To talk food with Ben Reade, Head of the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen, is to get lost in another world. Ben could be discussing art, politics or even religion, his language is so conceptual, ambitious and full of passion. The 28 year old Scotsman hardly draws breath as he describes what it’s like to be at the epicentre of a new food movement, spearheaded by the celebrated chef, Rene Redzepi, who founded both NOMA, the best restaurant in the world, and the food lab itself. “I would say that what we are doing is the creative and scientific exploration of deliciousness,” says Ben. Not bad for a day job!
NOMA and the Nordic Food Lab, which sit facing each other across a canal in Copenhagen, have spearheaded a new style of international cuisine. It’s the next step from the molecular gastronomy that came out of Spain a few years back and has been replicated in the UK by chefs like Heston Blumenthal. This new food movement celebrates the local, seasonal ingredients of Nordic cuisine while reviving the old methods of pickling, smoking, curing, fermenting and foraging. It makes use of interesting ingredients like insects, reindeer, forest moulds and wild bacteria. Redzepi made headlines last summer when he served up live ants at a NOMA pop-up restaurant in Claridges.
Ben’s journey to his now enviable position is as unconventional as the food he now experiments with. He dropped out of Edinburgh University in his second year, after becoming disillusioned with academia and went instead to study with Irish chef, Darina Allen, at the Ballymaloe Cookery School. “I had always loved cooking but it was here that I really developed a passion for quality ingredients and came to understand the connection between food, soil and the production process”. At the tender age of 21, Ben returned to Scotland and ran an award-winning gastro pub, Iglu.
It was the beginning of several years of following the next culinary opportunity, which would take him from the Marco Pierre White restaurant, Aubergine, in London (“nasty old school chefing”) to River Cottage (“inspirational”) to the West Coast of Ireland and the ski slopes of France. Finally he found himself on the way to Italy – really chasing a girl – but pretending that he was interested in attending the University of Gastronomic Sciences, set up by Slow Food founder, Carlo Petrini, in Piedmont. To keep up the front, he visited the university and quickly realised what an extraordinary place it was. He came away convinced he had to go, but two rather major obstacles stood in his way – he had no money or any formal qualifications.
Somehow Ben convinced them to not just take him on but to give him a full scholarship. He said, “I’m fascinated – if you teach me, I will learn”. Ben was good to his promise. Three years later he graduated in the top two percent of students. “It was the first time in my life that I wanted to listen to what teachers told me,” says Ben “I read everything they gave me and absorbed it all”. After spending three months doing his dissertation at the Nordic Food Lab, Ben was taken on as their only full time employee. He now gets paid to do what he loved doing as a child – experimenting with different plants and culinary ingredients.
His recent projects have included interviewing tribal hunters about their use of reindeer meat. “Which do they consider the best cuts?” says Ben. “The heart? The tongue? The legs? Then we look at how we can transform them using wild lactic acid”. Fermentation is a particular passion of the Lab. Ben says that the tastiest food has always been created this way – cheeses, salamis, vinegars – the work he’s doing just aims to take it to the next level.
But the holy grail of Ben’s work is his experimentation with bacteria. “Wild bacteria is the ultimate expression of the terroir,” he says excitedly. “There’s so much diversity when it comes to funghi and bacteria. There are 240,000 plants described by science and 1.5 million bacteria. These can all transform food”.
And this is what the Lab is all about. The work here is ground-breaking. It’s looking to change what people view as food, or to quote another member of the team, “to put more letters in the culinary alphabet.” Ben spends his days experimenting with seaweed, starfish, insects, food that has started to rot, food that we wouldn’t normally touch. It is work that in the long run won’t just contribute to the creation of new dishes, but could help to solve bigger problems like feeding an ever-growing world population.
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