Christmas in July: Christopher Haatuft teaches Gordon Ramsay about reindeer and Neo-Fjordic cuisine
On this weekend’s season finale of “Uncharted” on Nat Geo , master chef Gordon Ramsay travels to Norway to learn about the cuisine of the country’s western region and its Viking roots. Ramsay’s guide is chef Christopher Haatuft, who has risen to prominence as the inventor of “Neo-Fjordic” cuisine. […]
But before he can pick up his chef’s knife, Ramsay must set off on a quest to meet with local experts to learn the story behind the plate. That includes diving for shellfish in the ice-cold waters of the fjords, eating a sheep’s head, fermenting fish and herding reindeer with the Sami people on a snowmobile.
When you watch the show, it will come as no surprise that Haatuft, a veteran of Normay’s punk rock scene, counts the late U.S. chef Anthony Bourdain as an inspiration. He is no-nonsense, sports tattoos behind his sleeves and his gold tooth even plays a key role in the plot. Plus, he’s here to win.
Haatuft spoke with Salon ahead of the action-packed season two episode about cooking reindeer, competing with Ramsay and how Bourdain inspired his career. He also revealed how he coined the term “Neo-Fjordic.” It involves drinking, and it’s a good reminder that despite his success, Haatuft doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Read the full Q&A of our conversation below, and tune in Sunday, July 19, at 10/9 CT to watch.
I just watched the episode last night, and it was a lot of fun. What was it like to film with Gordon?
It was more fun than what you saw on the show. I mean, it was fun on a bunch of different levels. It was fun professionally, getting to cook. The whole cooking segment, we’re cooking over live fire. There’s no cheating. It’s real cooking, and it’s not often I get to cook in a competitive way against the, I mean, arguably the most successful chef on the planet. Whatever the ending was, my food was better than his food. Anyway, it was a lot of fun, and he was great fun. I mean, you could tell that he’s done this for a very long time. And he’s super professional, but he’s also standing there cooking real food. So, cameras or not, it’s a competitive chef that comes out in him.
So filming took place in December, and Christmas dinner is the most important meal of the year. Can you tell us more about why that is and what the tradition is of a Christmas dinner?
We have a couple of traditional dinners or lunches throughout the year, but we don’t have Thanksgiving like you guys have in the U.S. So Christmas dinner is the one big, celebratory feast that everybody celebrates every year here. And there’s not a lot of variation. On the West coast of Norway, you serve a dried lamb ribs, and in the Eastern part of Norway, you serve pork. And nobody really knows what they serve up North, probably halibut or something. I mean, every Norwegian person has very strong traditions and childhood memories of a Christmas meal. And even though everybody serves ribs, the variance from family to family, there’s not a lot of variation there. So us kind of putting a twist on it for this dinner here, it was fun.
He looked at all the ingredients from a three Michelin star chef’s perspective. Without having that history and about how it’s used, he just looked at it objectively, applied sensible technique to it and turned out great products. For me, it’s fun forcing myself to do that and to step away from the traditional way of doing stuff.
But I mean, Christmas — I try to serve Christmas dinner. I have a lot of foreign staff, people who moved to the different restaurants to work there from abroad. And I try to make sure they get at least one very, super traditional Christmas meal every year so that they can have something that’s very particular to Norway.
And you did make the lamb dish and forgive me because I’m afraid I cannot pronounce it. Can you say the name again?
That’s perfect. That was a perfect pronunciation.
Oh, great. Thank you.
You should say that to the next Norwegian person you meet.
I’ll do that. And can you tell us more about that?
So, the thing with the food of Western Norway is that Western Norway has been poor up until we found oil in the ’70s and winters are, I mean, it’s like Canada, right? So winters are very rough. It’s very humid in the fall and spring. So, it’s hard to preserve food that you can’t… You can’t make low salt hams like you do in Spain, Italy. You just have to solve the shit out of all the meat, if you want to preserve it over winter. So, and also the landscape here is not suited for agriculture. So all these small, self-subsistent farmers, they would have just a couple of animals, and when they slaughtered in October, normally, no, sorry, in September, they would slaughter the lambs that came down from the mountains, and then they would just salt them very, very hard.
And literally depending on which valley, or what part of Western Norway you’re from, they all have very different humidity. So, if you’re in a very humid part of Western Norway, you would smoke it as well to add more nitrates to it. So it’s a very rough, super rustic way of preserving food, and these ribs, I don’t know exactly why that would be the Christmas dinner as opposed to the legs or something like that. But it’s just become, through the years, what everybody eats for Christmas.
From what I saw, it seems that the process of growing and preparing food in Norway is very sustainable. There were regulations in place when Gordon went fishing, and the reindeer are only hunted by the Sami people. For Gordon’s first taste of reindeer, the blood was used to make pancakes. He ate the entire head of a sheep. It seems really nothing is wasted, and there’s an emphasis on sustainability. Is that fair to say?
Well, yes, so what you got there is a mix. So you have the kind of old nose-to-tail type of sustainability, where you can’t afford not to use everything. And the traditional lamb of Western Norway is a very small breed of lamb, so the tenderloins are the size of a Sharpie, and the filets at the strip loin. One whole strip loin would be what you would normally get served as one portion, so you can’t cherry pick the cuts. So whatever meat that animal had you ate, and all the very old recipes, if you read the farmer’s almanacs and stuff that from 200 years ago, every meal is basically just gruel and porridge, and it’s boiled bread or oats.
And then for dinner or supper, for supper you would get maybe a small piece of fat or meat or bone in there, right. Sustainability wasn’t articulated back then, of course, but it just has to be because you have to get the most out of the earth. But now we’re a rich, liberal, progressive country and anything that’s not sustainable — we as a society, here in Norway, we see ourselves as the most liberal, progressive, sustainable people in the world, except the paradox that we’ve made our wealth on oil. But we try to not think about that.
To reindeer, that’s obviously not something that we have here. And Gordon talked a little bit about the taste, but not too much. He said it was very tender. Can you tell us more about what it tastes like. It is used in dishes beyond Christmas, correct?
Yes, reindeer isn’t isn’t necessarily a Christmas product. The slaughter of reindeer follows the game season sort of starts around September. And then, I mean, there’s two main seasons for slaughter. It’s in early autumn and for a while through autumn, and then it’s early winter, like January, February. And regulation wise, it’s very similar to the native American salmon fishery in the US, so you have a comparable industry there with that, but in flavor of the… To me, it is by far my favorite meat. And it sounds weird to say it, but it’s very fresh and clean tasting. It’s dark. The meat is dark and it’s a little bit bloody. No, actually it’s pretty bloody, but it gives it a iodiney, almost acidic flavor when you cook it medium raw. If you cook it medium or medium plus it gets leathery but cooked perfectly, it’s some of the cleanest meat you’ll taste, and it will be similar maybe to the venison, but more refined maybe. I mean, it’s a delicious meat. It’s not gamey at all. It’s very lean.
One thing I noticed when you guys cooked, you didn’t make any sort of dessert. And I was wondering why that happened is it not a traditional part of the dinner, or did you just not do it?
Well, he was here in winter, and there is basically nothing sweet in winter here. The farmers, they would grow apples. And we have a very specific microclimate for apples. And then traditionally the Apple farmers would have varieties that would store well over winter, but we don’t really have a lot of traditional dessert recipes here. And also in the context of the show, the idea was to see what is the Viking cuisine of Western Norway and the Vikings, the only sweet thing they had basically was honey, and they brewed mead and got drunk, and raided Scotland off it. So we should have done that . . .
Gordon had this sort of traditional Viking experience, so we didn’t get to see what the restaurant scene is in Norway. So can you tell us more about that and your restaurant specifically, too?
Here there’s been a big shift and to put it very simply, I credit that to Noma and their success in Copenhagen, but after this whole folk, the fine dining and culinary world got their eyes on Nordic food. We as chefs here, we got the confidence to start using the ingredients that Gordon finds in the show, but these very specific ingredients that you’ll only find in your micro region. And we’ve elevated that up to the same standard as you’ll find fine dining that French and Italian food. So the restaurant landscape has completely changed after that. And also with the success of somebody like Anthony Bourdain making it super cool to be a young tattooed, rebel cook. The shift has also gone from the classic restaurateur into the chef driven restaurants. So, and Norway, Sweden, Denmark has been a really good example of how that has shifted in the restaurant scene. So right now you’ll find a lot of independent, very high quality, small restaurants that serve food that is specific to our region. So it’s completely changed.
And can you tell us about your restaurant Lysverket, specifically?
My restaurant. I worked at Per Se in New York until I moved back home in 2012, and then I opened this restaurant in 2013, and it’s in art museum. It’s a fine dining seafood-focused restaurant, because traditional ingredients aside, the ingredients that I could find that you won’t find anywhere else in the world at the same quality are the scallops, and the langoustine and the cod fish and those types of things. So that’s what I try to cook mostly, and that’s my Lysverket. I try to show that in a fine dining setting. But it’s also a casual restaurant, because I think I’m a casual guy. I don’t have a lot of patience for a lot of the hoity-toity fine dining stuff.
Since you mentioned Anthony Bordain, you do a punk vibe, with your rolled up sleeves and your tattoos. Do you credit him as an inspiration?
One hundred percent. Because when I started cooking here, I was a bit older. I started writing articles for a local newspaper here — the weekend recipes and stuff like that — when I was 20, not knowing anything of what I was doing. I was totally bullshitting my way through it. And then I got to be part owner of a restaurant that failed miserably, because I was also trying to be the hardest punk rock kid in town.
And when it failed, I started taking my life a bit more seriously. And I started apprenticing as a cook and knowing that it’s a very low-paid, super hard profession that most people retire from at the age of 26. I knew that I had to educate myself about more than what was offered to me through an apprenticeship, so I tried to find every single book that I could on cooking, every single show. I don’t know if you’ve seen the early Gordon Ramsay shows? Like his “British Kitchen Nightmares” shows?
Amazing shows, incredibly educational for somebody trying to understand how restaurants work. Then, when I found Anthony Bourdain’s book and also his first show, “A Cook’s Tour,” he had a voice that I recognized from punk rock. I just read. That was me and my friends, right? But he could hold a conversation with Thomas Keller and all the top luminaries in the culinary world. So, I devoured everything that he made.
I’m sure a lot of delivery guys got yelled at unnecessarily, because in his book he tells people to yell at the delivery guys, which you know, it’s not nice, and I did that. I would definitely say that he was an inspiration. It was hard to get outside inspiration in a very small town, in a very small country all the way up at the North Pole.
But you did learn in kitchens here in the U.S., where you have a dual citizenship?
Yes. So, immediately after apprenticeship, I went to Alinea in Chicago. And I haven’t really said this out loud before, but due to probably poor lifestyle choices, I got a severe case of gout at the age of 25 or something. And I had to go home and operate on my foot. So, I was pretty f*cked up. But I spent a couple of months there, and it was absolutely, completely life changing.
And for a non-religious guy, it was like hearing about Jesus. I went into that kitchen having only read about these types of kitchens before. I had never eaten at a Michelin star restaurant. I knew nothing, but I knew that Alinea was the best. It had just been awarded best restaurant in the U.S. by Gourmet Magazine, which was a very big deal that back then.
And the level of discipline, and ambition and drive down to even the pot wash guys. If you gave the pot wash guys a dirty pot, they will look at you and wait for you to take it back, and go clean it yourself and deliver them a clean pot for them to clean. They would vacuum the kitchen floor three times a day. So, even though I was only there for a couple of months, it set the course for the rest of my career. Sadly, it’s given me standards that I failed at every single day after that.
But now you’re credited with creating an type of cuisine: Neo-Fjordic. How did you coin the term, and what does it mean?
So it was coined drunk, as a joke, because we had this really stuck up New York Post reporter at the restaurant. We spent a lot of time with her trying to make her smile and write something nice about us. And then I had a friend from Noma visiting, who I worked with that Per Se. And we were making fun of him, because he was at Noma, and they were forging all the time, picking ants, and spruce needles and dirt.
And that’s the whole joke with New Nordic cuisine: It’s a bunch of sticks and stones on a plate, and it’s presumably delicious. So, we were joking around saying, “All right, they’re the king of New Nordic, but we’re cooler. We do New Fjordic because it’s even more Nordic. And it sounds even more exotic if you say, “Neo-Fjordic.” So we were having a laugh of that one late night, and then I wrote on Twitter something like “founder of the Neo-Fjordic cuisine” or something.
And then, all of a sudden, somebody showed me an article in New York Post, saying something about the restaurant and the sophisticated Neo-Fjordic cuisine. Holy shit, that was easy. So, that was the whole joke. But then every single person that wrote about the restaurant after that, and still for seven years, has said that. And so very quickly we said, “Well, all right, shit. I mean, we’ll own it, right?”
Because we are in the Nordic region, there’s a lot of micro climates here, and Western Norway is not like Eastern Norway, or Copenhagen, or Sweden, or North Norway or anywhere. It’s very, very specific climates right here, because we have the Gulf stream hitting us from the South. Then we have the cold waters from the North. We’re at the same latitude as Newfoundland. My mom is from Chattanooga. Her family thought there was polar bears in the streets here.
Oh, wow. I’m from Alabama.
All right. So, I mean, you can imagine people’s impression of what it’s like here. And if you go one hour inland, if you released a polar bear there, he would thrive. Right? It’s so much colder one hour inland than where I’m from. My point is just we’ve been using that term, the Neo-Fjordic food as a guideline for how do we create food, at least as specific to Bergen, our city, and how we give people an experience that makes sense here and nowhere else. Because at the price point that we’re charging, it better damn well be interesting, good, smart and sustainable. So we’ve been looking at dishes and saying, “OK, it’s nice. It’s a good dish, but it doesn’t make sense here.”
It doesn’t make sense for us to use a corn flour, because you can get a better corn flour tortilla anywhere in the world where they grow corn. But can we use this technique? The nixtamalization of the corn with our local product that ended up with something that is uniquely ours. And we did that — we used barley, nixtamalized barley, and we ended up with the barley tostada. To me, that’s the perfect Neo-Fjordic example, because I don’t want to serve museum food. Nobody gives a shit about the history of the food if it doesn’t taste nice.
I’m fortunate. I have staff from, I don’t know, 10 different countries. And if they can bring me the best techniques that are indigenous to them, and they look at my ingredients in a way that hasn’t been done before, I can add those techniques, and we’ll end up with a product that’s modern. We can revitalize tradition, and the food can even have cultural value beyond just the culinary value, because you’re pumping new life into something.
Why do you cook? For me, for example, my grandmother’s an immigrant from Mexico, and it connects me to my family roots. On the most basic level, why do you cook?
Most basic? Because it gives me a sense of accomplishment every single time I cook. So multiple times a day, if I’m turning 200 pieces of turnip, every single turned turnip is a potential accomplishment. I’m in control of something I can do better every day — that gives me a lot of satisfaction. Even more simply, though, I just get an extraordinary amount of pleasure out of food. A disproportionate amount of pleasure out of a beautiful turnip. So I don’t really know what else to do. I love it more than absolutely anything in the world, except my son, and my wife and my parents. That’s it. You could throw any money in the world at me, but I don’t want to do anything else.