Nilsson, 32, is one of the most innovative chefs working today. He was a grade-A student at school but opted for a cooking career instead of studying marine biology. When he talks about food, it is clear why. He has the most vivid food memories, all imbued with the textures, colours, smell and light of the countryside where he grew up.
‘It is autumn, probably moose-hunting season. The colours in the trees are almost supernaturally bright,’ he writes in his first book, Fäviken. ‘The air in the kitchen is full of the scents rising from the stove and what Grandma is cooking. I’m four years old, possibly five… The entire moment can be condensed into one phrase: rektun mat – real food.’ Shortly after his 15th birthday, Nilsson wrote a letter to himself setting out the next 20 years. In it was the promise that he would run the best restaurant in the world. He still reads it for inspiration.
As soon as he had a bit of cooking experience in Sweden, Nilsson left to explore Paris and got a job at L’Astrance, the small, ambitious Michelin-starred restaurant run by Pascal Barbot. The relentless perfectionism there refined Nilsson’s aims. When Nilsson came to Fäviken it was a ‘moose and fondue’ kind of place on a huge estate in Jämtland, the area of Sweden he comes from. He never intended to stay, but eventually the owners, now his business partners, persuaded him to take on the restaurant and shape it.
The resulting restaurant takes only 24 diners, and everyone stays the night. You are surrounded by log-cabin cosiness – wood, wool, candles, fires – but it is not cute. The tables are sleek; green leaves sit in plain glass vases; the ceramics are earthy. ‘Sometimes I stand in the stairwell and listen to the guests having a good time,’ Nilsson tells me. ‘The food is the main thing, but if they enjoy the place as well that is a bonus.’
A key feature of Nordic cookery is that it puts the outside – pine forests, lakes and seas – on the plate. The fresh scent of dill, the chill of sour cream, the smokiness of cured fish – these ingredients are stamped with Scandinavia. But at Fäviken the transition from land and sea to plate is even clearer. Yes, everything on the menu is shot, grown, cured and fermented by local farmers or the Fäviken team, but nothing prepares you for the experience of eating a landscape that you get here: the ‘porridge’ with seeds, fermented carrot and tiny leaves served with game broth ‘filtered through moss’; the wild duck with fermented beans from the local lupin plant.
To say that Nilsson cooks ‘local, seasonal food’ is like saying Ted Hughes wrote quite good poetry about gardens. It is easy to laugh at it from afar – the seriousness of the approach – but when you smell the moss on that broth, you get the point. Nilsson has invigorated the area around Fäviken and, along with René Redzepi of Noma in Denmark, has made people all over Scandinavia value the food their countries produce and their traditional techniques. ‘We never had a restaurant culture here,’ Nilsson says. ‘For long stretches of the year it is cold and dark, and places can be cut off. Your main meal of the day was always taken at home. If you went to a restaurant, you got French food. Now we have a growing restaurant culture, and home cooks are looking at Scandinavian produce more positively.’
Home cooking is the focus of Nilsson’s second book, The Nordic Cookbook, a tome containing 700 recipes, including those below.
He was reluctant when the publishers first approached him. Nordic cuisine? ‘It’s like writing a book full of British, Portuguese and Spanish recipes and calling it The European Cookbook.’ Most of what has been published about Scandinavian home cookery, he says, ‘sucks’. ‘The food in it is a vague reflection of something that is restauranty and central-European in style, but with lingonberries added to it.’
He wanted to do a comprehensive, trailblazing work on the subject. Three years after he started researching, he had amassed 11,000 recipes and articles, travelled from the Faroe Islands to the Sami region, and enlisted the help of colleagues, experts and his aunt Birgitta.
It is an honest book. Some dishes, such as a pudding made with cow’s colostrum, are uncookable as you are unlikely to find the ingredients; others, such as taco quiche, are quirky modern recipes that most food writers, trying to weave an idyllic view of the region, would have omitted. There are also great versions of classics (including five recipes for split-pea soup).
Has the research impacted what he makes at Fäviken? ‘Yes, in so many ways. Techniques and ingredients have had an influence, but they will come out of the kitchen here filtered through me.’
He rolls his eyes when I mention the phrase ‘new Nordic’. He did not sign up to the manifesto put together by Redzepi – ‘I don’t like rules. Food is an evolving thing’ – though he adheres to many of the principles it espouses.
Nilsson does his own thing. He is not just a gifted cook; he knows that fame and the specialness of Fäviken bring him the money, and therefore freedom, to do what he wants to do: experiment. ‘But I won’t be here in 15 years,’ he says. ‘I don’t know where I’ll be, but I get restless. And I want to write more.’
I just want to go back to Fäviken to see what is coming out of that restless brain. And I’m already looking forward to another book.
The Nordic Cookbook (Phaidon, £29.95), is available from Telegraph Books for£24.95 with free p&p
Original Article is HERE