Seventeen chefs from around the world recently took over restaurants in Reykjavik for Iceland’s annual Food and Fun Festival.
They spent the better part of a week serving their own interpretations of an Icelandic menu. Judges selected three final contestants for a cook-off using local cod, char and lamb. I went behind the scenes, into the kitchen, and out to the judge’s table.
David Varley is executive chef for the Michael Mina restaurant group. He’s flown more than 4000 miles to Reykjavik, and beat out 13 other chefs to make it to the finals of Iceland’s international food competition.
The idea is to provide a global take, using Iceland’s finest ingredients. The only rule is to use local fish and lamb for the main dishes.
“It’s about looking at the ingredients, looking at the weather, seeing the menus and using that as a lens, or a filter as it were, for my vision for the cuisine, to have an understanding of their sensibility and then applying my opinion about food to that sensibility,” he tells Lunch Magazine.
“We’re going to start with a cod dish and serve it with an Icelandic mussel curry dish. They’re going to finish with a dish that looks like lava fields, caramel mousse, chocolate devil’s food cake, more caramel and port wine clear gel.”
David may not necessarily serve his San Francisco customers chocolate lava fields, but he is tempted to take back a few other things.
“San Franciscans don’t wanto to eat food from Iceland, and Icelanders don’t want to eat food from San Francisco, but there’s a lot of interesting product that translates well. The Icelandic salt is amazing.”
Icelandic salt and Iceland sous-chefs.
“There’s a dedication and professionalism and eagerness here that you don’t often see. They’re really fired up about food and they’re really into it.”
While David, and his competition, an Italian and a Dane, put the finishing touches on their dishes, Michael Ginor, part of the international panel of judges, sits down at the
table to begin tasting.
“I’m looking for proper use of the ingredient, whether it’s Icelandic lamb or Icelandic cod, whether it’s an Asian or Scandinavian dish. None of these chefs are expected to cook an Icelandic version. They’re expected to take the ingredients and incorporate them into their own style.”
One ingredient everyone is talking about is the Icelandic salt. Michael Ginor has got some tucked away.
“When we use these fancy salts, we generally should use them as a garnish. A bit of salt at the end for a bit of crunch. The grain of Icelandic salt is a very nice grain.The lamb, they often grow on marshes very close to the ocean,” he says.
“It’s very sexy and romantic to pair Icelandic salt from the water nearby to where the lamb grew up. It’s a nice story. There’s something to be said for using the salt from the same water that nourished the lamb. “
But it’s not time for the lamb dish, yet. First, Michael samples David’s cod.
“Immediately you smell curry and some kaffir, so you get the impression it’s Thai,” he says.
For me, it’s a little on the acidic side, but the fish is very well cooked. The idea of brining it is very good. Basically, a great dish comprises all of your senses. Presentation wise, it needs to look appealing, to begin with.
“The second is a sense of smell. Next important is the flavour, which is the most important, at the end of the day. To me, a perfect dish is when all of those senses get addressed properly. When you’re judging, you’re looking for a dish that looks right, tastes right, smells right – kind of like a concerto.”
Next, Michael is served Arctic char by the Italian chef.
“Personally, I don’t like to see anything on a plate that you can’t eat. These pine needles could be mistaken for rosemary, so that’s a problem for me. The flavour of pine is very big in Scandinavia and I think he was trying to utilise that, but I think that’s a bit risky, so personally, I thought it was a little lacking.”
And the Danish chef raises eyebrows with his interpretation of lava fields in the form of a bitter chocolate dessert.
“This sponge is a very Ferran Adria thing. It’s a little too derivative. A Chicago chef came up with this idea to aerate the chocolate and this scene came from Heston Blumenthal.”
“To the average consumer who eats this, he probably walks away saying, ‘Wow, this guy’s a genius,’ but to us, who know the origin of it, it’s a problem where a lot of the food today is being slightly changed, but copy-catted, literally.
“We all are influenced by what we learn, but sometimes these are just automatic lift-ups of things. Taste-wise, the chocolate ice cream is great consistency but it’s bitter. It’s bitter from hops.
“It’s okay for me not to love it, but still appreciate it. This has been the most thought-provoking for me on a personal level. When a chef doesn’t cook something properly and makes a mistake, we can fault him for that. He’s tasted this, he knows it’s bitter. That’s what he wanted. He wanted a reaction. I can live with that.”
But if the Danish dessert was too bitter, David’s dessert faults in the other direction.
“This is a dessert a kid would love. It’s very sweet; it’s got the brownie, the caramel. It’s very, very sweet.”
Despite his stereotypically sweet dessert, American David Varley manages to edge out the competition to win the Icelandic award.
Armed with his medal, and boxes of Icelandic salt, David heads home. And who knows, the sweet lava fields may wind up on his San Francisco menu after all.