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Illness, Gastro Wars and Noma

The Norovirus Goes to Work

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Let us not get carried away with schadenfreude, at least for the moment.  If a group or class of people wish to throw money at near invisible meals, pretentious service and microscopic morsels that would be better off being served in space, customers might deserve what they get.  First is the heavy bill – somewhere upwards of 1500 kroner ($260) per head, assuming they don’t have drinks.  The other is food poisoning.  This is impressive as it suggests there was food on the plate to poison the patrons to begin with.  It seems that the Danish restaurant Noma must be adding more than just René Redzepi’s ants, grubs and birch sap to their plates.

Last February, according to Denmark’s food agency, Fødevarestyrelsen, Noma managed to infect 63 diners with norovirus.  What little went in soon came out, with the diners suffering from nausea and diarrhoea.  One thinks of John Mortimer’s fabulous depiction of restaurant culture in Rumpole a la Carte, when the hero defends an insufferable tyrant of a chef at one of London’s best French restaurants for infractions against hygiene. All because of a live mouse on a plate, and the plotting of staff determined to see the profits of the establishment go down.

It has been suggested in reports that the outbreak took place because of sick kitchen staff who spread the virus to patrons.  The Danish food agency found that there was no hot water for employee’s use, though Noma subsequently claimed that the problem was with only one of the four sinks.

There is such a thing as the indifferent, even unethical consumer, defrauded by equally unethical food service and ruthless restaurateurs.  The origins of food and the treatment of staff are considered the preserve of others. A customer’s assurance is purchased, trust reflected in a hefty bill.

Of course, the added issue here behind the food poisoning at Noma last month is that it is considered “the best restaurant in the world,” another meaningless statement that is more an attribute of the hot air restaurant trade and foodie fantasies than actual good eating.  And yes, we can blame Restaurant magazine as well.  The customers are almost as irrelevant as the food, other for the fact that they scrounge over a table at the restaurant like middle-class cattle awaiting a skimpy feed.  In such a business, image is everything, food important only as necessary props.  It is for that very reason that Noma, as noted by Politiken (Oct 28, 2012), is one of the hardest restaurants to get a table at.  “Have a go in any case,” suggest Noma.

The selling of how food is made has become a global public relations racket.  There are now more chefs on television and recipe books than decent meals.   In various countries, the drive for farmers’ markets, the hunt for local produce, and the search for reliable attribution, is a battle that some chefs are taking advantage of.  Redzepi is proud of the principles of localism and foraging behind the menu.  “I wanted to learn how to integrate these ingredients so that we are cooking as part of our culture.”

If this involved herring swimming in brine, prawns, black bread, smørrebrød, and roasts watered down by rough schnapps and endless beer, then he must be on to something. But Redzepi always had a rather conceited view of what Danish culture produced in terms of its food.  He wanted, in short, to remake it.

Remake Danish cuisine he has, bringing forth a “New Nordic” cuisine.  This was bound to place Noma in the news, and caught the eye of rival chefs.  Redzepi’s localism principle has been deemed “demagoguery” by José Carlos Capel, chief restaurant critic for Spain’s El Páis, though one always has to be wary of cock fights chefs and their critics engage in.  Spain, after all, had its own Ferran Adriá to front.  For Capel, Redzepi’s slant on regional products might have enthroned him as leader of “the extreme right of European cuisine, something akin to a gastronomic Tea Party”.

Graduate student Umma Holm’s piece for Politiken in May 2011 was already on to this theme, describing Noma as “fascism in avant-garde clothing.”  This “culinary fascism” took the form of brown uniforms, “an emphasis on elements that have remained uncontaminated by outsiders”, an “obsession with purity”.  True to style, such contamination must be kept within the family.

Each celebrity chef has a maestro’s angle.  If you want to partake in the nutritional racket, you have Jamie Oliver, who has managed to create such a niche for himself you can see him at Madame Tussauds in Amsterdam.  For a splashing of gastroporn, there is always the ever reliable Nigella Lawson, who doesn’t so much cook as sigh with her spatula.  If you fancy food as a grandiose bloodless chemistry set, you will be greeted by Heston Blumenthal’s industrial techniques.  (Interestingly, his restaurant, The Fat Duck, also had a norovirus attack in 2009, affecting 240 diners.) Then, if you wish to see testosterone on the screen, a bit of mindless bluster pickled in foul language and abuse – more than actually learning about dishes – you have Gordon Ramsay.

Noma also has Denmark’s own celebrity chefs nipping at the heels, seeing it as the grand despot of the kitchen.  New Nordic has been confronted in a full frontal assault by Rasmus Grønbech, whose Grønbech & Churchill is so named after a spirit of emancipation.  “We are fighting for freedom, our gastronomic freedom” (Global Post, Apr 8, 2012).

Little wonder then, in a world where food is image, the glossy paper, the anguished search for difference and the twenty-four hour celluloid run, that Noma can exist, and is tolerated for its pretentious guff.  This is not to dismiss the strength of norovirus, a considerably hardy bug that has made commentators such as Evelyn J. Kim (Huffington Post, Mar 11) wonder why Noma did not have a previous outbreak of it.  But like so much here, the food is only a small part of the story.

With this latest episode, Chef Redzepi, who wanted his guests to “taste the soil” got that touch more than he bargained for.  “Diners,” observes Stephen Easthope in The Huffington Post (Mar 21), “are far more likely to forgive you putting your faith in a rogue supplier, than they are an unsafe kitchen.”  It will certainly make getting a table easier now.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com