Time Magazine’s feature story (available only to subscribers) on René Redzepi’s ascendance to the top of the culinary world was interesting, but for reasons that have little to do with his food.
Chef Redzepi, whose Copenhagen restaurant, Nomi, is ranked as the best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine, serves only food produced within his region and often finds new ingredients by foraging for local plants seldom used in fine cuisine. Creatively using ingredients such as seaweed and birch sap, Redzepi has reinvented Danish cooking by rediscovering its roots.
“I wanted to learn how to integrate these ingredients so that we were cooking a part of our culture”, Redzepi says. “I wanted you to taste the soil”.
Localism and foraging are two of the latest food trends that strive to convey “terroir” or a sense of place through cooking. Like many great artists, Redzepi ‘s work acquires depth and concentration through limiting his choices.
What is interesting, however, is the response by some Spanish writers lamenting Redzepi’s displacement of their own Ferran Adriá as the world’s top chef.
Recently José Carlos Capel, chief restaurant critic for the newspaper El Páis wrote a column in which he referred to Redzepi’s insistence on serving only regional products as “demagoguery” and asked, “is Redzepi leading the extreme right of European cuisine, something akin to a gastronomic Tea Party?
How dare he appropriate our Tea Party!
Capel took his cues from a Danish newspaper, Politikern, that had published its own scathing critique in 2011. Graduate student Ulla Holm charged Redzepi and Meyer with nothing short of culinary fascism observing, “it is hardly coincidental that, when last I visited Noma, the waiters were dressed in brown shirts”. In conversation, Holm says she’s eaten at Noma several times and enjoys the food. But she added, “there are some disturbing similarities between fascist ideology and the new nordic cuisine. There’s an emphasis on elements that have remained uncontaminated by outsiders. There’s an obsession with purity.”
Welcome to the new journalism where using local seaweed in a dish is like burning people in ovens!
But aside from the thoughtlessness of these comments, they are an extreme example of how food preferences are blithely ginned up into a moral statement of world historical dimensions. Advocates of localism and foraging, like vegetarians, health food fanatics, and defenders of French gastronomy are as guilty of moral inflation, if not as hyperbolic, as Redzepi’s critics.
Why are food preferences markers of moral virtue? This is a very curious habit that needs explanation.
There are, of course, ethical arguments for localism, globalism, vegetarianism, and the consumption of health foods. But none of the arguments for these food fads are as compelling as their proponents’ sense of certainty would lead us to believe. The best reason for eating locally or eating globally is pleasure–local foods taste better because they are fresher, but global foods are interesting because they are less familiar. Eat whatever brings you joy.
Pleasure is reason enough to do something; unfortunately, a reason too often eclipsed by moral puffery.