Photography by Sasha Israel
WHEN SNL STARTS POKING FUN AT THE EVER GROWING “FARM-TO-TABLE” TREND, YOU KNOW THAT IT’S REACHED THE POINT OF UBIQUITY. And although pickling your own cherries and meta-discussions over the perfect poultry might recall a scene out of Portlandia, the sustainable fad can actually trace its genuine origins in a land far from the Beaver State. In fact, some might say the inception of all things locavorian lie in Denmark, or more accurately, at a little place called noma. Founded by Mads Refslund and (current noma head chef) Rene Redzepi, the Michelin-starred Copenhagen-based restaurant has prided itself on using only local, plant-based ingredients for its New Nordic cuisine drawing uber foodies and veg-leaning fans alike. And by plant-based, we do mean plants. Think: scurvy grass, garden sorrel and moss. Yes, moss. There, Refslund reinvented the concept of foraging, a term previously reserved for bone-wielding cavemen, and before long it became the unofficial buzzword for the culinary world. Since then, Refslund has hopped the pond and established himself as a force to be reckoned with in New York City as head chef at downtown hotspot ACME. “You need to have so much knowledge about the land and about people working in the fields and on the beaches,” explained Refslund in the dining room of ACME. “At noma, we had to find the ingredients and it forced us to use our land. There are tons of things in America that I haven’t discovered yet. That’s why it’s so exciting to be here.”
Recently, Refslund launched a vegetable-focused tasting menu at the restaurant chockfull of local offerings like turnip carrot soup and sweet pea dumplings. “My dream is to have a vegetable restaurant,” Refslund mused. “You have to have consistency and build up knowledge about this region. It takes between five and ten years. noma is eighty-percent vegetarian now and in a way, it took them eleven years to come to the point where it is almost no meat.” Below, we sat down with the Denmark native who divulged his favorite surprisingly local vegetable, the one tropical fruit he adores and why you’ll never find a lemon in his kitchen–unless it’s at the bar.
Growing up in Europe, how did your parents feed you and teach you how to cook?
My mother cooked big portions. A lot of stews, soups, vegetables and braised meats. My mom and dad got divorced when I was 10 so I lived with my dad and my sister lived with my mom. My dad and I would cook together but it was always last minute. My favorite thing would be spaghetti Bolognese or homemade pizza. We would never buy pizza, there were no ready-made frozen dishes that we bought from the supermarket. We’d do it ourselves.
When did you first learn the art of foraging?
Around twenty years old, I was an apprentice at Formel B, a Michelin-starred restaurant. It was really old Nordic cuisine. We only used seasonal things and really focused on local ingredients. We worked with a forager who used to work for Sony but retired and lived like a wild man in the forest. He only ate vegetables, mushrooms and wild weeds. He had all these amazing things that I hadn’t seen before. I became head chef there and started using foragers more and more.
Did you encounter resistance to foraging when you moved to New York?
It took me a year to find people to help me with foraging. I could not just go to the forest and say, “Hey I found some things!” Like Pine shoots and sorrel. I began by going to New Jersey. There are tons of things in New Jersey.
What is the biggest untapped resource for local, seasonal ingredients in the tri-state area?
It’s an interesting question. In Denmark, I had everything outside the door and I was brought up there, I’ve been there all my life. We have a lot of things here. Cactus. We don’t have cactus in Denmark so it was completely exciting for me to use cactus. It’s beautiful and tastes so delicious. You take all the spikes away, clean it and grill it with lemon and parsley oil. But you have to watch it because after two minutes it gets very slimey. It’s a bit like okra. I have a guy for cactus and rose hips. Unripe grapes taste unbelievably delicious. We also have spicebush, which we don’t have in Denmark.
What are the best vegetables to eat in the late fall?
During the summer, the restaurant is not that busy because everybody is away. But in the kitchen it’s the busiest time because now everything is in season right now, so we buy big amounts and we pickle it, ferment it and we’ll be serving it in the winter. I don’t want to buy things from other places in the world. You need to ferment and preserve all these things.
So you’ll never ship mangos?
No. I’ll never serve a mango here or an avocado. But I love avocados. Grilled avocado? Mmm. I’ll buy an avocado just for me. I grill it in the skin, add oil, lemon juice and some soy sauce.
Do you like other international cuisines?
Japanese is one of my favorites, and Mexican food.
Where is your favorite place to travel?
It used to be Spain, now it’s Denmark. I also really want to go to Brazil and Tokyo.
What do you miss eating most in Denmark?
Langoustines. I also miss the turbot and white asparagus. But what I miss most is good strawberries. Jersey strawberries are okay, but they don’t compare to Denmark.
Where do you source your produce?
The Union Square Farmer’s Market. It’s the best one and we have a really good connection to the people there. It takes a long time to find the right places.
You recently launched a vegetable-focused menu. How important do vegetables play in your kitchen?
After two and a half years, we’re introducing the vegetarian menu. I was used to working with vegetables before I came here. After I closed my restaurant in Denmark, I was involved in a farm on a piece of land where we grew a lot of vegetables and so much of my passion was put into that direction. I always have had a love for vegetables. When I think about food, I’m thinking about vegetables before I think about proteins.
How does eating vegetables informed your own health philosophy?
The more plants, vegetables, sea plants, fruits we’re eating, the better place we’ll be. But the problem in the U.S. is the pesticides and spraying all these vegetables. You have to buy organic.
How can one get closer to eating more clean, in your opinion?
Well it starts with avoiding GMOs or all these fucking hormones. Make sure you eat organic and know what you’re eating. It’s very important to know what you eat. You become what you eat. I’m not saying if you eat a lot of beets, you’ll become a beet plant but you become healthier. For me it’s very important to know exactly what I’m eating. I think the more we try to destroy nature, the more it will destroy us. We should not play God over nature and we are right now. So let’s eat more vegetables and let’s not spray chemicals. For me, I know there are guys out there with his fingers in the soil because I’ve been there. It’s important to know where your food is coming from.
Do you have a fitness regime?
I go to the gym four times a week at Equinox and I get all my juices there. I also like to get some protein because I’m not that big and I want to keep healthy. The Kale Koolada is good at Juice Generation or the Hail to Kale but the Supa Dupa Greens is the one I like.
Describe a day in the life of meals.
In the wintertime, I eat porridge or oatmeal with dried berries and fresh fruits. I don’t put any sugar, just boiled water and dried berries, so when you add boiled water, you get the natural sugar and I finish with fresh fruits. That keeps me going for a while. Then I always have a coffee and eat a lot of fruits throughout the day. Maybe I eat a sandwich during the day but I don’t do that much, it’s more fresh fruits. I also drink juice from Equinox every day. Twice a week I get a dosa from the Hampton Chutney Company. Dinner is a staff meal and late night I try one of the dishes on the menu.
What is a typical Staff Meal?
Organic chicken wings or chicken legs and once a week we get some fish. But salads are what I like to eat.
What is your favorite dish on the menu?
I really like the cactus.
FOR MADS’ GREEN APPLE, CLICK HERE
FOR MADS’ CHARRED ONIONS RECIPE, CLICK HERE