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RESTAURANTS

Denmark’s fabulous food journey: from hearty fare to haute cuisine

Long known for their hearty meat-and-potatoes fare, Danish chefs have now carved out a name for themselves in the culinary world with trailblazing dishes at star-studded restaurants.

Denmark's fabulous food journey: from hearty fare to haute cuisine
Photo: AFP/Deposit Photos

With cold winters and sandy fields battered by winds from the North Sea and Baltic, Denmark is worlds away from the sun-drenched orchards of France and Italy, whose bountiful crops have served up gastronomic feasts for centuries.

Heavily dependent on its pork industry and known for its beer and aquavit, the Scandinavian country has traditionally had little to boast about in the kitchen.

So when Copenhagen hotspot Noma opened 15 years ago — it has since been voted the world's best eatery repeatedly by British magazine Restaurant — it was seen as the herald of “New Danish Cuisine”: inventive dishes using high-quality organic, local and seasonal ingredients.

Noma paved the way for a new generation of chefs raring to break new ground such as those at gourmet restaurant Geranium, the only Danish eatery to boast three Michelin stars.

'New story of Nordic cuisine'

Noma, started by acclaimed chef Rene Redzepi, took cuisine “to a new level”, says chef Wassim Hallal, whose Restaurant Frederikshoj in Aarhus also has a Michelin star.

“That's how the new story about Nordic cuisine started.”

Fully booked months in advance and popular with celebrities, Noma has not only elevated Danish cuisine to new heights, it has also given the country a lot of very valuable publicity.

According to VisitDenmark, some 1.3 million gastro-tourists visited the nation in 2017, accounting for 28 percent of foreign visitors.

And topping it all off, Denmark, now home to 27 restaurants with Michelin stars, in January won the prestigious Bocuse d'Or, the gastronomy equivalent of the World Cup, nudging out its Scandinavian neighbours Sweden and Norway.

It was a French chef, Daniel Letz, who earned Denmark its first Michelin star in 1983.

A lot has happened since then, with awards raining down on the country in recent years.

Starting from scratch 

Denmark's culinary successes have been attributed paradoxically to the country having no gastronomic traditions to speak of.

“When you have traditional dishes, it's difficult to reinvent them,” says Szilvia Gyimothy, associate professor in tourism research at the University of Aalborg-Copenhagen.

As a result, Danish chefs have learned to make do with what they have at hand and tend to have an interest in organic foods.

They've invented new dishes far from the traditional heavy peasant fare of pork with potatoes and gravy.

Creating refined, delicately flavoured meals, chefs favour local specialities, honouring the country's environmental mindset.

“Instead of looking (at) what is happening in the world, it helps to follow nature and see what is fresh now and what's happening in the season. That's what inspires us,” says William Jorgensen, one of the chefs and owners of Gastrome.

At his establishment in Aarhus' Latin Quarter, customers dine on halibut with lemon confit and watercress, blood oranges with buckwheat, garlic and verbena, or potatoes with birch syrup and spruce.

Danish terroir

The late culinary awakening has seen the new chefs make it their trademark to use in-season, locally-grown products and the maritime diversity of the country's shores, defining a Danish terroir for the first time.

And it's mostly all organic, with a sharp focus on responsible consumerism: more than half of Danes buy organic foods at least once a week, according to Organic Denmark.

“Sustainability is earning a lot of focus in Scandinavia but it's not something that concerns others, for instance American chefs,” Gyimothy says.

Denmark is considered a pioneer in recycling and sorting of waste. In Copenhagen, each household is encouraged to compost its own kitchen waste, and the goal is to recycle 50 percent of household trash by 2022.

At his vegetarian eatery, Moment, bathed in light and backing onto a permaculture farm, Morten Storm Overgaard, a geologist and professor at the University of Aarhus, is pushing the culinary experience to the extreme.

He insists people “should use every opportunity to make as ethical choices as possible”, covering everything from the building to the dishes and drinks served, the interior design and dishware.

Here, everything is sustainable and eco-friendly.

“All dishes have to take their point of departure in our garden,” he says.

And many end up back in the garden: at Moment, like at Gastrome, almost nothing gets thrown away.

“We use the bread and the peel for the chickens and they fertilise the ground in our garden,” Jorgensen says.

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FOOD & DRINK

Nordic chef sets up world’s northernmost Michelin restaurant in Greenland

You can only get there by boat or helicopter, but Michelin-starred chef Poul Andrias Ziska hopes his restaurant in remote Greenland, far above the Arctic Circle, is worth the journey.

Nordic chef sets up world's northernmost Michelin restaurant in Greenland

The 30-year-old chef relocated his restaurant KOKS from the Faroe Islands in mid-June, leaving behind his relatively accessible address for Ilimanaq, a
hamlet of 50 inhabitants hidden behind icebergs on the 69th parallel north.

Housed in a narrow black wooden house, one of the oldest in Greenland, the restaurant can only accommodate about 20 people per service, and experiments with local produce, including whale and seaweed, with fresh produce almost impossible to find in the harsh climate.

“We try to focus on as much Greenlandic products as possible, so everything from Greenland halibut to snow crabs to musk ox to Ptarmigan, different herbs and different berries,” the tousled-haired, bearded chef tells AFP.

Double-Michelin-starred Faroese chef of KOKS restaurant Poul Andrias Ziska is photographed outside the restaurant housed in the Poul Egedes House in Ilimanaq, Greenland on 28th June 2022

Double-Michelin-starred Faroese chef of KOKS restaurant Poul Andrias Ziska is photographed outside the restaurant housed in the Poul Egedes House in Ilimanaq, Greenland on 28th June 2022. Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

The young chef previously ran KOKS at home in the remote Faroe Islands, where he won his first star in 2017, his second in 2019, and the title of the
world’s most isolated Michelin restaurant. 

He plans to return there for a permanent installation, but explains he had always wanted to stretch his gastronomical legs in another territory in the
far north, like Iceland, Greenland or even Svalbard.

He finally chose Ilimanaq, located an hour’s boat trip from Ilulissat, the third-largest town in Greenland and famous for its huge glacier.

Greenland, the world’s largest island, is an autonomous Danish dependent territory.

Local products

“We just found it more suitable, more fun to do something completely different before we move back in our permanent restaurant,” he tells AFP from
his kitchen, set up in a trailer outside the house with the dining area.

With 20 courses, the extensive tasting menu will delight the taste buds for some 2,100 kroner ($280), excluding wine and drinks.

“The menu is exquisite and sends you to the far north and back,” Devid Gualandris, a charmed visitor, tells AFP.

“From the whale bites to the wines, from the freshly caught fish and shellfish to the curated desserts, everything is bursting with flavour.”

While whale meat is a staple food in Greenland and Ziska’s native Faroe Islands, whaling is banned in most of the world and activists have called for
an end to the practice.

A KOKS chef prepares food at the kitchen of the restaurant housed in the Poul Egedes House in Ilimanaq, Greenland, on 28th June 2022.

A KOKS chef prepares food at the kitchen of the restaurant housed in the Poul Egedes House in Ilimanaq, Greenland, on 28th June 2022. Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

An unlikely locale for a gourmet restaurant, Ilimanaq — Greenlandic for “place of hope” — is home to a small community living in picturesque wooden
houses, next to hiking trails and more fittingly a luxury hotel, making it an ideal stopover for wealthy tourists seeking to explore new frontiers.

For Ziska, the customers in Greenland are different.

“There are a lot of people for which the number one priority is to visit Greenland and then they come to our restaurant,” he says.

“In the Faroe Islands we had mainly people interested in coming and eating at our restaurant and then obviously also visiting the Faroe Islands,” the
chef explains.

In addition to the adventurers who have already been lured by the Arctic landscape, the Greenlandic Tourist Board hopes the restaurant will also help
attract gourmet travellers.   

People get seated in a restaurant overlooking Disko Bay in Ilulissat, western Greenland, on 30th June, 2022.

People get seated in a restaurant overlooking Disko Bay in Ilulissat, western Greenland, on 30th June, 2022. Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

“The unique combination of high-level gastronomy, the inherent sustainability of the North Atlantic cuisine and the characteristic nature and resources of the Disko Bay, speaks to all our senses,” Visit Greenland’s director, Hjortur Smarason, said when announcing the arrival of KOKS.

Accommodation at the Ilimanaq Lodge, the current home of the KOKS restaurant in Ilimanaq, Greenland, where guests can watch whales and floating icebergs in the Disko Bay. Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

A long-overlooked destination, Greenland — an Arctic island territory nine times the size of the UK — welcomed more than 100,000 tourists in 2019, nearly double its population, before Covid cut the momentum.

Smarason said the presence of KOKS “is exactly what we strive for in our effort to reach a certain distinguished kind of guests”.  The restaurant is open between the 12th June and 8th September, 2022 and 2023. 

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