Gourmet Cooking With Humble Roots
Chef and author Mads Refslund approaches cooking through a low-waste lens.
The following is an excerpt from Scraps, Wilt & Weeds: Turning Wasted Food Into Plenty, by Mads Refslund and Tama Matsuoka Wong.
I have heard that the United Nations rated Danes number one in “happiness,” but in terms of money, the Danish economy doesn’t come even close to the top ten. How can people feel happy through such bleak winters? I think Danes do worry a lot, but they have a long tradition of resilience, of making plenty out of nothing, with little more than our own labor and the human spirit of creativity.
We celebrate the beauty of food from nature, like so many other cultures of the world. We can’t grow food for many months of the year, so we are forced to rely on crafting methods to survive well, through the dark times: fermentation, brining, drying, curing. It is normal to eat all parts and scraps, wasting little. So maybe it’s more about a way of life that makes people feel rich, turning garbage into gold.
But of course we now live in a globalized world with its lure of luxurious and exotic ingredients: spices like harissa and saffron; truffles; tropical fruits—all from faraway places with less harsh climates than ours. Everyone always wants to get their hands on these things, but not me.
When I was at culinary school in Copenhagen, the day would begin with a cart full of ingredients to cook from. I would wait for the other chefs to pick first. I waited to see what they would grab, because I wanted to take the things left at the bottom—forsaken because they were ugly or took too long to cook. I wanted to make them delicious, and to honor them: beautiful gifts from nature. Others would choose the prime rib or langoustine. I would choose the root vegetables.
Because after all what is good food and what is trash? “Trash” and “scraps” are ideas that people create when they decide what is in and what is out. “Civilized cultures” decide what is luxury and what is rubbish. Who made these rules?
Instead I am inspired by nature’s rules. In nature, there is no ugly, no trash, just cycles of change. Good food must embrace nature. A beautiful ingredient is unique, each plant a little bit different, not perfect as if it were produced in a factory. I found that I wanted to work with honest ingredients, with what I see and touch in front of me. Unlike overprocessed food, meals with ingredients that are closer to nature are alive with flavor notes and nuances.
I came to America from Copenhagen less than five years ago. I fell in love with the city and a girl and decided to move here, to New York City. New York is different from Copenhagen. New York is a city packed with 20 million people instead of 2 million: exciting and diverse people and food from all over the world. Even when I decided that I would get only local products, I found the markets were full of a vegetable and fruit bounty I only dreamed of in Denmark.
But even with all these great choices, I find it funny that many Americans across the country still pretty much eat the same kinds of foods, from four plants: rice, wheat, corn, and soybeans.
And many people eat their meals in a kind of automated way, the same twenty-five produce items over and over, like living in a self-imposed Danish winter. I wanted to try new things, like the native pawpaw fruit or the spicebush berry. Why do the people living here not care about their own native fruits or the trees around them? Why do people not eat salmon with the skin on or have a hunk of cauliflower at the center of the plate? Why does a dessert have to be a cake with lots of artificial icing instead of using the natural sweetness of beets or wheatgrass? I didn’t want to just play it safe and make a stereotypical version of burgers and fries, pizza, or some kind of heavy sauce around a pork chop. I wanted juicy, refreshing, and light meals with great flavor.
And there is a lot of great flavor in the food that people threw out: in garbage bags with uneaten food piled up on the sidewalks, in markets, kitchens, dumpsters, trash bins, and even on docks and farms. I didn’t get turned off by the grittiness, the garbage. I saw an opportunity. I started getting really excited about bringing the philosophies that began for me in Denmark to my new home in America. I also liked the downtown casual lifestyle. Some of the best meals I’ve eaten are simple and clean, layered with flavor and conversation. It’s the spirit of what we call hygge: “coziness,” meaning good living.
When I was young, in Denmark, my parents took time off from work for a few years, and we lived on an island. It was kind of a farm. They had a vision and created a home-stay program, sponsored by the Danish government. Their idea was to create an oasis to help people with troubles get better through nature, food, and a place to stay. There is a kind of poetry about that kind of life, so close to the outdoors. I still see it today in the shapes and textures of vegetables, fruit, fish, and meat as they are made, whole in the outdoors, not decapitated and made pretty for consumers.
I seek nature in food, by cooking and serving it on the plate. I always start by wanting to see what the produce is like whole, the way it was living in nature. Yes, with dirt and guts and tough parts. Each of these parts is important and has a role in the life of that species and is beautiful in its own way. Using all the parts is a way of respecting the plant, the fish, the animal, and its life. Of course, you have to set aside the parts that have poisons, such as apple seeds, but there are ways to tenderize the tough, to puree the wilted, and make the most of the basic character of a native plant or animal. Look at their strengths, not their weaknesses. They may still have a beautiful color, even if misshapen. Their shriveled structure may mean they are already on their way to becoming dried.
For me, cooking has got to start with this view.
I am also curious about the different stages of food: when it was young, flowered, bore fruit and progeny, and later becomes old and shriveled. People have found the key to making magic out of aged goods such as cheese, dry aged meat, and wine for centuries. I just want to unlock the flavor from other “aged” goods like stale bread, wrinkly root vegetables, wilted leafy greens, sour milk, overripe fruits, flat beer.
As a chef who sources food from purveyors, I also see a lot of potential in using waste products from the preparation and processing of food: cheese rinds, coffee grounds, juice pulp, the bran of grains like wheat and rice. These are all part of the whole; these parts have simply been transformed and reshaped.
When I first started living in New York City, I had this idea that I would be able to go out to nature every day or several times a week, like I did in Copenhagen. I asked people: Where is the wild? I learned that the wild is either a park owned by the government or private property. You can’t just go around picking things in nature as you can in Denmark, where there is a “right to roam” (as long as it is not for commercial purposes and you respect nature). And it takes a lot longer to get out of the city, so I could only go out on the weekends to re-inspire myself.
When I finally got out of the city to a farm or forest, I would see food all around me that nobody seemed to notice. The same plants I recognized from my days at NOMA and in Copenhagen, like the bolted vegetable flowers, the chickweed, and the Norway spruce tree. People here don’t even think of these plants as food, even though their ancestors probably enjoyed many of them. This can be the best kind of food—straight from nature—and it belongs in every dish.
But instead, what usually ends up in the dish, what many think of as a “meal,” is why there is so much waste. A classic protein-heavy hunk of meat or fillet of fish means a lot of the animal is wasted, and raising livestock and over-fishing puts a stress on our natural resources. I like to put the vegetable at the center of the plate, or use meat or fish as the flavoring, or put the vegetable in the dessert. It’s lighter and more refreshing.
And of course, great food must have its identity, from a time and place, not only where we are now but also where we come from. My cooking reflects much of my homeland: natural shapes and colors, hardy vegetables and berries, fish and herbs, pickles and dairy. But I have no dishes here with reindeer meat or sea buckthorn. Instead, I have come to love the banana, corn on the cob, watermelon, pumpkin.
I don’t pretend that I, or anyone, invented the idea of cooking from scraps. This is the way people have lived frugally—to survive—from the beginning of humanity, bound with the rhythms of the seasons. So the methods and recipes in this book have their roots in the memories of how people have always prepared and enjoyed food—as the center of life—by preserving, fermenting, drying, and grilling, and making use of what was around them.
So it is with humbleness that I am inspired by the generations and cultures that came before. I hope, through this book, to inspire in you the excitement of using time-honored ways and, at the same time, to be practical and to start cooking with the scraps, wilt, and weeds that you are used to throwing out, no matter where you are living and whatever your budget.
When you decide to look at things through a low-waste cooking lens, you start to look at recipes differently. A standard recipe usually tells readers that they must start with only the most perfect produce: “Make sure that it has no blemishes, no bruises, is evenly shaped, with no signs of yellow or insect holes.” I won’t be saying any of that here.
It’s okay for a fruit or vegetable to have a blemish, be misshapen, to show a little bruise or two. Insect holes are fine.
Have a little fun.
This is an excerpt from Scraps, Wilt & Weeds: Turning Wasted Food Into Plenty, by Mads Refslund and Tama Matsuoka Wong. Copyright © 2017 by Mads Refslund and Tama Matsuoka Wong. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Life & Style, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Mads Refslund is a chef and is co-founder of Noma in Copenhagen. He’s also co-author of Scraps, Wilt & Weeds: Turning Wasted Food into Plenty (Grand Central, 2017). He’s based in New York, New York.