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The Nordic Kitchen Manifesto strengthens the the Nordics as a culinary region

Mathias Dahlgren
Interview with Mathias Dahlgren, one of the six creators of the manifesto for the New Nordic Cuisine

Karsten Thurfjell. karsten.thurfjell@sverigesradio.se

Ten years ago, in Sweden and the Nordic countries there were some restaurants and chefs who were quite well known in the world. This may have been through the success of their restaurants or through cooking contests, but we had not made an international impact as a country or region, like the new Spanish cuisine.

Claus Meyer was the visionary in this context and, on his initiative, some Nordic players were invited to the meeting in Copenhagen in 2004. He had written this manifesto with Jan Krag Jacobsen, and I suppose they both wanted us to go there, enjoy our time together, and then sign the document, as a fun thing to do. Instead, there were two intense days where we discussed who we were and what we should do, before we managed to come up with a manifesto that everyone could sign. It was really exciting. This kind of ideological conversation about what we are and what we have, and the opportunities available, had probably not occurred before.

In retrospect, it can be clearly seen how important it was to make a manifesto and date the decision. An incredible number of visitors to our restaurants refer to the manifesto. People have read it carefully and think it’s exciting. Meanwhile, the same discussions were held in many other places around the world, in the UK, Benelux, USA and Australia. They made the same journey, but have no dated manifesto!

As a PR campaign, the manifesto was an amazing success, and we should be pleased with the interest it generated. However, our food industry has been very slow to see the possibilities. One goal of the manifesto was to work in close dialogue with the food producers in our countries, to create a future of new marketable products. It has still not happened, after ten years. Sure, many interesting projects with small-scale production started in different regions but, really, we haven’t been able to capitalise on this idea, which is a pity. You’re headline news for a very short time, ten years is a long time, and in many cases it may be too late.

On the other hand, it’s no use crying over spilled milk. Maybe it’s enough to say, OK, it didn’t happen. But instead of quarrelling about what was not done and what didn´t turn out as intended, we can be proud of what we actually accomplished. If this happened in ten years, what can we do that will be so much better in the future?

When I was a young chef, you could cook in two ways – either the traditional way, or something totally different. What I find interesting, where the power is, is trying to do something new, based on the knowledge of tradition.

Ferran Adrià, today the world´s best-known chef, was asked why the Spanish cuisine evolved so incredibly fast. His response was that they have a tradition of sharing experience between generations. We’ve been very bad at this in Sweden. By respecting the conclusions of old people and, from this, trying to create something new, we could come so much further!

We’ve not been particularly good at highlighting our own identity and culture. Instead, we’ve been good at erasing it and being extremely open to inspiration from outside. You could call it a survival strategy, but it’s not interesting enough. With the manifesto, our food made a name for itself all over the world. And some specific phenomena aroused interest, foraging for example. Every time I get international guests, they ask “So you’re out in the woods every morning, picking moss and pine cones before you start cooking?” Well, it´s not exactly like that. We do like to be out in the countryside and use all good and edible produce, but the odd leaves and buds are not the foundation for our kitchen and cooking.

The New Nordic Manifesto has served as a start motor for a variety of projects. Both production of and demand for organic products have multiplied. The interest in food has never been greater than it is today, but there are many reasons for this. Cooking competitions have been important, the Chef of the Year, the Bocuse d’Or and the National Culinary Team, and today’s amateur competitions on television. Increased interest creates a demand for more varieties and quality levels. Slow cooking is back and has become very popular, like using the whole animal, to take advantage of resources and smart climate thinking. Much of this is exactly what the manifesto mentioned ten years ago.

An interesting paradox is the non-existent tradition of eating vegetables up here in the north. But there is nothing as typical of the new Nordic cuisine as putting a lot of plants and vegetables on the plate. And this phenomenon has made an international impact. Many claim to be inspired by the New Nordic approach, and instead of ‘nose to tail’ apply ‘root to flower’, using the whole plant.

An important reason to see a positive future are the skills of younger generations. When I was 20, I had travelled very little, and my experience in international top produce and culinary sensations was almost non-existent, while today’s 20-year-olds have so many more references. With their early life experiences, they get much more confidence and dare to try new things. People starting in the industry today have very good chances to succeed. With this in mind, there is a great potential for the Nordic Cuisine to be developed in a positive direction. We should get a lot better than we are today, and this is simply great!

However, we do have a problem with our domestic agriculture, trying to compete with a world that is constantly trying to produce food as cheaply as possible. We’ve been trying to do this for a long time, but with our climate and wages, we have no chance of succeeding. We must adapt our agriculture to other parameters, such as making the world’s best products, the most interesting or the healthiest food.

We will never ever be able to produce the world’s cheapest food… and the task is not even very interesting.