I was recently asked by a television producer whether I had ideas for food-related programmes. I did have a few – only most of them weren’t much cop. My interest is very much in the realm of food history – a fairly well-worn path thanks to Heston Blumenthal, etc.
I did have one idea that I liked, and which I still think would make a good series: the story of European food movements such as nouvelle cuisine or molecular gastronomy, told the way an art historian would tell the story of cubism, surrealism and so on.
These food movements always seem to follow the same narrative arc. They begin with a genius, or possibly two, with a great new idea.
For nouvelle cuisine, this began in the mid- to late Sixties with Alain Chapel, Roger Vergé and others who believed that classic French cuisine was too heavy for modern life. One of their practical ideas was that smaller, lighter dishes should be plated up in the kitchen by the chef, wrestling control away from the maître d’ who had hitherto served diners at their tables from a trolley.
The holy trinity of nouvelle cuisine also called for chefs to improve the quality and integrity of their ingredients, refrain from cooking them to death and eschew the use of flour to thicken sauces. These were very welcome improvements in top restaurants, which became torture chambers for the slender frames of the beautiful young things of the Sixties.
In our story arc, this food movement duly becomes the dominant style of the day and, after a while, nouvelle cuisine is just about the only game in town. However, with ubiquity comes ridicule. I remember a picture in a Not the Nine O’Clock News annual showing food arranged into a yin-yang symbol, captioned “doigt de poisson avec sauce brune et sauce rouge” (fish finger with brown sauce and red sauce).
Nouvelle cuisine was an easy target for jokes as the plates (and prices) grew larger and the portions smaller; even today, if you present a dish on a large white plate with very geometric food, someone will say mockingly “Ooh, very nouveau cuisine”. Ridicule signals the end of the food movement, the best ideas are absorbed into the mainstream and the world moves on.
The same arc can be applied to molecular gastronomy, which began with Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, who had the idea of applying industrial methods and scientific know-how in a small 50-seat restaurant. This became the dominant style of the early 2000s, for example at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, before its more bizarre extremes met with ridicule – and its more sensible ones went mainstream, with even pub chefs sous-vide-ing and spherifying everything in sight.
We are currently at peak “new Nordic”, which began around 2004 at Noma in Copenhagen, with Claus Meyer and René Redzepi and is still going strong. Everybody is fermenting and foraging away, while chefs serve dishes in an attempt to break down barriers between kitchen and dining room. It uses ingredients native to northern Europe and challenges the dominance of the Mediterranean.
So if you want to cook a new Nordic dish, try the recipe below. It uses celeriac as the central ingredient and apple for acidity. Serve up a dish like this and you’ll be right on trend – until people start saying “Ooh, very new Nordic.”