Josh, we have to talk about Noma, Fäviken and so on: How would you explain the success and the outstanding crativity and quality of the new nordic cuisine?
A lot of cooking happening in the Nordic region now, and also much the work we try to do, starts from the impulse to investigate the delicious potential of different raw materials, many of them neglected, underutilised, or forgotten. This desire to discover and rediscover our edible surroundings and culinary history is one of the drivers that has led to the development of Nordic cuisine over the past few years – but it is not exclusive to this region alone. This mentality can be applied anywhere in the world where humans have found a way to nourish themselves in their particular surroundings. In fact, similar movements are also growing in many regions around the world, with diverse and delicious results.
So if Italian or French cuisine is about heritage, nordic cuisine is about reinventing heritage? Like digging in the ground of nordic (food) culture?
People often like to pit ‘tradition’/’heritage’ and ‘innovation’/’creativity’ against each other, as if they are some grand dichotomy that governs the histories of civilisation. I think this idea is not only simplistic, but dangerous. Tradition only exists as a progression of small, incremental revolutions that either fail or flourish in the circumstances of the time. Ask any Italian matriarch (or patriarch) about their preferred pasta shape and cooking method, for example, and you will receive one very diverse set of opinions. There is nothing monumental about ‘Italian heritage’, or ‘heritage’ in general – it is an incomprehensibly broad group of living practices, which are constantly being tweaked and adapted, either intentionally or unintentionally. ‘Heritage’ either constantly reinvents itself, dies out, or becomes preserved in a museum as artefact (which is arguably the same thing as death). In this sense, what is happening in Nordic cooking right now can be framed in terms of ‘innovation and ‘reinvention’, but I am more inclined to see it as a particularly fertile time in the long, evolving, continuous history of this region’s cookery. Let’s remember, we aren’t the first to be foraging, fermenting, and nose-to-tailing – not even the first to do it for flavour.
So how would you discribe the work of Nordic Food Lab? Are you archaeologists? Sientists? Cooking artists?
Oh that’s difficult. Officially, I am a ‘Researcher’. Personally, I am a staunch generalist. The two are quite compatible. Most of us have our different expertises and disciplines (my background in food is in sustainable agriculture; my academic background is in literature and philosophy), but I would say we are united by being all professional amateurs, in both senses: for we must acknowledge that compared to the leading experts in their respective fields, we know very little; and when it comes down to it, we all love food, care about it deeply, and believe it is powerful and transformative.
As you say about youself, you “work to investigate delicousness and its systems”. Tell us about that.
Deliciousness is a favourite word of René at the restaurant, and I believe it refers not to some discoverable, universal principle, but rather to that deeply personal and embodied experience of pleasure and nourishment. It looks and tastes different for all of us, but we all know what it feels like. And it can be really powerful – you can move people, both within themselves and to galvanise them to action in the world. Deliciousness is interesting because it emerges from the interactions of lots of different factors: culture, agriculture, craft, biology, history, cooking – all of which, of course, are already bound up in each other. So when we talk about deliciousness and its systems, we’re talking about trying to study all these interactions, engage with their complexity and use them to make deliciousness a bigger part of more peoples’ lives.
Could you discribe some typical projects of Nordic Food Lab? How is the relationship between theorie and practice of food and food culture? Between eating and analysis?
At any one time we have loads of different projects on the go. Some are long-term, like our investigation into insect gastronomy or our work with beer. Others can be shorter term and taken up by interns, stages, and visiting researchers, like alkali cooking, sourdough mothers, or jellyfish (all projects from this summer). Our method, like our space, is fluid – we all work together with kitchen and desks in one room. Sometimes we get inspired by a technique we saw in the field or while traveling, or in a book or paper, and we take it into the kitchen to try it out, which is both an intuitive and analytic process. We have to follow our hunches, try and fail and try again, and we also have to taste constantly and be critical and think, “How can we make this more delicious?” And sometimes that leads us back to another book or paper, or to talk with an expert, or out for a walk. So for me, there is such a blurry line between the ‘theoretical’ and the ‘practical’ that it isn’t really an interesting question to try to pull them apart. What I find more interesting is following how the pursuit of deliciousness leads us through loops of different approaches and methods in ways that are unpredictable and always unique.
Sometimes your projects remind of the popular cultural technique of the remix.
Yes, the remix can be a useful analogy. And certainly nostalgia can sometimes be a part of the process, but mostly as a starting point, never as an end in itself – because our end goal is deliciousness here and now, that development of a food or dish that says something about us in this place at this time.
The interview with Josh Evans was led by Clemens Niedenthal.