Nordic style obsession

Stieg Larsson piqued our interest. Now we can’t get enough of northern nations’ fashion and cuisine.

Nordic obsession
Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images/ Phaidon/ Erik Refner/The New York Times

Last weekend, René Redzepi, the handsome 32-year-old frontman for the new Nordic chic, charmed a packed audience in Toronto with stories from Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant he co-founded in 2004 that catapulted to the top of the culinary pantheon this year when it knocked Spain’s El Bulli from its No. 1 position on S. Pellegrino’s “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list.

Now there’s a three-month wait for one of its 12 tables in a serene room in a converted warehouse. There, diners sup on Redzepi’s wildly inventive compositions fashioned from ingredients sourced in the harsh Nordic landscape—bulrushes, birch sap, hay, puffin eggs, pig’s blood, weeds. Noma is heralded for reframing “gourmet” by taking local, sustainable fare from the bottom of the food chain and elevating it to the top, while conveying a sense of “place.” The restaurant is itself a contained ecosystem focused on the authentic and handmade: all food served is smoked, pickled, dried, grilled, salted, and baked in-house, down to vinegar and spirits. Explaining his mission, Redzepi sounds like a philosopher-poet: “The challenge for me is to telegraph the actual flavour of the field and sea, the narrative of the dish in your mouth,” he told Maclean’s.

The culinary trailblazer was in Canada on the last leg of his North American book tour for Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, a visually sumptuous, decidedly unglossy 360-page volume filled with signature dishes—“radishes in a pot” (with edible “soil”), “over-ripe pears and malt oil, skyr and wild chervil,” and “pumpkin and marinated herring, walnut juice.” The fact most readers can’t access birch sap or know what “skyr” is (an Icelandic raw milk yogourt) doesn’t matter, Redzepi says. He wants the book to inspire and educate: “It’s an atlas of Nordic culture and agriculture as seen by Noma.” Noma’s success has cast a wider spotlight on Copenhagen’s robust culinary community: an August food festival is must-attend, and NaCl, a group of young chefs who cook together once a month, has a waiting list equal to Noma’s.

A modest Redzepi credits increased eco-awareness for its popularity: “I think our restaurant represents perfectly what the world wants right now in terms of sustainability, the footprint you leave behind you, what’s good for mother Earth,” he says.

Redzepi’s timing is perfect given the current obsession with all things Nordic—food, literature, design, fashion, film. The phenomenal success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy piqued interest in Nordic nations. But there’s also the fact the northern nations’ enlightened social policies and vast untouched landscapes make them exotic, ripe for romantic projection. (Even reality shows have exploited the locale: The Bachelorette set some of its last season in Iceland, leaving eliminated bachelors forlorn on ice floes.)
“It’s one of the few places on Earth where you have a huge land mass with so few people on it and nature as nature made it,” says Redzepi. And that in turn is expected to make the region an economic powerhouse, as Laurence C. Smith argues in his new book The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future. The climate change expert contends global warming will transform Scandinavia (along with Canada, Russia and the northern U.S.) into immigration magnets over the next 40 years.

The economic engine is already in overdrive in publishing circles, where double-consonant names have cachet and bets are being taken about “the next Stieg Larsson.” Blockbuster American crime novelist James Patterson has just teamed up with Swedish star Liza Marklund. Even Hollywood has leaped onto the gravy train with Let Me In, a remake of the Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In, and the much-hyped redo of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which (unlike Let Me In) will retain its Swedish setting.

There’s a desire for complex, cerebral anti-heroes like Det. Kurt Wallander, who’s based on Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell’s character and played by Kenneth Branagh on the popular PBS series Wallander. Redzepi too has been welcomed as an antidote to the brash, ego-driven Gordon Ramsay types on the food scene. “René’s so smart, passionate and kind,” says Toronto food maven Bonnie Stern. “I’m hoping he will become the image of the new celebrity chef.”

The fashion and design worlds are also in Nordic thrall. Leifsdottir, the Finnish line designed by Johanna Uurasjarvi that was purchased by Urban Outfitters, Inc. in 2008, is in hyper-expansion mode. So is the Finnish fashion and textile company Marimekko: last week, Crate & Barrel announced it would showcase the line in its stores. Scandinavian designers showed for the first time at New York Fashion Week this fall. Model-of-the-moment Freja Beha Erichsen, from Denmark, exudes the kick-ass attitude of Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander: she’s the new face of Chanel and also stars in the latest campaign for Tom Ford eyewear, in which she has been photographed breastfeeding a raven.

Juli Daoust, co-owner of Toronto design store Mjölk (Swedish for “milk”), believes the high-quality Nordic goods from Alvar Aalto, Georg Jensen and the up-and-coming designers that she sells fill a vacuum: “There’s a huge appetite for humble, natural materials used creatively and intelligently,” she says.
Daoust talks in terms of “cultural cleansing”—relief from the clutter and junk out there. “North Americans have been obsessed with amassing cheap, inferior quality stuff,” she says. “But the tide is turning. They’re starting to say, ‘Wait a second, I’m a hoarder.’ ”

An eco-driven “buy once, buy well” mindset is also at play, reflected in the fact the current “it” bag isn’t from Chanel or Gucci: it’s a $65 waxed-canvas Kanken backpack from the Swedish brand Fjällräven, a reissue of a 30-year-old design whose selling point is that it lasts forever. Simplicity and craftsmanship don’t always come cheap, however: a Cara wooden egg cup at Mjölk costs $20, a Vipp toilet brush, $225. At Noma, lunch for two (without alcohol) can run upwards of $500.

People are increasingly drawn to goods that are “made” rather than manufactured, Daoust says, even when they have been manufactured: “They really warm things up.” A tactile, low-tech feel also animates Noma: Redzepi shuns the digital. He didn’t include a CD-ROM with the book, but did provide a hand-drawn map of the restaurant’s suppliers in Scandinavia, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland. All photographs were taken with an analog camera in natural light to evoke a natural sensibility. “It was a real pain in the ass,” he says good-naturedly.

A sense of homespun warmth is a big part of the attraction to Nordic style. The Danish call it hygge, a word with no English equivalent that’s best described as well-being, comfort—qualities in short supply in an ADD-addled world. Hygge is a big part of the appeal of new Nordic blogs like, Ikea’s Swedish site filled with homey images, nary a Billy bookshelf in sight. Instead, there are close-ups of cozy interiors, freshly baked food, and happy people. A more sophisticated vibe exists on the popular launched last March by Catherine Lazure-Guinard, a Quebec native who lives outside Rotterdam; she plans to have an online store up and running by early next year.

Lazure-Guinard marvels at the Nordic knack for mixing the contemporary with objects that have a history. “They’re very proud of their roots,” she says.

That’s evident in the recently published, much-discussed Lars Bolander’s Scandinavian Design, a collection of photographs of interiors from the 16th century to the present, collected by the Swedish designer who taught his good friend Martha Stewart how to stage a serene interior.

Nordic designers follow their own rhythms, says Lazure-Guinard: “What makes them trendy is the fact they’re not following the trend; they try to lead based on their own history.”

She also respects the community’s collaborative spirit, and willingness to promote local talent. Redzepi agrees: “It’s a very democratic society—some would call it semi-communist—where it’s about the people rather than the individual,” he says. “And I think that’s something else people are responding to.”
But there’s also the fact it’s anti-mass-market, Ikea notwithstanding. Redzepi is besieged with requests to expand Noma but refuses. “This is something unique and I’m proud to be part of it,” he says. “It gives me much more satisfaction than opening a place for the profit of it.”
Response to his celebrity in his homeland has been muted, he says, which is typical. “I’m sure if it was [New York City chef] David Chang who won this award, America would freak out. The amount of pressure and requests would be outrageous. But being Scandinavian, these things are taken a little more down to earth. Which is, of course, good.”