Nordic Food Lab is a non-profit organization based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Founded by chef Rene Redzepi of the two Michelin star restaurant Noma, Nordic Food Lab serves as a place where chefs and academics can come together to share their knowledge about local and underused ingredients, and most of all, to make food taste better. This week the Herald sat down with John Evans, CC ’12, Researcher and Project Manager of Nordic Food Lab and, Correspondent of the Yale Sustainable Food Project to talk about his work, the lab, and the guiding light: “deliciousness.”
YH: Can you give us an overview of the Nordic Food Lab and how you got there from Yale?
JE: Since our founding in 2008, our discourse has come to center on exploring the connection between food diversity and taste. When we’re talking about stuff tasting good, it’s not like an inherent property of the food. If you imagine your favorite dish and imagine having to eat it for every meal for the rest of your life, you can probably tell you’d go crazy. So when we’re talking about food and making more tasty food available to more people, we’re actually talking about diversifying our agriculture and what we conceive of as edible—diversifying the edible landscape all around us. Rene’s mission is “deliciousness,” and that’s our guiding force. Rene came to Yale in 2011. He was invited by Jim Scott, of the Yale School of Forestry, who runs the Agrarian Studies colloquium. My thesis advisor Paul Friedman, in the History department, became responsible for entertaining Rene. Paul asked me to help plan Rene’s time here. What that meant was getting to hang out with Rene for the couple days when he was in town. I showed him the farm and we cooked lunch together. By the end I told him I was interested in the Lab’s work, and he invited me, so I moved there in June right after I graduated. Now I’m there on the full-time staff.
YH: You mentioned being driven by “deliciousness,” but Noma is not known for using conventionally delicious in- gredients. One infamous dish features live ants, for example. How do you find the deliciousness in those ingre- dients and how do you expand the “food landscape” in a place like Denmark that’s not necessarily known for its culinary tradition?
JE: I think one of the reasons Noma has become so in- triguing to people—why it’s captivated so many people’s imaginations—is because they’ve challenged this idea that certain ingredients are inherently more luxurious than others. Noma is known for foraging and its use of wild plants, but techniques like using the stems of wild herbs in a dish rather than just the leaf—or using the roots of a leek instead of the pristine white parts of the leek—are what really turn kitchen scraps into a dish wor- thy of one of the best restaurants in the world. The idea is compelling, but it takes a lot of technique and vision to do well. It’s not enough to just have the concept. Ed- ibility is about more than just toxicity. It’s about, among many others, cultural appropriateness and whether you were brought up on it or not, and we challenge these factors. We take seaweed and make it edible to a Danish person who isn’t from a culture of eating seaweed. Or making insects tasty for people in Europe or North Amer- ica who don’t have a culture of thinking of them as tasty.
YH: Noma, as one of the most exclusive restaurants in the world, is quite expensive. How do you ensure that a wide audience can appreciate your work?
JE: That’s actually why I’m interested in working at Nordic Food Lab. We’re not—as we might initially seem—Noma’s test kitchen. Noma has its own test kitchen where they develop dishes. We produce knowledge and techniques and we share it all open-source. We have our online platforms, the website and the blog. We publish open-source scientific papers. We give talks and workshops. There are lots of different ways of getting information out to people, but we mainly focus on professional chefs because by connecting with them you’re able to influence the hundreds of thousands of people who go through their restaurants.
YH: It seems that the idea is not only to increase access to these products and ideas but also to have people rep- licate the idea of the Lab itself?
JE: Absolutely. For example, it’s called Nordic Food Lab for a reason: there could be other ones anywhere in the world where people have figured out a way to survive. There are traditions around the world that are worth ex- ploring and pushing further and trying to diversify. There are a few other culinary labs in the world that are doing similar work. A lot of other top restaurants will have test kitchens, which isn’t really what we are. At those, all of that knowledge is proprietary. It’s basically just going into developing dishes for that restaurant. That’s fine—it’s how you get such rarified and often brilliant dishes happening.
YH: Looking forward, where do you see the Lab going and where do you see yourself going?
JE: I see the Lab growing really rapidly. It was founded in 2008, gained speed in 2009 and it was only in 2010 that it became what it is today: a non-profit, open-source research platform. In the future I hope it continues to grow. In the last year, our internship requests have multiplied by ten. Our space hasn’t multiplied. We’re going to move to Copenhagen University because our director is part time with us, part time at the university. Moving there will give us more access to scientists and equipment and our challenge will be to maintain our connection to the restaurant and the restaurant world.
As for me, I haven’t figured it out yet but that’s the point—that’s the joy of it, really. One of the glories of the food world right now is that there are so many opportunities—so many ways to do food—that you have to make it for yourself. It’s not like consulting where all the firms descend on Yale and take their pick as if they are choosing a baseball team. That’s not how the food world works. It’s less about fighting your way into it and more about finding your way into something that’s already happening. I’ve been really lucky to have found that with the Lab and really fortunate that they’ve taken me on. In the future I’d love to find a way to continue this work at the nexus of biodiversity. One of the main discourses in the Lab right now is the connection between biodiversity and resilience. When we’re talking about sustainability, what we’re actually talking about is resilience—the ability to respond and become stronger through unexpected environmental influences. That’s what ensures survival. The basis of that is diversity, of organisms, of cultural practices, of tastes. For me and for the Lab, “deliciousness” is the core-mediating factor that allows us to enhance the diversity of foods that are available to us.
This nexus between diversity, the resilience that comes from that and the taste that comes from it all— that’s something I want to pursue more, whether it’s in an academic context or in a more hands-on context. I want to do both,actually, because both are essential to improve the access to good food for people. Also I want to ensure that all of the traditional systems of diets and small-scale rural agricultural practices can continue to exist as they do now. That’s not going to be the case if we don’t do anything about it though. I see taste as one way to try to enact that in the world.
YH: Is it possible to apply these high-minded concepts to daily life? Or is this really something that’s in the future?
JE: No, it’s now. So much of what we do in the Lab is seen as new but it’s all old. It’s so old. Before foraging was trendy, foraging was substance. Foraging was how you gleaned a diversity of foods to survive. We shouldn’t forget that these are incredibly ancient traditions. Fer- mentation, too. Nowadays, chefs are using fermentation for taste but the history of fermentation is one of thousands of years of trial and error and not understanding the mechanisms. All of these different techniques and these ways of interacting with food are applicable to anyone who eats. Really it comes back to acknowledging where your food comes from—not just the ingredients, but the techniques used to make it tastier. Acknowledge fish saucehas been around for thousands of years or that miso has as many forms as it has towns where it is made or that you can make kimchi on your countertop too. This knowledge, if you want it, is there for you. That’s why the Lab needs to exist.
I think, just finally, that the biggest takeaway for someone who is an eater (which is all of us) is that food is extremely complex and it is a way that we can interact with the edible landscape. It is something that you can situate yourself within and the more you dig into it, the more complexity you can glean from it. That’s a really powerful idea, regardless of whether you’re a cook or a farmer or someone who doesn’t even like to cook. That awareness that the food not only comes from somewhere but also that all of the different foods are so intertwined. The least we can do is acknowledge that and learn more about it and hopefully use that knowledge to make more diverse food available to more people.