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According to the latest ranking by the Legatum Institute Prosperity Index, Norway is the happiest country in the world, and Simon Liestøl Idsøe has his own theory as to why.
"It makes sense, because we have such small towns, and like taking care of our neighbors a lot, and eating seafood a lot!" he says with a laugh.
Idsøe lived in Norway his entire life, up until nine months ago, when he came to the States to be the chef at the Embassy of Norway. "I'm alone in the kitchen, so I do all the stuff myself," he says.
And it turns out there's a lot of "stuff" to do. The embassy serves 4,000 guests per year. So Idsøe is constantly preparing breakfasts, luncheons, and afternoon teas. He also does buffet dinners, for up to 120 people.
"It's really busy!" he says with a smile.
But Idsøe doesn't let it get him down. His smile is pretty much a constant, and his laugh frequently sprinkles his conversations. His joy seems to increase when he talks about traditional Norwegian foods, such as mackerel, herring, meatballs, pickled items, smoked salmon and dumplings.
And those are just main dishes. Idsøe says he also enjoys making desserts, often from his grandmother's recipes. Sweet treats like waffles (vafler), pancakes (pannekaker) and a delicacy that takes cloudberries (molte) and smothers them in whipped cream and crumble topping.
Idsøe says a great deal of Norway's cuisine is fresh and natural, with an emphasis on local ingredients, from reindeer and goat cheese to fruits, vegetables and herbs.
"Many greenhouses on the west coast to south offer tomatoes, cucumber, squash, paprika," he explains. "And actually the best berries and fruits are from north in Norway. It's so cold weather, and so short season [sic], it's like really small fruits and so flavorful."
Of course, Norway also has some traditional, local beverages. It brews several kinds of beer. Idsøe says the most common in the U.S. is Nøgne Ø. Norway also makes its own spirit: akevitt, a potato liquor. Akevitt is a variation of "aquavit," which you'll find in Sweden and Denmark.
"It's a really strong alcohol percent, like really good to drink for meat courses," Idsøe says.
Idsøe hasn't even been in the embassy's kitchen for a year yet, but he's already become a rising culinary star. He drew great praise at this year's Embassy Chef Challenge for his potato leek soup with slow-cooked Norwegian cod. And he prepared a lavish buffet dinner for the Kennedy Center's Nordic Cool Festival a few months ago. Not bad for a guy who, compared with many of his fellow embassy chefs, hasn't been in the business all that long.
He was 15 when he got his first food-industry job.
"It was in a bakery," he recalls. "I worked four days a week after my school, like washing the bakery down in the back and like selling breads."
Fast-forward seven years, and now Idsøe's baking his own bread, and cooking his own seafood, and stewing his own reindeer for the highest-ranking diplomat in Norway. And — ever so apropos to his native land of joyful, seafood-eating neighbors helping joyful, seafood-eating neighbors — the 22-year-old chef couldn't be happier.
"It's an honor and a pleasure every day," he says with another big smile. "I love it!"
[Music: "When You're Smiling" by Doris Day from What Every Girl Should Know]
Photos: Eating in the Embassy: Norway