If it’s true that the Danes live to eat, the Norwegians eat to live and the Swedes eat to drink, then it must also be said that Americans eat to experience other cultures.
And it is with fervor that the restaurant industry has attached itself to the cultures of Scandinavia.
It’s not unprecedented. The food scenes of Sweden and Denmark, especially, have been quietly calling out to the most food-focused travelers for years.
When the World’s Best Restaurant Awards are announced April 30, it will be Noma’s name everyone looks for in the No. 1 spot: Indeed, the Copenhagen-based restaurant has claimed the honor for the past two years.
Furthermore, Noma’s chef, René Redzepi, was just named one of two restaurant industry people on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People — the other was The Bazaar’s chef and restauranteur José Andrés.
But what does an obscenely expensive restaurant located inside a converted warehouse all the way across the Atlantic have to do with L.A. food culture?
First, one must look to the overall American adaptation of international cuisines.
Spain’s now-shuttered El Bulli was the No. 1 restaurant in the world when tapas, or small plates, became a hot sell in the United States almost a decade ago. And for most of the century earlier, France, with food legends like Paul Bocuse and Georges Auguste Escoffier, was the world’s gastronomic gold standard; as a result, that particular French way of cooking — with lots of butter and lots of flair — became the eventual norm here in the states too.
But back to Scandinavian food in America. One can credit Marcus Samuelsson, who made waves at his New York restaurant Red Rooster Harlem for popularizing Scandinavian fusion, with elements of soul food, New York food and Ethopian food, only a year and a half ago.
And the restaurant industry’s renewed interest in smoked and cured fishes, or fish charcuterie, also parallels a very Scandinavian approach: One cannot enter any restaurant in Copenhagen without encountering pickled herring or thin, glassy slices of smoked salmon.
Of course, there’s another major factor at play here. It’s called IKEA.
There’s always that friend who goes to IKEA only for the food, walking through the massive store just to get a plate of gravy-covered meatballs with a dollop of mashed potatoes.
And though not every restaurant will serve such obvious Scandinavian fare, the region’s flavors, earthy and bright and even briny, have been noticeable on more and more menus across the nation.
Next time you order roast chicken at a restaurant, see if that dish is accompanied with potatoes and asparagus or wild mushrooms and green herbs. If it’s the latter, as is quickly becoming the case, you’re already receiving a hint of this Scandinavian style.
The West Hollywood restaurant Red Medicine claims to be inspired by Vietnamese cuisine, and many of its dishes are. Credit should go too, though, to the Swedes: A vegetable dish of snap peas comes mixed with trout roe, while spot-prawn roe accompanies some Dutch white asparagus. The “plucked from the ground, plucked from the sea” approach is modern Scandinavian food at its best.
Another West Hollywood hotspot, Michael Voltaggio’s ink., serves its Malpeque oysters in terra-cotta garden pots filled with stones under which a fog of dried ice — or something remarkably similar — emanates. And the restaurant’s bar hosts trays of wispy herbs and plants of which chefs pluck tiny flowers to place atop tuna or garnish salads.
Popular Scandinavian foods like smørrebrød, the open-faced sandwich topped with any assortment of spreads, herbs and proteins, are also appearing in disguised forms around the city.
Brentwood’s Farmshop has a version with long slices of toasted bread, spread sweet-potato purée and some punchy toasted broccolini on top.
It’s no surprise, either — we’ve happily adapted banh mi and pozole into the American food vernacular. Why not smørrebrød?
One can hope that the Scandinavian food trend is here to stay. If good food and happiness really do have an intrinsic connection, then knowing the people of Denmark, Sweden and Finland are often credited as the world’s happiest only further highlights the benefits of emulating certain foreign countries.
Decades from now, when we’re dining with our families at Swedish meatball parlors and smiling incandescently, food historians will look back at the dining scene of the early 2010s and mark the decade as the start of the American-Scandinavian food revolution.
Bernard Leed is a junior majoring in narrative studies. His column “Amuse-Bouche” ran Wednesdays.