The Definition of Cuisine

Our recent trip to Minneapolis included a wonderful dining experience at Heyday, led by Chef Jim Christiansen. The setting was intimate, with tables nestled in right next to the open kitchen, and the menu was inventive (the company was excellent as well, but you’ll have to supply your own on that front). We elected to begin with a set of three seafood dishes to share which included a revelatory presentation of Blue Mussels with frozen yogurt, pickled cucumber and dill. The balance of dill with the salt and sour of the dish inspired an almost immediate sense of the ocean. We then moved on to a number of meat dishes.

Our selections included (clockwise from left):

Grilled beef culotte, coal roasted carrots, turnips, and turnip leaf relish. Culotte is essentially a cut of sirloin, also called the sirloin cap, which in this case was cut with the grain, then grilled and served rare.

Guinea hen served with pressed beets, fresh wasabi and basil. The compressed beets were sweet with all the full richness of slow roasting, but far firmer in texture.

Roasted squab with a raviolo (singular form of ravioli) made from kohlrabi and filled with sour potato, parmesan, and thyme.

The flavors on these dishes were unique and incredibly well-balanced. The combination of flavors elevated each dish beyond a mere sum of the parts. Part of that sensibility comes from the time Chef Christiansen spent at Noma, in Denmark, which he credits for creating his awareness of wild foods but also of connecting to the local harvest.

Noma has been named the top restaurant in the world four times, so it’s a pretty good place to learn some lessons. But a recent video they published on their site is what really inspired this post. It’s ten minutes, but it is worth watching. They discuss a upcoming change to their restaurant location and format, but more importantly to us at Great Lakes Cuisine, they spend the first four minutes discussing the difficulty in defining cuisine.

They discuss their initial vision which included approaches such as using ingredients only from the Nordic “territory”, “distilling [the] landscape onto plates of food”, and using methods of preservation as inspiration. They discuss throughout the video the ideas of seasonality. At the same time, the recognize the somewhat arbitrary nature of defining a cuisine. Discussing issues like where to draw geographic boundaries, what “imported” foods to allow, and how far back one should go into history, they discuss the difficulties with defining what is “authentic”.

Here at Great Lakes Cuisine, we have wrestled with the same linguistic, historic, ethnic questions. Why are we comfortable with the sausages, beers, and rye breads from Chicago, but begin to wonder about the fit of deep-dish pizza within our definition? More broadly, why favor the Eastern European, Slavic, and Nordic culinary traditions in our approach over the Italian or Italian-American traditions? Why do we work so hard to avoid citrus in our approach (for fear of introducing a “foreign” flavor) while embracing vinegar made from the newest craft beers?

Some of this we have already addressed in our pages on Definition and Ethnic traditions. And some of these issues are exactly the point of what we are doing. We want to inspire the conversation, inspire the questions. These tangle considerations of history, geography, ethnicity, and seasonality are the very point of cuisine. Talking about Napa cuisine, or Tex-Mex, or any regional cuisine is not an objective process. It is inherently subjective. It is not about absolutes, but about inspiration.

Though the offerings of Heyday would have to be considered more global than local, we can say without reservation they were a source of inspiration. For that, we thank you.

Heyday1

 

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