When Punk Rock Met Fine Dining
How the Norwegian coast influenced the Godfather of Neo-Fjordic cuisine.
WORDS FLIP BYRNES
Christopher Haatuft greets me in his kitchen with an extremely large, sharp knife in his hand. There's a gold tooth flashing in his smile - like a Viking’s might just before a battle. The vision before me would normally be menacing, except for the fact that Haatuft is one of Norway’s top chefs, and the founder of minimalist fine dining restaurant Lysverket. To be as renowned as he is is no mean feat in a country famous for producing eateries of intergalactic fame like semi-submerged Under.
Haatuft is also the founder of Neo-Fjordic cuisine. “Neo-what?” I asked him when we spoke. Haatuft goes on to say that when a Copenhagen-based chef visited him, they joked about the way they forage for fresh produce differently to everywhere else. “We go fjord-aging, we go into the fjords for our shellfish and our seaweed and all that stuff.”
Christopher Haatuft, possibly during a fjord-aging adventure. Photo: Bonjwing Lee
After a hard day of fjord-aging (and a few drinks), they cheekily referenced Haatuft on Twitter as being “…the founder of Neo-Fjordic cuisine.” The term exploded from there and has evolved to mean a worship of the micro-regionality of Haatuft’s ingredients on Norway's west coast. Located in the fjords, Lysverket’s outdoor natural supermarket extends 20 minutes to the ocean, one hour to the mountain plateaus and is vastly different to any other area in Scandinavia. As Haatuft half-jokes, “Copenhagen, they can keep their own style of Neo-Nordic cuisine, they’re flat and a province of Germany, while Bergen is its own little kingdom on the North Sea, so it’s not even comparable.”
“...Bergen is its own little kingdom on the North Sea, so it’s not even comparable. ”
— Christopher Haatuft
Bergen from above. Haatuft's renowned, minimalist fine-dining restaurant Lysverket is based here.
This defines the way he cooks and Haatuft is forever asking himself the question when selecting ingredients, “Is this natural for where we are?” Being labelled the godfather of a food movement, even when made in jest, is chiaroscuro; while it garnered him a New York Times article and paid for his car, it also placed this renegade chef into a box. “We add some anarchism and punk rock mentality into [our cooking],” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “But we hide it under layers of luxury and finesse.”
Caviar with fresh peas and pea pod juice. Photo: Silje Chantel Johnse
John Dory with zucchini tarte and nasturtium sauce. Photo: Silje Chantel Johnse
Glazed sweetbread with potato puré, spinach and ground elder. Photo: Silje Chantel Johnse
Haatuft favours sustainable values in his cooking above all else. That concept is broad – expressed in the food he acquires from Norway’s fjords and in the community he creates through his restaurant. Haatuft feels strongly about training people who need second chances and also works with the local prison, “...not because I’m looking for misfits to fill some quota,” he says, but rather because it aligns with his values. This same equanimity is directed towards the produce he serves in Lysverket – championing the outcasts of the aquatic underworld, and redefining what constitutes luxury foodstuffs. For example, “There’s a great fish called tusk that was never really eaten,” he says. It just wasn’t restaurant fare; locally it was dried but never exported to Italy or more high-end markets. Slowly but surely, the rising tide of appreciation for local Norwegian coastal bounty has eroded traditional definitions of fine dining. “The last 15 years has given us a hell of a lot more ingredients to cook with,” is how Haatuft explains the attitude shift. “What people once considered luxury was usually French. So we’ve gone from being dependent on imported French ingredients to being totally self-sufficient on local luxury ingredients. That’s something very, very new.” Plus, he explains, the cooking techniques are better and spotlights are swivelling to “things we didn’t know we could eat, like a variety of different clams, and we take more pride in a lot more variety of local fish.” Those clams are seafloor heroes as they bind carbon in the shell, filter the water, and provide habitats for other species and food.
Haatuft in the garden preparing food with a friend.
Lysverket’s outdoor natural supermarket.
Sustainability is a strong theme in Haatuft's cooking.
Lysverket’s outdoor natural supermarket.
So Haatuft's menu isn’t dictated by conventional ideas of luxury but rather what treasures his tight network of suppliers find. All the vegetables come from Erik Halvorsenm, for whom Haatuft built a mattak, a grassed food roof. The seafood bounty comes from local diver Knut Magnus, who has given Haatuft a key to his boathouse so he can pick up supplies as he needs. Guests on board the Hurtigruten Coastal Express are also reaping the rewards of this new-found appreciation of the fjords’ riches. Haatuft says. “We can’t trawl for seafood here, the net would be caught in the first five minutes, so it’s all untouched down there. It has to be hand-picked and their ships sailing the coast are passing above immense amounts of unharvested bounty.” The cruise line sources the majority of its ingredients for onboard meals from more than 25 local Norwegian suppliers. Many of them are multi-generation family-run farms or fishing fleets who, like Haatuft, owe their livelihoods to the fresh food the fjords supply.
Haatuft and his apprentice. Photo: Olav Sølvberg
“There is no better scallop anywhere in the world," - Haatuft. Photo: Agurtxane Concellon
Amongst all the ingredients that Haatuft speaks about with passion, it’s interesting to hear which he would pick as his signature in cooking. “If I were to pick one and make a statue out of it, it would be the scallop. We are so privileged because we get them directly from Knut,” he says. “There is no better scallop anywhere in the world – ours are firm, there’s bounce to the bite, it’s just a different quality,” he says. Dining at Lysverket is like taking a geocentric bite, the local coast distilled into a single plate that characterises Norway. But don’t come with expectations. What you’ll find is, “not what Norwegian cuisine has always been, but what a restaurant here, in this location, should be,” says Haatuft.