Super natural: A reverence for raw produce and simple cooking techniques heralds a new back-to-basics culinary movement
What happens when you get eleven of the world's best chefs, take them to a forest and make them forage for their ingredients? Terry Durack reports on the raw food, raw energy and raw passion of 'SuperNatural' eating
Sunday 07 June 2009
At the World Business Summit in Copenhagen two weeks ago today, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon urged the business leaders of the world to do what they could to reduce greenhouse gases. At the same time, just across town, in a converted whale-blubber warehouse in Christianshavn, some of the greatest chefs in the world were coming up with their own, edible responses to climate change.
Massimo Bottura, the two-Michelin-starred chef of Italy's Osteria Francescana, created a dish for the occasion entitled "Pollution". "I read a report describing how our oceans will look in 2050," he said. "There will be no sea bass, no life on the sea bed, just giant squid and seaweed." Moved by this bleak picture, he created a cold, primeval pool of swampy green and grey juices – made from oyster, squid, monkfish liver and foraged samphire, and topped with a "toxic scum" of lemony foam; a chilling, and chilled, indictment of how we are despoiling our environment. I tasted it gingerly, thinking that I might die; but it was as fresh and exhilarating as a sea-salty breeze.
Bottura was one of 11 celebrated chefs drawn from the US, Italy, the UK, Spain, Germany, France and Japan to Rene Redzepi's ground-breaking Noma restaurant in the Danish capital for Cook it Raw!, a culinary think-tank culminating in a banquet created from raw food, native Danish ingredients, minimum heat and low-energy cooking. The chefs, who have notched up 20 Michelin stars between them, represented numbers one, three, 11, 13, 31 and 40 in the 2009 World's 50 Best Restaurants list.
Most of the dishes were produced using little or no conventional energy. That meant no food processors, ' no blast-chillers, no distillators, no waterbaths, no vacuum cookers. Instead, they went cold turkey, unplugged. The idea was not so much to get back to nature, but to go forward with it, learning to rely more on the provenance, freshness, quality and taste of the ingredients than techniques and technology.
So waiters brought armfuls of giant bulrushes to the table, pulled from a stream near the extraordinary Dragsholm Castle just outside Copenhagen, their crisply tender stems trimmed to reveal the crunchy, heart-of-palm-like centre. One course was of young asparagus, carrots and radishes "'growing" in a "soil" of crunchy, munchy dark malt; another of live fjord shrimps that jumped from their container on to the table, into water glasses and, when caught, into mouths.
This was one of those "I was there when..." moments. I was there when a movement crystallised that will challenge the Spanish-driven molecular gastronomy, the self-styled "techno-emotional" cuisine, and the hero-worship of technique, process and texture over flavour. Whatever this new movement will be called – Raw, New Nordic, or (my preferred) SuperNatural – it makes Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adrià and the rest look like old boffins, working in their laboratories making spaghetti out of clarified egg yolks while outside, young chefs walk through meadows and wade through streams, finding their inspiration in nature.
Molecular gastronomy was fun while it lasted, like a trip to the circus, full of dazzling lights, textural trickery and sleight of hand. But while the Spanish chefs were playing with their hi-tech toys, the Nordic chefs were quietly going back to their roots, literally, concentrating on producing the clearest, cleanest, most natural expressions of their own "terroir". Their natural leader is Redzepi, who turned his back on foie gras, olives and imported ingredients in 2003, aggressively replacing them with purely Danish and Scandinavian produce. "I am not against the scientific way at all," he says,"but I prefer to work as close to nature as possible."
Instead of having scientists and chemists on his staff, Redzepi has foragers and gardeners. "When you have just the flavour of the natural ingredient, you have nothing to fall back on; you cannot force it to be what it is not."
According to Redzepi, the idea of low-interventionist, low-energy cooking that is raw, minimalist and close to nature is something that comes naturally to Scandinavians. "In Copenhagen, I feel we are closer to nature than any other city. We can be on a farm just 20 minutes out of town."
To prove his point, he and fellow organisers Alessandro Porcelli of Nordic Gourmet Tour and Italian gastronomic journalist Andrea Petrini bundled their guest chefs on to a bus and whisked them through rolling hills as green as billiard felt to Dragsholm in the north-west Zealand countryside to forage for their own ingredients, before each cooked a course for a special dinner. Watching these all-star chefs flit through a carpet of wild garlic plants under a canopy of beech trees, wicker baskets in hand, is a somewhat surreal experience. Chef Davide Scabin of Turin's avant-garde, two-starred Combal Zero restaurant picks a delicate wild garlic flower, then proceeds to tear off its minute petals one by one. When he is left with just the spindly green skeletal stem, he nods. "This is the part we work with," he says. "This is sexy."
Redzepi laughs, pointing out onion cress here, chickweed there, wild pea shoots lurking under the trees. "How many chefs know how asparagus grows?" he asks. "How many have picked a wild plant on the beach? When you have seen it, picked it, you see food in a totally different way. You understand where it belongs and what you can do with it."
Iñaki Aizpitarte, the tall, skinny-jeaned young-gun chef of the hot Le Chateaubriand restaurant in Paris, looks too cool to pick his own produce, but even he falls under the spell, wandering through the trees with Albert Adrià, brother of the ground-breaking Ferran and founding pastry chef of the iconic Catalonian El Bulli restaurant. Fifteen minutes later, we are on Sejerobugten Bay, a wondrous stretch of protected Danish coastline, where Redzepi buzzes around like a honey bee, transfixed by the outcrops of beach mustard, purslane and sea arrowgrass.
When the chefs have filled their baskets with "scurvy-grass" (cochlearia), woodruff, pimpernel and pine shoots, it's off to pick asparagus from the sandy, shell-scattered soil of reclaimed seabeds. Soren Wiuff, one of Denmark's most respected farmers and supplier to Copenhagen's very best restaurants, pulls up leeks for us to chew on, and snaps off asparagus so sweet and earthy you swear you will never again ruin it by cooking. The chefs look distracted, keen to get into a kitchen and start (not) cooking. Some have no idea what they will do, others have it planned to the last tendril of wild herb and unit of energy. "Normally I would put everything in the Pacojet [food processor]," says Albert Adrià. "Without the machines, it makes it harder, but that is good. It makes you think."
By the time they turn up at the pristine, glass-walled kitchens of Noma, there is an urgency in the air and enough adrenalin to power a small Pacojet. Within minutes, the ' UK's leonine Claude Bosi of Mayfair's Hibiscus is extracting long filaments of raw, pink flesh from the leg of a giant Norwegian king crab. He looks down at the ghostly, glistening meat. "I can't cook that," he says. Heads turn. "It is too beautiful. It will have to be raw." Redzepi smiles and turns back to his work.
Bosi has already been evolving his cooking to take note of the SuperNatural style. "Chefs can get so involved with techniques that they forget about basics," he says. "We don't have to reject technology, but there are things you don't have to do. I don't do foams any more, as I think they are tasteless."
In another corner, a group of chefs gather around Joachim Wissler of the German three-Michelin-star Vendôme near Cologne, as he creates an amoebic round of raw venison and a jellied pumpernickel soup to serve with the world's tiniest mushrooms. Next door, the boyish Pascal Barbot of the three-starred L'Astrance and current darling of Parisian gastronomy, is working with the precision of a neurosurgeon on a dish that combines smoked eel, raw mackerel and wild angelica. "Raw food does not scare me," he says. "My signature dish is a combination of raw mushrooms and marinated foie gras." It is all making Korean/American New Yorker David Chang of Momofuku as jumpy as a live shrimp. He doesn't think he belongs in this rarefied world, being more renowned for his Korean steamed buns with pork belly and kim chee.
"Hell, I look up and see Albert Adrià. Every one of these chefs has changed the face of modern cooking." He laughs, then says, "I just don't want to end up looking like a fraud."
He doesn't. As it turns out, the Chang course is an elegant, refreshing and subtle evocation of dotorimuk, a Korean acorn jelly fashioned from Hawthorne Valley buttermilk. "I just pretended that my ancestors moved to Copenhagen 200 years ago, and took it from there."
The evening itself is set among the bare oak tables, Danish leather chairs and sheepskin throws of Noma. Instead of imported champagne, the aperitif is a lovely local beer brewed with beech sap. Every chef has a different response to the low-energy brief, but the dishes flow as if from one, the wow factor coming from their natural components rather than any overt manipulation. From London's fiercely Japanese Umu restaurant, chef Ichiro Kubota slayed the crowd with a mini kaiseki of fleshy Belon oyster with lemon soy; sweet shrimps with kinome pepper and broad-been purée; and a spoonful of turbot with five-spice.
Daniel Patterson, the uncompromising chef of the two-star Coi restaurant in San Francisco, created Earth & Sea, teaming little potatoes the size of your tiniest fingernail with a shoreline of squid ink and cucumber. It takes 18 chefs a good eight minutes to position each tiny beach herb between the potatoes, making them look as if they grew on the plate itself.
Bottura's polluted ocean causes much comment across the room, one guest calling it "Finnegan's Wake in a spoon". The local artist Lone Hoyer Hansen says quietly, "This man is very angry about the oceans."
Aizpitarte's lobster and wood sorrel with a paste of raw pigeon and chicken liver is both elegant and primal, and Bosi's luminous disc of king-crab tartare, flecked with pickled cucumber, white miso and beach herbs is like a mouthful of sweet sea spray. Then (those crazy Italians) Davide Scabin sends out Steak Tartare BC – filaments of beef served in hollow troughs of cinnamon bark. Eaten with the fingers, it turns all at the table into hunter-gatherers. "It took six people 60 hours of work to create this dish, but no actual energy." Scabin turned his dish into "a personal provocation to think about how we are using time instead of energy", citing a rich man who has no time, paying a poor man who has no money. "Who, then, is the richest, and who the poorest?" he asks. "The man with the money or the man with the time?"
Adrià keeps his dessert light and uplifting, a lemony, creamy elderflower sorbet under a cosy shrug of sponge cake, all tasting of spring blossom and honey. Surely a sponge must be baked in an oven? Yes, but for just 40 seconds, in a microwave.
After 11 courses, each matched to a natural or biodynamic wine, I spring from the table feeling lighter and friskier than when I sat down. It is a potent combination: raw food, raw energy and raw passion, and it marks New Nordic cuisine as the most important new influence on world gastronomy. For Redzepi, it is simple: our future is all about our terroir, which he calls "the soul of a place". "If the world is going to come to its senses, then we must all develop our own awareness and consciousness of our own terroir," he says. "This can happen everywhere, we all have our own resources. England is the same. If we can do it here, it can be done anywhere."
He makes it sound so simple. And in a way, it is. If we focused on our own distinctive raw materials, regional characteristics and wild foods, with minimal intervention and processing, and if we consumers made a conscious decision every day to eat as locally and seasonally as possible, then we would have a uniquely modern British cuisine that supported our producers and farmers and celebrated our history, culture, time and place. Sounds like the natural way to go to me.
Albert Adrià For 20 years the patissier at El Bulli, consistently rated the world's best restaurant; now runs Barcelona tapas bar Inopia.
Iñaki Aizpitarte Known for his take on raw and low-temperature, last-minute cooking. His character-laden restaurant Le Chateaubriand is number 40 in the 50 Best.
Pascal Barbot His tiny, three-starred L'Astrance (11 in 50 Best) holds just 20 diners, but is the biggest thing to happen to Parisian dining in years.
Claude Bosi Helped make the market town of Ludlow one of Britain's foodiest destinations. He transferred his Hibiscus restaurant to Mayfair two years ago, and now has two Michelin stars.
Massimo Bottura Thought-provoking chef combines the traditions of the Emilia-Romagna region with avant-garde techniques. His two-starred La Francescana is rated 13 in the 50 Best.
David Chang Young Korean/ American's three Momofukus are all high on the New York hotlist; his Momofuku Ssam Bar is 31 in the 50 Best.
Ichiro Kubota Harmonious, multi-course kyo-kaiseki cooking style is elegant and seasonally driven, winning a star for Mayfair's Umu.
Daniel Patterson Produce is the focal point of this uncompromising chef's two-starred Coi restaurant, one of the shining lights of San Franciscan dining.
Rene Redzepi Tireless super-natural chef whose iconic two-starred Noma this year hit number three in the 50 Best.
Joachim Wissler Champions new and forgotten ingredients. Even the most rustic of produce (lardo, pig's feet) gets luxe treatment at his three-starred Vendôme.
Davide Scabin Likes to play with his food. Housed in the same 13th-century castle as Turin's Museum of Modern Art, his two-starred Combal Zero has done much to shake up Italian dining. TD
The world's hottest food trends
Tired of the molecular gastronomy label, chefs such as Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal came up with "techno-emotional" to describe a style of cooking that applies new technology to food to affect all our senses, such as hot gelatin, spherification (in which a liquid forms its own wrapper) and "raviolis" formed from ingredients such as prawns. Also known as vanguard, avant-garde, sensurround, and just plain wacky.
Chefs who try to make their food a clear, direct expression of its locality, either by growing their own vegetables, breeding their own pigs, using moss, soil, tree saps and resins from the local forest, or seaweeds from the local surf beach. Foreign ingredients and philosophies are seen as contaminating the purity of the local product.
Vacuum-packed, low-temperature waterbath cooking (sous-vide) looks set to stay, at the expense of oven-roasting. Also used to infuse one ingredient with the flavour of another – putting fresh melon in with passion-fruit juice, and ending up with melon that tastes of passion fruit, for example.
Bin to plate
Chefs use low-cost, hitherto "tossed", ingredients in their cooking – the seeds of a tomato, the fronds of a carrot, the stems of a parsley, the skin of potatoes, the ears of a pig. Their mothers respond by saying they've been doing this for years.
Chefs dismiss the conventional hierarchy of a three-course meal, in favour of adopting the principles of Japanese kaiseki cuisine in a series of small dishes that propose differing tastes and textures. Other "boundaries" melt away as chefs combine sweet and savoury, salt and sugar, bitterness and "burnt" flavours. TD
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