“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” — Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast
Magnus Nilsson wasn't always the prototypical northern Swedish chef, foraging for ingredients in a seemingly barren landscape dominated by winters. The man behind Fäviken started his culinary career in Paris, working briefly at Alain Passard's Arpège before settling in for three years in the mid-2000s at L'Astrance under Pascal Barbot. The experience clearly had an outsized effect on Nilsson, a native of a medium-sized Swedish town, who went on to create what is now rates as the world's 19th best restaurant. Here, he tells us about how the lessons he still carries from his sojourn in Paris, which ended when he took a detour into wine education and returned to Sweden.
Can you go back in time a little bit to your arrival in Paris and tell me a little bit about what that was like for you?
I didn’t plan to go there and work. I went there on vacation and I stayed. For quite a long time.
I think most chefs that are ambitious, they think they have it figured out with produce, and they think they have the necessary infrastructure and stuff to actually create the best food. But most of the time that’s actually not the case. And I think to me that’s the most important thing in having gone to Paris, aside from learning the language, is the broadening of the frame of reference, when it comes to what’s possible and which materials you can have access to. Especially with produce, it’s something that I think a lot about. Because which chef will say that they work with anything except the best produce? Everyone says that and that simply can’t be true. And I think that’s probably not the manifestation of people trying to trick anyone, it’s just that – if you haven’t seen anything better, or if you haven’t got that frame of reference, you can’t possibly know. And to me that was the most important part of going to Paris. Just to have that huge frame of reference and seeing the enormous flow of produce in the market, in the restaurants, on the wholesale market on Thursdays. Because then you quickly learn that there are so many dimensions to produce and that one product that is the best for you might not always be the best for someone else. That’s important.
So you were from a fairly small town in northern Sweden, and you get to Paris. How was it just in terms of being a young man in Paris? Were you excited by the city?
Yeah yeah. Fantastic. I’d lived for a while in the south of Sweden, near Copenhagen. And in Stockholm. I didn’t like Stockholm much. It’s a fantastic city but I don’t like living there. And to me [Paris] is exciting on so many other levels. Professionally of course, with all of the great restaurants and all the produce and that level of excellency that you can find there that I hadn’t seen before. But also the city in itself. The amount of people and the culture. Everything that was happening, everything that a big city can offer. Which was – even though I’d lived in Stockholm, was kind of new to me. Stockholm is not a big city. It is a small city that sometimes thinks of itself as big. And I thought I was going to live in Paris forever. I didn’t think I was going to go home and I wasn’t planning on going home either.
Did you eventually come to think of yourself as a more urban type of person?
I think I never categorized myself as any different type of person because I always liked an urban environment but I always spent a lot of time in the countryside. Sort of nature. But I never disliked cities. I never disliked the countryside either.
So tell me a little bit about working in Paris kitchens. Working at L'Astrance. Did you feel like it was an education, or was it a job, or was it a little bit of both?
A little of both I would say. The only way to learn cooking is by doing it. When people go to schools and do internships and stuff like that, that’s actually not like regular cooking. In my opinion, you learn cooking when you work in a restaurant, for an extended period of time. You learn craft by repetition, basically. So that was part of it. And then of course [Pascal Barbot] paid for me living in France. Which was on many other levels directly connected to the actual craft of cooking. It’s very important for development of the professional person, the ability to go to all the great restaurants, getting to travel around.
Were there certain French chefs that you were familiar with? And regions that you were excited about going to? How did you decide where you were going to go and what you wanted to see?
I knew about the iconic ones like Paul Bocuse. The iconic modern chefs like Pierre Gagnaire, Michel Bras. But then as you’re spending time there, you get to know people and of course you get more insight into – like when you go to Scandinavia today, you perhaps know about Rene [Redzepi] and me and a couple of other chefs. But there are a hundred more that you find out about when you’re there.
Paris has changed a lot since you left in 2007. What did you think of Paris as a restaurant city and what do you think of it now?
Back then it was a great city for very ambitious restaurants and very fancy restaurants. But the whole mid-range level that you have now there, didn’t exist. All of those great bistros and more casual restaurants, they weren’t there. Chateaubriand was the first one and they opened towards the end of when I lived there, in like 2006 I would guess. I think probably – overall, Paris is a much better eating city now than it used to be.
You went back for an episode of Mind of a Chef, right? How was that experience?
It was fun. We spent quite a lot of time with Pascal. And we met up with Inaki ( Aizpatarte of Chateaubriand), who I worked with at Astrance at the same time as me. Which was nice.
So when you made the decision to go back, was that because – was there any major reason that you made that decision? To go back to Sweden?
It was kind of a coincidence because I was done at L’Astrance. Because I had been there for such a long time. It’s the same problem that we have at Fäviken sometimes. The team is pretty small so there’s very little space for – to advance after a certain point. And Pascal today has never employed a head chef or anything like that. So I felt like I needed to do something else. And I was looking through the contacts of Pascal actually, outside of Paris in Champagne. With a very well known winemaker. And then the financial crisis hit. And I had already gone back to Sweden and I was doing this from a distance, so I was kind of doing a few other things back home.
And you had gotten really into wine as well right?
Yeah that started to happen then as well. And the whole project was put on ice. I had been getting fed up with the restaurant I worked at in Sweden. The produce wasn’t very good, and it wasn’t inspiring. That’s the reason why the wine became more than just a passion.
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