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Two women sit facing each other on a rug as they chat and roll out rounds of bread dough using thin batons of wood. Beside them, another woman stretches a dough circle further as she holds it over a wood-burning, dome-shaped griddle, or saç, turning it around and around until it’s firm, crisp and golden. The result is a stack of paper-thin flatbreads known as yufka.
Down the street, their neighbors mix a fiery chili and cheese paste that will top katikli ekmek. These smaller, thicker circles of dough are baked on their sides in the cylindrical tandir oven, resulting in crunchy, spicy breads that look like mini pizzas. The breads will accompany a lunch eaten under the trees in the Turkish village of Defne, said to be the very place where — in Greek mythology — the maiden Daphne was turned into a laurel tree to escape the affections of Apollo. The village is still famous for its highly scented bay leaves.
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Our meal is arranged in a colorful display of dishes. They include local green olives cracked and drizzled with pomegranate syrup; a memorable aromatic salad of fresh mountain thyme leaves; hummus made from just-ground sesame seeds; stringy cheese to eat with pickled walnuts and candied orange peel; cucumber and tomatoes; and a salty goat’s yogurt that is made just once a year — and keeps for months.
Partaking of this idyllic feast, it’s hard to imagine that just 25 miles away, on the other side of the mountains to the east, the fighting in Syria is continuing. We’re in southeastern Turkey, in the large province of Hatay, whose capital city, Antakya, is on a level with Aleppo. I’ve come to this southern part of Anatolia to attend the Mediterranean Culinary Days, an event organized by the governor of the province, Celalettin Lekesiz, with the Hatay City Innovation Platform.
“We are making a bid for Hatay to be included in UNESCO’s Cities of Gastronomy, and we’re holding this three-day food festival to celebrate it,” the governor explains as he greets us. The event features many aspects of Hatay’s local food culture and also showcases the cuisine of 17 Mediterranean countries through demonstrations and meals prepared by cooks from the participating nations.
Hatay is no stranger to this kind of multiculturalism. The ancient city of Antioch-on-the-Orontes lies beneath modern Antakya and was known for its religious and ethnic tolerance.
“This area was conquered by 12 civilizations, including the Hittites, Greeks, Byzantines and Romans,” Lekesiz notes. “It has long been home to large Jewish and Christian populations, who live peacefully alongside Muslims here. We are proud of that and want to build on this important heritage.” The city has recently restored what is believed to be the very first Christian church: a lofty vaulted space in a natural cave carved out of the mountain above Hatay.
The Mediterranean’s most iconic plants forge another bond between its communities. In the extensive mosaic floors from ancient Rome on display in Antakya’s magnificent Archaelogical Museum, it’s easy to spot the plants we’re familiar with today that define so much of the area’s food culture: grapevines, olive trees and pomegranates.
These and other local edible plants are to be found in abundance in the city’s colorful covered market, or bazaar, situated in the old part of Antakya near the river. Rosy pistachios have just been harvested and are on display with sweet walnuts in heaped baskets. Shiny jujube fruits vie for space with tiny okra, white eggplant and fresh mint.
Spice stalls not to be missed
The spice stalls are irresistible. I filled a suitcase with little bags of freshly ground paprikas in different “strengths”; a piquant chili and tomato paste called domates salçasi that adds exoticism to any dish; fragrant coriander and pearly sesame seeds; dried white mulberries; and the most surprising of all, strings of dried, hollowed-out eggplant shells resembling Hawaiian flower garlands. These last for months and can be soaked in water, stuffed and baked for out-of-season eggplant dishes.
A trip to the bazaar would not be complete without a slice of Hatay’s favorite dessert, künefe. People come from all over Turkey to taste this delicious, unusual tart. The best are cooked over wood embers in wide copper baking rounds at special shops in and around the market. A layer of mild, stretchy cheese is sandwiched between two layers of buttery chopped kadayif, vermicelli-like strands of filo pastry. The kadayif is made in separate stalls near the bakeries, by cooking runny strings of batter on a circular griddle that looks like a DJ’s giant turntable. As the dough firms, it’s scooped off the heat and set aside.
The trick with cooking künefe is to know when the bottom layer of kadayif is golden brown and has fused — like a cross between pommes Anna and shredded wheat — into a crisp, even layer. That’s when the pie is flipped over and cooked to golden on the other side. While still hot, a mild sugar syrup is ladled over the künefe before it’s cut into pieces, sprinkled with chopped pistachios and served. Unlike many desserts of the region, künefe is never overly sweet; it’s a rare and wonderful speciality that deserves to be better known, as does the culinary culture of Hatay.
Main photo: Turkish women in the village of Defne in Hatay province roll out the dough for yufka flatbreads. Credit: Carla Capalbo
It’s tomato canning time in Campania, southern Italy. This region more than any other relies on home-preserved plum tomatoes to stock the larder for the year. These are the tomatoes that will go into the daily plate of pasta al pomodoro, or onto pizzas and dozens of other regional favorites.
My neighbors in Nusco, the tiny medieval village in the province of Avellino where I spend part of the year, are a retired couple who share their house with one daughter. It’s just the three of them, so I was amazed when they told me that the next week Signora Antonietta was going to process 250 kilos of tomatoes (that’s one-quarter ton of fresh tomatoes). Each family has its own recipes for home-canned tomatoes, but the result is the same: enough bottles and jars of the precious “red gold” to prevent them ever having to buy tomatoes from a store.
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“The most important thing is to know where your tomatoes have been grown,” says Antonietta’s husband, Pietro. “We like to make sure ours are free of pesticides.” Nusco is only an hour’s drive from Puglia, where many of the tomatoes for the canning industry are grown, but there are reports of undocumented immigrants being exploited as pickers in near-slavery conditions. Pietro prefers to buy his from a local farmer.
San Marzano tomatoes
The most famous tomato of all is the fabled San Marzano, the Holy Grail of plum varieties. Legend has it that the first seeds of San Marzano came to Campania in 1770 as a gift to the Kingdom of Naples from the Kingdom of Peru. It was planted extensively in what is now the township of San Marzano, near the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, mainland Europe’s largest active volcano. Millions of tons were harvested annually until the 1980s, when a blight struck the crop.
Campanian researchers are divided about whether that variety still exists. Some claim the original San Marzano was lost to the disease, while others maintain that a few seeds remained in the region’s refrigerated seed bank and were used to rebuild the gene pool. Whichever variety it now is, Pomodoro San Marzano has been granted DOP status (Protected Denomination of Origin) and can be certified only if grown within specified areas of Campania. It has been recognized as a keystone of the Mediterranean diet.
What’s so special about it? “The San Marzano has an elongated plum shape, firm flesh and very few seeds,” says Vincenzo Aita, a specialist in Campanian agriculture. “The skin is a deep bright red, and peels off easily. Most importantly, it has a rich, intense flavor, low acidity (but is high in nutrients), and is the best for canning and for making our Neapolitan tomato ragù — a sauce that needs to be simmered for at least 6 hours.”
The San Marzano is tricky to grow: It needs to be staked carefully and handpicked when ripe, which means passing through the fields six to eight times per season. So it’s more expensive than other plum tomatoes, but well worth the extra — if you can find it.
Signora Antonietta favors preserving her tomatoes unpeeled. She washes, then puts them in a vast pan over a gas burner in her garage, gently cooking them for about an hour until the pulp is soft. The tomatoes are then passed through a mill, where some of the skins are separated from the juice and pulp.
“Some people prefer to drain the tomato water before milling, but I like to keep all of the tomatoes’ goodness in the jar. After all, I can always cook it down if I need it thicker,” she says, as she stirs salt to taste into the tomato purée. The passata or salsa is bottled — in recycled jars and beer bottles with new caps — before being placed in an even bigger pan to be covered in water and boiled for 45 minutes to sterilize the preserves.
Stocking the larder
A few kilometers away, in Montella, Signora Rosa and her family are being even more ambitious. “We’re doing 450 kilos of tomatoes this year,” she says as she rallies her daughter, grandson and nephew to action. Here the tomatoes are worked using two different methods. Some whole tomatoes are held in boiling water for a minute or so before being peeled. They are then placed in the bottles with one fresh basil leaf before being closed and sterilized.
For her passata, Rosa washes the tomatoes before adding them to a large pan in which a few liters of water have been brought to a boil. She cooks them for about an hour before removing them from the pan using a slotted spoon to drain away some of the excess liquid. The tomatoes are then milled — using an old electric machine that was her mother’s, and that can process 300 kilos per hour — bottled and sterilized, unsalted, as above. Other families prefer to purée their tomatoes raw before sterilization, or cut the raw tomatoes into chunks and mix them into the salsa before the final boiling in the jar. It’s a personal choice and one that will be appreciated every day of the coming year.
Main photo: Signora Rosa, center, and her family work on the tomatoes in the garden. Credit: Carla Capalbo
“What is cooking?” This was the central question being asked — and answered — at the latest edition of one of the world’s most stimulating food events, the MAD Food Symposium. Now in its fourth edition, the two-day event is held in a circus tent pitched on the outer reaches of Copenhagen’s harbor and attracts the brightest stars of modern cuisine, young and old. MAD draws speakers in all aspects of food culture: chefs who have made lasting contributions to the art, scientists and historians with specialized knowledge, and activists trying to change the way food is produced, sold or eaten.
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Organized by René Redzepi, the Danish chef at the helm of Noma – No. 1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list — MAD was this year co-curated by Alex Atala, the highest ranking chef in South America. The event aims to broaden the gastronomic horizons of young chefs from around the world. The 400-strong audience also included local farmers, scientists, thinkers and a smattering of journalists.
“Our business has changed in the last 30 years,” Atala said as he introduced the symposium. “Restaurants are no longer the model of excess they were back then. MAD4 examines different aspects of what’s happening, away from the glamour of the limelight. What’s working? Food is about expressing ourselves, about reflection, and above all, food is about getting together. Food is life.”
If last year’s theme, “Guts,” provoked strong, sometimes visceral reactions from its list of speakers, this year’s mood inspired reflection. It began in silence. The audience watched transfixed as Japanese udon master Tatsuru Rai set about creating his iconic noodles: mixing, kneading and rolling the dough before folding, slicing, cooking and serving a few symbolic portions of the dish. The seemingly simple act of combining flour and water, choreographed over time, took on ritual significance.
“We didn’t want to repeat the high drama of last year’s theme, but instead to shout silently about the importance of craft, gesture, economy and offering in cooking,” Redzepi said. “We also want to tackle problems that take away from the pleasures of the table.”
MAD about wasted food
One of the most inspiring of the activists was Isabel Soares, a 30-something environmental engineer from Portugal. Incensed that half of the food produced in the world is thrown away, Soares has found an innovative way to fight that waste. In 2013, she founded Fruta Feia, meaning “Ugly Fruit,” a nonprofit, farm-to-table cooperative. “Each year 1.3 billion tons of food are discarded, an ethical problem with a huge environmental impact on climate change,” she began. “In Europe, 30% of fresh produce is left to rot in the fields just because the fruit or vegetables’ size does not conform to the European Union’s ‘aesthetic’ regulations.” Thirty farmers sell produce that the supermarkets would reject because of size or blemishes to 420 consumers, at a fair price. The cooperative’s role is to collect the food from the farms, sort it into mixed boxes twice weekly and offer a collection point. In its first year, Fruta Feia reports it saved 41 tons of food in Portugal from being wasted. Soares says she plans to expand to other cities.
Urban guerrilla gardens
Ron Finley, a self-styled “eco-lutionary game changer provocateur” from Los Angeles, launched right into his presentation. “Gardening is the most defiant thing you can do in South Central — plus you get strawberries,” he proclaimed. “Change your food, change your life.” His reaction to living in a food desert was to plant his own garden, on the abandoned sidewalk strips around his home. Initially, the city of L.A. wagged a citation at him and demanded he remove the unpermitted plants, but since then Finley’s story has helped compel the city to change its parkway ordinance. After a TED talk that went viral, Finley is creating urban garden projects in L.A.
Brazil’s jails turn to the kitchen
Atala introduced several healing food projects from Brazil. Working with Atala on one were Jayme Santos Junior, a criminal court judge in Sao Paulo, and chef David Hertz, who runs a cooking project in some of Brazil’s most notorious jails. “Cooking can be an effective tool to change the dynamics of the prison system and facilitate social reintegration,” the judge said. “By becoming members of a group in the kitchen, prisoners feel less isolated and learn life-affirming skills.” Hertz started the nonprofit Gastromotiva to help young people who are vulnerable or on the margins of society. Another of Atala’s projects through his foundation, Instituto ATÀ, involves distributing portable water filters for use in the Amazon and other rural areas where clean drinking water is not available.
LOCO’L takes on fast-food industry
Chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco’s Coi, and Los Angeles chef and activist Roy Choi used MAD4 to officially announce their ambitious new food venture, LOCO’L, which will start in 2015. “We’re going to go toe to toe with the fast food industry in the U.S., to challenge the status quo,” said Choi, who cooked an impressive “food truck” lunch at MAD for the audience. Patterson explained: “We have an eating problem in the States. It’s taken one generation to lose healthy eating habits, and it will take one generation to fix that.”
All 24 talks will be available to watch on MAD’s site in the coming months, including those by veteran master chefs Alain Senderens (on wine and food pairing); Olivier Roellinger (on biodiversity and giving back his 3 Michelin stars); Fulvio Pierangelini (on humble ingredients and the travails of being a chef); and Pierre Koffmann (on how to make an omelet). The conference closed with chef Albert Adrià — formerly of elBulli — who owns four restaurants in Barcelona. His disarming admission that it is fear, as much as talent, that drives his creativity was an inspiration to everyone present.
Main photo: Daniel Patterson, left, and Roy Choi during their LOCO’L presentation. Credit: Carla Capalbo
“White Vermentino is the quintessential Mediterranean grape: It loves the sun, the sea and and the wind, and it marries perfectly with fish and seafood pastas,” says Giampaolo Gravina, one of Italy’s senior wine experts. If Vermentino is sometimes grown in coastal areas of Liguria (where it is known as Pigato) and Tuscany, it is most often linked with Sardinia, the second largest island in the Mediterranean, situated south of Corsica and west of Naples.
“The region of Gallura, in Sardinia’s northeastern corner, is Vermentino’s natural home,” Gravina explains. Here, in the province of Olbia-Tempio, the best grapes are made into Vermentino di Gallura DOCG wines, one of Italy’s most prestigious wine appellations. (Any wine bearing the DOCG label must be produced within a specified area and adhere to strict production regulations). As is so often the case with native varieties, Vermentino has found its ideal habitat over time: It is thought to have been cultivated in Gallura since the 14th century. The vines have adapted well to Gallura’s extreme growing conditions, he says: very poor, rocky soils of granite and sand, constant winds coming off the nearby sea, and forceful sun throughout the year.
Gallura’s stunning coastline, with its pristine fjord-like bays and sandy beaches, is never far from the vine-growing slopes. In 1961, Karim Aga Khan, one of the world’s richest men, decided to create a luxury tourist complex here in an area of coast about 20 kilometers (12 miles) long that would allow for some development while preserving the area’s natural beauty. He named it La Costa Smeralda (“the emerald coast”) and built a smattering of the world’s most exclusive hotels and villas along the shore around Porto Cervo. In midsummer, hotels such as the luxurious Cala di Volpe boast prices only moguls can afford, with multi-tiered yachts anchored at its secluded marina.
D.H. Lawrence wrote that Sardinia was “left outside time and history.” The island’s traditional gastronomic and cultural heritage is still very much alive, particularly in the areas inland from the sea. Sardinia’s interior is rough and mountainous, with much of the land suited only for grazing sheep, and is dotted with small stone villages in which time seems to have stood still. Meeting and visiting wine producers is a great way to access that culture. The annual Porto Cervo Wine Festival, held in May, is open to the public and offers a perfect introduction to Sardinia’s exciting wine world. Wine tourism is on the increase on the island and well-appointed cellars make perfect destinations for day trips from the coast.
“Gallura is not an easy place to grow vines or other crops,” says Emanuele Ragnedda, who runs Capichera winery near Arzachena with his father, Mario, and uncle, Fabrizio. “The terrain is uneven and rocky, with hillsides covered thickly by the macchia.” Vermentino vines can do without much water, too, but growers are permitted to irrigate occasionally in the hottest months to prevent the vines suffering from too much stress.
“Despite this climate, Vermentino is capable of maintaining considerable freshness and acidity,” Ragnedda says. “It is often marked, too, with an attractive saline quality that comes from the Mediterranean‘s salty terrain and sea breezes.”
Capichera’s top wine, Santigaini, is named for a single vineyard planted with six traditional clones of Vermentino whose diversity add complexity to the finished wine. It is partly cellared in French oak barrels and its older vintages are proof that Vermentino can age well into wines whose body and character are reminiscent of red wines.
“My family has been in Sardinia for 300 years, and was the first to make single-varietal whites of Vermentino in 1980 on farmland my mother inherited,” says Ragnedda as we walk through the leafy rows, surrounded by magnificent granite mountains. “We believe Vermentino is unusually flexible for a white grape, and can be adapted to different vinification methods.”
Vermentino is usually vinified in stainless steel vats without the use of barrels, and drunk within the first year or two: a perfect summer wine. Its attractive citrus and floral notes – often with hints of ginestra, the local yellow broom flowers – and lively minerality keep it refreshing and dry.
Vigne Surrau, a few miles north of Arzachena, is one of the most impressive wineries to visit, with well-designed modern buildings, a varied program of events, and artisanal cheese and salumi to enjoy along with the wine.
A cultural blend for Vermentino
“We wanted to create a place in which the culture of wine can meet the cultures of art, cinema and food,” says the estate’s owner, Tino Demuro. Here, too, Vermentino is at the forefront of the company’s wine production, with five versions that include a sparkling Metodo Classico Brut, three fine dry wines and a sweet passito, for which the ripe grapes are picked and dried for a month on racks to concentrate their sugars before pressing.
For those who enjoy seeing spectacularly situated vineyards, another recent wine estate, Siddùra, is a short drive west under the mountains towards Luogosanto. Here a new project has seen 19 hectares (46 acres) of macchia transformed into thriving young vineyards, most of which are planted to Vermentino. This ambitious enterprise is the result of a collaboration between German fashion businessman Nathan Gottesdiener and local Sardinian building engineer Massimo Ruggero. They’ve created a state-of-the-art cellar surrounded by vineyards that are now coming into full production, and that bode well for the island’s enological future.
Main photo: Mario, left, and Emanuele Ragnedda run Capichera winery. Credit: Carla Capalbo
Chef’s Table: As the Latin-American food movement continues to gather pace, and cities such as Lima, Peru, and Sao Paolo, Brazil, are joining the world’s hottest foodie destinations, it’s time to ask what contributions Latin America is making to modern cuisine.
“I would say unique ingredients and flavors,” says Emilio Macías, one of Peru’s rising stars. “Many young chefs from South America have traveled and worked in kitchens the world over learning about techniques and modern trends, and now they’re back cooking in their native countries. We’re cooking to raise awareness about the value of our native products and setting up direct links with their producers.”
The first in an occasional series about the food and ideas of today's most influential chefs.
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Macías was born in Mexico but trained in Japan and Europe (including at Mugaritz and Santi Santamaria in Spain). He was drawn back to Latin America by the successes of the Peruvian leaders of the movement, Gastòn Acurio and Virgilio Martínez Véliz — both ranked in the top 20 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Macías opened his own restaurant before taking a leading position in 2012 at Acurio’s award-winning Lima restaurant, Astrid & Gastòn, in the gastronomic and development kitchens. He recently flew to Faenza, in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, to cook two meals at Postrivoro.
“Postrivoro is not a pop-up restaurant but a nonprofit association that creates occasional ‘itineraries for gastro-pilgrims’ by inviting talented young international chefs to cook for just 20 paying guests seated at a communal table,” says Enrico Vignoli, its co-founder, who works in Modena with 3-star Michelin chef Massimo Bottura. “The chefs are usually employed in the kitchens of trend-setting restaurants or are in the process of starting their own. We want to tell stories through food and share gastronomic experiences.” For each of Postrivoro’s six events per year, the chef is paired with a sommelier or drinks specialist and an artist to decorate the space.
Macías’ dinner and lunch were held in the crumbling medieval cloister of Faenza’s Chiesa della Commenda. Each course was matched with a drink created by bartender Oscar Quagliarini, who is famous for his imaginative cocktails. The Goth-styled “mixologist” seems more like an alchemist than a barman. He spices his drinks with exotic but home-made ingredients such as yellow sandalwood syrup, or seaweed, eucalyptus and ylang ylang tinctures. The décor was by Fototeca Manfrediana, a cooperative of young photographers shooting on film.
An inspiring lunch with Emilio Macías begins
Macías brought many of his principal ingredients and seasonings from Peru in his luggage. He complemented them with seasonal foods from Emilia-Romagna. Sunday’s inspiring lunch began with three irregular crispbreads arranged like natural elements on a plate of branches and leaves. Each was topped with the chef’s interpretation of a Latin American speciality, from a fiery mole con pollo (Mexican chicken with a sauce of 100 ingredients, including chocolate), to verdolagas y tuetano (purslane and bone marrow with Mexican salsa verde), to shredded cuy pibil (slow-roasted Peruvian guinea pig) accented with pink pickled onions. Cuy is popular in Peru for its tender, nutritious meat. “I wanted to bring one very special ingredient from Peru, as well as a little transgression,” says Macías.
Macías’ elegant Peruvian ceviche of tiny raw oysters, Adriatic scallops and cactus followed, in a refreshingly sour leche de tigre: a cool fish broth lifted by lime, ginger and chilies, topped with fresh acacia blossoms and cinquefoil (or potentilla) leaves. In esparrago y hoyas de mais, crisp local asparagus, grilled on one side only, gave focus to herbaceous poblano pepper couscous sprinkled with dark Peruvian Sacha Inchi nuts and spooned into a charred corn husk, its smokiness reminiscent of fire-roasted corn.
Memory featured in the dish called Papa Genovese too. This came from Astrid & Gaston’s recent tasting menu, “The voyage from Liguria to El Callao, 100 years of flavor,” which focused on the gastronomic influences brought by the thousands of Italian immigrants to Peru in the early 20th century. The dish was a visual and cultural play on pasta al pesto. In the original Ligurian version, diced potato often accompanies the pasta in the green basil sauce. Here, spaghetti-like strands of potato starred with toasted pine nuts in a pure-flavored extract of basil and spinach chlorophyll. They produced a new, but equally soulful, version of the classic dish.
“We tried to imagine how Italian immigrants felt about Peruvian food before they made their long journeys in the 1900s,” Macìas says. “Were they afraid of what they might have to eat there? Our dishes stir emotions as well as appetites.”
Other courses featured langoustine smoked a la Veracruzana and slow-roasted Mexican pork neck in salsa roja. The meal ended with a delicate, chilled peach stew strewn with elderflowers, raw bitter almonds and rose petals, and a crisp chocolate ball stuffed with the makings of a tiramisù scented with charred guajillo chilies, mescal and sal de gusano de maguey: ground agave worms spiced with salt and chilies.
“Gastòn Acurio has been inspirational in the Latin American movement, moving private and government people to raise awareness about the value of our native products and setting up direct links with their producers,” says Macìas.
Concentrating on local products
“The result is that we now can go straight to the fishermen, requesting, for example, only large-size fish. They release anything smaller back into the ocean. They’re paid well for the adult fish and simultaneously safeguard fish stocks.”
How does this apply to farmers? “Potatoes are a big staple in Peru: There are 3,000 known species with more being found all the time. Some only grow above 3,000 meters of altitude, far from the cities, with short seasons and limited yields. Demand from restaurants and enthusiasts can create fair distribution and markets while teaching people in the cities about the value of these ingredients.” Other foods being developed this way are quinoa, amaranth and some corn varieties.
“Peruvian food events such as Mistura, now in its seventh year, where farmers and chefs meet and exchange ingredients and information are helping spread the word about our continent’s gastronomic riches.”
So are memorable meals such as this.
Main photo: Chef Emilio Macías in the cloister in Faenza. Credit: Carla Capalbo
The result took everyone by surprise. When the countdown of the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards reached the top two names, the audience of 650 chefs, journalists and food professionals assembled in London’s Guildhall held their breaths. Would Spain’s El Celler de Can Roca hold onto the first-place position it had snatched from Copenhagen’s Noma last year, or could the unthinkable happen? Could René Redzepi’s revolutionary Nordic restaurant reconquer top place? Not even Ferran Adrià — whose iconic El Bulli had been No. 1 for five years before Noma beat it in 2010 — had been able to achieve that.
“In second place, it’s the Roca brothers …” The event’s presenter, Mark Durden Smith, could barely finish his announcement before the audience went crazy. Noma had done it. The 40-seater located in a quayside warehouse in Copenhagen that has championed local, foraged and imaginative natural cuisine had recaptured the crown it had previously held for three years.
A standing ovation greeted the startled and elated team of young chefs from the Copenhagen restaurant as they crowded onto the stage to receive their trophy from San Pellegrino, the awards’ main sponsor. The event is organized by Restaurant magazine, and other sponsors include Lavazza coffee, Gaggenau kitchens and Les Concierges.
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An emotional Redzepi paused and smiled before reading excerpts from the acceptance speech he had prepared in 2010 — but had been too overwhelmed to use — when his restaurant first won the prize. He thanked the audience for their continuing support. “You can’t imagine how much you’ve done for our little restaurant and for our region. We did it with the combined efforts of our whole team. We were the geeks in a class of fine linens and expensive wines, and look where we are now, several years later: celebrated for all the experiments. Wood sorrel conquered caviar!”
Noma’s exploration of Scandinavia’s natural biodiversity and its shunning of non-native ingredients (the restaurant doesn’t cook with lemons or cocoa) have become templates for chefs in regions as diverse as the Amazon jungle and the Australian outback. “There are still so many discoveries out there, knowledge to be found and recipes to be written,” Redzepi continued. “The road is not paved in front of us: we want to be the ones laying the bricks.”
The classification is created by combining the votes of a jury of 900 food professionals in the Diners Club World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy. For its purpose, the world is divided into 26 regions, each with 36 members; each juror proposes seven restaurants in which they have recently eaten that represent their best dining experiences. At least 10 panelists from each region are changed annually.
At the lively post-event party held at the Clove Club, a hip restaurant in East London, Redzepi still seemed dazed. “How did this happen?” he asked. “We had absolutely no idea it was coming.”
One answer might be that the MAD Food Symposium, the annual event Redzepi created three years ago to inspire young chefs about current food issues, may have played a significant role in raising Noma’s profile even higher. The two-day conference encourages aspiring chefs to look beyond their kitchens to today’s most urgent food issues, including sustainability, school food, land grabbing, genetic modification and obesity. Speakers at the symposium have included activists Vandana Shiva and Michael Pollan, chefs Barbara Lynch and Alex Atala, and glaciologist Jason Box.
“MAD’s message has also raised awareness about the exciting food work being done in Copenhagen, not least at Noma,” said one journalist at the party. “That may have encouraged more jurors to vote for it.”
Redzepi knows what winning entails. At a pre-award breakfast hosted by last year’s winners at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the Roca brothers described the avalanche of interest from public and press their win had triggered. “When the news broke, we received 2.5 million visits to our website in 24 hours, 63,000 emails, and 58,000 calls for reservations,” Joan Roca explained, shaking his head in disbelief. “There were also 1,230 press visits to Girona in this year.”
The 50 Best list includes many newsworthy results. London’s Fergus Henderson won the Lifetime Achievement Award for his nose-to-tail approach at St. John Restaurant. Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana held onto its third-place position for the second year. “Italy needs all the positive help it can get at the moment,” Bottura said. With a cuisine that is popular worldwide, some question why only three Italian restaurants made it into the 50 Best list this year. Is it because many foreigners prefer Italy’s rustic home cooking to its fine-dining restaurants?
The profile of female chefs was raised thanks to the Veuve Clicquot Best Female Chef Award. This year it went to Helena Rizzo from Manì in São Paulo, Brazil. At a tea party at Ametsa restaurant hosted by the French champagne house and overseen by former winner Elena Arzak, of Arzak, San Sebastian, Veuve Clicquot‘s Aymeric Sancerre explained how the award is inspired by the formidable Widow Clicquot. “In 1805, when Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin took over from her late husband, a woman could only run a business if she was a widow. Mme. Clicquot built the company into an empire and remains a role model for women in business.”
“I don’t come from a family of restaurateurs, but both female and male cooks influence me as a chef,” said Rizzo, who apprenticed briefly with the Roca brothers. “My grandparents were not rich, but loved food and were attentive to the specific temperatures needed to cook vegetables. I inherited their attention to detail at a young age. Great food creates bonds between people and fosters happy memories. I love helping to make these memories every day.”
Also present was Lanshu Chen, winner of the Veuve Clicquot Best Female Chef in Asia Award earlier this year. “My restaurant in Taiwan, Le Moût, features French cuisine created in our Taiwanese terroir,” she explained. “The spirit of this list should highlight a memorable dining experience that is both unusual and unique.”
Main photo: René Redzepi giving his winner’s speech at London’s Guildhall. Credit: Carla Capalbo