I first visited Mugaritz in 2003, when the restaurant was on the run-up to its second Michelin star. At the time, northern Spain was a surging font of innovation in global haute cuisine, specializing in the highly technological sort of cooking that came to be called (over the howls of the chefs) “molecular gastronomy.” That season, an informal theme had emerged, and from their kitchens at El Bulli and Berasategui, Arzak and Sant Pau, each chef was presenting diners with their approach to a simple cooked egg. Each one transformed differently, through techniques like ultra-precision sous vide. Andoni Luis Aduriz, the influential head chef at Mugaritz, was no exception.
What was exceptional, however, was what came to the table after the first, rather gelatinous amuse bouche: a progression of courses with their main elements set off by novel herbs and plants foraged in the wild garden that surrounded the rural estate. At the time, it was exhilarating. A riot of heretofore unknown tastes and textures that today’s avant garde diners might recognize as yarrow, and shiso, and oxalis. They formed a bright, unique counterpoint to highly scientific cooking, based on abstracting and refining raw ingredients and traditional cuisines to the point of being almost unrecognizable – which Mugaritz and its cohort were, and remain, best known for. But they were mere spices on a menu that has borne such inventions as foie gras with the texture of a sponge, or veal disguised as a lump of charcoal – a tiny spark of something different. And today, as the main attraction of “modernist cuisine” has entered the mainstream, at a time when even your local bistro’s plates might appear ringed with wasabi foam and punctuated by dots of experimental ice cream in flavors like tobacco or corn, the needle of the culinary compass continues to turn. Now it points away from the Mediterranean at true north: toward the Nordic climes of Copenhagen’s Noma, named the world’s best restaurant four times since the turn of the decade, and even beyond, into the Swedish wilderness, a mere 200 miles from The Arctic Circle.
There, you’ll find chef Magnus Nilsson presiding over the restaurant Fäviken, described by Bon Appétit as the “world’s most daring restaurant,” and elsewhere as perhaps the most isolated. He is neither gardener nor scientist, but “part Viking lumberjack and part Shaman,” as a Condé Nast Traveler reviewer put it. Rebelling against the highly technological cuisine of his forebears, his dishes sport names like “broth of decaying autumn leaves” and “wild trout roe in a warm crust of dried pigs’ blood”; one recipe in the restaurant’s eponymous cookbook requires “one very fresh cow’s femur.” In another, titled “a tiny slice of top blade from a retired dairy cow, dry aged for nine months,” we’re told: “The pure flavor of meat becomes secondary to the aromas of controlled decay… rather like a cheese. It is meat, but yet like a cheese.” In other words, rather than take your breath away with something you’ve never heard of, Nilsson does it with something so organic you might have preferred to continue to ignore it – a return to nature that is deeply disturbing, yet somehow deeply irresistible.
It might seem like an extreme example. It’s also one that cuts to the quick pace of the changes afoot in a global food culture that is rapidly reinventing itself. Much like earlier movements in art and politics that rejected the refinement, aestheticism, and decadence of a prosperous status quo (think Picasso’s proto-Cubist period, or the antimodernism of 1960’s American counterculture), food is taking a turn towards the primitive. As in those instances, it’s a turn informed by impulses both colonial and Romantic. This time around, the colonialism isn’t based on fascination with tribal art discovered in new overseas outposts, but on choices made out of necessity by the marginal and marginalized (where else but in the deep corners of backwater farms or unannounced in cans of the cheapest commodity chili are retired dairy cows eaten?), newly noticed and reappropriated by a powerful elite as the height of fashion. And the romanticism isn’t the hippie dream of getting closer to nature – of nudism and uncut hair and a lack of deodorant. It’s about the sublime of 18th century German Romanticism found in the philosophies of Schiller or Kant, who contrasted merely beautiful things with the aesthetic perfection of those truly sublime, which, as Kant wrote in his Observations on the Feeling of the Sublime and Beautiful, are terrifying:
Arouse enjoyment but with horror… Tall oaks and lonely shadows are sublime; flower beds, low hedges and trees trimmed in figures are beautiful. Night is sublime, day is beautiful… The sublime moves, the beautiful charms.
Today’s food trendsetters want to be moved, not charmed, and while it’s difficult to imagine their primitive sublime terrorizing the supermarket, it pushes long-building and rapidly mainstreaming culinary values to their utmost realization. More intimate than the local, and beyond the organic, we find the primal forces of decay and disgust, the inside of the organism, the untouched, unpolluted, untainted wilderness. We find the stuff of novel and challenging experiences that make one a legend among friends, family, and coworkers. As he trades with local hunters and fishers, and hunts, fishes, and forages himself – habits trumpeted by any chef worth his salt these days – Nilsson even imagines Fäviken as a model for the future of an international haute cuisine that is otherwise a slave to global supply, advanced technology, and manipulative obfuscation of its primary ingredients; a cuisine that is, if charming, left deeply uninteresting – not to mention unsustainable.
How does this all look as it trickles down to the everyday and back toward the center? Early signals abound. Ethnic categories are one clear beneficiary: In New York, the fast Chinese casual chain Xi’an Famous Foods is rapidly multiplying its outlets, thanks in no small part to Yelpers hyping their Spicy & Tingly Lamb Face Salad, and unearthing parts concealed deeper in the beast than its nose or tail abound. Meat is obviously in again, with the last vestiges of utility like offal, tendon, skin, and mostly-bony parts showing potential to follow the path blazed by earlier revaluations of cuts like oxtail, shank, flank, and hanger steak (when properly presented). Meanwhile, radical vegetarians are eschewing their eschewal of vegetables, and embracing ethical meat, in some cases even taking up a niche phenomenon of “hipsters who hunt.” And on that note, wild foods are another rapidly growing segment, where long-time market stalwarts like wild rice, wild mushrooms, and maple syrup are being joined by more niche and perishable products like ramps (wild leeks), wild berries, seaweeds, and edible weeds, as well as tree flavors like pine and cedar. While most new demand is currently concentrated in high-end restaurants and farmers’ markets, many of these ingredients are easily used as a sort of spice, adding a novel flavor and green-savvy profile to packaged goods like jams, pickles, baked goods, and packaged meals.
Broader trends in popular culture also reflect this turn to the robust, the rustic, and the reinvigorated. The metrosexual of the 1990s and 2000s has been replaced by today’s lumbersexual: bearded, bush-savvy, and firmly masculinized. The Paleo diet, high in meat, greens, and fat, and low in carbs – aping imaginations of our hunter-gatherer past – is joined by Paleo movement and Paleo living (think barefoot running and body-based sports like parkour and free climbing). It’s a world returning to simplicity in materials, process, and presentation. It’s a turnip, freshly dug and lightly fermented along with its dirt, sitting on a wooden platter, rather than vaporized into an essence and injected into a sphere, looking like a turnip even though it is not, as it sits, mystifying, in a spoon that is also a bowl. Perhaps we can even spot a harbinger of other cultural shifts to come, an implosion of our outsized desires into the virtues of decline, decay, and degrowth. Disgusting? Yes, but delicious – and even, maybe, more truly connected to the nature of things.