When they don’t wear their brown aprons, one of the signatures of Noma, the fellow cooks of René become wild things, evading ordinary life to become foragers, fermenters, hunters, fishermen… whatever.
Conceptualizing and founding the Nordic Food Lab would be one of the major achievements of René Redzepi. Feeding the curiosity of cooks to be something else, searching for applicable wisdom from outside of the restaurant kitchen.
Noma cooking has always been about research, but as we are in the era of creative commons and public sharing, René decided back in 2008 to create a proper Lab space. A place where people worldwide could see what Nordic cooking was really about. Not a trend, but a cuisine based on research and ideas from some from the bright emerging talent of food studies in its various forms. A place where recipes could be crafted to be published open source, so that everyone could see that behind an appearance there is a whole world to discover.
And so, on the same quayside as Noma, a grey and anonymous houseboat hides an incredible place, where a young and talented team put together new knowledge that challenges the ordinary to create the extraordinary.
That’s the Nordic Food Lab. A place that shows how vast the subject of gastronomy is. Created along with the University of Copenhagen, under the supervision of Prof. Michael Bom Frøst and supported by major private and public bodies, hungry to investigate new frontiers in food.
There are several subjects faced by the NFL, many of them are redacted scientifically and published on their website (http://nordicfoodlab.org/). Studies concern sensory analysis as much as fermentation/curing techniques and many other subjects, showing the multitude of approaches and purposes that one single organization can have.
The good thing about NFL is that even if it follows a lead to rely on, each researcher has the freedom to start a favorite study based on their interest. Let’s take the example of Guillemette Barthouil, graduate at the University of Gastronomic Science in Italy and in Food Culture at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Her family, based in Peyorade in Southern France, has a high-end curing factory since generations, producing foie gras along with other duck and fish related conserves. Talking with hunters from northern Sweden, she was able to get some wild ducks that naturally over-eat themselves before migrating from Northern Europe to Northern Africa. Her idea is to experiment with how a “natural foie gras” reacts when cooked and treated as a traditionally force-fed one.
A huge theme studied by the NFL concerns food fermentation using both wild and laboratory strains of molds, yeasts and bacteria. Whereas in Southern Europe it is easy to obtain acidity (one of the backbones of all flavors) inside a dish, using for example some citrus, Nordic cooking need to process raw ingredients to obtain an equivalent. At the Nordic Food Lab where dozen of different vinegars are brewed, using bunches of different ingredients and obtaining an incredibly wide range of acidities and accompanying flavors: from sweet and fruity to strong and intense.
Incidentally, there is one single ingredient that by itself shows an astonishing acidity: ants…
Which brings us to another major feature of all the studies done onboard the “anonymous grey boat” docked in front of Noma.
Ben Reade, a cook from Edinburgh, graduated as well at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, is the Head of R&D at the Lab and has well as facilitating much of the research carried out by the diverse and constantly changing team of interns, has a particular focus on consuming bugs and insects. No folkloristic stuff, just pure and incredibly good flavor obtained and processed through what the FAO has defined already as the food of the future.
Within the products create with insects by the NFL, there’s one of the most unexpected and tastiest things I’ve tried last year: a grasshopper garum. So good that it is used even on the menu at Noma.
Another focus with a broad extension of purposes is bee wax, used to cure and preserve the most different of things: both meat and fruit.
Ben leads a team of enthusiastic persons passionate about food, who are curious to find how many things can we get out of a single one, or how the whole can be more than the sum of its parts. Whether it is speaking about the importance of play in innovation, at TED conferences or at talking about flavor and food security at the United Nations FAO HQ in Rome, everyone is getting curious about the results achieved by a few young people working in an anonymous grey boat docked in Copenhagen, where the wild things are.