Chef Magnus Nilsson doesn't really mind if a steak is slightly undercooked in the middle and slightly overcooked on the outside. After all, the science of cooking perfectly is something that has never existed before now.
When cooking a steak, the sous vide scientists say that an even temperature throughout is a sign of perfection. From outside to inside, the palindrome of same-tempered, same-textured flesh easily and predictably offers a medium-rare 130-degree doneness. A quick sear gives color to the outside, but gone is the gray bit of just-overcooked meat that greets a steak, or the slightly under center found after pulling the steak off the grill or out of the oven when its cook guesses it's time. Is this perfection?
That's what I asked Magnus Nilsson and Andreas Viestad—a Norwegian food writer and TV host for New Scandinavian Cooking—during a Modernist Cuisine dinner, where the New Nordic Guard had gathered as part of Seattle's first Nordic Culinary Conference. There, Modernist Cuisine's owner and biggest cheerleader, Nathan Myhrvold, and his team of the brightest food scientists cooking and circulating and passively heating foods, prepared 23 courses of beautiful, surprising, and, at times, delightful food.
From the first dish, an EVO Cocktail which consisted of basil-infused Everclear and some olive oil, to the final Vaportini—a bulb filled with vanilla extract and vodka over a personal bunsen burner meant to be ingested by way of air sucked through a glass straw—Myhrvold's team prepared courses in custom-made dishes, presented, and explained thoroughly.
A magician never reveals his tricks, but Myhrvold constantly pulled back the curtain to explain the concept of using an ultrasonic power to create the perfect fry; how to make a rare beef jus; the method for putting Nilsson's face on a tortilla.
The next day, I sit with Nilsson and Viestad at Sitka & Spruce, whose local roots show through in each dish. The Swedish chef chose it. Last time he was in Seattle, four years ago, he worked with the chef on an event at the chef's farm on a nearby island. "I went for a run and it smelled like home. The flora is similar," he recalls.
Viestad addressed the steak question, though the dish wasn't on the previous night's menu, as the concept of perfection pervades each dish created to thrill with modernist technique.
"I was somewhat a part of this molecular gastronomy movement very early on," he explains through bites of locally made bread and locally foraged morel mushrooms, in season and just picked from the nearby woods, purchased by the chef from his best friend, a forager.
"In those first workshops, that's where Heston Blumenthal met Harold McGee. And the effect was more the collaboration born out of that. But I remember that we had all these discussions about sous vide cooking."
A dish of housemade charcuterie, including house-cured culatello and gelatinous head cheese is nudged to make way for a salad of tiny speckled green leaf lettuce heads, dressed with leaves of pressed tarragon.
"And the premise, he continues, "is that if meat is 54 degrees celsius, and that's perfect, then it should be 54 degrees all the way through, because that is perfection. But that premise is wrong."
He pauses to speak with Nilsson in Swedish, while the Fäviken chef cuts through a loudly cracking pork rind cradling cured, whipped lardo and berries. "Because what is perfect is if you have variety. If it's slightly undercooked in the middle and slightly overcooked on the outside, with this little belt in between that is more or less perfect. But perfection doesn't exist if it's monotonous."
We discuss a dish from the night before, one simply described on the menu as "Salmon." The dish, a sous vide salmon fillet, was cooked to a completely tender texture, separating easily one segment at a time thanks to the cooking process. No part was charred, and rather than flake, it fell apart easily with the pressing of a spoon. The sauce was delicate and creamy, and then green with an infused oil.
So, was this dish, too, too perfect to be great?
Perhaps, but the concept is not something the chefs dismiss, wholly. "This scientific movement has been super influential in the sense that it has partly sort of taken cooking out of the dark middle ages, but we don't necessarily need to always alter the way we cook," Viestad concludes.
Early on, chefs didn't know what they were doing. Or rather, why. "You seared the meat because you wanted to seal the surface. And that's not what's happening. It's a smart thing to do, but that's not why. The scientific movement has helped to understand why something is successful or why it's wrong. But it doesn't necessarily mean that you need to change the way we cook."
Sous vide lovers would disagree, and there are many. The science of cooking perfectly is something that has never existed before now, and its allure for those who can set a thermostat and understand the concept opens doors that were built, in part, by Myhrvold's team.
That concept, the one that puts scientific solution above human error, is a sweet spot for the Modernist movement. "The idea of using a digital thermostat is way better at controlling a flame than I am," Myhrvold told me the day before, as we prepared to join illustrious Nordic chefs for the meal his team would prepare.
"There's a whole train of thought that I don't understand (from critics), which is that it 'takes the soul out of cooking.' Well, me acting as a thermostat is not very soulful, I'm sorry. I don't get it."
We were discussing trends. In particular, the New Nordic movement, one that has built its own spotlight with two hands grasping both history and new technique, and shone it glaringly and deservedly onto Scandinavian cooking in a way that's never existed before.
What makes a trend stick, I had asked. Utility, Myhrvold replied easily, for one. Timing, too, played a part. He gave examples of trends we've heard of — molten chocolate cake, nitrogen ice cream — that had a false start before sticking, a generation or two later.
And the utility of giving anyone the ability to cook a piece of meat to a chosen temperature, it's undeniable.
Novelty, too, is consistently involved, Myhrvold explained. And the newness of Nordic cuisine is enough to drive a trove of chefs from San Francisco and Norway and New York and the remote world-renowned restaurant Fäviken, to Seattle. In the former Scandinavian fishing village, Ballard, where I grew up, hundreds of people gather to hear about this new but possibly permanent trend.
New Nordic cuisine, with its look back at the past while launching into a Scandinavia never before greeted with such enthusiasm by the world, brought the chefs to town. It brought them to the Modernist kitchen.
Myhrvold explained to me that "dry soup," the concept of a bowl with ingredients later drowned in a soup broth, originated in Ferran Adrià's kitchen. Later that night, he had dotted a bowl with peas, bright and chopped, and mingled with corn and radishes and pea butter. Then, he drowned it in a purely pea-flavored pea broth. It looked and tasted like spring, like something we would have tasted the next day in the thoroughly local restaurant for lunch.
But the peas were Jolly Green Giant, which Myhrvold explained were chosen after many tests, demonstrating that these flash-frozen peas were fresher tasting than any others. The broth and the butter were created not with a long cooking technique, but with a centrifuge. A favorite dish of the night for Nilsson, among the rest of the guests, it felt almost wrong to be so pleased by frozen peas available at any box store or chain grocery.
And it's Adrià and his now-shuttered El Bulli that Myrhvold partially credits with helping René Redzepi's Noma and Nilsson's Fäviken, among others, flourish. Before these modernist restaurants, French cooking was the gold standard. The ability to take control of the style and the techniques, the "let's do our own thing," the Modernist champion says, is as much the driving force behind this new food culture, as anything else.
That and working within their own constraints, with their own ingredients. That also had something to do with it.
"The idea that you could do a new thing. . . the thing that is really striking about Noma and Noma's impact, is that they were like, 'we don't have to try to import Rouget from the south of France and cook it. We can cook our own weird fish, because we have em!' And that idea could've been employed at any point in history. But it didn't actually happen until you got a generation of chefs that said, 'we're not trying to make the best French restaurant in Scandinavia, we're trying to make the best Scandinavian restaurant in Scandinavia.'"
But what is Scandinavian food? Despite the rise of Michelin-starred restaurants, Nilsson and Viestad are quick to point out that there's a big distance between what is being served in the restaurants and what people eat on an average day in their home countries of Sweden and Norway, respectively.
"The problem," Nilsson says, "is that traditions or the knowledge of Nordic food, are weakening. It's a bit sad that there are no restaurants that represent it. It's so inaccessible. If you have a keen interest in food, and you don't know someone who takes you to their house and cooks for you, it's basically impossible to have something that's representative."
Still, Viestad points out, a new generation of food-interested people are tasting traditional foods because of the celebration of the region's food for perhaps the first time on a global scale. A whole group of people who have never tried rømmegrøt (a sour cream porridge) or long viili (ropy yogurt), are having these traditional, not necessarily popular, dishes for the first time.
And modern, new Nordic cuisine is partially to thank. In Oslo, Chef Esben Holmboe Bang of Maaemo served a rømmegrøt, Viestad recalls, made with cured reindeer heart. "That was actually revolutionary, when he dared to put a cured meat of any kind on this," he says.
Still, this dish and its concept present an interesting duality: the presentation of a traditional, old world dish, in a way that may be accepted as fully rooted in the history of the region, even if it is not.
Nilsson dwells on this point. "This is also quite interesting with Maaemo or Fäviken or Noma, because when you tell the story of food culture through a very ambitious front like ours, people just assume that it's based on tradition. The fact is that many of these things don't come from a past."
Reindeer heart, for one, would've never been cured. The innards of the animal would've been consumed first, perhaps integrated into a sausage, Nilsson explains. "Rømmegrøt, it's a dish that belongs to the past," the chef continues. "But the addition of the reindeer heart, that's not tradition, that's just the idea of what traditional Nordic food could be. That could be any kind of cured meat, but they do that for effect."
This idea of an assigned past isn't unique to the emerging Nordic food. Viestad asserts. He opens clams into a rustic, heady sauce made with n'duja, continuing to explain that this concept is quite prevalent in French and Italian food.
"If you look at Italian food, that's one where people are convinced they're in Italy and eating the countryside. And if you look closely, it's documented that the food culture was born in the cities. This isn't what someone's grandma's grandma made."
Neither was the roast chicken Myhrvold showcased the previous day, with its multi-step cooking and careful temperature cranking at the end—four minutes, to the second—at 575 degrees to finish the dish with a shattering skin.
The accompanying tender, perfectly cooked baby squash and tiny mushrooms and itty bitty potato were far from the overcooked vegetables a roast chicken likely recalls in the memories of those raised on it. But the concept, of perfectly juicy roast chicken, vegetables, they're like some ideal reimagining of Sunday dinners in the United States. And with enough perfect chickens, going forward into the future, they replace that disappointing bird with a comforting do-over.
The look to the past can be dangerous, or misplaced, Nilsson adds. He gives the example of Semla:
"It's like a cardamom bun with paste inside of it. The thing is that the people are really, really into food. And want to be a little more initiated than everyone else, they're going to have it in a way that seems a little more traditional than others, which is in a bowl with hot milk.
"And the fact is that if you look at a historical timeline with this bun, and how it developed, in the beginning, it was a dried piece of wheat bread soaked in milk to make it edible. And as cities grew and bakeries and baking technique developed, the almond paste and whipped cream were added in the late 19th century. And by then, the bun was fresh, it wasn't dried anymore. And by then, no one had it with hot milk.
"And then during the time of national romanticism, which you can see in Swedish architecture and other ways, people got it into their heads that the way things were made then are better than the way they're made now. So they added the hot milk back in, which there's no reason for. It's actually a really bad idea, because it's already a fresh bun, and it has whipped cream in it. So it becomes kind of disgusting when you add all these things into it.
"And the people who are doing this think this is the original way it was served. But it's not, it's a completely bastardized way to serve it. It served a purpose 300 years ago, but now there's no reason to do it.
"And they justify it with history."
This history, for Nordic chefs, it's an important part of what they're cooking. But it's also the reason that the food you'll find on the menus of the best restaurant in the area is inspired by the past, rather than a recreation of it.
Nilsson's recently released book, The Nordic Cookbook, took traversing the region to gather recipes. And on at least one occasion, in researching Bergen Fish Soup, he got it totally wrong on his first pass at it.
This preservation of the past, he says, is different than recreating the food in a restaurant just to preserve it.
"I've been thinking a lot about this," he says. "And I've found that the only thing that you can really do is let things exist the way they are, and document it. There's no point in trying to do some kind of food cultural museum and saying 'this is the way it should be done.'"
This look to the past and the concept of Nordic food within Europe and within the world is a topic of conversation that dominates the meal.
While considering a platter of fermented vegetables, including peak season fiddlehead ferns, Viestad brings up an article he read, about the discovery of fish bones in Sweden.
The bones are significant because they show that perhaps as early as 9,200 years ago, people in the area were fermenting foods in a civilization not previously recognized. He'll be teaching a seminar and demonstrating gravlax at the weekend's seminars the next day.
"The world's oldest fermented food, an archaeological find in Eastern Sweden. The gravlax is still a modern kind of dish, brought to the States by Julia Child after living in Oslo. But the original is a type of fermented fish.
"But the fact that they found this fermented fish in Sweden, dating 9,200 years back, if that holds, and becomes a part of history, you'll actually have to rewrite parts of the history of Europe. Because the history of Europe thus far has been that you had the agricultural revolution starting in the Fertile Crescent. And then you had that agricultural movement spreading through Southern Europe and then going gradually north.
"But what they found at one point in Northern Germany was that the process of the spread of agriculture went slower and slower. And up until now, they thought it was because it was such an arid and infertile area. But that isn't true, because there are some really rich agricultural areas. What this find can indicate, is that we actually had whole-year settlements based on the fact that we had preserved foods (in Scandinavia). Because if you can find a way to preserve food, you can actually have food all year round and can build much larger, permanent settlements."
Before the agricultural revolution came, Viestad says, this was a much more sophisticated area. They've found things from a circumpolar trade. The history of Europe might all be wrong if that fish is right. "That fermentation of fish has been a lifeline in the life of Scandinavia," he finishes as the check arrives.