How we eat around the Arctic reveals the region’s disparities

By Kevin McGwin, The Arctic Journal - February 28, 2017

To get a sense of the attention to detail that it takes to earn a Michelin star, the ultimate distinction for a chef, consider DILL, an Icelandic restaurant that, last week, became the first in the country to receive one.

Gunnar Karl Gíslason, the owner and head chef of the establishment, goes to such great lengths to ensure the authenticity of the eating experience that the butter the restaurant serves contains salt made from seawater he collects himself.

Such extravagant authenticity appears to sit well with Michelin’s anonymous ‘inspectors,’ as the guides’ reviewers are known. In recent years, restaurants pledging allegiance to the New Nordic movement, which is based heavily on local ingredients and the modernization of traditional dishes (often described as ‘poor man’s food’), have been credited with a rapid evolvement of the region’s food to cuisine, resulting, in 2015, in the creation of a Michelin Guide for Nordic countries.

It is a trend that this year saw not just DILL, but also KOKS, a Faroese restaurant with a similar commitment to authenticity (and apparent penchant for capital letters) become the first restaurant in its home country to bring home a star. Few would be surprised if more follow in either country next year.

For now, Michelin’s advance in the region appears to have reached its westward limit: questioned by (Arctic Journal’s sister site), about their gastronomic ambitions, Greenland’s two leading restaurants say the sort of dedication Gíslason is able to put into his endeavour is beyond their reach, and would only wind up souring the experience for the majority of their guests.

“You need to keep in mind that our kitchen needs to serve all sorts of different types of guests, be they overnight guests, conference attendees, or those eating breakfast and room service,” says Erik Bjerregaard, the manager of Hotel Arctic, in Ilulissat, a town where tourism is a big breadwinner.

For a country that is trying to build its economic future, in part, on tourism, striking the proper balance between exceptional and exclusive is of no small consequence. But, compared with the food concerns faced in other parts of the region, such considerations themselves may seem something of a luxury.

In Canada, the question regarding food is more basic: whether Nutrition North, a federal subsidy program, is adequate to provide the people in the country’s northern territories with the nourishment they need to survive.

[Canada grapples with future of northern food security program]

There is a pile of disheartening reports to show that Nutrition North, established in 2011 to replace Food Mail, a 1960s-era airlift program, has been unable to address food-security issues that have stalked northern populations since the 1940s.

Consultations about the future of Nutrition North were held between May 2016 and January of this year, as part of a campaign pledge by Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, to address its shortcomings. Now that those meetings are complete, Carolyn Bennett, the minister of indigenous and Northern affairs, told parliament earlier this month that she would soon be publishing a report based on what she heard during the meetings.

Among the “difficult challenges” she said needed to be addressed, was whether Nutrition North could live up to its aim of being “an actual food-security social policy that is about the preschoolers, 70 percent of whom are food insecure.”

Sorting out a situation of that magnitude will take time, leaving it likely that food trends in the North will continue to diverge before they better.