By Tim Bird, October 2012
The Nordic Food Festival in Denmark provided a stage for a young Finnish chef to make his mark in the Scandinavian gourmet scene. He also has a restaurant that serves organic food in Helsinki.
Finnish chef Sasu Laukkonen is sipping an organic beer in the VIP tent at the Nordic Food Festival in Århus, Denmark. He and his assistant Henri Penttinen are relaxing after a frantic day under the hot spotlights in the competition marquee, competing with four other Scandinavian pairings in the Nordic Challenge 2012.
The Finns didn’t win – the first prize of 5,000 euros went to the host nation – but Laukkonen is gracious and positive in defeat. Just the same, he wouldn’t mind if Finland bathed in the culinary spotlight as often as the Danes.
“We’re too modest, still too shy,” he says. “There is nothing the Danes have that Finland doesn’t have, it’s not that Denmark has better products, but perhaps they started to believe in their cooking a little before the rest of the Nordic countries.”
Copenhagen has established itself as something of a gourmet champion over the last decade or so, with an especially high concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants. Helsinki is not far behind, says Laukkonen, with two-star Chez Dominique leading the way, pursued by four one-star restaurants: Demo, Luomo, Olo and Postres.
Finnish chefs have undoubtedly been inspired by the loftily named Manifesto for the New Nordic Cuisine, declared in 2004 by a group of 12 Scandinavian chefs. Down-to-earth and accessible events such as Denmark’s Nordic Food Festival and the Delicacies of Finland 2012 festival held on Helsinki’s Railway Station Square in August (part of the city’s jubilee programme marking 200 years since Helsinki became the capital in 1812) are similar manifestations of a new demand for fresh, organic and locally produced food.
They are also a proud assertion of Nordic quality. After all, what could be better than a meal comprised of the quintessential Finnish ingredients of fish, mushrooms, berries and warm rye bread?
Competitions like the Nordic Challenge celebrate this quality and variety while exploring their creative potential. Competitors’ reactions are also noted. “I actually thought Sasu’s menu [including an exquisite concoction of cauliflower and forest mushrooms] was pretty avant garde,” offers Viktor Torell, assistant to Sweden’s entrant Robert Hedman. “In fact, I think that’s typical of Finnish cuisine; I think it’s a bit more extreme than in Sweden.”
For Laukkonen, competitions have as much to do with testing yourself as they do with comparing your skills to those of others. “I find it a way of developing myself, shooting slightly higher than ‘real life’ cooking,” he says. That real-life cooking occurs in the Eira district of Helsinki at his restaurant Chef & Sommelier, where organic ingredients are transformed into elegant handmade cuisine “from the heart,” and where Penttinen is also a chef.
Although he professes not to be over-competitive, Laukkonen has used competitions since 2000 to raise his own standards. His CV boasts a prestigious Michelin recommendation in 2007 and spells at the Michelin-starred Lux Stockholm and F12 restaurants in the Swedish capital, as well as an invited stint in 2007 at the Chateau Carsin wine estate in Bordeaux at harvest time.
In spite of his background and experience, Laukkonen seems refreshingly removed – in a very Finnish what-you-see-is-what-you-get way – from the stiff pretension of much of the gourmet scene.
“It doesn’t matter if food is foraged or farmed,” he says. “For me, it’s about getting your hands dirty and taking the vegetables out of the ground, knowing where your ingredients come from.”
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