Denmark's Restaurants Benefit From 'Noma Effect'

The Wadden Sea’s tidal flats provides the backdrop for an oyster safari, and access to one of the freshest meals available in Denmark. Kasper Fogh

Just under a mile out onto the mucky sand of the Wadden Sea's tidal flats, Jesper Voss straps on his apron. Made of thick leather and heavy with buckles, hooks and other hardware, it makes him look a little like a gladiator. But the blade he pulls from a chest pocket does not appear especially menacing, nor, for that matter, does the bottle of Tabasco he keeps in another. "Here," he says, sliding the knife into a shell that minutes earlier was protruding from the sand. "Freshest oyster you'll ever eat."

Four or five days a week, Voss leads a small group of tourists—50 or 60 a month—on an oyster safari, collecting bivalves from the sands of Fano, a windswept island in southwestern Denmark. The 51-year-old Voss spent most of his career working at a human resources company in Luxembourg but now he makes a living as the self-proclaimed Oyster King. Voss's career change says a lot about contemporary Denmark and its transformed food culture. Not long ago, Danish cuisine—such as it was—consisted mainly of fried pork and pickled herring. Now, as people like Voss prove, it is becoming a destination for gastronomic tourism.

Copenhagen has been a place of foodie pilgrimage for several years. Ranked best restaurant in the world four times, chef René Redzepi's Noma, with its exquisite tasting menu featuring reindeer lichen, mahogany clams and wood sorrel, established a style of cooking based on local ingredients that quickly spread to many restaurants there. Several of those, like Relæ, Amass and Bror, have developed international reputations, and these days a full third of all tourists who visit Copenhagen come with plans to dine at a wish-list restaurant. "The food revolution of Copenhagen has completely changed the Danish economy," says Kasper Fogh Hansen, director of communications for the Food Organization of Denmark. "Denmark has lost 186,000 private-sector jobs since 2008. The only area in which we've had large-scale job creation is restaurants."

It makes sense, then, that Noma's impact is slowly being felt outside the capital. This year, when the Michelin Guide published its first volume dedicated to Nordic cities, Aarhus, Denmark's second largest, had three one-star listings. Coupled with a food festival that draws 30,000 people annually, the Michelin Guide's recognition has encouraged the city to further embrace gastronomic tourism. Already named the European cultural capital for 2017, Aarhus recently won the competition for European Region of Gastronomy for that year as well. "The main reason we applied is that we have the whole value chain here, from farmers to producers, to food innovation, to a university that specializes in food research and education," says Jan Beyer Schmidt-Sorensen, director of business development for Aarhus. "But there is also a lot going on with gastronomy. And as a young and growing city, we can't deny that gastronomic is a label that a lot of people want."

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That's a lesson others are learning. The Danish island of Bornholm, south of Sweden, has positioned itself as a gourmet destination with farm shops, a local brewery, artisanal ice cream parlors that flavor their offerings with island-grown herbs and berries, and a cooking contest that each year draws some of the country's best chefs. It doesn't hurt that one of the finest restaurants in the country, Kadeau, is located there.

Nor did it hurt Henne, a tiny town on the other side of the country, when the British-born chef Paul Cunningham, who earned a Michelin star for his cooking at the Paul restaurant in Copenhagen, took over the kitchen of a small inn there in 2012. The international food crowd needed a couple of years to catch up with him, but Condé Nast Traveler recently published an article about his restaurant, Henne Kirkeby Kro, with the headline "Beyond Noma: Why Denmark Is Europe's Best Country for Food."

Aaron and Diana Arizpe understand why. Both young Danes work in the food industry—he as a food writer, she as a cooking teacher—so when it came time to pick a honeymoon destination this past summer, Copenhagen was the obvious choice. But they also ventured far outside the capital, driving to the otherwise unremarkable city of Odense to eat at Sortebro Kro, because Diana had gotten to know the chef, John Pedersen, via social media. There, they delighted in his classically Danish menu of pickled herring and meats cooked on the bone. But they loved Cunningham's Henne Kirkeby even more. "Cunningham came over with a bowl of potato chips tossed with tons of herbs and flowers, and 'Let's get this shit out of the way right now' were his first words to us, taking a jab at the way other chefs in Denmark tend to garnish food these days," Aaron says. "It was a great icebreaker. And the food? Well, I love Noma and will always love Noma, but Diana and I both thought that this was the best meal of the trip!"

That's not to say there aren't gastronomic challenges to striking out into the wilder parts of the Jutland peninsula. Because Denmark does not have a strong culinary history, traveling in rural areas doesn't offer the density of gourmand pleasures of, say, Tuscany or the Basque countryside. "There are a small number of excellent eateries up and down the coast of Denmark," says Henrik Halkier, professor of tourism studies at Aalborg University. "But they are dispersed. That's the challenge. If you are someone who travels to eat, and you find yourself in a small town with your stomach rumbling, chances are you're not going to find the kind of quality you'd like. Chances are you're going to find a brown kitchen [the Danish equivalent of a diner] where everything is the color of deep-fried fish."

But if a critical mass of good food has not yet been reached in the hinterlands, Danes themselves are at least starting to look for it. For the past five years, visitors from Copenhagen and Aarhus have been wading into the chilly waters of a sound called Limfjorden to hunt the indigenous and rare European flat-shelled oysters that some consider the best in the world. And in Fano, chef Jakob Sullestad, who owns the charming Sonderho inn, has noticed that a growing number of Danish guests have questions about the provenance of their dinner. "They'll ask specifically, 'Is the lamb local? Is it from Fano?'" he says. "They want to know if our herbs are wild."

That's a trend that the Oyster King has noticed as well. One of his tours takes about three hours and includes plenty of white wine to accompany the shellfish bonanza. "Over 50 percent of my clients have never tasted oysters before," he says. "But they know that they want to eat what is local and natural. They want to find their own food and eat what is outside their front door. "He paused to crack open another shell. "That," he said as he slurped down the contents, "is the Noma effect."