STOCKHOLM – The year was 1986. The setting, one of Stockholm's most exclusive restaurants. Thomas Harmgardt, a newly arrived German chef, strapped on his apron and got to work.
He was absolutely horrified. The broccoli was frozen. The French string beans came out of a can! In Sweden, he found out, fresh ingredients were as scarce as daylight in winter.
"It was a culture shock for me," the 48-year-old Harmgardt recalled. After working in Mexico, France and Germany, he had arrived in a country where "avocado was viewed as something exotic." Or as Lund University food researcher Hakan Jonsson called it: "a culinary disaster zone."
It's hard to imagine a quarter-century later. A culinary revolution has swept Europe's frigid north, where a smorgasbord of innovative chefs are challenging the image of Norse food as bland and limited to a narrow range of specialties such as meatballs or lutefisk, a jelly-like seafood dish traditionally served at Christmas.
The major cities of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland have doubled their tally of Michelin stars in the past 20 years. Copenhagen's "Noma" has been crowned the world's best eatery. And this year Scandinavian chefs finished 1-2-3 in France's famed Bocuse d'Or cooking contest, also known as the Olympics of cooking.
So what happened?
In a way, Scandinavian cooks have gone full circle. They've imported the spices and know-how of the south, east and west; then rediscovered the homegrown flavors of the forests, lakes and fjords of the high north.
"They get international experience and then they go back to their homeland and create these wonderful restaurants," said Rebecca Burr, a Michelin Guide inspector for 12 years and now an editor for the prestigious French guidebooks. "They perfect their technique all the time. It's just a wonderful cuisine."
Harmgardt married a Swedish woman, stayed in the country and witnessed the transformation. Swedish-style home cooking has come back, he said, but with different, leaner cooking methods, including less cream and butter.
"We have been influenced by the new products coming from abroad. Today it's a crime if a kitchen doesn't have a good olive oil," said Harmgardt, who now is a district food and beverage manager at the Scandic hotel chain.
The back-to-our-roots concept has been embraced by many of Scandinavia's leading restaurants, including "Noma," which has two Michelin stars and was voted the world's best restaurant in 2010 by Restaurant Magazine.
Co-owner Claus Meyer brought together 12 of the region's top chefs in 2004 to produce the "New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto," calling for the return to traditional foods and more artisanal production.
The waterfront restaurant's menu is infused with northern flavor: raw radishes in malt soil and hazelnut, hay-smoked quail eggs, birchwood meringue, horseradish snow and Norwegian razor clams.
Norwegian chef Geir Skeie, who won the Bocuse d'Or in 2009, said he uses as few imported ingredients as possible, though Norway's geographic position straddling the Arctic circle makes a few exceptions inevitable.
"Lemons are important to my cooking. But they don't grow here, so I get them from abroad. Or black pepper. It doesn't grow in Norway. But otherwise I use local products," Skeie said.
Connoisseurs say the makeover of Scandinavian food started in the 1980s. New influences were brought in from Scandinavians traveling abroad, visiting chefs and fast-growing immigrant communities.
"It was like an explosion," recalled Christer Larsson, a Swede who was the head chef of New York's most famous Scandinavian restaurant, "Aquavit," when it opened in 1987. Today he heads the Food and Beverage division of the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Carlson Hotels.
Meanwhile, globalization filled up supermarkets with fresh herbs and exotic fruit. Today, Scandinavian shoppers can be overheard debating the merits of fresh versus dried basil leafs or how to tell when a mango reaches the perfect level of ripeness.
Just a few decades ago, the only place they could find garlic was at the pharmacy.
Scandinavian chefs took influences from French Nouvelle Cuisine when they reinvented their own food culture, finding new ways to serve delicacies such as moose and reindeer, salmon and herring. But Larsson said they had one advantage over their continental counterparts: a more open mind.
"I mean, French chefs have worked quite traditionally as far back as I can remember," he said. "Same in Switzerland and Germany. There aren't as many fresh ideas there as in Sweden."
For all the innovation and awards, Nordic food still can't get respect in some places.
When Finland wanted to host the European Union's Food Safety Authority in 2005, scorn was heaped on it from countries who considered themselves more refined, food-wise.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said "the Finns don't even know what prosciutto is." Jacques Chirac, French president at the time, reportedly said that only Britain could compete with Finland when it comes to bad food.
Eventually, the EU's food safety authority was placed in Parma, Italy.
Marcus Samuelsson, one of Sweden's most famous chefs who helped cook President Barack Obama's first state dinner, said it takes more than winning awards for a nation's cuisine to get worldwide recognition.
"When someone in Thailand starts to cook with Swedish produce, that's when you've really made it into someone's kitchen," he said. "We're not really there yet."
Olsen reported from Copenhagen, Denmark. Associated Press writer Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki contributed to this report.