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.

May 15, 2015

Do we all live in a New Nordic Food world?

This article has been published electronically and in print version by the Nordic Council for the purpose of the 
New Nordic Food Program II. 

To read this article and other similar articles on NNF II, please visit the website through this link.  

I was enjoying a well-deserved drink with friends after work in my north-Copenhagen neighbourhood. As I sat there sipping my drink and laughing away the stress of the day, I suddenly became aware of the diversity of my company: across from me sat a Swedish chef slapping the back of a Danish café manager and next to him an Icelandic barista about to order another round of Carlsbergs. I myself am a food culture specialist from Finland. What is it that unites us four apart from being in that Nørrebro bar and drinking “probably the best beer in the world”? Our sense of community, some shared Nordicness? Is it the implicit understanding of what our jobs are constructed around – the new Nordic gastronomy? Or that we are all offspring of the now internationally branded food movement started in this very city by two visionaries back in 2004? I was about to interrupt the light chitchat to unpack the issue with my Nordic peers, but I quickly had second thoughts. Talking about it explicitly would have been odd. And my doubt in the moment lead me to more deeply ponder the nature and future of the presumed common Nordic gastronomy.

Food culture and gastronomy function like tasty glue, making people feel attached and alike in spite of other factors that could divide them. Agreeing on what is “our food” and “our eating habits” creates strong unspoken bonds. With the New Nordic Food (NNF) movement turned into an intergovernmental vehicle for gastrodiplomacy, the Nordic region united under one gastronomic banner has gained an impressive reputation and overwhelming adoration from the world, making us Nordics assess the bounty of our homeland in a new light. The Nordic peoples seem to have a lot in common – at least in the eyes of someone looking at us from the outside. Our cuisine and approach is now cool. Abroad the Nordic brand is wanted and we know it. For the insiders, when it comes to (new) Nordic food, the distinctiveness between us seems blurred into a melting pot of fine-dining amalgams composed of lichen, mushrooms, wild herbs and berries, and maybe some light debates on the comparative sweetness and sourness of rye bread.

Food also works to distinguish between groups as much as it holds them together. Most every Nordic country has a type of meatball, for example, and long traditions of salting and smoking fish. But focussing too much on similarities covers up the crucial range of differences. Each of these meatballs is different. And Nordic fish preservation techniques yields many approaches – salting, smoking, wind-curing, burying and more – all of which are adjusted to the local geography and climate. Therefore it comes as no surprise that many of us Nordics often feel a certain unease when grouped under umbrella terms that include five separate countries, an estimated 26 million people and a wide geographical range. The hypernym ’Nordic’ and the countries it comprises reveal fascinating regional and local differences when observed more deeply. These curiosities, the cradle for true and distinctive food culture, become obscured when we only focus on the common Nordic gastronomy. Such a proposed culinary cohesion is not as tangible to us who are actually Nordic as much as it is to others who see us from afar, as one region. Certainly we have shared values and norms, but we have also been brought up light-heartedly making fun of each other and our differences, even when it comes to food. The idea of the “Nordic” is ironically quite foreign to the people it describes.

Over the past four years a myriad of workshops, conferences, lectures and food experiences generated by NNF programme II have pushed us Nordics to further envision the future of NNF. What will Nordic gastronomy be like in 2024, what are the next steps to get us there? A great amount of energy and focus has been placed on improving and enhancing our self-image and self-awareness in building a shared food culture. And some results are stunning. I myself am fascinated to witness us Nordics stepping out from our comfort zones, lifting our heads up in pride, talking high and mighty about what is ours, when our dominant cultural identity opposes such a clear sense of exceptionalism. It’s stimulating to see various food ventures popping up and hear people discuss what to have for dinner while they wait for the traffic light to turn green. Some things have changed. Nevertheless, most Nordic communities still suffer from low gastronomic self-esteem. We’ve been told over and again that many of our wild plants are treasures of flavour and identity, yet many continue to deem the grass greener on the other side: can ‘Nordic’ stand next to our love of Mediterranean cuisine or have we reached the point where we choose to eat sunflower buds over artichokes, lake fish over tuna and berries over bananas? The allure of NNF is proudly expressed on plates at lauded restaurant across the region, but in the privacy of our homes, public institutions and on supermarket shelves its impact is not yet felt nearly as strongly.

Most people living in the region aren’t as ready to take a detour through the forest to find delicious ingredients as are chefs or the “foodies”. Most of us nowadays daily rely on supermarkets, and supermarkets continue to rely on imports. So what about an NNF supermarket? And more importantly, how would the average consumer fill a shopping trolley with such foods? Before we get too carried away with wrapping our regional particularity into a generic package for export, we should also aim for a regional food culture that is based not only our shared values, as the Manifesto suggests, but also on our everyday practices, as regionally diverse and locally particular as they may be. This quest for an authentic food culture in the Nordic region might bite its own tail if the pursuit for a common regional gastronomy generates one that is more or less synthetic, divorced from the actual landscapes and real communities out which it emerges.

As I left my group of Nordic friends that night in Nørrebro I thought about our shared knowledge and common appreciation of the products of the NNF movement. All of us – the Swede, the Dane, the Islander and myself – know we are a lucky bunch thanks to our jobs which grant us access to this knowledge and these products. Yet I wondered: could we obtain them, afford them, and would we know to demand them if we didn’t work so closely with them? All of us four have grown accustomed to use a single celeriac root to create a whole meal and we would most likely revel in an NNF supermarket – but what about our national and regional compatriots?

I recently travelled to meet a small organic cheese producer in a little town on the south-western coast of Finland. This producer only uses milk of indigenous cow, goat and sheep breeds and her products speak loud and clear of their time and place. I asked my cousin who lives in the same town to join me for the farm visit. He had heard neither of the place nor the producer, even though they were only a 20-minute drive from his home. Needless to say, we need to have more knowledge of our edible surroundings.

NNF has pushed us to take the crucial first steps, but it still has a ways to go. In the past decade restaurants have certainly been paving the way, but now we need to equalize and broaden the distribution of the incredible yet sometimes unfamiliar flavours currently available mainly to only these restaurants. Home cooking has different goals and different means, but we can foster a similar mindset and approach in everyday cooking by enhancing access to many of these products and the knowledge necessary to prepare them. If we are to reach the critical masses – people like my cousin – we have to make sure to not leave them behind and exclude them from what belongs to them as much as to anyone else. “We are what we eat”, but what we eat should also be like us, like Swedes, Danes, Islanders, and Finns. We have succeeded in embracing the diverse ingredients our seemingly hostile climate and geography offer us; now we need to embrace our cultural characteristics connected to food, which are just as crucial when it comes to how food culture grows and develops. NNF has made its way around the world – it is time to bring it back home and make it resemble us again.

December 11, 2014

A Gastronome

A gastronome has a holistic approach to gastronomy. This approach is built upon multidisciplinary knowledge and expertise.

A gastronome has an in-depth understanding of human food culture(s) and foodways.
A gastronome consults to create better communication, policy and strategies for basic to complex food systems.
A gastronome often works with didactic goals.
A gastronome advises how to better market, package and design edible products or concepts.
A gastronome doesn’t hesitate getting his/her hands dirty in soil to comprehend agriculture and rural realities.

A gastronome is often the missing link between the various actors in the gastronomical sphere.

I am specialized in gastro-research, communication and foodways that say something about the people it is made up of.

September 8, 2014

(Swedish, lit. "place of wild strawberries")

Mr. Antoni, local butcher, in his seventies.

Merely being present in such a place elicits a feeling – happiness, excitement, peace, tranquillity; something you value. The feeling ought to be strong, enduring, and persistent at every visit. This feeling should knock you off your feet, it’s unmistakable. That is a smultronställe.

Preparing natural casing for sausages.

Swołowo, a picturesque village, home of 242 inhabitants, is a juicy appetizer for ethnographers but also gourmands. Located in Pomerenia, Northern Poland, Swołowo is both physically and mentally far from big city life, starred restaurants and other contemporary frenzy.

Very strong home distillate.

The village is something like a well-preserved jar of fermented delights: Time has stopped yet it’s a cradle for modern gastronomy and a source of inspiration for upcoming chefs and food enthusiast. Swołowo’s inhabitants have remained in a time and place, which most people desperately seek to return to, a time where countryside homes had smokeries in the attic, distilleries in shabby eccentric garden huts; a time where cows, sheep and other living creatures roamed around freely before ending up under the butchers’ knives and later in the housewives' steaming pots.

 Polish lamb sausage going to the smoke room.

Nevertheless, Polish food culture seems to be stuck somewhere between tradition and modernity – a reoccurring state of affairs in many other countries alike. The two opposite poles, the authentic villages that serve as banks of traditional food culture and the dynamic big cities fuelled by new blood and novel endeavours, seem to create schism in the foodscape of the country. Seeking a gastronomical identity recognised both home and abroad is a sore battle. How to respect the old and learn from it, but at the same token give up redundant good-olds to make space for fresh and delicious new ideas? The journey towards an established connection between who we are and what we eat is often a schizophrenic combat where utter failure and exquisite invention flirt relentlessly with one another.

On the other hand, it's not like grounded food culture nations such as France and Italy have it all figured out either. In fact, the fear of loosing the precious heritage upon which the Frenchies and Italianos built their acquired taste is as tough a crisis as creating such a foundation to begin with. Having said that, when everything is possible in theory, the overflow of ideas easily leads to total blockage of mind and lack of focus. The good folks of Swołowo were spot on in their traditional techniques, but one may wonder if they recognize it themselves. Or does it even matter? Naming and defining for the sake of a purpose is equally dangerous as necessary.

A home smokers in the attic. 

There’s a magical feel to a place like this village on the northern coast of Poland. It’s almost too good to be true in a Big Fish "Town of Spectre" kind of way. I wonder, was the smell of smoke stronger, the distillates purer and the lamb juicier really, or was it just the antidote to the surroundings of an urban dweller that made the impact so potent? Whatever it was the impact definitely prevails. To stay in Swołowo however, regadless of its authenticity, could be too much.

August 21, 2014

Sweet on Sweetness?

I wrote a piece for VICE Munchies. Click here to go to the page.

From the Munchies site:

Sugar is like a hot water bottle. It soothes emotional pain, comforts us and provides an immediate time machine back to our childhoods. But of course, as we’ve come to learn, sugar has also made a shocking impact on global health.

The white stuff is one of the cheapest, most prevalent ingredients in the world. Almost all processed foods utilize it to develop flavor complexity, structure, consistency, and even color. Even if something isn’t perceived as sweet when we’re eating it—a supermarket microwave carbonara, say, if that’s your thing—without a fair whack of sugar, it wouldn’t taste or look how it does.
I recently spent four months working as a researcher at Copenhagen’s Nordic Food Lab—the epicentre of New Nordic Cuisine— on a boat opposite noma. During my time there I began contemplating why so many diners perceived noma’s desserts as almost savory. I thought back to my childhood, when my Turkish friends and I would eat outrageously sweet baklava. I never managed more than three pieces, but lost count of the amount they put away.

Why could I stomach less sugar than them? Why did I love condensed milk as a child in Vietnam but have serious troubles reintroducing it my taste buds to it 15 years later when I returned to Hanoi?
The huge gap in perceiving sweetness became tangible at the lab when an intern from Pune, India, came onboard with bags filled with Indian desserts. We all loved the gesture, but, whether it was down to our diverging genotypes, our sociocultural upbringings, personal preference, or simply the proximity of noma, the crew wasn’t too sweet on those Indian pastries.

My first meal at noma was an eye-opening experience when it comes to sweetness. René’s “Never use sugar. Sugar is the Enemy” mantra rang in my mind as the meal was reaching its finale, and, it turned out, the desserts at Noma were precisely to my taste. Refined sugar is avoided there, and is often replaced by local honey. To those used to a diet far richer in refined sugar, the run of desserts at noma can be quite a shock to the system. However, I’d wager that the vast influence of New Nordic Cuisine—spearheaded by René and noma—has affected both chefs’ and consumers’ perceptions of sweetness across the world.

While at the lab, I presented a slimy Finnish fermented milk product called viili together with chef Roberto Flore at one of noma’s infamous Saturday Night Projects. Being Sardinian, Roberto’s perception of sweetness was different from mine, and even more different from noma’s sweetness levels. We ended up presenting our dish—”Sauna & Spring,” a plate of viili, dehydrated parsnip bark, and nasturtium granité—as an appetizer or a pre-dessert dish.

After introducing the noma team to the dessert comprised of my slimy Finnish friend, conversation turned to sweetness. René thought it was very sweet, as did Rosio, head of pastry. Roberto didn’t agree. The Brix meter was brought out. It signalled 9Bx, but the verdict of the team settled at around 23. “The meter must be broken” René said. End of discussion. One can only imagine how many Southerners go back home after working at noma, only to find that granny’s cookies now taste too sweet.

Previous to my time at Nordic Food Lab, I had embarked on an entirely sugar-free diet. I was curious how it would affect my metabolism, mood, and energy. I managed to live without sugar for three years, but the immediate shock of consuming no sugar is brutal. The first months were as tasteless and bland as the most beige school canteen food you’ve ever had. However, I soon witnessed a paradox—the less sugar I ate, the more my palate detected delicate flavours. It made me question the embedded paradigm of sugar being a flavor enhancer.

Not eating sugar makes you want to talk about it all the time, with everyone, and I discovered just how personal a thing sweetness is. The difference in how people sweeten their drinks or breakfast porridge is fascinating. Everyone has their own personal sweet spot, a threshold where a cup of coffee, for example, will be considered undrinkable until the perfect amount of sugar or sweetener has been added. What is the first step on the path to this adult sweet spot, though? Where does it begin?

Humans are, in fact, born with innate preferences for sweetness, as well as aversion to bitterness. It all starts in the womb. Amniotic fluids pass flavors onto the fetus, which will swallow different tastes at varying rates, and it’s these formative exposures that stick with us after birth. But whereas some scientists might argue that people’s genotypes determine taste preferences, there are those who will say both sociocultural and geographic influences have more power over our perception of flavor, especially when it comes to sweetness.

Other than amniotic fluid, the first thing we ever consume as a human being is the milk of our mothers, and, as anyone who has tasted breast milk will attest, it’s pretty sweet. Whether Indian women have sweeter breast milk than, say, Scandinavian women, is out of my zone of expertise.
What does differ across the world, though, is the food we have access to growing up, our formative sources of sweetness. Looking back a thousand years or so, in Northern Europe, sweet cravings would be sated—rarely at that—with honey or dried fruit. The more south one goes, though, the sunnier it gets, and fruits become sweeter, more plump and bountiful. It seems to make perfect sense that a child growing up in Andalucia, with un-damned access to the mouth-filling sweetness of flat peaches, would wind up having a very different palate to a Finn who grew up eating blueberries.
Some fruits that grow in hot climates, such as dates, often have outrageous sugar levels, and fructose—the sugar found in honey and fruit—is far sweeter than the sucrose in table sugar. Wild blueberries in Finland taste sweet to me, but I doubt others from warmer climates would agree. Perhaps we don’t care for powerful sweetness because, if we were entirely living off the land, we just wouldn’t get it. Ever.

Once upon a time, refined white sugar was synonymous with prestige—the whiter the sugar, the higher the position in society. Today, in the Nordic countries at least, refined sugar is generally frowned upon. I imagine René has a lot to do with that. But you only have to take a trip out to the countryside, away from the progressive ways of the big city, to see how refined sugar is still used in abundance. You might think, well, if the leader of one of the biggest shifts in modern dining in decades, a man who praises deliciousness above anything else, has such a hard stance on sugar, shouldn’t we all listen? But it’s so hard—as I found out—to shake off our ingrained tastes for sweetness.

I can speak about my sugar-free experience in past tense now, although I still steer clear of the white, refined stuff. I still prefer cheese for dessert, but sugar is, moderately, back in my life. Whether or not my international upbringing has informed my taste for it or not, and regardless of both the modern research showing just how damaging sugar can be and my experience at noma and Nordic Food Lab, I am not completely rational. No human being can be.

We have been warned of the tangible, deadly effects of smoking for years, and yet we keep smoking. Sugar might not fill your lungs with black tar, but we’re probably going to find out in the near future just how much of a killer it really is. Yes, I have met Southeast Asians, Indians, and Sardinians who have a strong sweet tooth, and yes, Scandinavians might avoid refined white sugar largely thanks to the “noma effect,” but it seems as though, if my experience can point to anything, that everyone, everywhere, enjoys sweetness on some level.

We all need something sweet occasionally. If our taste for it develops before we have even taken our first breaths, it’s surely impossible for it to ever really, truly, be conditioned out of us.

May 15, 2014

A Love Letter 

Love letters are private. Sometimes they are even better left unsent. Having said that, the endlessly curious romantic in me finds great pleasure in reading love letters that haven't been written to me at all. Both a personal favorite and an important Finnish literary classic is the collection of the Finnish national poet J. L. Runeberg's correnponce/love letters (Runbergs brev till Emilie Björkstén) to his young mistress Emilie between the years 1804-1877.

I've obviously written countess love letters ever since I thought I knew what love is at the age of seven. Yesterday however, I wrote my very first love letter to a restaurant and its incredible staff. The silly me wants to share this personal confession with you. It's not 19th century prose but it's written straight from the heart. 

*     *     *

Dinner for one. Randomly. 

Dear Relæ,

This is an email to thank you all. The kitchen: Niklas, John, Jacob & Co. (Sorry, I’m horrible with names). The floor: Ale & Mathias. I just came home, stomach perfectly full, all senses satisfied. Happy as a puppy in spring. Before I tell you why I felt the urge to write this little love letter to you all, let me tell you a bit about my day today.

I had a fine day at work. Debriefing our Sunday’s Dinner No. 2. Sending thank yous to guests. Catching up on emails. But on my way back home from Malmö on the train, I felt awfully dreary. I sought a free seat in the silent section. Turns out, it wasn’t silent at all. Two very loud, very obnoxious Russian men in their late 50s sat there talking loudly. Great. I gave them my best “I’m gonna kill you if you don’t shut up” -eyes – totally in vain. At Copenhagen Airport, they left me in peace. Finally! Finns are never very fond of Russians, but those two seriously pissed me off. Just as I was ready for a silent 5-minute power nap, two Spanish ladies stumble in. Have you ever heard of silent Spanish women? No, I didn’t think so. Fucking great. No silence. My blood was boiling. Who invented silent sections any way???

I came home hungry and tired. Always a delightful combo. To the fridge: One soft boiled egg from this morning, two Romaine lettuces and hummus. Fine. I devoured it all in a split second. I had made a deal with myself earlier today about going to the gym in the evening. Burping hummus, I wondered why I couldn’t just slouch on the couch and take it easy like normal people would do. So much for that thought. To the gym! In the end, it wasn’t that bad. Sweating is nice. And you know what they say about physical exercise releasing endorphins, bla bla bla. I felt pretty good compared to my urge to kill Russians a few hours back.

I decided to make a little pit stop on my way home. Relæ. Mathias was working so I thought I’d blow him a kiss through the window and rush home to take a warm shower. It didn’t quite go as I planed though. In fact, it went in a way I definitely didn’t expect it to go. It went in such a way that now, almost two hours later, I find myself sitting on my bed, ecstatically happy and very well fed writing to you guys.

Alessandro lured me in with his Italian charm (I love my Viking like no other, but Italians just know how to get a woman to do things she otherwise wouldn’t do). He gestured something that meant, “come sit down, have a glass of wine”. I tried to resist. I pointed at my horrendous gym outfit, flexed my muscles and lip-synced “I smell, I need a shower”. Let’s just say he didn’t take no for an answer.

One of the many reasons I’ve been having a love affair with your restaurant ever since I first ate there is because it’s honest and unpretentious. Sitting there as a guest even before knowing many of you, I felt relaxed and comfortable, like being at a friend’s place just with some of the most talented chefs around working hard to serve me and other guest with delicious food. This time though, I felt that I was pushing the feeling of comfort too far: A salmon pink O’Neil sweatshirt from the 90’s, shiny black cycling tights, striped violet socks and a pair of ugly running shoes. My hair was glued to my head and I could feel the sweat running down my neck. Classy. Embarrassed, I formally presented my apologies and did as I was told. Sit. Drink. A glass of La Matta suddenly appeared in front of me.

What followed made my day and probably my whole week. Shit, it might even go down in history as one of my most memorable restaurant experiences. You guys welcomed me at the restaurant with food and wine, smiles and kindness (Even though I looked liked Prince of Bel Air gone bad). Not only did I get to taste a snack, which truly warmed my heart, but you guys also served me one, two, three of your beautiful dishes. I’m rarely speechless (I always talk too much like I’m doing right now) but there I was, speechless.

Of all the dishes the dessert, once again, touched me the deepest. Not only did it taste fucking good, you guys know that, but it brought me back memories. Memories I thought I had forgotten. The dehydrated rhubarb compote slices leaning against the velvety ice cream reminded me of this childhood favourite, red “candy tape” with sour sugar sprinkled on the surface. Oh what a joy! And what beautiful flavours! Early summer meets Christmas, glögg and grandma’s rhubarb pie. Subtle and clean yet very powerful and showing clear intention. In the fear of embarrassing Mathias in public like I very often do with my child-like reactions, I had to tone it down and instead rush home to write you this letter.

Thank you all so much! I truly appreciated this unexpected dinner for one. Kiitos!
With these words I will shut up for now. Mathias might dump me otherwise.
I hope this email doesn’t get anyone of you in trouble by the way.

Heaps of love,

April 26, 2014

How To Be A Fool

In the name of food, insanity, brilliance and love.

I clearly recall the day I first held it in my hands: Finally! I had to feel its weight for a while, thoroughly embrace it before inhaling the smell of freshly printed paper. High quality, indeed. And the weight! 477 grams to be precise. Magnus Nilsson in a huge fur coat, his Iron Maiden t-shirt peeping out. It felt like an invitation to cuddle, to get intimate, pledging juicy details. The four-word oath had already been met and I had yet to turn the cover page.

Back to 477 grams. Did I actually weigh it? Would that be such bizarre thing to do? Fine, I admit, I did in fact weigh it. However, this seemingly meaningless yet noteworthy piece of information is absolutely vital because here I am, a fool – literally.
.   .   .

FOOL was the magazine I so desperately had been longing for. Real stories, real people, real food. All nicely wrapped together with gorgeously provocative photography. No god damn recipes, no cooking tips from half-herated middle aged woman portrayed wearing a perky apron and a wooden basket hanging from her arm with "a ravishing Tuscan landscape" in the background. No bullshit. Only gastronomy served at its purest. 

Self-centeredly I though, these people understand me. They must have come to relieve my frustration regarding contemporary food writing and magazines. The infamous and dreaded foodie food bloggers had ruined my appetite. In fact, they had so thoroughly repulsed me that I feared there was no return. My love affair with food writing was rotting. The only food writing I nibbled on was my own. On the other hand, my own voice had started to make my stomach turn too. I continuously reach out to good old good olds, Brillant-Savarin, M. F. K Fisher & company, to save me from starvation, but the neophiliac in me was raging. I needed something fresh and organic. Along came FOOL. Love at first bite!

"If only one day I'd get so lucky as to work with these people..." I mused sucking each story and photo to the bone. 

Last summer, with Fool #3 in my back pack, I was in search of an oasis to calm my nerves after a 70 hours work week in the kitchen. I found a tremendous secret spot at the harbor in Helsinki. Craving for the good stuff, I ripped open the plastic wrapping. Sean Brock's charismatic face spoke a thousand words. With the fresh sea breeze caressing my skin, I found a piece of heaven in some damn fine food writing. This time reading, I was particularly emotional as I had a week ago sent an email to the founder couple Lotta & Per Anders Jörgensen expressing my eagerness to collaborate. Would I receive an answer? Could this possibly lead to something? Could we be a good match? My mind was bursting with thoughts and questions. I kept on reading. And hoping.

.   .   .

Seven months later, I find myself exactly where I dreamed about being as I humbly accepted chef Nilsson's inviting embrace. This morning from across the room, I see Lotta & PA immersed in the process of making Fool #5 even more exciting and outrageous than the precedent. A pinch. Yes, I am here. I can't help but feel proud of never letting go of my principles and hopes for something better, more real. Let this foolish journey lead to more food, more insanity, more brilliance & more love.


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.