The last time I was in Copenhagen, I was eleven years-old.
In the years since, the city has waxed into a culinary constellation that now attracts gastronauts from faraway places.
Copenhagen’s rise as an eating destination was quick and hot, and unexpected. But its story was a good one: a naissance of exploration, celebration, and exploitation of natural resources among Danish chefs, who have begun to paint a compelling picture of their indigenous culture, one that is not familiar to most.
But I was skeptical. I always am when I see the press dart, like a school of fish, towards some shiny, new subject.
So, I avoided going to Copenhagen for years. In hindsight, I probably waited a bit too long – not because I missed the apex of the city’s gastronomic parabola (which, I think it has yet to reach), but because the city now brims with more options than I can adequately cover in one or two short trips.
Better late than never, right?
As soon as the podium cleared at the Bocuse d’Or, the stadium emptied and the party moved to Lyon’s St. Exupéry airport, where hundreds, if not thousands, of attendees of SIRHA made their exit.*
I was among them. And so was Rasmus Kofoed, winner of the 2011 Bocuse d’Or and chef of Geranium. We were introduced to each other at the airport and shared the same flight to Copenhagen, where I spent a fast and furious forty-eight hours eating.
I visited four restaurants in two days: noma, relae, Geranium, and kadeau.
All of them were spectacular, for many different reasons. I shall endeavor to write about all of them in subsequent posts.
But, if I may summarize: it is an understanding of the quality and novelty of the ingredients at their disposal that makes the chefs and restaurants in Copenhagen particularly outstanding. Their philosophy and approach to cooking doesn’t differ from those in the better kitchens around the world. And neither are their techniques or their form of storytelling superior. Rather, it is the subject of their story – or, more significantly, their ownership and confidence in the subject of their story – that attracts me (and, I suspect, many others) to them. They are painting a picture that only chefs in their part of the world can paint. And they are doing so masterfully. When you see, smell, and taste their food in the context of the place and time in which it is presented, it makes sense. There, in the shadows, is a glimpse of a rough agrarian life (the exploration of fermentation among Danish chefs gives Shakespeare’s famous line, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” a whole new meaning), the intrepid vikings, and the brutal but beautiful ice-cold sea. The aesthetics, the flavors, the textures, the colors – together, it forms an organic and believable experience. That is authenticity.
It is for the same reasons that the empty and meaningless mimicking of the Danes has repelled me from so many chefs and restaurants around the world. It happened to the Spaniards, it happened to the Japanese, and it is happening now to the Danish. You, in New York; and you, in California; and you, in France – you are not in Copenhagen. So why are you cooking as if you were? That is not organic and believable. That is silly.
And now that I’ve been to Copenhagen for a look at the original, it seems even sillier.
My time in between meals was spent wandering the city’s streets and tracing its waterways. Copenhagen is a highly walkable city, if you can withstand the sharp, brittle air in the winter time. I relished it.
In Nyhavn, I found a rainbow row of houses, lined with bars and restaurants. I walked by it repeatedly just to see its kaleidoscope effect at different times during the short, winter day (the sun began to retire as early as 16h00).
On my last night in the city, I had my cab driver drop me off in the royal roundabout after dinner, where I heard Horatio whispering about a ghost. It was near midnight, and the cobblestones had been polished shiny by a light rain. I stood there in the quiet cold and watched the Danish guard pace between the palace gates. I let time slip by wantonly. I just didn’t want to leave.
Copenhagen charmed me effortlessly with its timeless look, its unbelievably beautiful people, and its unique culinary perspective. I can see why so many foreign cooks have eagerly made a new home for themselves there. I’m tempted to join them. Perhaps I will, sooner rather than later. My business in Copenhagen is not finished. There is much more for me to explore there yet.
A few nights ago, I saw a shooting star. Little did I know that it was headed for Copenhagen. I woke up the next morning to the news that Geranium was awarded its second Michelin star, and kadeau was awarded its first star. The constellation grows, and the gastronauts will not desist. I couldn’t be happier for both houses.
Here are photos of the meals I ate in Copenhagen:
* SIRHA is one of the world’s largest food and beverage fairs. It takes place at the Eurexpo in Lyon every other year, coinciding with the Coupe du Monde and the Bocuse d’Or competitions (the competitions are a part of SIRHA). Every other year, over a quarter million people attend SIRHA.
Photos: A row of colorful houses in the Nyhavn neighborhood of Copenhagen; the Danish royal palace at night, Copenhagen; a street scene in front of the restaurant Amalie in Copenhagen; a view of Christianshavn, Copenhagen.
7 replies on “travel: better late than never…”
As always, wonderful writing and brilliant photography! I agree that the New Nordic cooking is at its most sublime and the same ingredients don’t necessarily translate well elsewhere, but what has been well exported is the sense that local terroirs should be explored and utilized whether there has been a tradition for that or not. The particular aesthetics can and should vary.
@docsconz: I agree. However, I considered the focus on ‘terroir cooking” to fall within my (admittedly vague) reference to “philosophy and approach.”
With your explanation, I don’t think we disagree, but I think it requires a bit more clarification.
What made the new Nordic cooking standout was a focus on products from their terroir that previously had not only been underutilized, they had been mocked. They, with Redzepi at the forefront, made these kinds of products cool in high end kitchens and brought value where there previously wasn’t any. They were not the first to forage, but they brought cachet and pride to create a new regional cuisine. This differed from the terroir cuisines of places like France, Italy, Spain or Japan amongst other places because those cuisines had valued and utilized these kinds of products of their own terroirs for generations (e.g. Sicilian wild fennel). The values that have been successfully exported to other locales is not how they used their own products, but that it was ok to re-examine what local products have value. So yes, for those blindly following with more smoked hay, tons of wood sorrel and using seabuckthorn where seabuckthorn is not a typical product, the translation suffers. For those who have learned the spirit of culinary exploration and exploration of that their own locales offer, power on!
Latin America should be the “new Scandinavia” within the next few years.
@Joao: Oh yes, I have heard about the upcoming 50 Best Latin American Restaurants list. Does that make any sense to you? It’s becoming a cottage industry for San Pellegrino, isn’t it?
Kind of like Michelin in that regard.
You should go to Stockhom asap – I liked the restaurants there way better than the ones in CPH. Even though I loved Geranium, in Stockholm they are way less “showy” and complacent (unbearable at noma, to me) about their food.
Mathias Dahlgren, Oaxen Krog and (a bit less) Frantzén have a truthfulness in their cooking that no place in CPH can match, imho.