To most, this question can be answered by a single word — Noma.
Before René Redzepi bursted onto the scene — Time named him a god of food — Copenhagen was a culinary backwater of mostly fried pork and pickled herring. First opened its door in 2003, Noma was widely ridiculed of its hyperlocal approach in serving mostly local, in-season ingredients. His emphasis on serving food in tune with time and space is hardly groundbreaking, but being a locavore in Denmark seemed downright unrealistic. What exactly could he bring to the plate during the frigid Nordic winter?
The Nordic’s relative lack of culinary tradition turns out to be complementary; Redzepi’s highly experimental nature is essentially unbounded by local sensitives and palates. He values foraging as fundamental a skill for a chef as filleting a fish. Anomalous ingredients such as ant, cloudberry, moss, weed and all sorts of leaves are, often through adaption of traditional methods like fermenting, smoking and pickling, transformed into dishes that define the climate and soil of the Nordic. A food lab was established in 2008 to scientifically investigate the boundary of food diversity. Despite a few bumps along the way, today the Noma brand is hotter than ever as the world awaits its reincarnation into an urban farm in December, 2017.
An evolving scene
Remember, unlike its Mediterranean counterparts, Denmark never has much of a culinary heritage. The growing season is short. Even just a decade ago the thought of traveling to Copenhagen for food would be met with mockery. The food in Denmark was “just sustenance” and “nothing but frozen and microwave food“, according to none other than René Redzepi.
Redzepi is undoubtedly the pioneer, but Copenhagen’s dining scene has grown beyond Noma. Nowadays Copenhagen is the trendiest place for fine dining, with headline-generating restaurants opening seemingly every other month. Mikkeller is one of the world’s most beloved brewery. The Nordic influence is even spreading from its home turf.
Ambitious young cooks who used to stage in France, Italy and Spain now flock to Copenhagen. Attracted by the innovative culture and sustainable food sources, many restaurateurs from different nationalities, including several alumni of Noma, have opened their own joints. This cultivation of talents translates into a highly competitive dining scene — to flourish is not by merely mimicking the local king but to establish one’s own identity.
The impact has trickled down from fine dining to daily life. The seed was planted in the 1990s when the government began to heavily promote and invest in local organic food production. The subsequent New Nordic food movement only strengthens the celebration of all things local. Diet has changed, and the most obvious place to look is by visiting food markets like Torvehallerne and WestMarket.
The harsh winters no longer forbid the growing of fresh produce. Many stalls are filled with vegetables from local greenhouses. Ransom and sea buckthorn, herbs popularized by Noma, can be found in supermarket. Seafood has become popular. Despite having EU’s largest fishing industry and some of the world’s finest shellfish, Danes had traditionally shied away from its ocean bounties. In 2002 Danes consumed 145.9 kg of meat annually per capita; by 2009 that amount dropped by 35% while seafood consumption grew.
Transforming Copenhagen into a gastronomic hub requires something more tangible than national pride; everything is moot if there is no money behind the enterprise. Like much of the West, Denmark has suffered from the fallout of the financial crisis, losing 186,000 private-sector jobs since 2008. The only sector to see substantial growth is restaurant.
Denmark’s tourism has lagged far behind its Nordic neighbours; overnight stays actually declined every single year between 2004-2009. Partially assisted by the rise of the New Nordic cuisine, overnight stays have gradually rebounded in recent years. Capitalizing on this new-found international spotlight, the Danish tourism board is marketing massively on culinary tourism while also supports NGOs such as FOOD on promoting food industries across the country. The entire supply chain, from farmers to fishermen to retailers to restaurateurs to tourism marketers, is contributing and benefiting from Denmark’s newfound status as a culinary hotspot.
To maintain this status, Copenhagen certainly needs all the inflow of visitors it can get. A city of 600,000 inhabitants can only support so many restaurants offering delicately arranged roots and leaves. I spent an afternoon in Nørrebro, a rough neighbourhood that has undergone dramatic urban renewal since the opening of several highly sought-after places a few years back. From Relæ to Mikkeller & Friends, I heard nothing but English around me. Staff at both places estimated 70% of customers are foreigners. English also predominates at budget places like Copenhagen Street Food.
A distinguished identity
In this day and age when talents and ingredients can easily be transported around the globe, is there still a need to fly all the way to a place for its food? Operating a restaurant is difficult, especially one that sells a unfamiliar taste. Cuisine is quite unlike wine where it can be bottled; not all ingredients can retain their freshness over flight. Pressure to cater to local palates can lead to compromises and distortions. When the novelty wears off, how to keep customers with vastly different tastes to keep coming back?
I happened upon René Redzepi at the tail end of my dinner at 108. After listening to the millionth time of someone not able to get a table at Noma, he quipped, “Please come back in December when we reopen. But there are lots of exciting places all around Copenhagen, including here at 108. I am sure you have a good time in Copenhagen even without dining at Noma.”
He is right. Copenhagen becomes a gastronomic hotspot not only because of Noma, or its many alumni, or any other popular restaurant. It is where it is today because many people in Denmark have, perhaps for the first time, realized with the aid of modern technology the country has much culinary advantages, from distinguished ingredients to an advanced society that attracts talents worldwide. Ants and leaves and weeds might grab the headlines, but beyond the novelty I sense there is a genuine attempt to deliver food which reflects the soil, topography and climate of the region.
Eating in Copenhagen is quite unlike anywhere else in the world.