Chefs Are Taking Nature Worship Too Far

Hunting and gathering has its appeal, but however wild your ingredients, cuisine will never be "natural"

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Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images

Indigenous guide Clifford Coulthard, left, and chef Rene Redzepi, of Danish restaurant Noma, forage for food in Australia's outback on Oct. 3, 2010

I’ve never been to Noma, René Redzepi’s famous Copenhagen restaurant. But I understand what it represents. So does everybody else — as Lisa Abend’s brilliant profile in last week’s issue makes clear, Noma represents something much larger than dinner at a particular restaurant. Redzepi is the personification of the nature worship that I wrote about two years ago, an ardent belief system among top-tier chefs that seems to skirt the distinction between gastronomy and religion.

The New Naturalism was my term (it never quite caught on) for such culinary acts as Michael Mina importing bags of seawater to his Las Vegas restaurant (to poach fish in) or Redzepi’s American acolytes foraging for the night’s ingredients, tramping through the forest primeval like Ewoks or the last of the Mohicans. The New Naturalist chefs grow their own gardens, pull their own herbs, break down their own animals. So steeped in nature worship are they that a number of their leaders — Redzepi most memorably among them — have actually taken the literal step of serving dirt, or at least a simulacrum thereof. The New Naturalism is an urban trend with its eyes fixed firmly on the bucolic, a pantheistic awe communicated through induction burners and sculpted plates. Most of all, it’s an expensive proposition that presents itself as a gift of the earth. It’s confusing, but not hard to understand.

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Call it the Pastoral Paradox, another term I’m coining that probably won’t catch on. (Lardcore is my favorite — start using it, people!) Essentially, it’s a dream of stressed-out city dwellers eager to transcend their squalid surroundings. By a happy coincidence, this mood was underscored, the same week TIME’s profile of Redzepi came out, by a characteristically mordant and insightful essay by Heather Havrilesky in the New York Times Magazine. Called “How to Be a Pioneer Woman Without Ever Leaving the Couch,” Havrilesky reflects on her fantasies of living like Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House in the Big Woods — because Little House on the Prairie, its sequel, isn’t hardcore enough for her. “Wouldn’t it be better if I were breaking a sweat from hacking chunks off a bear carcass right now?” she wonders while “working out on the elliptical trainer at the gym.” Later in the essay, she notes that “it’s not that we crave suffering so much as we crave suffering for valid reasons, in contrast to our laments that our supposedly ergonomic chairs make our backs ache, or the Twitter apps on our iPhones don’t load fast enough.” Havrilesky shifts into the rise of homeschooling and the Tea Party and concludes, “The allure of hard work and self-reliance, when paired with a distrust of modern institutions, can curdle into an impulse to divest from society altogether.” The antisocial side of naturalism comes up in the Redzepi piece too — in critics of the chef who see an implicit xenophobia in his extreme locavorism.

But in my opinion, there’s nothing remotely antisocial about the culinary pastoral. In fact, you could make a good argument that it’s one of the few things today holding the fabric of urban society together. The love of nature, taken to a ludicrous extreme, is of course laughable. (Mina’s bags of FedExed seawater are the culinary equivalent of Marie Antoinette cavorting in milkmaid drag at Versailles.) But anything truly immense is hard to see when you are close to it. We live in a technological society, an age of zombie chickens and pink slime, so the farther we get from nature, the easier it is to see. And appreciate. There isn’t a whole hell of a lot holding us together any more: religion is a minefield, and most of the old civic pieties have gone the way of feudalism. Nature may be all we have left.

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Whether it can be emulated, though, is another story. For New Naturalist chefs, their role has a shaman-like aspect to it. As Abend says of Redzepi, “he is visibly happiest when deepening the connection between nature, culture, and the plate.” But it’s not quite that simple. However wild his ingredients, Redzepi’s food is not natural; it ceases to be that as soon as it is pulled out of the ground, or plucked off the sea rocks. Once it enters into our culinary world — taking a name, being prepared, getting served, sticking to the Velcro of social context — it stops being part of nature. It becomes an expression of human nature. And in so doing it reflects the way we live, and our strange, neurotic, complex and often ambivalent needs.

But then, such artifice has long been a part of nature. “Nature always deceives,” Vladimir Nabokov once wrote, citing “the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds.” “There is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles,” he said of “that arch-cheat Nature.” The fact that we choose to see a sacred simplicity in nature, or a primal treasure threatened or perverted by humanity, is a function not of nature, but of us. It’s understandable, yes — but no more natural than anything else we do.

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