Pickled herring and meatballs were the first things that came to mind when the Swedish Embassy invited me to a showcase, a smorgasbord no less, of their nation’s cuisine at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi. I don’t mean to be snipe at a country that produced Borg, Abba, Bergman and more than its fair share of gorgeous blondes. But “cuisine” is a bit of a stretch. I’ve tried the fare at the café in Ikea, and it’s pickled herrings, basically. And meatballs. But there was a twist—the Embassy was also offering an interview with the chef who prepares the famous Nobel Banquet, that extraordinary convention of geniuses and leaders, which takes place this year on December 10. I’ve always wanted to know, when you reach the very pinnacle of your career, when you’re summoned to the City Hall in Stockholm, given the title “Nobel Laureate” and handed a cheque of up to Rs 6.4 crore—what do you get for dinner?
“Oh, it’s nothing like this stuff,” says Mark Phoenix, the Nobel chef, pointing to the dishes he has cooked up for the Ambassador’s lunch today. It’s stodgy, uninspiring stuff for the most part— cheesy sauces, a spot of gravlax, some mini-sausages, potatoes upon potatoes and a whole lot of gratin. (No pickled herring, though, apparently the Indian Foreign Ministry wouldn’t let it through.) “This is just basic Swedish home-cooking, very simple,” he says. “The banquet is another story. The Nobel Committee has this philosophy, where everything has to be really difficult or it’s not worth it. They make us work bloody hard basically.”
Two things about Phoenix—first, he’s not Swedish but English, raised in London. He married a Swede and moved to Stockholm in 1993, where he graduated from the world of “Swedish fusion” to his current position as Head Chef at the Stadshuskällaren (The City Hall restaurant), where the banquet takes place. Another thing—he serves Nobel banquet menus all year round, not just on the big day. It’s one of the unique features of his restaurant—it offers diners all the Nobel menus going back to the first in 1901 (see “I’d Like to Order the Tagore for...”). This probably explains why he’s quite unphased by the whole ‘Nobel’ factor, the genius clientele and so forth. For Phoenix, the banquet is just a job, all be it a very big one.
“Oh, the scale of it is huge, there’s no question,” he says. “You’ve got 1,350 people, 40 chefs in the kitchen and you start preparing four days in advance. It’s massively expensive—the dinner’s about 5 million Kronor [Rs 23,200 per head], and the cutlery and the crockery costs about 14,000 Kronor per setting [about Rs 87,600]. And on top of all that, the dishes are complicated. One year, the Nobel Committee decided it wanted a starter plate with 14 separate ‘moments’ on it. Fourteen.”
The process begins with menu selection, a tremendous operation in and of itself. In February, the Committee asks Phoenix and three other ‘star’ chefs— prize winners of some description—to start experimenting with dishes, delivering them for tasting and improvement as they go. The chefs are chosen in May, the menu is settled in September, and closely guarded.
But this Nobel ethos of opting for the route most laborious really comes into its own with the main course. “Let me give you an example of how complicated the dishes get,” says Phoenix. “This was the recipe for last year. You glue two young cockerel breasts together with meat glue, which is this white powder which you sieve over the meat. It’s very dangerous—you can’t inhale it or get it on your hands, otherwise it’ll burn. Then you roll the breasts in cling film so they become a large sausage and let the glue work for five hours. The glue becomes harmless when you cook it. During this time you bake a leek until it turns to ash and make a smaller sausage with cockerel mince, onion, lemon, sage, all baked together. Then you remove the large sausage from the cling film, make an incision along its length about 3 centimetres deep, roll the smaller sausage in the leek ash, and insert into the larger sausage. Re-roll the big sausage in cling film again, and bake in the oven. For 1,350 settings. Do you get the idea? A lot of work.”
It wasn’t always this way. The Nobel menu has traditionally been a defiantly unfussy affair, a simple three-course meal of appetiser, main course and dessert. Some years, it was even quite bland. After World War II, winners were served sandwiches with fruit as dessert. At the time caramelised bananas were considered a treat, such was the scarcity of bananas. A sample menu from the 1950s promises fried pheasant in a wine sauce with a vegetable salad on the side and pears and cream for dessert. And in the 1960s, there was a shift towards Scandinavian cuisine.
But let’s be honest, if there were a Nobel prize for cooking, it would hardly go to a Swede, or a Norwegian. And by 1999, the Committee saw sense, and decided to put nationalism aside and raise its game. “It’s a spectacle now,” says Phoenix. “They televise the banquet and everything. When the waiters bring the desserts down from the kitchens on a big tray, the lights go down and the fireworks go off, it’s very impressive.”
Not that Phoenix has ever seen these fireworks himself mind. “Nah, by that time, I’m miles away from City Hall getting drunk!”
“I’d like to order the Tagore for four…”
At the City Hall restaurant in Stockholm, you can try any of the Nobel menus dating back to the very first banquet in 1901. Just give Chef Mark Phoenix a week’s notice, and you can dine like Tagore, Sen or Naipaul.
2001, V.S. Naipaul (Literature)
Starter: Lobster and cauliflower buds on a bed of cauliflower purée with langoustine aspic and coral salad. Served with a Nobel roll.
Main: Quail stuffed with chopped duck liver. Served with cep ragout, sundried tomatoes, fresh green asparagus, madeira gravy and chervil purée.
Dessert: Vanilla ice cream and black currant parfait on a thin meringue base. Served with a dainty caramel biscuit
1998, Amartya Sen (Economics)
Starter: Marinated artichoke heart stuffed with prawns, crayfish and fresh fennel
Main: Fried chicken breast seasoned with black pepper and thyme Jerusalem artichoke sauce, mushroom roulade and ragout of vegetables
Dessert: Nobel ice-cream with spun sugar, and wild blackberry sorbet
1983, Subramanyam Chandrasekhar (Physics)
Starter: Mousse of snow grouse with cream sauce MAIN: Morel stuffed fillet of sole with Vermouth sauce and rice
Dessert: Nobel ice cream and petits fours
1968, Hargobind Khorana (Medicine)
Starter: Avocado with lobster with gourmet sauce
Main: Saddle of lamb with cream-stewed morels, Madeira sauce and Waldorf salad
Dessert: Pineapple ice cream with petits fours
1930 Chandrasekar Venkata Raman (Physics)
Chandrasekar Venkata Raman
Starter: Mock turtle soup
Main: Salmon trout with truffle, mushrooms, cock’s comb, Fried turkey with artichokes, salad and gelé
Dessert: Ice cream parfait with almonds and fruits
1913 Rabindranath Tagore (Literature)
Starter: Mock turtle soup MAIN: Fillet of turbot a la Walewska. Young fattened hen with marrowstuffed artichokes, green beans and potatoes, and chaud-froid of quail with salad, with artichokes a la Maintenon
Dessert: Praline ice cream