How twelve chefs changed the world

In the year 2004 a group of twelve Nordic chefs signed a manifesto that summarised in ten bullet points the essence of the new Nordic kitchen; purity, seasonality, ethics, health, sustainability and quality. The New Nordic Food manifesto was a turning point for Nordic cooking and food culture with its focus on new and fresh approach to traditional raw materials and food, ethical production philosophy as well as modern and innovative techniques.

The twelve chef that signed the Manifesto came from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Faroe Islands, Åland, Greenland and Iceland. All were international and local culinary celebrities but with all due respect, none of them has risen as high as René Redzepi from Denmark. René was already world famous for his big part in Noma in Copenhagen, a restaurant that was repeatedly voted the best in the world. The Manifesto is not long, but it touches many subjects like environmental issues, animal welfare, public health and general wellbeing, but it is first and foremost about good food. 

According to the Nordic Council the aims of the New Nordic Kitchen are among others to express the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics of the region and reflect the cultures, climates, landscapes and waters of the Nordic area in the food. In other words, the Nordic Chefs, supported by their governments and the Nordic Council, wanted to emphasize the “terror” of the North in their food. In a very simple way the New Nordic Kitchen is about using the food tradition and the pure ingredients and mixed it with the best cooking techniques and professionalism to create unique food experiences of the highest quality. 

”As Nordic chefs we find that the time has now come for us to create a New Nordic Kitchen, which in virtue of its good taste and special character compares favorably with the standard of the greatest kitchens of the world” the Manifesto states.

Combined, the Nordic countries are the 10th biggest economical power in the world, with around 25 million inhabitants and a very strong international voice. Therefore it matters what they say and do regarding culture, food and environmental issues. The New Nordic Kitchen, rising from a grassroots movement, via Noma and the Manifesto of the twelve chefs has had support in the Nordic countries, both within the food industry, agriculture, among the public and with the governments. The new nordic kitchen has become a movement, not only regarding cooking, food preparation and restaurants, but also regarding production, ethics and wide environmental and social aspects.

One measurements of food importance of an area is how many restaurants are listed by Michelin restaurant Guide. Two decades ago Michelin stars in the Nordic area were few and far apart. Now there are 64 restaurants in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland with either one, two or three Michelin stars and 266 restaurants are listed in the Michelin restaurant guide. Denmark, the original leader of the New Nordic Food movement, has the most listings (99) and also the most starred restaurants (28). Sweden with its 86 listed restaurants and 22 starred comes in second of the Nordic countries but other have fewer listing and stars from the Michelin guide.

When the twelve chef signed the Manifesto in 2004 the Nordic media was willing to listen, record and broadcast the news. All the major newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations had stories on the new trend in Nordic food. It went on for weeks and months and even years. At the time nobody really understood what was happening. In a story from 2008 in Morgunblaðið, Iceland’s traditionally strongest and most influential newspaper, chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason is quoted saying there is only one restaurant in the whole of Iceland that really follows the style of the New Nordic kitchen and the manifesto to the letter. A simple browse of Reykjavik’s restaurant seen in 2019 shows that this has changed dramatically. Now you can find a handful of world top quality New Nordic style restaurants and tens of very presentable places that are obviously a product of the Manifesto from 2004. The same goes for the other Nordic countries with their Michelin success and progressive food policies.

Through the common platform of their common policy, the five Nordic countries and the autonomous areas of Faroe Island, Greenland and Åland, have built a vision of future Nordic food. From reading the 2015 report from the Nordic Council of Ministers, The emergence of a new Nordic Food Culture, the influence of the Manifesto from 2004 are quite obvious. The report marks the end of a program called “New Nordic Food II” and the beginning of another era of workshops, seminars and conferences under the slogan “Nordic Food 2024”. 

Apart from that, all of the Nordic nations have their own and separate food policies. Sometimes they are clear and carefully defined, at least partly, as for example in Sweden (Matlandet Sverige) or in Denmark where emphasis is on organic products. At the same time Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands are first and foremost fishing nations if their food industry is measured in hard currency and export. Finland is the country in the European Union were subsidies to farmers are the highest. Three of the Nordic countries, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, are part of the European Union but Iceland and Norway are part of EFTA. All of them are then also a part of the European Economic Area. A complex system, yes, but the point is that even if they have a lot in common and work together in many areas, there are also many things that divides them and it is not a given that they can come together and form a common food policy.

It is clear by now, that the vision that a group of chefs and foodies translated into the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto some 15 years ago, is a changing force in policy making of a group of very influential countries. And it does not only have influence on food culture and restaurants. The influence is so much wider in education, culture and environment. All because the grassroot group managed to communicate their vision in a successful way and reach the ears of policymakers and influencers (long before that word got to be overused and empty in connection with social media). Late last year, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Iceland’s prime minister, stated the importance of food as a part of society, public health, security and culture, ending with the statement that food and food production is probably one of the biggest policy issues in the 21st century.  Ain’t that something?