Denmark: home to the world’s first obesity tax, a globally revered restaurant (Noma) and a galaxy of informed and innovative food experts. We got four of the best together in a room to chew the (unsaturated) fat on their profession.
Recent years have seen the culinary world look to Denmark for inspiration and enlightenment. Noma and its followers have brought foraging into the mainstream and its innovative approach has inspired other restaurants around the world to revist the indigenous produce on their own doorstep. We invited four leading figures from the Copenhagen food scene to look into their crystal balls and help us divine the future trends in farming and dining.
Puglisi is head chef and co-owner of the highly acclaimed Restaurant Relæ and neighbouring wine bar, Manfreds.
Ejlersen is co-founder of Aarstiderne, one of the largest organic produce box home-delivery companies.
One of Scandinavia’s leading science writers, Nørretranders has twice been a speaker at the MAD food symposium.
Sanchez is in charge of desserts at Noma and is one of the world’s most innovative chefs in her field. She previously worked at New York’s WD-50.
Monocle: Rosio, you’ve become known for breaking the boundaries between savoury and sweet courses by using potatoes, salt and now even ants in desserts. Do you ever think, “We should hold back on this, people aren’t ready”?
Sanchez: At the start I was a little wary but now people get disappointed if we don’t serve them. You have to think about the other cultures where that isn’t an issue. For instance, my parents are from Mexico where you have grasshoppers in your tacos. It’s something you don’t think twice about.
Monocle: Tor, you don’t do desserts, right? You’ve given a talk about “rebooting” your stomach and eliminating things from your diet.
Nørretranders: I do eat dessert but I don’t eat sugar. Our civilisation has tried to distill out the sugar from the produce containing sucrose and make it just straight refined sugar, like the starch has been taken out of the context of the plant. Now we are reintegrating food into its original context we are understanding that when you want sugar you have to eat it as a part of the whole package.
Monocle: Sugar is very much on the health agenda. A fat tax was introduced in Denmark in 2011 and a sugar tax will be introduced in 2013.
Nørretranders: Sugar certainly is a bad thing that’s meaningful to tax. The fat is more complicated because most people working in nutrition 20 years ago would argue that fat was bad for you, but it has turned out that you need some kinds of fat, so to tax all fats is kind of silly.
Puglisi: The fat tax was a bad decision by the politicians because it is very much hitting the wrong tone. What could be more interesting is turning it around and lowering the taxes on some things. We need people to eat more vegetables so lower the 25 per cent vat on vegetables.
Monocle: Søren, you’ve managed to make a successful business out of organic produce here in Denmark, which is the country with the highest per capita consumption of organic produce. But has the economic crisis had a noticeable impact on organic consumption?
Ejlersen: It’s been interesting. Most customers stayed with our food-box scheme – they cut a holiday instead. They didn’t see organic food as the thing they should cut.
Nørretranders: The key to this is that people want an apple that tastes of an apple and so deliciousness is the thing we should look for rather than something being good for ecology or society. It’s a radical change that has come about in a very few years, springing from a very few pioneers like the people from Noma and Aarstiderne. It’s like in science or technology: you have people who nerd around with weird stuff and 20 years later everybody has a transistor in their pocket. With the help of people like Christian we have rediscovered that celeriac, for instance, is the most fantastic, rich vegetable. It’s like open-source programming in the sense that you don’t have to keep the secret about celeriac: you [Christian] can give it away because you will still be way better at preparing it than me and my friends. This is the essence of the food revolution: that you have the pioneers doing the exploration work in the kitchens but after that everyone can raise their level of curiosity.
Monocle: Noma is like the Large Hadron Collider of food…
Nørretranders: I think in terms of the frontier of human knowledge perhaps what they are doing at Noma is more important than the Hadron Collider because it is a truly new continent of taste that is being discovered.
Ejlersen: We need innovators: chefs and entrepreneurs with the courage to do something different, to go out and micro-innovate in restaurants or businesses.
Puglisi: What is interesting is that all of a sudden, in other societies that are less rich than we are, you see the chefs working with local produce. It is something very valuable in terms of feeding a lot of people in all societies.
Monocle: The notions of local and seasonal food and rediscovering diversity are wonderful, but the truth is that the Monsantos and the Nestlés are still there. Some would argue that industrial agriculture is a necessary evil if we are to feed nine billion by 2050.
Nørretranders: There are two basic ways to change things. One is to go into their headquarters and fight the power bases – and that’s going to be tough – but you can also outsmart them. We can start local production everywhere on the planet. It’s been eradicated by “headquarters” planning what we will grow and eat – the same kind of wheat everywhere – but you can create an uprising where people eat local stuff. And the point of Noma is not that everyone should eat Nordic food but eat local food wherever they are.
Sanchez: It takes a lot of energy out of a chef to go and see what’s available and local – it’s easier to order from Japan or Spain. But I know chefs who have come to Noma and been inspired to look at what they have around them. If every chef takes on that mentality they will become better chefs and everything improves in terms of health and farming.
Monocle: We are facing unprecedented crises in terms of food supply, prices and security. Can the local approach you’re talking about cope with that?
Ejlersen: It is the food industry and retailers who are raising the prices. If you look at local organic farmers, their salaries or expenses are not rising. They aren’t getting more money for their crops.
Puglisi: The problems we are facing now have been put in by the food industry. Climate change and co2 levels were mainly caused from the point where farming became an industry. Solar energy becoming calories turned into fossil energy becoming calories, so I think it is very important to look at the world and see where we can find solutions locally. See how you can produce food locally like you did before. Huge centralised industry is squeezing the world of energy.
Monocle: Could GM be a solution?
Ejlersen: No. I would say forget about it and give the seed back to the farmers worldwide so we can expand diversity. That’s the solution. You could solve a lot of emissions and erosion and soil problems this way.
Nørretranders: We’ve been using fossil fuels and fertilisers based on fossil fuels to repair the lost soil so we need to change direction and eat things that will not ruin the soil, like wild plants or more cleverly developed, cultivated plants. Otherwise we will lose the soil and that is the basis of the entire ecosystem. Companies such as Monsanto have lost any credibility on the subject. They have changed the crops so that they need pesticides, which is perverted. Today we have many instruments to rediscover the ability of the planet: enzymes, the incredible skills of the chefs, technology and science. In that process I wouldn’t rule out using genetic engineering at some stage to help us, for instance, to eat more of the tree than just the fruit. But it would have to be done with more care, passion and environmental consciousness than the large companies. The Monsantos of the world are technologically reactionary, using GM to defend their old-school technological paradigm.
Monocle: Finally, what are your major predictions for the coming year?
Ejlersen: Urban farming. It’s a little early but I see it coming. Micro-innovation is where I see the trend starting. Getting local farmers to produce and deliver locally to people living nearby.
Sanchez: What would be great would be if farmers moved into being chefs more.
Nørretranders: Orienting ourselves towards wild stuff will be a mega trend.
Puglisi: Fine dining is dying. Good food of high quality is going to become more accessible.