Why is it called the “new Nordic” ?
Rene Redzepi opened NoMa in 2003 in Copenhagen where basically all “serious” restaurants either served Italian or French cuisine. He wanted to make a “serious” restaurant that served Nordic food. So one of the main pillars of the new Nordic is that food is a serious thing.
But the trouble is, that Nordic food has this incredibly lively history that, in terms of restaurants, is a lost thing. The kings of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark all had chefs that created French-influenced food with local ingredients but this is basically a lost thing. The main survivor of industrialism, colonialism, etc. is the artisan culture, cheese and aquavit especially in the Nordic countries is the best in the world. But there weren’t serious restaurants that sold Nordic food. So the idea behind restaurants like NoMa and Fäviken was to reignite this old idea of Nordic chefs borrowing French systems but using local ingredients. Thus new Nordic.
The other thing about the new Nordic is the food is actually really different from what our parents ate. The Nordic countries have a peasant food tradition that’s a lot like Slavic countries, essentially creamed potatoes and roasted meat, stewed vegetables, rice pudding, etc. My family being in America incorporated macaroni and cheese into our smörgåsbord tradition. So we differentiate ourselves from our parents' generation as new, aka the new Nordic.
A lot of times food writers will say that new Nordic chefs are “breathing life into old traditions” or something along this line. That’s pretty much true. All the techniques new Nordic chefs use are in the ether of Nordic cooking; the cheese-making, the curing processes, pickling vegetables, pickling fish especially, are things we all grew up with. My parents never actually did any of that stuff, but the food we ate growing up was all created using these kinds of techniques. So I have a taste for fermented foods from a young age, really all Nordic people do. I remember one of my favorite foods growing up was pickled herring on a boiled egg, actually, it’s still my favorite food.
Part of the new Nordic is taking foods that are traditionally made in factories (and made really well using industrial techniques) and critically approaching them from an artisanal perspective. So knäckebröd, crispbread crackers, basically leavened flatbread, hardtack, is traditionally a Christmas food (more on that in the next paragraph) and my parents buy it at Ikea. But as a new Nordic chef, I want to try to make a knäckebröd that is more flavorful, that gets to the heart of the cracker’s relationship to the cultured fresh cheese, the pickled fish, the dill, etc. without having to make the compromises the factory manufacturers do.
I can tell you that a Swedish Christmas is one of the most worked-over food rituals in the whole world. Thank god for Ikea. In the old days, everything was made at home. It’s a huge feast that is essentially celebrated for religious reasons that requires the whole culture to preserve an enormous amount of food for a time when there is no fresh food available. But I think there is more of a basis for the preservation of Nordic techniques in service of the Christmas ritual than any other source. All the pickling, the cheeses, the breads (my family hails from southern Sweden, and we have a lot of soft bread on Christmas, my mom actually buys it at a German bakery), the pickled fish, pickled beets, etc. all require that the families held onto these techniques generation after generation. And even if they were only purchasing products that were made using some industrial imitation of the technique, the Nordic taste chord lives on and is really meaningful to Nordic people; the proof is in the pudding-- factory methods have to go out of their way to preserve this taste chord because it’s so important to people.