Saturday, January 28, 2012

In Love

Since I've been back in the States, I can't help but notice how in love certain segments of America seem to be with Copenhagen, Denmark and Scandinavia in general. Here's a general survey. I still can't decide if it makes me more or less 'hjem'-sick...

A search of the New York Times website turns up no less than nine articles that reference the world-renowned Copenhagen restaurant Noma in the past few months alone. You can practically hear the sound of Mark Bittman's drool hitting the pages of the magazine section as he lauds head chef Rene Redzepi as the 'Prince of Denmark' and dishes out Noma-style recipes like Whitefish with Grilled Cabbage and Langoustines with Oysters and Seaweed.

Replace dude in the suit by the window with Me!

A mere month after my return, imagine my surprise to discover that I'd beaten Mr.  Bittman himself to the punch, having had one of my last, best meals in Copenhagen at Restaurant Paustian. To add to the entire feeling of deja vu, the photograph featured in the article shows the exact table I sat at. And my very same waitress!

And not to single out NYT or Mr. Bittman for their unabashed obsession, other food magazines have similarly jumped on the bandwagon. The January 2012 Food & Wine magazine features a love-fest between the aforementioned Mr. Redzepi and California chef Daniel Patterson in which they tinker around the kitchen creating new recipes. 

This is how exciting it is to be Danish!

I found the whole article a bit alienating. Despite my love of cooking and food, I couldn't quite muster up the same high-five slapping enthusiasm for dishes like Brown Butter Chicken Jus with Citrus and Greens, in which each diner is allotted exactly three walnut pieces and about six leaves of parsley as garnish. According to Redzepi, "A recipe is like when you buy an Ikea closet with maddening instructions. You need to bring some common sense to it." An interesting parallel, given that a meal at his restaurant including wine will cost you about as much as Ikea's most expensive closet... though it also explains why there are so many courses as it must take a lot to fill up if you replace all the meat with a suggestion or hint of meat.

Interesting for entirely different reasons was a September 2011 Bon Appetit article on an obscure restaurant in the wilds of Sweden and yet another chef obsessed with scraping things off the forest floor and eating them. The article didn't entirely convince me of the chef's overall sanity, however I did come away with an appreciation for his up-front honesty, a characteristic I've found universal among the many Scandinavians I've known and encountered:

'A rickety old ice cream maker was delivered to the center of the dining room and loudly cranked. Again, we all looked. "I deliberately don't take care of my ice cream maker so it will make a lot of eeer-awww, eeeeh-errrkk sounds," Magnus Nilsson says with a sly, faint smile.'

The entire Viking-worship phenomenon isn't just limited to food and restaurants. Here's a bunch of other stuff I've run into:

Town & Country's December 2011 issue featured a small article on blogger Mikael Colville-Andersen and his championing of the 'citizen cyclist'. Copenhagen Cycle Chic is a fun blog that gives a great sense of Danish bicycle culture, fashion and the amazing number of things that can be done with, by or on a bike. While it did bring back my nostalgia for riding on the back of a bicycle through the city, it did not convince me that drop crotch pants should be as universally adopted.
Elle Decor's November 2011 edition features a Stockholm apartment that could be similarly found in the tonier 'burbs of Copenhagen. Good move not featuring the bathroom in the photo shoot as there's nothing glamorous about showering standing over your own toilet.

An article on a Danish art collective's recent project in New York City caught my attention, not so much for its daring, as for the name of the artist interviewed - Bjørnstjerne. For a country with such strict naming rules, I'm surprised they let "Bear-Star" fly...

The entire Design Within Reach catalog is like taking a stroll through a Danish design museum, though I'm not exactly sure whose reach they're referring to by carrying a $15,000 sofa.

Why all this love? My favorite explanation comes from journalist and author Joel Stein's column for Food & Wine magazine's Nordic trendspotting piece:

Nordic Food: Ikea is Forever

Humorist Joel Stein ponders our Scandi-centric moment, as we eat skyr, watch Nordic chefs and worship prefab furniture.

When money is flowing and times are like a Jimmy Buffett song, we tend to think of heading south. To less stressful places with charmingly lax laws, fruity cocktails and warm azure water lapping upon us. These are cocky thoughts. They are 2006 thoughts. In 2011, we find ourselves thinking of all things Nordic. Of mittens and mutton. Of stylish sturdiness.

So we are hunkering down, longing to eat at places like Copenhagen’s Noma—easily the most influential restaurant in the world, converting chefs into micro-localists, foraging lichen in their basement and curing musk ox. Platters of toro sashimi might not be around in 10 years, but you can be sure there will be lichen and musk ox after the apes take over.

Scandinavia is about resilience, hardiness, a cool edginess. It all makes sense right now; we want to simplify. To drink clear, hard liquors (aquavit) and listen to spare pop songs (Lykke Li). We trust these things in times of trouble. Because no matter how low the NASDAQ falls, you can always buy things at Ikea. And when they break, you can buy more.