant sauce—and might just be the biggest step toward a sustainable food system yet.
All photos from the food writing and photography treasure pocketfork.com (http://pocketfork.com/denmark/noma/).