California Produce Can Humble Even the Greatest Nordic Chefs

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California Produce Can Humble Even the Greatest Nordic Chefs

Chef Adam Aamann made the New Nordic food movement his own by single-handedly reinventing the smørrebrød open-faced sandwich. Nonetheless, he turned into a kid in a candy store when he visited the Santa Monica Farmers Market.
March 21, 2016, 11:00pm

The similarities between California-style avocado toast and Danish smørrebrød are uncanny.

Both are variations on the open-faced sandwich that capitalize on the local, seasonal bounty of their respective region, both are deceptively easy to make—and bastardize—in home kitchens and restaurants, and more importantly, both are currently enjoying a nice ride in the spotlight as some of the trendiest dishes in the world. Should it surprise anybody to find out that the philosophy behind Nordic cuisine is practically the same one that drives California cuisine?

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This was my conclusion after shadowing chefs Adam Aamann of Aamanns in Denmark and Neal Fraser of Red Bird at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Or, as I like to call the experience, A Nordic Chef Goes to the Candy Store.

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Aamann (left) in front of Harry's Berries stand at the market. Photo by Reena Retuta

"Back home, it's only potatoes and rutabaga," Kalle Bergman tells me as we walk behind Aamann. In 2012, Bergman launched NORTH Festival as a weeklong celebration of Nordic cuisine in New York. He recently came to town with the celebrated Nordic chef to do a West Coast pop-up version of the festival at Red Bird for a night.

Bergman continues, "Chefs understand California produce intellectually, but once they come here, it just blows their mind. It's four seasons at the same time here, and it is not only one citrus but ten different ones. These chefs have never seen these things."

Fraser explains to Aamann that the hardest thing to do in California is to stay seasonal. Aamann looks baffled.

"We thought we came with a plan, but we are not sticking to it anymore," Aamann tells me between bites of raw broccolini leaves from Weiser Family Farms. "There are so many nice things here. It is amazing." He continues to take huge whiffs of flowering kale up close, adding, "The hardest thing to do is to choose."

Aamann has followed the New Nordic cuisine movement, but in his own, much more approachable way: by specializing exclusively on smørrebrød, the ancient open-faced sandwich.

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Many credit him with single-handedly turning smørrebrød into a trendy menu item and essentially making the sandwich cool again with Danish Millennials. However, don't call smørrebrød "toast" in front of Aamann, because he will correct you and stare you down.

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Fraser and Aamann. Photo by Javier Cabral

Fraser agrees that strange similarities exist between California and Nordic cuisine. "The trend in all Nordic cuisine is just doing local, seasonal stuff. That's why Aamann is here buying our stuff as opposed to bringing anything from Denmark," Fraser tells me. It wasn't his first time working with a Nordic chef, either. "Nordic stuff is about letting the product shine, which is not very different than California cuisine."

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Photo by Javier Cabral

Fraser directs Aamann to his preferred berry vendor in the market, Pudwill Berry Farms, to buy the blackberries for his rye bread porridge with brown butter and stout beer pre-dessert course. "We all take this stuff for granted," Fraser says. "Just go to any other farmers market in the US to see what I'm talking about."

It' Fraser's job to keep Aamann from spending more than an hour at just one booth. (Or as Fraser kindly puts it, "It's my job to smack [Aamann] on the butt every once in awhile and make sure they make it to the end of the market.") It's also his job to educate Aamann on why it doesn't really matter whether the farm is certified organic or not at this particular market. "They are still using pesticides—they just aren't using Roundup."

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Aamann's smørrebrød with Fingerlings, mayonnaise, radish, and ramps. Photo by Reena Retuta

Taking everything in, Aamann looks like he would love to spend the entire day here if he didn't have to cook a four-course dinner the following day. "I've worked in restaurants in Italy and France, and we have great markets in Denmark, but the variety here is crazy. This is definitely one of the best market's that I've ever been to."

In Aamann's own words, the bounty of the produce at the Santa Monica farmers market make him want to "smash the plans" of the menu that he's planned out. (He lets out an explosive sound effect to drive the point home.) According to him, the most impressive things are the simple things like kale, cabbage, and the sprouts and the flowers in between those two vegetables. "I've never seen that, actually."

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Pork belly: kale, asparagus, peas, flowers. Photo by Reena Retuta

As we walk back to the parking lot, Aamann buys a handful of kumquats and pops them into his mouth in the same way that a seven-year-old would pop gummy bears, one by one. He looks at us all as his eyes light up, not because of the sour, citrusy punch of the edible pith, but because he cannot believe that this experience is really happening.

"This is the best citrus situation, or any situation, to be in right now," he says. "This is all overwhelming in the best sense possible."