Scandinavian brunch is ready to take center stage

Rise & Dine is a SAVEUR column by Senior Culture Editor Megan Zhang, an aspiring early riser looking to explore morning culture and breakfast rituals around the world.

At a new Scandinavian-inspired bakery in Manhattan’s East Village, a wall of basic supplies, from canned fish to condiments, beckons customers as they order coffee and pastries. Many of the products are Northern European imports and a familiar sight for nostalgic Scandinavians. But Smør Bakery, like many companies around the world, felt the pressure of supply chain setbacks this year. Which is why, for the first month after it opened in late summer, there was a very apparent gap in the lineup.

Photography by Paul Quitoriano

“In that month, we probably had countless people asking if we were going to carry [Kalles Kaviar]says bakery co-founder Sebastián Pérez, referring to a creamy pink condiment made from fish roe, salt, sugar and tomato puree. “It’s something that, in Scandinavia at least, you grow up eating.”

Kalles Kaviar is a particularly popular breakfast item in its home country of Sweden. It is one of many traditional ingredients that often appear in Scandinavian open-face sandwiches, known in Danish as smørrebrød, in Norwegian as smørbrød, and in Swedish as smörgås. Although favorite breads and toppings vary by country, foods like cured meats, smoked fish, sliced ​​cheese, eggs, and pickled vegetables are common brunch items. Families sitting down to eat can pass plates of ingredients around the table so “people can make their own choices,” explains chef Nichole Accettola, owner of Scandinavian brunch restaurant Kantine in San Francisco.

Photography by Paul Quitoriano

It was this community-oriented, casual approach to dining that inspired Pérez and his co-founder Sebastian Bangsgaard to launch Smør Bakery and its sister restaurant Smør NYC, located two doors down. Perez notes that while Australian flat whites and smashed avocados (better known as avocado toast in the United States) have saturated the New York City restaurant scene over the past decade, Scandinavian brunch foods, especially Savory non-pastry items, such as open-face sandwiches, have yet to reach the same heights. Chefs like the team behind Smør are eager to change that, and reframe the reputation of Scandinavian cuisine in the process.

“When people think of Scandinavian food, they think of fancy, fancy dining,” Perez says. He attributes the misconception in part to the enormous fame of Noma, the three-Michelin-starred Copenhagen establishment that has nabbed the coveted top spot in the world’s 50 best restaurants multiple times. “I think when you associate something with a top-notch restaurant, you associate a certain formality with it,” he says. But for Pérez, the food culture in Scandinavia is not stifling at all; rather, it’s understated and unpretentious, with an emphasis on simple ingredients. “We wanted to create a more relaxed place” that would better represent the comfort food they had grown up with, Pérez says. To that end, the menu at Smør NYC offers a full section of smørrebrød throughout the day, with typical Nordic ingredients such as pickled or curried herring. Many of Smør’s Scandinavian immigrant clients “just crave this,” adds Perez, “because they are such a big part of life there.”

Courtesy of Kantine

When Accettola opened Kantine in 2018, she, too, eschewed the high-end approach in favor of a casual concept that celebrates the customizable open-face sandwiches she’d frequently enjoyed during her 15 years in Copenhagen. Those meals inspired her to develop a make-it-yourself brunch offering, from which diners can select breads like tunnbröd (Swedish flatbread) and toppings like trout salad and Danish havarti cheese to make their own sandwiches. “You’re mixing and matching,” says Accettola, noting that a table of diners can share the different selections, as is done in Scandinavian homes. “It’s an inclusive way of eating,” she says.

Courtesy of Broder Pdx

Perez hypothesizes that one explanation for the slow adoption of Scandinavian brunch in the US (pastries and coffee aside) is that many common savory ingredients are factually unusual for Americans. The brand behind Kalles Kaviar mocks the condiment’s blunt, divisive taste in a self-deprecating commercial that shows repulsed Americans trying the spread for the first time. Scandinavian cafe culture is also “not as focused on the sweet items” as Americans might expect at breakfast time, notes Casey Currier, operations and events manager for the restaurant group behind the Nordic-style, sweet-focused eateries. brunch Broder Café, Broder Nord, Broder Söder. and Broder Øst in Portland, Oregon. “We are using ingredients that people here in the United States, especially, are likely to associate more with dinner.”

However, it seems that, in many ways, the stage is set for Scandinavian-style brunch to enter the American spotlight in a big way. “A lot of people here in America are getting in touch with their Scandinavian heritage and roots,” Currier says, noting that many people may be looking to experience dishes they remember their grandparents or relatives making. In addition, the consistently high rankings of the Nordic countries in the World Happiness Report have drawn much attention to Scandinavian ways of life. An obvious example is hygge, a Danish concept that is often described as a feeling of comfort, and that The Little Book of Hygge the author Meik Wiking calls it “a feeling of home”. Equally captivating to Americans is the Swedish tradition of fika, a custom of allocating time in the day to enjoy coffee with friends, family, or colleagues, without stress or distraction. “Fika is not just for having a pick-me-up in the afternoon; it is to appreciate slow life”, write Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall in their book Fika: the art of Swedish coffee.

Courtesy of Broder Pdx

That search for cozy, casual refinement that has intrigued many Americans pervades the Scandinavian brunch table. The act of passing food around a table emphasizes community and togetherness. The food itself, like the open-face sandwiches, also tends to be a lighter meal, making it more conducive to conversation, says Aaron Franco, the chef at Broder Söder. “You can be a little picky and pick at your food while you’re having a conversation,” he says. Many foods that are popular for brunch are also easy to make and don’t require a lot of preparation; many bread toppings, such as sausages and relishes, are ready-to-eat. But as simple as the ingredients are, how they balance each other is key, especially when it comes to stronger flavors. “You’re eating pickled herring, but it’s going to go with something to complement it,” adds Franco, whose mother grew up in a Swedish home on traditional foods like Kalles Kaviar. When Swedes enjoy cod roe as a spread, he explains, they often eat it on bread with other toppings or mix it into salads. This way, “you don’t get saltiness and fishiness at the same time,” he says, and each bite ends up being a harmonious combination of flavors and textures, with only a handful of ingredients.

Photography by Paul Quitoriano

Whether it’s the growing interest in Nordic lifestyles or growing attention around the need for a better work-life balance, American diners seem poised to embrace Scandinavian brunch, and bread garnished with delicious ingredients could be a perfect entry point. “You have this infinite realm of possibilities for making these open-face sandwiches,” says Pérez, who hopes Smør will encourage diners to make their own food. “I would love for us to be a catalyst for that.”

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