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Weird Science

On a boat behind a legendary Danish restaurant resides the world's strangest—and most influential—food lab

Author Molly Hannon

A selection of the Nordic Food Lab’s found and processed foodstuffs. (Claes Bech-Poulson)

COPENHAGEN, DEMARK

A SHIP OF ODD AND WONDERFUL PROPORTIONS has dropped anchor in Copenhagen’s Øresund strait, just a strip of icy water and asphalt away from one of the best restaurants in the world. Stripped of tackle from its fishing days and now stocked with beakers containing mosses, mushrooms, insects and fruit blends in various stages of fermentation, the boat looks like a cross between an agriculturist’s field base and an award-winning restaurant kitchen. Which, as it happens, isn’t far from the truth.

The Nordic Food Lab, as the ship is called, was developed by the minds behind that world-famous restaurant next door, Noma, and functions as both an independent R & D station and a nonprofit food science advisory committee. Headed by Noma chef René Redzepi and his business partner, Claus Meyer, the staff researches both traditional and off-the-wall methods of food preparation, heads out on hikes to discover new ingredients, and presents its results at meetings of scientists and chefs held everywhere from Turin, Italy, to Tlaxcala, Mexico.

A sample schedule at this high-tech foodie fantasy center might include anything from studying hydrocolloids (i.e., substances that form a gel when water is added) to determining the best way to make marmalade. “Each day is different. Sometimes we are outside foraging, smelling, tasting and rubbing things between our hands, and sometimes we are in the lab discussing ideas,” says Ben Reade, head of culinary research and development. In the four years since the lab opened, researchers here have studied how the nutritional content of seaweed changes with heat and rediscovered an ancient method for making balsamic vinegar. They’ve puréed grasshoppers and mixed them with fermented pearl barley in an effort to make eating insects a more palatable idea. They’ve even shipped samples of homemade fish sauce off to Harvard for chemical testing.

And, as Nordic cuisine has swiftly infiltrated the international food scene, the influence of this floating lab has grown. Recent research conducted here on seaweed and umami has appeared in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Flavour. The MAD Symposium, a food conference run by Redzepi, just marked its second annual meeting. The lab may even be galvanizing a shift toward food research among other celebrated chefs: Upon closing the doors of his famed restaurant El Bulli in 2011, Ferran Adrià announced his decision to launch a food studies center with a distinctly scientific bent.

Of course, the question must be asked: Do we really feel it’s safe to entrust our palates to the kinds of chefs who would happily make ice cream out of lichens and wood grubs? Reade thinks so. “Advancements in taste and dining have applications for improving the health and happiness of the lowest-budget households as well as in creative restaurants,” he says. “The preservation of taste means the preservation of diversity.”

 

HOW SWEET IT IS
Juicing up the tasting menu

One of the reasons the new Nordic cuisine has proven so popular is its almost cultish reverence for healthy ingredients. So if you’ve had your fill of foraged mushrooms and seaweed, steel yourself for Copenhagen’s next big reveal: restaurants that offer multicourse dinners with hand-blended juice pairings.

Like wines, beers or cocktails, the juices—which are often made from local ingredients—are paired with dishes according to similarities or contrasts in flavor. “We do our best to offer something that goes well with the food, and approach the juices the same way we approach the wines,” says Linda Milagros Violago, sommelier at Geranium, a tony restaurant in the Østerbro district whose offerings include plum juice with lemon balm and a rhubarb-rose hip blend.

Meanwhile, among the concoctions at Copenhagen’s Restaurant Radio—a rustic, wood-paneled eatery featuring a four-hour tasting menu—is a beet blend that complements a dish of roasted mushrooms with watercress, pickled ramsons and mushroom cream “because they both have nuances of soil,” says chef Jesper Kirketerp.

Inventive combinations like these are half the reason to go for a juice pairing at your next fancy Copenhagen meal, but the best part of this trend probably goes without saying: No matter how deep you get into the pine needle lemonade pitcher, no one wakes up hungover. —ALIA AKKAM

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