Stockholm-based chef Mathias Dahlgren is the only Swedish chef to have won the prestigious Bocuse d’Or competition, and the only chef in Sweden to have been named chef of the year 7 times. He is a leader of the new Nordic cuisine movement, which has given us Rene Redzepi’s celebrated Noma and Matsalen, Dahlgren’s restaurant in Stockholm with two Michelin stars and its own place on the 50 Best Restaurants in the World list. During a recent visit to New York, where he donned chef’s whites in a guest stint at Blue Hill at Stone Barns and spoke to students at the Institute of Culinary Education, Dahlgren sat with us to talk food, Nordic pride, and to have us taste an icy juniper and sea buckthorn tea—made with the acidic Swedish berry.
Why did you become a chef?
I can trace it back to when I was a child, 4 years old. I was with my mother and grandmother, in this little village in the north of Sweden, and we were at this community baking house, with a wood-burning oven, and someone gave me a piece of bread. It’s that moment. That bread that comes out of the oven, and you take it in your little hand and and feel the butter melt through your fingers, it’s a feeling that I would like to go back to every day, as long as I live. That’s why I became a chef.
You talk about how everything you do is about gastronomy. What does that mean to you?
Gastronomy is a word we use all the time. I am a professor of gastronomy at Umeå University. There is this sense that gastronomy is very complicated, that only a few people can understand it. But for me gastronomy is about the very basics. Take a glass of water and just hold it, don’t taste. How can you judge what this is, tell what it is, and whether you want to, should consume it. First sight, you have to look at it, why do we look at it? To determine whether it is dangerous for us as humans.
Then we smell it for the same reasons: Is it appealing, is it safe? Then you check the temperature, again to see if it is dangerous. Then we check the texture. And then finally we taste. Most people think that taste is the most important thing, but we would never get to tasting if something didn’t pass all the other tests. If you don’t love the look, smell, or texture, you will never taste it. My mother always used to say that she hated oysters, and I would always ask how she knew that if she hadn’t tried them. But there was something on that gastronomy checklist that didn’t appeal to her.
You won the very French Bocuse D’Or, and rose to fame cooking Catalan food at your restaurant Bon Lloc. Now you are a leader of the Scandinavian cuisine movement. How did those transitions come about?
Winning the Bocuse d’Or in 1997 was the most important thing that ever happened to me professionally.
And I love Spain. I lived there, cooked there; my wife is from Barcelona. I love the food and the vibrancy and energy of the city. Barcelona and New York are the places that I actually get energy from.
But until recently, 25 or 30 years ago, there were 2 to 4 world class restaurants in Sweden, and they were all cooking French and Italian food, maybe a little Spanish.
We were copying other culinary traditions and techniques. And copying is not bad, it’s a way of learning. It’s like when you are a child, it’s quite wise to begin speaking the language of your parents rather than starting with a language of your own: no one will understand you.
What we needed was a common vocabulary and common thought to unite us to bring Scandinavian cuisine to an international level. We were not celebrating our roots and culinary traditions. We needed to find a way to create something new out of our old roots. In 2004, we gathered, 12 of us, and wrote the New Nordic Food Manifesto.
What are the principles of the manifesto?
It emphasizes regional, authentic cooking and the importance of pure produce. The idea is that food tells a story, tells who we are. Now just a few years later, we have 40 to 50 really good Nordic restaurants. Noma was part of the manifesto.
How do you describe your cuisine now?
At the restaurant we focus on the local produce. I call my way of cooking Natural Cuisine. Nature is good.
I try to look at ingredients not as I know them to be, I try to look at them with a child’s eye, with curiosity. It’s the same with ingredients as it is with us, with people. Each apple is unique, different from other apples. I try to bear that in mind always.
What is your process like when creating a dish?
Creativity for me is not always the same thing. Creativity is something that happens inside me when I meet something. There is no absolute way things are done.
I start with an idea, but the ingredients must lead. And then it’s all about proportions.
Take ice cream and warm chocolate sauce. It’s a classic combination for many reasons: warm, cold, sweet, bitter. But you need the right proportions. A dish that is 80 percent cold, sweet ice cream and 20 percent warm bitter chocolate is much more appealing than if you swap those proportions and have 20 percent sweet and 80 percent bitter. At least for most people. I think my ideal for me is closer to 70/30 sweet/bitter. But it’s important to know the proportions. When you start with the best ingredients, anything is possible to combine, as long as the proportions please the palate.
Ever eaten at one of Dahlgren’s restaurants? Lucky you, let us know what you thought in the comments.