Did Factory Farming Inspire the World's Best Restaurant?

The cooking at Noma looks very different when considered in the light of Danish industrial agriculture.

How Copenhagen’s Noma Restaurant is Changing the Way People Eat

Chef René Redzepi (left) in the kitchen of his restaurant Noma in Copenhagen. (Photo: Christian Charisius/Reuters)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.

Since being named the third-best restaurant in the world in 2009, Copenhagen’s Noma has been at the center of the global high-end cooking scene. Chef René Redzepi's insistence on using only Nordic ingredients, leading him to eschew olive oil and venture out to the beaches of Denmark to pick a sea grass that tastes like cilantro and other wild plants, has inspired a generation of young chefs. If you’ve eaten any dish with foraged nasturtiums or radishes served in malty, edible “soil,” you’ve tasted the influence of Noma, which has topped the World's 50 Best Restaurants list three years running.

Restaurant obsessives who haven’t made the trek to Copenhagen can interact with the culinary world that Redzepi has helped to create. The restaurant’s brain trust is behind the annual TED-like MAD Symposium—replete with a massive archive of online videos of well-known chefs talking about fermentation and gardening and modernist cuisine—and Noma is also associated with the Nordic Food Lab, a geeky food think tank of sorts that catalogs the edible wild plants of Denmark and publishes scholarly articles on “insect gastronomy” and the uses of local seaweed varieties in the “new Nordic cuisine.”

In that sense, Noma is more than just a restaurant, new Nordic cuisine something larger than a culinary trend. Presented in frost-coated, bucolic terms, the dishes Redzepi cooks are a distillation of place, food that attempts to find a new identity for modern Scandinavia. As the chef told The Guardian food critic Jay Rayner in 2009, he seized on just such a notion while hunting a local breed of cold-hardy goat in the Arctic.

It was very cold, minus 55, and I was suddenly struck by the enormity of where we were. We are a huge landmass with only 25 million people. Here, where we are, nature is as it wants to be, and I began thinking about how to reflect that nature, express it on the plate.

Or, as Mark Emil Hermansen of the Nordic Food Lab writes in “Creating Terroir: An Anthropological Perspective on New Nordic Cuisine as an Expression of Nordic Identity,” the food serviced at restaurants like Noma “can be seen as a reaction to the modern world of globalization, migration and electronic mediation.”

As media coverage of Noma and the farms and other suppliers that provide its ingredients tells it, Redzepi has singlehandedly turned Denmark into a country of farmers who, say, grow “vintage” carrots that are harvested after spending an entire winter in the frozen Danish ground. To wit, Time ran a story last year called “Nomanomics: How One Restaurant Is Changing Denmark’s Economy.”

“It’s blooming all over the city and all over the country,” Pelle Andersen, the managing director of the Food Organization of Denmark, told reporter Matt Goulding. “It’s starting to create more jobs. You see more jobs in the fishing industries, more people buying stuff directly from local producers. The way people are changing the way they buy food and eat is incredible.”

“One might expect an upbeat appraisal from guys like Andersen; after all, he heads up an organization that exists solely to promote Danish food,” Goulding writes. “But move about Denmark—to its islands and fjords and vast plains of rolling green—and you’ll see examples everywhere of what Puglisi called ‘the trickle-down effect of Noma.’ ”

Indeed, agriculture is a booming industry in Denmark, employing nearly 150,000 people, or 8.5 percent of the labor force, in a country of 5.6 million. The small nation's output is enough to feed a staggering 20 million. Which is to say, the new Nordic cuisine aesthetic is not the driving force in Danish agriculture, despite the glow Noma has lent to all edible things Danish.

The jump from $5.5 billion in agriculture exports in 2001 to $21.9 billion in 2011 was driven by innovation that’s tempting, if not clichéd, to call thoroughly Scandinavian—smart, precise, benignly socialist. A recent article in The Economist describes the killing floor of a pork processor, where well-paid employees combine humane practices, such as using fly swatters to herd the animals, with efficiency in the slaughter of 20,000 pigs a day.

The fly-swatting workers wear green rather than white because this puts the pigs in a better mood. The cutting machine photographs a carcass before adjusting its blades to its exact contours. The company calibrates not only how to carve the flesh, but also where the various parts will fetch the highest prices: the bacon goes to Britain and the trotters to China.

Describing his first meal at Noma in 2009, Rayner wrote that the food was “about tiny wildflowers and seaweeds harvested from the ocean shore. It's about axelberries and wood sorrel, fiddlehead ferns and bulrushes, ramson leaves and a whole bunch of other things I'd never heard of before.”

For the Danes’ international agriculture trade, however, food is all about bringing home the bacon. American ag corporations are taking note: In 2011 DuPont purchased Danisco, a leading Danish agriculture firm.

Redzepi may be sticking with his axelberries and encouraging farmers to grow grapes to provide Noma with local wines, but in a 2011 interview with Sage Magazine he appeared by no means to be convinced that he’s guiding the Danish ag market. Asked to compare European food systems with America’s, Redzepi told the reporter, “America is so big; there are so many different worlds of food, different legislations. You have these mega-industries. At the same time, Denmark is so inspired and influenced by America in its policies.” 

Similar to America, where Alice Waters and Monsanto are at opposite ends of the food system, there’s resistance to industrial farming in Denmark too. The Economist story notes that an episode of the popular Danish political drama "Borgen" took several shots at hog farming, highlighting such familiar issues as factory farms and antibiotic use.

Yet the article also reports that Redzepi serves pig tails supplied by Danish Crown, the Smithfield of Denmark’s pork industry.

When Noma made its surprise third-place finish on the 50 Best Restaurants in the World list in 2009, Redzepi was rather belligerent in accepting the honor, telling the audience in London, "They called us the seal fuckers. They called us the stinking whale,” referencing his fellow chefs' disparaging ideas of what Nordic cuisine might be.

“They asked us if we had braised whale's penis on the menu,” he continued, adding, "Look who's laughing now."

No one in London or New York or Paris was cooking with mosses or other foraged plants at that point, like many top chefs aping Redzepi’s style today, but the Danish agriculture industry was already booming.

Considered in that context, despite those pig tails, Noma looks less like nationalistic culinary soul searching (Redzepi is quick to point out, when accused of culinary xenophobia, that his father is a Macedonian Muslim) than a direct response to a growing, industrializing agriculture sector. Because if your choices in local Danish food were either braised whale penis or pork raised on a massive scale for export, wouldn’t you rather invent a third way?

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