Noma and the Aftermath:

The Locovore Movement

Mona Restaurant and the Locavore MovementThere are a lot of catch-phrases being thrown about in the food world lately … “sustainability”, “locavore”, “non-GMO”, “vegen”, and “vegetarian” are but a few. These trends will, of course, have impact on restaurants and how you choose one for you next experience dining out.

The “locavore” movement is based on the concept that buying and eating food (or growing it in your garden) produces not only a healthier and tastier diet but one that supports “sustainability”, an ecological term that means, in relation to food production and consumption, that you do not eat more of a particular food than is being produced or encourage a practice that upsets a currently sustainable ecosystem. Examples would be avoiding the consumption of an endangered species and/or avoiding eating, for example, beef produced in a manner that required mowing down forests to produce grazing land for cattle. You can read more about the topic in an upcoming, in-depth article on my companion site, Coctione.com

Enter stage left René Redzepi and Claus Meyer, two Danish chefs, and the opening of NOMA restaurant in 2003 in a remodeled warehouse, waterside in Copenhagen, Denmark. Mr. Redzepi had no shortage of good training, having been tutored at both the the French Laundry in California and elBulli in Catalonia (now closed), universally acclaimed by reliable sources as two of the finest restaurants in the world.

The chefs developed their menu around a reinterpretation of Nordic cuisine which they call New Nordic cuisine. Central to this reinterpretation is their commitment to the use of seasonally and regionally sourced sustainable ingredients.

Why all the talk about NOMA? The media giant, William Reed Business Media, based in London, publishes a magazine called Restaurant which includes reviews and rankings of restaurants. Collaterally, the media giant, realizing the importance of the keywords “top” and “best” in online searches developed a website dedicated solely to awarding “best” status to restaurants throughout the world. Despite never having garnered a 3 star rating from the gold standard for restaurant ratings, the Michelin Guide, William Reed’s Restaurant Magazine awarded NOMA a #15 ranking in the World in 2007. Within three years NOMA was at the top of this list as the #1 restaurant in the world according to the magazine. (You can read more on the lack of reliability of the rankings in Restaurant magazine in my article “5 stars you say? Can you really trust restaurant reviews?”)

Notwithstanding the fact that the method by which Restaurant Magazine assesses the restaurants appearing in its lists is a bit of mystery and has frequently been criticized as being unreliable, based in large part upon its ranking in this magazine (and it’s online counterpart) NOMA and its chefs have gained worldwide notoriety, whether deserved or not.

Where success is gained, copycats soon follow. In the aftermath of the success of NOMA came a barrage of new restaurants from wanna-be chefs throughout the world basing their cuisine in whole or in part on the theme of using locally harvested ingredients.

I recently visited three restaurants that have made the “locavore” concept central to the development of their menu offerings. The reviews were “mixed” to say the least. Quite frankly, despite what choices consumers make in their lives as to the type of food they consume, dining out, especially in a fine dining establishment with a hefty price tag, is an infrequent and treasured diversion from their normal consumption habits.

It is my opinion that above all the cardinal rule for any chef is to assure that food is delicious, and of course, at a minimum safe and palatable. Bear in mind that foraged herbs and vegetables and wild game are not generally subject to inspection by health standard agencies. To assume that anything foraged is safe and healthy is, I assure you, a myopic if not idiotic conclusion.

On my first visit to Lima, Peru, something like seven years ago, I frequented many of the acclaimed Cevicherías for which the city and country are widely known, in a culinary sense. Within a day or so I found myself suffering from some undesirable symptoms. I was dispatched a prescription for some antibiotics from a doctor at the local clinic and realized after a bit of research that my consumption of the “lime juice cured” ceviche invoked certain health risks.

Although marinating the seafood does make it palatable it does nothing to kill the bacteria that the heat associated with normal “cooking” would and any parasites which are killed by freezing would, of course, still be present in the fresh food. Now our intelligent immune systems typically handle these problems when consuming indigenous foods (another theoretical plus for eating locally produced foods) but when traveling our bodies simply are unfamiliar with the various foods we encounter in foreign cuisines. Simply stated, eating wild game, in a foreign country, produces heightened health risk when compared to consuming meats that are subject to government health standard regulation.

But well beyond the health risks, the simple truth of the matter is, that if wild boar and venison were as tasty as a rib-eye steak (i.e. beef) we’d likely be eating them at almost every meal. Kudos to the chef that can satisfy the locavores and also make the food delicious. But my experience has been that this talent is possessed by very few chefs in the world. (I venture to say that the avid sportsmen that hunt wild game can prepare it better than most any graduate of the Cordon Blue academy.)

If you undertake to provide a tasting menu featuring wild game or foraged herbs, vegetables or fruits, as a restaurateur you must assure that every course meets the minimum requirement of tasting good. On my recent visit to both Borago’ in Santiago (# on Latin America list in Restaurant Magazine in 2014) and El Baqueano in Buenos Aires (#x on the that list) at least one course on each tasting menu was not palatable. The bean paste (spread on hot rocks to mimic the appearance of rocks) in a seaweed broth was both visibly and palatably unappealing in one course at Boragó and the Rabbit Hearts at El Baqueano were equally unappealing. Read the full review of Boragó and El Baqueano here.

Trends and fads come and go. Delicious food will stand the test of time. To compromise the cardinal rule that food in a restaurant must at a minimum taste good for the purpose of making a menu conform to a theme or concept or to in vain, mimic the success of another chef that has successfully proven his or her ability to pass that test without compromising the taste, is the calling card of chef that needs a few more years of tutelage before manning the helm at the pass.