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Saturday, March 8, 2014
- For Denmark’s leading chefs, it’s not only the “taste” that counts. Many have an ambitious goal to “revise the relationship between people and food,” use local ingredients, produce less waste and go completely organic.
All this may seem elitist to the average consumer trying to cope with ever-rising food prices, but Denmark has shown that changing eating habits can have sustainable benefits. The country has the highest per capita consumption of organic produce in the world, its top chefs adhere to an environmentally-friendly Nordic food manifesto, and it has become a huge gastronomic destination in recent years.
The capital Copenhagen is currently sizzling with the ninth Copenhagen Cooking festival, a 10-day event running until Sep. 1 that has attracted a host of well-known chefs from Brazil, Singapore, Lebanon and other countries. They’ve come to share their experiences and provide meals within a community setting under this year’s theme of “social food”.
“The focus is to bring people together, to enjoy meals and to look at what cooks are doing to protect the environment and to raise awareness about food waste and other issues,” said Lonnie Hansen, the festival’s director.
“Denmark has a lot of initiatives involving organic food and locally grown food, and we provide a space for people to have a greater awareness about this,” she told IPS.
Copenhagen is where the New Nordic Food Manifesto was drawn up by Danish chef and entrepreneur Claus Meyer and signed by other leading cooks. The core values include using Nordic natural food resources such as fish caught locally, wild berries, and seasonal fruit and vegetables.
“In the sixties and seventies, I felt that Denmark had really lost something in the way we ate and was in a period of culinary darkness,” Meyer told IPS. “There was a need to restore and improve Danish food. Being a chef in the modern world meant taking responsibility, caring about the environment, working for biodiversity and being inclusive in your mindset. That’s the feedback I got from my colleagues when I launched the manifesto.”
Meyer is also the man behind Copenhagen’s iconic Noma, named several times as the world’s best restaurant by trade publications. He said that he and his fellow chefs wanted to set an example of putting the community back into cooking.
“It’s about reconnecting man with nature, localness, fresh ingredients and ethics. And it has been no surprise that producing better meals, better food, creates a different dialogue … and leads to greater production and entrepreneurship. We’re in a very dynamic stage of our food history right now.”
Meyer believes that sustainable cooking can also help to reduce poverty, and he has launched projects in countries such as Bolivia to underscore the role of biodiversity and traditional produce in cooking.
“I think that a rich country can help a poor country by giving away key competences and even by creating structures that could out-compete the donor in the future,” Meyer says. “Cooking can help to combat poverty and also to develop tourism when you have an outstanding national cuisine.”
His interest in sustainable world gastronomy has led him to create a Singapore-style restaurant in Copenhagen called Nam Nam, which has proved enormously popular with its spicy food and open kitchen where diners can watch the meals being prepared from fresh ingredients. Meyer has invited like-minded cooks from the Asian country to participate in Copenhagen Cooking and to share their expertise.
Bjorn Shen, a Singaporean chef on his first trip to Europe, is part of the Singapore street food presentation at the festival. He says that using local or organic produce in small, urbanised countries can be difficult, but that cooks need to try.
“We have to work with the existing farms and not only use the produce but highlight the process,” he told IPS. “We have to give organic food the awareness that it deserves and also hope that people see that it’s possible to use ingredients grown locally.”
Shen, who owns a restaurant called Artichoke, has been one of the leaders in Singapore’s ‘farm-to-table’ movement, working with the city-state’s limited number of organic farmers and producers to source ingredients. He also participates in a scheme known as the Edible Garden Project to grow greens in his restaurant’s kitchen garden.
“You can get really fancy tomatoes from overseas, but to me if you get a tomato grown in Singapore that was plucked just this morning, it’s better than any fancy tomato from half-way around the world that’s five days old,” he said.
At Copenhagen Cooking, Shen and his partner Roxanne Toh have served up a spicy bak chor mee sandwich – consisting of minced meat, shitake mushrooms and egg noodles in a Chinese steamed bun – along with a Singapore raw fish salad. He is conducting workshops on Singaporean cuisine and organic cooking as well.
Another of the festival’s key participants, Brazilian chef Alex Atala, has also made using native ingredients a cause célèbre in his business and at his famous Sao Paola restaurant D.O.M., where the menu includes insects such as ants.
The going-local movement makes economic and sustainable sense, says Atala, who is considered one of the most influential people in the gastronomy sector not only for his cooking skills but also for his work with Brazil’s indigenous groups.
“Food can be much more than you can imagine. Food can change our lives, can change the lives of millions of people,” said Atala. “My preparation starts on the ground, and involves people from the land, from the sea, from the forest.”
Like his Danish counterparts, Atala espouses a biodynamic approach to cooking and his presence at Copenhagen Cooking highlights the international nature of this movement.
Beyond the festival, Denmark has plans to increase the share of organic food served in public institutions to 90 percent by 2015, and municipalities have launched a wide-ranging re-education campaign in schools and other sectors to achieve this goal.