For my beloved Brother who introduced me to the art of cooking, who taught me how to taste and truly love food. Without him I'd never be able to be where I am today.

April 13, 2014

On A Saturday Night

My viili with a generous, fucking fat and delicious layer of Geotrictum candidum mould.

At the end of Saturday’s dinner service, after a long week of hard work in a two Michelin star kitchen, the chefs at restaurant noma in Copenhagen are encouraged to present each other with new, creative and though-provoking “projects”: a technique, a flavour combination, an ingredient, or a full-blown dish combining all three. Some chefs work on their respective projects for weeks, some for days; some simply end up pulling it together at the drop of the hat. At around 11.30PM, when the last guests linger to leave the premises, the polished kitchen sees yet another prepping: It’s time for the Saturday Night Projects. 

Since the Nordic Food Lab is docked literally at the entrance of noma and has a common history with the restaurant in question, the crew members at the Lab sometimes end up prepping late Saturday night too. Joining the Projects is a way to cherish the "family bond". Also, as the Lab stands for an open-source of knowledge, the Saturday Night Projects is a great way to showcase the work done at the Lab for some of the world’s most talented chefs. Above all, it’s a great encouragement for the many interns and permanent staff at the Lab to think more like chefs and present concrete, hands-on and delicious results. Presenting a project pushes us to think differently, less scientifically.

For me, it was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have noma’s sous-chefs, chefs de partie, the stagiers and of course René Redzepi himself scrutinize a flavour and texture I had spend so much time and energy on. On top of that it made me look at a very common, rather banal and traditional ingredient in whole a new light.

Since I started my internship at the Lab I had been playing around with this yoghurt-like product very close to my heart called viili. Josh, the project manager and researcher at the Lab became the number one viili-fan and encouraged me to participate at the Projects. The modest and shy Finn in me wasn't convinced – it's noma for god's sake. Josh remain affirmative. It was set. And I was shitting my pants. I got lucky to have started brainstorming on my project right in time when the latest arrival to the Lab Roberto – a talented chef with great gusto from Sardinia – arrived. After the formal hellos he promptly told me he wanted to help.

Together with Roberto, we wanted to tell the story of viili, the mesophilic, mould-fermented ropey and slimy milk product from Finland.

(To read the story in my report on the Nordic Food Lab research blog, click here.)

The elements we wanted to be present in the final dish were sauna and spring. We also wanted to embrace our two very different food cultures. We needed our dish to be delicate and subtle, yet expressive and effusive. After a few days of twisting and turning, tasting and savouring, we ended up choosing elements and techniques that would pay homage to both Roberto’s Sardinian heritage and my Finnish roots.

We are on to something! Happy team, Roberto and I. Photo by Alicynn Fink.

We chose to keep the protagonist – viili – as such. Viili is Finnish: simple, modest and pure by definition. Sometimes an ingredient just won’t get any better by applying advance cooking techniques to it. We chose to accompany it with a personal favourite, the parsnip. Roberto had a brilliant idea to cook the charismatic root vegs in ash – an old technique much used in Sardinian, “an old school sous-vide” as he calls it. We would only use the peel though, dehydrate it into a crispy, sweet chip. The juicy inside would be incorporated elsewhere.

Turned out, the parsnip skin looked exactly like tree bark. Ashes and bark. Sauna. Bingo! Baby nasturtium leaves rising from icy nasturtium granite would speak for rebirth and spring. Another genius idea by chef Roberto. The dish just wouldn’t be complete without some salmiakki – Finnish salty liquorice – that marries incredibly well with parsnips. We wanted the liquid salmiakki to look like the thickest, deepest traditional balsamic vinegar. Done! A few shiny drops of it on the parsnip bark made it resemble sap, yet another sauna allusion.

How to plate? Photo by Alicynn Flink

After selecting the right plate for our masterpiece, we needed to make it look as beautiful as it tasted. Trials and errors. Splashing, drizzling, dripping, painting, gently placing tiny leaves with a millimeter focus. Intense all right. For Roberto this is his job, he does it for living and has nerves of steel. For me, each step along the way was almost like a miracle and yes, extremely nerve-wracking. It made me relentlessly emotional. Roberto made fun of me, but in the most loving way. He understood, he’s Sardinian after all.

On D-day, the 10 minutes before we were to enter the culinary dragons’ den, I felt confident. We were ready, we had been working hard. Still, I needed a good luck charm. Fast, Edith, think. A week earlier I had been curious and ordered a viili seed all the way from the States. It came with an adoption certificate in dehydrated for. That would work perfectly. I placed the tiny plastic bag with dehydrated viili in my pocket: “Showtime buddy” I whispered to my dried Finnish-American friend. With the support of all the crew members, we stepped on land and entered noma.

The final dish. Photo by Alicynn Flink.

“Who would fucking love this a dessert, raise your hand!” said Chef René Redzepi himself looking around at his platoon.

                                                                               At the dragons' den. Photo by Alicynn Flink.

Grazie Roberto, I couldn't have done it without you.

March 4, 2014

Publication in Est Elle Magazine March -13

Read about my adventures as an research intern at the Nordic Food Lab November 2013 to March 2014. In Swedish, unfortunately.

February 6, 2014

Hanky-panky Coffee

I’m barely awake, barely sleeping. The air in the room is moist and cold. I should get up. He’s almost up, I should be too. He’s up. Damn. Should I follow? Nah. What’s two more minutes? He has to shower first any way. I pull the duvet over my matted bed head.

Was it two minutes, or was it a week, I can’t tell. I come back to life to the sound of coffee beans bursting in the grinder followed by that luring scent: one of the few things that make me get out of bed before 9 am. Or could it be that I’m longing for his warm body against mine? Probably both, in no particular order. In fact I’d like them together, at the same time. Pretty please. Here goes hoping. One more minute.

Telepathy? He's back. The bounce of the bed as he sits next to me invites me to sit up too. Puffy face, morning breath. He kisses me regardless. A smile. Okay I’m up.

He hands me a steaming cup with a broken handle. Freshly brewed coffee: Berry-like, fruity, slightly acidic and light; long lasting flavours and aromas. And then this tune.

Could I stay here, forever? Would that be a dreadful crime against humanity? The rest is history and some damn fine hanky-panky coffee.

January 17, 2014

The Larva-man

A longer, more in depth version of this text was published on the Nordic Food Lab research blog February 4th 2014. Click here to read it.

When a fellow researcher at the Nordic Food Lab asks me whether I’d like to give him a hand doing field work, meaning feeding random Copenhageners bee larva soup, I say “Ja tak!” Could there possibly be a better way to spend an afternoon?

Meet Jonas, the Larva-man – a 27 year old, very tall and very charming Dane passionate about sensory experiences and gastronomy. Jonas is a wanted man these days, requested to address various more or less tendentious food related topics on Danish national TV and radio. Ever since November, I’ve been sitting across from him at the Lab watching him meticulously busting his brain for his master thesis on how people perceive and accept novel foods, bee larvae to be more precise.  When he’s not busy doing public appearances that is, Jonas is an almost graduated Master in Food Science and Technology at Copenhagen University and is keen on discovering how neophobic or neophilic Danes are in their foodways. The Lab – as for us all – is both his playground and safe-zone for experimentation. (He also makes delicious and beautiful artisanal bread that I can’t have, but that’s another story.)

“If we manage to feed soup to 70 people today, that would be great”, he says with his signature simper as we started prepping the vegetable and bee larva soup this morning. “Let’s make one with visible larvae, one with invisible larvae and one with no larvae at all”. By now, almost two months in on my internship at the Lab, I’ve learned to recognize the very distinctive smell and flavour of the fatty little creatures: nutty, buttery, much like liver, quite delicate after all. I’ve only had them deep frozen in Jonas’s soup, but Josh, the Project Manager/Researcher at the Lab, describes fresh and alive bee larvae as something close to fish roe in texture, very delicate and “fucking delicious” in flavour. Listening to Josh’s description I got the oddest urge to pop one of those alive babies in my mouth. Deranged? Totally, yet far from it. Who would’ve thought I’d one day find myself on a houseboat in Copenhagen, surrounded by the damn most intriguing and talented people in the field of Nordic gastronomic research, talking about how bee larvae burst against ones palate… I can but smile, stir the soup and see how the little tasty suckers float around in creamy stock together with carrots, celeriac, leek and onions. The whole place smells of sautéed bee larvae. Yup, very distinctively bee larvae indeed.

Of course I’m here, where else would I be!

The Larva-man has chosen to do his semi-guerrilla soup tasting at a suburban mall in Valby, a 15minute bike ride away from the centre of Copenhagen, “That’s where we’ll find normal people”, he explains. “Normal people” are a rare breed here at the Lab where the next person stepping on board this mad houseboat is probably somehow loonier than the previous one. We often forget about “those other types of people” who might not attack a container filled with what essentially is the mashed and rotten edibles with immense appetite and lust for umami. Jonas and I head to the mall with the car loaded with our three steaming soup pots right after lunchtime. I wonder how many Danes will choose a side of larva over a kanelsnurrer with their afternoon coffee? Remains to be seen. As my Danish is not quite there yet, I told Jonas I’d do the people hunting and lour them in for him to feed them larva soup. Game on.

How hard could it be?

“No thanks, I’ve got a chewing gum in my mouth”, “I just ate”, “I’m vegan”, “Why would I eat bugs”, “Are you crazy”, “ I have no time for such nonsense”, “No thanks, I’ve got a girlfriend” were some of the reactions I got approaching the potential targets. Women especially didn’t like the idea of doing a bee larva soup dégustation on this crisp winter afternoon in Valby. Rather interesting. I wonder why? When I as a woman challenged young and middle-aged men to have some of Jonas’s soup asking them if they’re man enough, they obviously couldn’t say no. It proved to be a good strategy. Nevertheless, my utmost respect goes out to a mother of two boys, I’m guessing 4 and 7 year olds, who didn’t hesitate having a fun and educational pit-stop at Jonas’s soup shack. What a cool mum! And the boys loved it too.

Close to forty people accepted the challenge, keen on the trying “the future source of protein”. Unfortunately, at least the same amount, if not more, declined.

Jonas decided to call it a day when he felt like people weren’t thinking of anything else except for getting home for dinner a.s.a.p. Not even the best of simpers made a difference. We stood there for a while, warming our hands on the hot pots of larva soup… “I’ll get the car, we did good”, Jonas uttered. Before packing the larva-mobile to head back to the Lab I served myself a bowl of soup. “I’m eating juvenile insects in Copenhagen”, I thought to myself. Completely normal.

Next time: next week – new location. Way to go Larva-man!

November 12, 2013

Third Publication in Est Elle Magazine + Cover
(November 2013)

October 7, 2013

The Result of Determination

There was one thing I promised to myself I'd do before the end of my very productive and inspirational internship at restaurant Chef & Sommelier. It felt like I had a mission, it was something I simply had to succeed with. Usually, if I seriously set my mind on doing something, I'll go through ice to reach my goal. As you might have read from my last post, I've been doing a lot of baking with sourdough during my internship. It's somewhat ironic that the task was handed to me since I'm the only one who can't eat the bread I bake. Gluten is my worst enemy. Regardless of this minor issue, I've thoroughly enjoyed baking and learning the very basics of how sourdough works.

It didn't take me long to ask my chef the crucial question "And what about gluten-free sourdough?". I assumed he'd tired it since his wife is also gluten intolerant. I started doing some research on it and found myself in a cyberspace maze of tips and hints, each trickier than the other. Frustration hit me. It all seemed too complicated and I thought, how fucking hard can it be!? So I did what I always do – I try everything, at least once.

My first trial didn't take me far or bare any significant results. Or so I thought at first. But actually it's the mistakes and the unsuccessful trials that take you furthest. That's how it works for me at least. I tried to make a starter with buckwheat and hemp flour and I asked my coworkers which one of them had the dirtiest hands. My chef had just been harvesting 45 kilos of celeriac, his hands would be perfect. Turned out buckwheat and hemp don't marry well. My chef had his doubts and expressed to me openly, but I had to try it for myself.

My second trial worked better. I used a mix synthetic gluten-free flour (potato starch, rice flour and what have you) and corn flour. The starter started bubbling slightly, but the water and the flour separated after five days. This time though, as the smell was correct (acidic notes of soured yoghurt and bananas) I didn't discard it. I added water, flour and heaps of determination. I also made another batch using buckwheat. I still had faith in it. I understood though that buckwheat is very dense and "heavy" so I only used 1/3 of it and 2/3 of synthetic gluten-free flour. I also added some organic honey this time.

A week later both starter were semi active, but I kept having trouble with some of the flour lumping on the bottom of the starter jar. My chef kept telling me that I need to be patient and give it time, but I was worried and wanted to boost the process. I added a bit of honey to both starter and did what I often do – forget things half way through the process because I see no results. This time though, it was exactly what the starters needed.

Last week, I think it was on Thursday, a Swedish lady Jessica Frej known for gluten-free baking came to the restaurant. I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed. It would've been so cool to show her my bubbly and active sourdough and feed her some freshly baked gluten-free sourdough bread. Half an hour before service I decided to take a look at the starters. Maybe, just maybe a miracle had happened.

There is a sourdough God after all! A miracle had happened. Both starters were extremely active and smelled perfect. No time to bake, but after getting permission from the sommelier, I showed Jessica my starters. She was as thrilled as I was.

After service at 2.00 AM I prepared the dough and let it rest over night. The next morning I came to work to a very nicely grown dough. I folded it into three cute little buns and heated up the oven. What followed is best left unwritten since words can't describe the joy I felt. I'll let this video speak for itself.

One word: Determination.

September 17, 2013

Morning Glory 

Wiping off the sweat from my forehead, I jump off my bike. Tuesday morning – a new week begins. Keys, where the hell are my keys?? I’m frenetically digging in my backpack.  Same thing every morning. There, I found them. The door opens. I’m still sweating.

“Good morning all! Nice weekend?” I greet my colleagues who are already fully concentrated on work. One is pulling off tender meat from the lamb leg that has been simmering in its own fat over night. The other is fileting trout that just came in as fresh as it gets. I receive no answer, just a firm nod, but I don’t mind. By now, I’ve learned that Tuesdays for chefs are like Mondays for normal people: Tired and moody. Better to simply let them work and start working myself.

A ten-liter pot of rye bread dough and a 2/2 GN-steel container full of beautifully risen wheat bread dough are waiting for me. Clothes off, clothes on. Quickly. One, two, three, four and five. I button up my mandarin collared jacket. Ready. Let’s go.

Rye bread, first up. I have to work carefully but fast: A seemingly impossible equation at first, but I’m getting better. After six weeks of doing it every morning, I should be better. The oven is already hot. I snap on a pair of disposable plastic gloves and gently push my hand to the bottom of the pot to grab the dough. There, now the firm yet soft dough is sitting on my hand. I need a moment here. This part is crucial: Under no circumstances is one to break the crust that has taken shape over night. Important rye bread cosmetics. Ok, time to do the lift. Steady now. My hand is just a tad too small, but I compensate with determination. I hold my breath for a nanosecond.

Damn it. A tiny part of the dough always sticks to the pot.

I’ll be better tomorrow.

I pat, I sprinkle flour, I pat again. I cut twelve equally big lumps. Cut, cut, cut, twelve times. The dough is sticky but I shouldn’t add to much flour. It’s perfect this way and it’s so alive. The mark from the cut disappears in split seconds. The dough keeps growing and expanding as I go.  A bit like a lizard that grows back its tail.

As much as I enjoy teamwork, this part of the morning is the best. I often get left alone to bake. It’s just me and a shit load of sour dough. Dough that technically is my worst enemy, dough that I can’t eat when done, but I don’t mind. I still give it my heart and soul. And it’s so worth it---

My thoughts stand still, I’m concentrated. I’m nowhere but there, here. Patting, shaping.  Salt, flour. There. Done. There are only a few things in life that give you the same utter satisfaction as manual labor does. To see the result of your own bare hands in a matter of minutes is priceless. Even though I’ve done it each morning for six weeks now, I still marvel over the little loaves of bread each time I make them. Such beauties they are.

Next up, wheat bread. No kneading at all – in fact, I barely touch it. It’s wet and elastic, almost wobbly, but it holds itself well. A strong smell of lactic yeast, bananas, yogurt fills the room as I pour the dough onto the wooden baking table. The dough is active all right. A complex gluten net formation is a very good sign. Long elastic gluten strings. I love to see them even though they are a threat to me health.

Dividing the runny dough was such a pain at first. Now, I’ve learned how to not get it all over the place. Scraping, cutting. I’ve become accustomed to use the bench knife as an extension of my arm. Scrape, snip, cut. Flour. More flour. Wet hands. It helps. Four mounds of dough, four bread loaves. I fold each dough mound four times and flip them over. My right hand rotates the dough as my left hand beats it gently – a wonderful exercise for your motor-skills. The bouncy, but tight dough bun is sexy as hell! I cover the beautiful sight with a handful of flour and under a baking towel they go.

At this point I’ve been working for half an hour. It’s the best Tuesday morning therapy. It gives my morning a rhythm, a continuity. I get to interact with something, use my hands and see immediate results.

I can only smile. I’m all doughy. The oven is still hot. I should run, take the rye breads to the oven, but I take a minute to enjoy it, taking it all in. When dough is involved even the chefs’ Mondays are filled with joy.