All the pretty plates

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Photo by Tj Turner

“So, I’ve actually never had gravlax before?”

It spills out like a question, a test. I thought I’d tip-toe into revealing my ignorance of Nordic cuisine, but chef John Krattenmaker, of the American Swedish Institute’s Fika, meets me with such warmth and enthusiasm that I spill it right away. A few minutes after my confession, he’s introduced me to a 21st century take on an old staple.

I’ve since learned that gravlax means “buried fish” or “grave fish,” as Nordic fishermen in the Middle Ages prepared for barren winters by burying their bounty in the sand to preserve it. Today, most chefs “bury” the salmon in a dry rub of salt, sugar, and dill; its then pressed and left to hang out in the refrigerator for a few days. When served, traditional accompaniments include red onions, chopped egg whites, creme fraiche, and capers.

Fika chef John Krattenmaker // Photo by Tj Turner

Krattenmaker’s gravlax forms a perfect half-moon on the plate, layered with salmon roe, whipped egg yolks, red onion jam, watermelon radish, and a couple triangles of Danish rye bread. I’m surprised to find the gravlax almost completely camouflaged by the various shades of pink sprinkled throughout the dish. If he hadn’t told me what he was preparing, I might have mistaken it for a small, vibrant salad.

As he lays the dish in front of me, he leans in, explaining, “I love taking these ideas rooted in tradition, and then just having fun with them. […] I’m still using flavor profiles that make sense, I’m just serving them in a new way.”

Chef Krattenmaker’s approach to food feels emblematic of a broader movement—one with fewer rules, where the aesthetics of dining are as refined as its flavors, and where chefs use visual cues to create or unearth memories. This isn’t art for art’s sake—this is food that tells a story.

Departure

In the early ’90s, plating in restaurants felt a bit prescriptive. Protein, usually in the form of large, identifiable cuts of meat, lay at the center of the plate, while vegetables and starches tagged along on the side. Extra attention to aesthetics took shape in overwrought flourishes: drizzles, sprigs, smears.

“I think we’re moving away from all the bells and whistles of previous years…just getting back to technique and tradition,” says Doug Flicker, head chef of Minneapolis’ Piccolo and Sandcastle, reflecting on a shift toward a more organic kind of playfulness with plating. “There are times when we are more serious, but there are also times we want to be reminded of our childhood.” He often finds himself inspired by Sandcastle’s nearby Lake Nokomis and its unlikely offerings; one day he’s kicking black walnuts across the path, the next he’s adding them to a dish.

Working with seasonal, even foraged ingredients like black walnuts or green juniper berries feels familiar and accessible. On the plate, they serve as a visual reminder that the dish is rooted in a place and to its people. Chef Erick Harcey, of Minneapolis’ new Upton 43, evokes feelings of nostalgia by incorporating flavors he experienced growing up in rural Minnesota.

“Right now I’m working on a dish inspired by my grandma,” Harcey says. “I remember I used to hate peas until one day, growing up, she made me a big bowl of them with warm milk, butter, and salt.” In decades past, larger portions of monochromatic ingredients often read as bland or uninventive. For Harcey, great cooking transforms humble ingredients like peas or carrots into masterpieces. He proves that breaking old rules around color and texture can lead to dishes that truly take us places.

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