Magnus Nilsson is sitting across from me in a booth at the Breslin in NYC’s Ace Hotel, looking very relaxed. It strikes me as odd, that this chef who usually oversees the 12-person dining room at Fäviken in Jämtland, Sweden, about six hours north of Stockholm, should appear so at home in a chic Manhattan spot. But that’s clearly my urbanist mindset at work; Nilsson toiled for years in Paris, studied wine in Stockholm, and could easily jump into April Bloomfield’s kitchen and work the line like a Brooklynite if he weren’t here to talk about his views of Nordic cuisine. Why shouldn’t he be at ease?
Poise seems like Nilsson’s default countenance anyway. The 31-year-old is amongst the most respected chefs of his time, his restaurant ranked 19th in the World’s Best 50 list, and more importantly, a nearly impossible reservation despite the fact that it’s extremely remote, as a visit to the “Getting Here” portion of Fäviken’s website will soon have you realizing. This is all because of his cooking, his presentation, his philosophy — traits that put him in the upper echelon. Traits that earned him a starring role in Season 3 of Mind Of A Chef, with his eight episodes airing throughout the winter on PBS (check your local listings). And it earns him the right to speak on behalf of Nordic cuisine, as he does below, and to write the damn book on the subject (due out from Phaidon sometime in 2015), which he tells us about as well (scroll down for that bit).
Your cooking is based on pretty pragmatic, maybe even ancient types of ideas. And yet you’re associated with Nordic cuisine, which is so in vogue. Do you have any thoughts on that dichotomy?
If you look at the development of the trendy part of Nordic cooking, I think that it has developed — the food scene was there already. There’s always been good restaurants for domestic consumption in the Nordic countries. Especially in Stockholm and Copenhagen. Most of them didn’t have a unique profile though. They were very qualified Spanish and French and Italian restaurants. But the knowledge was there to produce good restaurants. And then Rene [Redzepi] kind of kicked the door open for the rest of the world with Noma and put it in the spotlight. People started going there, and they hadn’t been before. And I think many of them were surprised of how high the quality in general was, and how much good stuff they could find. That’s why it was so easy for it to get rolling. And now it’s rolled for a few years and it’s picked up momentum, because more people coming in equals more interest, and more interest equals more motivation for others to develop new stuff. And as I said before, I think the food scene now is more interesting than it has ever been, and more vibrant than it has ever been. Even though perhaps the peak of the Nordic food trend was already happened.
Here’s an exclusive clip from Mind Of A Chef Season Three, Featuring Magnus Nilsson:
Do you think that eventually, looking 10, 20, 30 years — will Nordic cuisine have the importance of French or Italian cuisine? Is it at that level of importance?
I don’t know. And that is yet to see. The thing is that if you go to Nordic countries, you will have very qualified top-level restaurants. And then you have almost nothing. And then real Nordic food culture is being nursed in people’s homes. Because it’s not the restaurants — it is the culture of great food in people’s houses. It’s not very accessible. If you look at Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, those countries — you have very good top restaurants, you also have very good mid-level and simple restaurants that still have very traditional food from their region. And I think that’s a huge difference. Because in the Nordic countries, you actually don’t find that. That is not there.
Still, cooks from around the world want to come to Scandinavia and learn from chefs like you. I know your kitchen is very small, but you must get a lot of requests for stages, right?
We get on the average about a hundred a week.
And are they coming from all over the world?
Yeah. And I think as a cultural exchange it’s great, but the thing is that the real Nordic food culture is very inaccessible even for those people. Because what they see when they come to Fäviken is a very different version of the real deal, you know? It’s an interpretation of something. And that’s kind of what saddens me a bit, because the great restaurants, they’re really good. And they are one expression of Nordic food culture. But it would also be nice if restaurants would actually serve stuff people eat in their houses. More affordable, more everyday food. Because without that, you don’t have any understanding of the real Nordic food culture — and that’s something I think is the reason why it’s often very misunderstood. Because you can see people who have been working in restaurants like mine all over the world, and they go home and of course take some ideas with them. But what they mostly take with them is the approach and the philosophy to it, not so much the actual preparations. They see the aesthetical expression on the plate, stuff like that. And I think if Nordic cooking is going to have that weight, like essential European or Mediterranean cooking, the foundation of food culture that people actually eat in their houses, that needs to be more accessible.
“No one ever taught our parents how to make cheese. I guarantee that every farming family before, back generations, taught the next generation how to make cheese.”
That’s a big thing that I come across in the states, where you see chefs and you find out what their main inspiration was and it’s often their grandmothers. Is that the case in Scandinavia as well? Did you yourself have that experience in your family?
Yeah. I grew up with a lot of great food around me. And without that, I doubt that I would have an interest in food today. I think that’s very important for — it’s not essential, but probably would make it easier to become interested in food.
Do you think it’s just a learning thing? I feel like in the United States there was this period where it was almost like a whole generation was skipped. If I talked to my grandmother about how she bought her chickens, they were from a butcher and she had to take the feathers out. And then my mother, she would go to the store and buy it so the chicken was already cooked. Did that happen in Sweden too?
Yeah. Perhaps not as abruptly, but that skip in information transfer I think has happened all over the Western world. And I think what’s interesting is that in the countries that industrialized the process, like the US. And Scandinavian countries except Norway. The UK, and some of those countries in Europe as well. Compare those to, for example, Italy. Which is barely fully industrialized now. That’s one thing that really [differentiates] the countries, is that there is more of that transfer of information between the generations; it has been unchanged.
Italy is a great example of that, in the countryside at least.
And Portugal as well. And I think that we traded off. It’s very difficult to say whether it was a good trade or a bad trade, but we have. If you look at Europe for example, if you look at the Nordic countries, the standard of living is much much higher than in the Mediterranean countries. And that could be the trade-off, you know. We kind of sold some of our culture and abandoned that to have something else. Because I remember still my grandparents – my grandmother, she was a great cook. And they had so much access to great quality because they lived on a farm. And then in the ‘90s, when I grew up, and in the late ‘80s, then “new” was better.
Our parents opted for convenience over tradition.
They didn’t see the beauty in many of those things. Because they thought it was more beautiful, more interesting and much better with the sort of simpler, modern solution was to buy a bag of frozen, already blanched green peas, for example. And I think that’s the reason why it skipped a generation, because my parents – they were never taught the whole spectrum of food techniques like they did a generation before that. They learned select parts because they had a personal interest. They probably sought out some information themselves as well. But no one ever taught them how to make cheese, for example. I guarantee that every farming family before, back generations, taught the next generation how to make cheese.
In your episodes of Mind Of A Chef, you go back to Paris, where you cooked at L’Astrance as a young chef. You focus on the ingredients and the location around Fäviken. And when you bring in a famous Copenhagen chef to co-star, it’s not Rene Redzepi, it’s Christian Puglisi. Why?
Because I like him. He’s a nice guy. And I think what he’s doing – the restaurant he’s doing, those are the really important parts. Relae is a more expensive restaurant, but nowhere near as expensive or exclusive as mine or Noma or those restaurants. But the most interesting one is Manfreds, which is across the street. Good dinner, good wine, good service, and fantastic food. I think that’s very interesting and that’s what you’re going to see happening in the next years. All those great chefs aiming their eyes on a different kind of restaurant.
Is Copenhagen the best representation of Nordic cooking or do you need to go to the countryside? Or is Stockholm approaching that level?
No. Once again, the disconnect between what people actually eat in their houses and what’s served in the restaurants is so big. I don’t think you can go to any Nordic city today and get a good representation of what Nordic cooking actually is. What you will see is the most ambitious segment of Nordic cooking. Which is essentially – even though it’s been reinvented and worked with, is essentially the base of the idea of a French restaurant. The multi-course tasting menu, the whole way of thinking. It comes from somewhere else. And that’s going to be very interesting to see, whether interest in those restaurants is going to result in an interest in the real Nordic food culture. The traditional Nordic food culture. Looking past gravlax and herring.
In your mind, is there a place for various ethnic foods from around the world influencing the Nordic cuisine as well? Does Mexican cuisine have a place in Nordic cuisine? Thai cuisine?
Definitely. In one year from now, when you read the new book, you’re gonna laugh so much. Because the thing is, with Nordic cooking in general, and especially Swedish and Danish cooking, they are so influenced by other worldviews. Because they’re small countries, there’s always been a need to move around. And to discover and explore. So Sweden had a huge East India trade. Traditional Swedish cooking contains so much spices. It’s just incredible. There are 200-year-old recipes that contain spices like ginger, cloves and black pepper.
How does this apply to mixing in the different cuisines?
I think that the important thing with any kind of food culture is that – food is, by definition, made to be consumed relatively quickly. Perhaps you have a cheese or a cured ham that can last for a couple years, but that’s about as long as any food can actually stay intact without disappearing. And this means that if you stop using techniques for food production traditions, if it’s not in practice anymore, it takes one generation for the primary knowledge to be gone. And two generations for the secondary knowledge, the memory, to be gone. And then in three generations, which is not that long, you only have written knowledge or otherwise recorded knowledge, which is not the same thing. And because of this, the food culture changes so quickly, so many of these dishes that we consider to be iconic dishes to our region, they aren’t that old. Like I’m sure you heard about sour herrings. How old do you think that dish is?
I have no idea.
If you look at what it is, it’s a fermented fish. It’s a salted and fermented fish. That’s not particularly common – it’s not specific to Sweden or anything. You can find that all over the world. What’s specific about that dish, is that it is fermented in a can, in a tin can. So it can’t be older than a tin can. And the tin can was invented back in the 1800s in England. But it wasn’t popularized until 1880 or 1890, when the actual production was mechanized. So it can’t very well be more than 120 years old. And if you look at that, it’s one of the most iconic dishes of Sweden. It’s 120 years old. People rarely eat it more than once a year. Because it tastes like shit. A hundred and twenty years old, and it’s eaten once a year. Then you have pizza. Which has been documented to have been made in Sweden for more than 250 years. Bread with cheese on top. And people probably eat pizza on average – I don’t know, about once a month. It’s eaten 10 times more often than the sour herring. And it’s twice as old in culture. And there are many examples like that, that I find fascinating.
Is this part of your new book that you’re working on?
Can you tell me a more about it?
The new book is – I pitched an idea that I wanted to do a Swedish cookbook. Because there’s never been a comprehensive Swedish cookbook in English. And Phaidon, they were like maybe, but it’s sort of narrow. Perhaps do it on the whole Nordic region. And I declined it at first, because I thought it was stupid: it would be like doing an all-American cookbook, encompassing from south of South America to Canada or Alaska and everything in between. But then I kind of – the more and more I thought of it, it was that that actually tickled me to say yes. Because people don’t understand what the Nordic region is. Most people don’t even know how big it is. That it stretches from the east of Finland to the west of Greenland. It covers a huge part of the earth. And it’s very diverse culturally and has all sorts of types of food. So I started documenting, traveling around and interviewing people. Because the whole idea is that I wanted to document food culture as it is today. So there is equal parts traditional stuff like sour herring and fermented wild bird’s eggs from Iceland and all of those things that people don’t really actually cook today, but there is also the other stuff. Like taco quiche. And the Swedish pizza. And all of those things are also in there.
There’s going to be a Magnus Nilsson taco quiche recipe?
It’s going to be my wife’s taco quiche recipe. It’s partially me interviewing and documenting in the field, I also have a questionnaire out on a website so that people could answer questions about their food culture and share recipes and stuff like that. So that’s part of it. And then there is one expert from each country.
You chose the experts?
Who are they?
They are different kinds of people that have a special interest of knowledge about food in their country. There are no chefs. They’re food writers, or people who work with food in other ways. Historians, stuff like that. And then the whole thing is going to be revised by a professor of anthropology in Sweden. And it is 950 recipes. Tested and working. And a lot of other information as well.
How many volumes?
It’s going to be one. One big volume. It’s going to be super interesting to see when it comes out, because there is no book like it. I think people are expecting more of a romantic kind of soft book with versions of pickled herring that are easy to make – and that’s also there. But I want it to be all-representing. From the taco quiche to the fermented bird’s egg.