Dinner made for winners

Eating prize meal of Nobel recipients

December 10, 2003|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Everyone knows the best way to Carnegie Hall. (Practice, practice, practice.)

But how do you get to eat a Nobel Prize banquet? Um ... study harder?

Surprisingly, it's a whole lot easier than that. Simply head to City Hall in Stockholm, Sweden, which is where the 2003 Nobel laureates will dine tonight in high style. Here, you'll find a subterranean restaurant called Stadshus Kallaren where, starting tomorrow, you can eat exactly the same meal.

What's more, if you order in advance and have a party of at least six, you can request any menu from the Nobel banquet's 102-year history, and it will be served on the same gold-leafed Orrefors china from which the winners dine.

Just imagine how intelligent you'd feel to say the words, "I'll have the Albert Einstein menu, please." For the record, this is a four-course feast of mock-turtle soup, fillet of turbot, saddle of lamb with vegetables, and pears with vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce.

Stadshus Kallaren was built in 1921 - the same year, in fact, that Einstein won a Nobel for his services to theoretical physics. Hidden behind a heavy wooden door, and down a grand curving staircase, the restaurant is candlelighted, and still has its original art-deco murals painted on the walls.

Families of prize recipients dine here on the awards night - winners are allowed to bring only their spouses to the banquet upstairs. Every other evening, however, the 160-seat restaurant is open to the public.

A few weeks ago, Urban Eriksson, the head chef at Stadshus Kallaren for the past six years, discussed the banquet's history and what it is like to be master of more than a century's worth of recipes. "Let's see," he said, flipping through menus in his head, "last night I cooked four 1998s, a pair of 1993s and three 1987s."

Eriksson, 33, is a tall, slender man, with a blond crew cut and pale-blue eyes. He doesn't laugh easily. January and February are his busiest months, he said, because by this time everyone in Stockholm has read about the latest banquet, and wants to taste it.

"Other chefs in Stockholm look at the meal, and all the journalists critique it. It's like opening a Broadway show or a new fashion collection," he said. "Trends are noted. It has a ripple effect."

His regular customers for menus from year's past include Swedish companies like Volvo or Astra, a pharmaceutical conglomerate, that honor multidecade anniversaries by ordering a meal from the year a particularly esteemed employee was hired. Mostly, though, Eriksson said, Stadshus Kallaren is a tourist restaurant, patronized by those anxious to experience something of the Nobel's majesty. Frequently, their appetites are whetted by national pride.

Spaniards, for instance, most often order 1989 (a dinner of sole and lamb) in honor of Camilo Jose Cela, who won the prize for literature that year. Many Americans still order 1954, when Ernest Hemingway won and the menu was smoked salmon trout and fillet of beef with truffles. What's on the menu for 2003? The normally taciturn Eriksson became even more tight-lipped. "That is a closely guarded secret," he said. "No one will know until 7 p.m."

He did explain that in preparation for this evening, he and another Stockholm chef, Gunnar Eriksson (no relation), devised 10 three-course meals. After cooking and sampling them all repeatedly, they cut the list back to three menus, which then were submitted to the Nobel Foundation for final approval.

"It has to be different, and not too classic. There should be new ideas, but most importantly, it must be food that can be prepared for 1,300 people," he said. "That's the main thing. What can we make that we know we can get out warm to that many?"

In the past, Eriksson has cooked for U.N. troops in Lebanon and Bosnia, and fed close to 3,000 people every night when he worked for the Silja cruise ship line that shuttles between Stockholm and Helsinki, Finland. "But the Nobel banquet," he said dryly, "is by far the single most stressful night of my year."

It wasn't always such a high-pressured event. Held for the first time at Stockholm's Grand Hotel (a heritage this establishment exploits to this day by flying the national flags of Nobel Prize winners from its ramparts), the banquets initially had a guest list of 100, all men. Woman weren't invited until Madame Curie won the 1903 prize for her work in radiation.

"Studying the menus is like reading an historical culinary account of the century," said Helene Bodin, an author who has written an authoritative text titled The Nobel Banquets (Mixoft, 2001). In this fascinating book, Bodin describes how global events often affected what appeared on the award-winner's plates. She also charts the rise and fall of certain recipes.

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