For my beloved Brother who introduced me to the art of cooking, who taught me how to taste and truly love food. Without him I'd never be able to be where I am today.

April 13, 2014

On A Saturday Night

My viili with a generous, fucking fat and delicious layer of Geotrictum candidum mould.

At the end of Saturday’s dinner service, after a long week of hard work in a two Michelin star kitchen, the chefs at restaurant noma in Copenhagen are encouraged to present each other with new, creative and though-provoking “projects”: a technique, a flavour combination, an ingredient, or a full-blown dish combining all three. Some chefs work on their respective projects for weeks, some for days; some simply end up pulling it together at the drop of the hat. At around 11.30PM, when the last guests linger to leave the premises, the polished kitchen sees yet another prepping: It’s time for the Saturday Night Projects. 

Since the Nordic Food Lab is docked literally at the entrance of noma and has a common history with the restaurant in question, the crew members at the Lab sometimes end up prepping late Saturday night too. Joining the Projects is a way to cherish the "family bond". Also, as the Lab stands for an open-source of knowledge, the Saturday Night Projects is a great way to showcase the work done at the Lab for some of the world’s most talented chefs. Above all, it’s a great encouragement for the many interns and permanent staff at the Lab to think more like chefs and present concrete, hands-on and delicious results. Presenting a project pushes us to think differently, less scientifically.

For me, it was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have noma’s sous-chefs, chefs de partie, the stagiers and of course René Redzepi himself scrutinize a flavour and texture I had spend so much time and energy on. On top of that it made me look at a very common, rather banal and traditional ingredient in whole a new light.

Since I started my internship at the Lab I had been playing around with this yoghurt-like product very close to my heart called viili. Josh, the project manager and researcher at the Lab became the number one viili-fan and encouraged me to participate at the Projects. The modest and shy Finn in me wasn't convinced – it's noma for god's sake. Josh remain affirmative. It was set. And I was shitting my pants. I got lucky to have started brainstorming on my project right in time when the latest arrival to the Lab Roberto – a talented chef with great gusto from Sardinia – arrived. After the formal hellos he promptly told me he wanted to help.

Together with Roberto, we wanted to tell the story of viili, the mesophilic, mould-fermented ropey and slimy milk product from Finland.

(To read the story in my report on the Nordic Food Lab research blog, click here.)

The elements we wanted to be present in the final dish were sauna and spring. We also wanted to embrace our two very different food cultures. We needed our dish to be delicate and subtle, yet expressive and effusive. After a few days of twisting and turning, tasting and savouring, we ended up choosing elements and techniques that would pay homage to both Roberto’s Sardinian heritage and my Finnish roots.

We are on to something! Happy team, Roberto and I. Photo by Alicynn Fink.

We chose to keep the protagonist – viili – as such. Viili is Finnish: simple, modest and pure by definition. Sometimes an ingredient just won’t get any better by applying advance cooking techniques to it. We chose to accompany it with a personal favourite, the parsnip. Roberto had a brilliant idea to cook the charismatic root vegs in ash – an old technique much used in Sardinian, “an old school sous-vide” as he calls it. We would only use the peel though, dehydrate it into a crispy, sweet chip. The juicy inside would be incorporated elsewhere.

Turned out, the parsnip skin looked exactly like tree bark. Ashes and bark. Sauna. Bingo! Baby nasturtium leaves rising from icy nasturtium granite would speak for rebirth and spring. Another genius idea by chef Roberto. The dish just wouldn’t be complete without some salmiakki – Finnish salty liquorice – that marries incredibly well with parsnips. We wanted the liquid salmiakki to look like the thickest, deepest traditional balsamic vinegar. Done! A few shiny drops of it on the parsnip bark made it resemble sap, yet another sauna allusion.

How to plate? Photo by Alicynn Flink

After selecting the right plate for our masterpiece, we needed to make it look as beautiful as it tasted. Trials and errors. Splashing, drizzling, dripping, painting, gently placing tiny leaves with a millimeter focus. Intense all right. For Roberto this is his job, he does it for living and has nerves of steel. For me, each step along the way was almost like a miracle and yes, extremely nerve-wracking. It made me relentlessly emotional. Roberto made fun of me, but in the most loving way. He understood, he’s Sardinian after all.

On D-day, the 10 minutes before we were to enter the culinary dragons’ den, I felt confident. We were ready, we had been working hard. Still, I needed a good luck charm. Fast, Edith, think. A week earlier I had been curious and ordered a viili seed all the way from the States. It came with an adoption certificate in dehydrated for. That would work perfectly. I placed the tiny plastic bag with dehydrated viili in my pocket: “Showtime buddy” I whispered to my dried Finnish-American friend. With the support of all the crew members, we stepped on land and entered noma.

The final dish. Photo by Alicynn Flink.

“Who would fucking love this a dessert, raise your hand!” said Chef René Redzepi himself looking around at his platoon.

                                                                               At the dragons' den. Photo by Alicynn Flink.

Grazie Roberto, I couldn't have done it without you.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful story. Congratulations on your successful dish!


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