The Locavore Dilemma
This one time in Copenhagen, I walked around noma. Not “around” as in “had a look inside” – just walked around it, took in its circumference, skirted its perimeter. I saw some beehives, and a weird houseboat that contains their food lab, and got the odd look in through the windows. Compared to having dinner there, the experience was unsatisfactory, I’d imagine, though I am unlikely ever to know (at least in the place’s current incarnation). But it felt important to go there, because the noma cookbook was also – quietly and in its own way – important in my life: along with the Momofuku book, it introduced me to a world of restaurants that produced food unlike anything I’d seen before; unlike the Momofuku book, it introduced me to things I’d never even previously thought of as food, presented in a way that – there’s no other way to say it – just felt organically right: beautiful, yes, but suggesting something about the role of time and (more significantly) place in cuisine that I’d never previously considered.
One of the most interesting things about noma (to me) is the origin story told by chef Rene Redzepi – that its iconic dishes did not spring forth fully-formed from their creator’s head like Zeus birthing Athena, but rather emerged from a set of ideas that feel faintly embarrassing in retrospect: French food with Danish ingredients, crème brulee with huckleberries, fluffy nouvelle cuisine nordique rather than demotic, Anglo-Saxon Ny Nordisk Mad.
A couple of weeks ago, I had dinner at a place called Locavore, in Ubud, Bali. Here is a list of the things that we ate:
Tempura spinach leaf
Purple potato with betel-leaf pesto
Grilled pickled shiitake mushroom
Local flowers and leaves with beetroot vinaigrette
Tomato sorbet, tomato consommé
Pommes puree with seaweed caviar
House-made sourdough with lemon basil pesto and passionfruit curd
Local mackerel with smoked mackerel mayonnaise and tomatoes
Beef shoulder tartare with wasabi leaf mayonnaise, watermelon radish and dripping
Crayfish with pickled fennel and nasturtiums
Lamb three ways with seaweed and eggplant
White chocolate mousse, coconut foam
Honeycomb, chocolate, pomelo
Cucumber and grilled mango
Madeleines with crème patissiere
Doughnuts with cinnamon sugar
This is a long list! But the dishes were immaculately, beautifully presented, the cooking was incredibly precise, and the food (in many places) tasted very, very good (the beef tartare in particular is a Hall of Fame dish). And yet it didn’t feel quite right to me. The website banner proclaims “Modern Cuisine, Local Produce”; the name itself screams the diluted gospel of Redzepi; a piece on the World’s 50 Best blog frames the restaurant’s animus thus:
Indonesia is a tropical archipelago of about 17 thousand islands, giving Eelke and Ray a cosmos of ingredients to work with. Why order Australian asparagus when they can pick up a fresh batch from a nearby farm? Why order a pack of frozen sea bass when they can fetch some from the Balinese shores?
So far, so admirable. But look again at that list – how many of the dishes scream “Bali”? I lost count of the street-side fruit vendors walking around town earlier that day; fewer than 24 hours I had tasted a snakefruit (or salak) for the first time in my life. The next morning, we were planning to take a long constitutional through a few of Ubud’s countless rice fields. The sustainable sourcing and all that jazz was great from an ethical point of view, but when I bit into the tomatoes that accompanied the mackerel, they were wan, thin, watery. Planting and harvesting local are all well and good, but what does it mean to actually eat local? Where was the local rice? Where was the local fruit? When you grow a Mediterranean tomato in a tropical climate, are you really telling me you can’t get sweetness and acidity from a pineapple?
I think I have eaten variants of these dishes all over the world – the same, literate, post-noma voice has written this menu that has written the menu at Portland, or Story, or The Clove Club. This is not a bad thing, and these are not bad restaurants. And it’s certainly a thing that makes sense from a restaurateur or head chef’s point of view, particularly when noma’s influence can be seen so clearly in the upper echelons of the World’s 50 Best. But to reduce noma’s gospel to “just cook with more stuff from nearby” is to do it a disservice – it’s about evaluating how this ingredient, at this time of year, fits into this landscape, and this cuisine, and its history.
I feel kind of shitty laying this on poor Locavore – it opened in 2013; the guys could well still be finding their feet. I hope that is the case – that the extensive, delicious menu they currently serve evolves in time to be extensive, and delicious, and also meaningful, that it reflects on what it means to be a fine-dining restaurant in Bali, in Ubud specifically. Because Locavore unequivocally is a fine dining restaurant (whatever that means), and it could very easily continue to plough the furrow of Modern Scandinavian with an Indonesian twist. But that would be a shame.
This should really finish with a meaningful encounter with ‘real’ Balinese food, to illustrate the soul that the Locavore guys are missing: perhaps sate from a local vendor, her back bowed with age, hands calloused from ministrations to her grill. Maybe we would have a conversation that would include a soundbite I could finish on (“This sate is good!” I enthused. “No,” she replied, meeting my eyes with her own “Rice is good. Fish is good. In Bali, sate – it is Life”). But none of this happened. Instead of a shack populated only by local labourers, we found ourselves in Hujan Locale, a clearly tourist-orientated place just off Ubud’s main drag, one of a small empire of Balinese restaurants built by a white dude called Will Meyrick. These are not the ingredients for a meaningful, “authentic” interaction with the food of Bali. But as the warm night air coming through the open windows condensed on a cold Bintang in front of me, and sweat pooled on my brow from a too-spicy duck curry, one thing at least was clear – I wasn’t in Copenhagen.
Originally published by Civilian Global