Interviews with six of the creators of the manifesto for the New Nordic Cuisine

Claus Meyer

By Karsten Thurfjell. karsten.thurfjell@sverigesradio.se

Claus Meyer

New Nordic Cuisine is the new normal
Now we should just move on, talk less about the New Nordic Cuisine and just let it become a part of our lives. Not cling to it as a sort of successful brand to preserve for 200-300 years, having to find budgets. These values are so normal. This is the new normal. Suddenly a large number of very important people, opinion makers, stakeholders with influence on other people´s lives, have come to the belief that the values imbedded in the New Nordic Cuisine manifesto is not some subjective trend. Our understanding of food culture and its impact on us and the next generations has simply risen to a new level where we take better decisions. In 2004 it looked like a revolution. Very soon, it will just be seen as a vehicle that has taken us to a new level of consciousness. It will slowly be a part of our educational system, how we will teach our children about food, agriculture and cooking.

Together with my ‘wingman’ Jan Krag Jacobsen, I spent six months preparing a draft of the manifesto. We invited the chefs to become involved in the process and told them that we would do the hard work, analysing the phenomenon and trying to come up with a starting point. Then we met and had a great discussion lasting 12-13 hours. It was very important that everyone took ownership to the writing and the ideology, and had a say about it. We began with 15-20 points, changed the words here and there, and ended up with ten points. It was a wonderful, quite productive, collaborative if not always harmonious process, and afterwards, we were prepared to sign the manifesto. The process, as well as the signing, was meant to inspire the chefs to take responsibility.

Just after this workshop, we held the New Nordic Cuisine Symposium. Lectures by qualified politicians, scientists, farmers, food industrialists, teachers, researchers, retailers and international chefs helped to explore the question with the audience: what would it take to become one of the greatest food regions in the world, and what would be the benefits further down the line? One important media director claimed that a New Nordic Cuisine was a potential billion kronor industry. Consequently, the idea of the manifesto was to formulate an inclusive ideology that could be a guiding light to all stakeholders.

It would also outline the evident win-win scenario – not only would gastronomy profit, but also our exports, tourism and health costs, it would be good for society, for every individual, for the future generations and for the world. The idea of a symposium and a workshop around the manifesto, with an ideology at the centre, signed by the most prominent chefs in Scandinavia, was that it could involve anyone. It became anchored in the Danish parliament because the food minister of that time fell in love with the idea. Under the Danish presidency, the Nordic Council of Ministers would formally add the ideology as a programme. This was an important aspect that meant that the movement quickly gained momentum.

We opened Noma one year before the symposium, and that work was linked to the preparations. We invited various expert groups to go through certain aspects of the ideas. We didn´t say “anyone who’s not working for biodiversity is out”. We tried, as you can read from the document, to say what had to be said in a more subtle, inclusive and engaging way that would not push people away, but bring them together. It shouldn´t become a niche cuisine. Instead it would have a critical mass and would be a standalone manifesto, with cooperation across national barriers and languages. It was important that it was Nordic and not Danish.

Regarding the manifesto, you can’t overestimate either the words or the importance of having the chefs standing up for some kind of paradigm shift or revolution. Before, they were just chefs cooking up great food in their restaurants, but afterwards they became role models for our civilisation and informal leader figures in this informal movement. They fulfilled their role perfectly and let themselves orchestrate in this direction. Now I think it’s common that a chef considers himself to be a potential role model in society with a certain responsibility.

The impact of Noma and its international success was, of course, an important part of the phenomenon. We didn´t count on that. We probably would have taken the New Nordic Cuisine somewhere without Noma, but it showed the potential in the ideas.

I never expected the chefs to become so important and inspiring for people working within the food industry in the Nordic region. They also inspired architects, the Danish school system and chefs all over the world. I only hope that it can be an instrument to inspire different stakeholders in the Nordic region to improve, for the big dairies to improve, for the breweries to be more ambitious, for politicians to take greater responsibility. For me, it was all about growing awareness of the potential of doing things in a better way, for the benefit of us all. And with very little formal support from the founding fathers and those who signed the manifesto, because basically all of us went back to our lives and continued to work. We had no presidency, no logo, no budget. But a lot of different stakeholders, independently of each other, in some sort of virus-like movement, have done what each could be expected to do. And finally, it looks like some sort of imperative.

Of course it takes longer for the large players in food production to react. We’ve seen some extraordinary changes: raw-milk cheese production has been allowed in Denmark, we’ve seen an atomisation of the Nordic brewing industry, with more than 120 new young vibrant microbreweries in Denmark alone. But to create the structures that supply totally outstanding food products that people want to buy at supermarkets, that’s the tougher part of the work. We’ve seen a lot of small, very successful food companies creating great products, based on local produce, really changing what you find on the shelves. Maybe the larger players don’t know how to deal with this. They have a different structure – they’re used to handling bulk products. But Carlsberg is a good example, when they created the Jacobsen microbrewery. That’s one of the most successful examples of how to turn the Nordic Cuisine phenomenon into industrial food production. Maybe the message is that the change in the production landscape should not come from the big companies, but from a large number of individual players within the industry, together forming a big volume in the end. I’m not sure that the proof of success would be that Lantmännen and Arla suddenly changed their bread and cheese approach overnight. Maybe they should just slowly downsize, as a result of the competition and the change of values in society, and then wake up to a new reality.

There might well be ten thousand different ways of implementing the New Nordic Cuisine. The movement and the ideology doesn´t say anything about how to cook the food. Noma got so much attention initially that people tend to get the two things mixed up and say that New Nordic Cuisine is the way they cook at Noma. But, for me, Noma is just one very extreme expression of the ideas in this ideology. The point of the success with certain restaurants is the idea of inspiring society and being a catalyst for a change process, reaching many more people´s lives. For me it can be a hospital, a company canteen or a private housewife making something out of apples and cabbage. There is definitely no telling what the food has to look like, whether it’s complex or simple on the plate. Also, the manifesto does not define when something is New Nordic Cuisine and when it is not. Nothing tells you how many grams of Peruvian chili you can have in a stew before it becomes un-Nordic. That´s not what we wanted to do.

The whole point is that any kind of food person can use this approach to move in a direction, when brewing beer, cooking food, no matter whether it´s fine dining or simple everyday food. In that sense, the ideology is very imprecise.

Now we should just move on, talk less about the New Nordic Cuisine and just let it become a part of our lives. Not cling to it as a sort of successful brand to preserve for 200-300 years, needing to find budgets. These values are so normal. This is the new normal, I would say. Suddenly a large number of very important people, opinion formers, stakeholders with influence on other people´s lives, have come to the belief that the values embedded in the New Nordic Cuisine manifesto is not some subjective trend. Our understanding of food culture and its impact on us and the next generations has simply risen to a new level where we take better decisions. In 2004 it looked like a revolution. Very soon, it will just be seen as a vehicle that has taken us to a new level of consciousness. It will slowly become a part of our educational system, how we teach our children about food, agriculture and cooking.

New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto
Read more

“Under the Danish presidency, the Nordic Council of Ministers would formally add the ideology as a programme”

“The impact of Noma and its international success was, of course, an important part of the phenomenon”

“There might well be ten thousand different ways of implementing the New Nordic Cuisine”

Claus Meyer