Sometimes a person is intrinsically connected to her home, it's as if she is a living embodiment of that sense of place. Chef Magnus Nilsson is one such person and his bond with his home of Järpen, Sweden is undeniable.
With wild long hair it's easy to make a comparison to the rustic, stark, near arctic-like landscape of Jämtland province, where he's based in the central-western corner of the country. But watch him speak about what he loves and you begin to see a softer side as a friendly boyish grin comes out. That discovery is not unlike the foraged, hidden ingredients starring in his gorgeous nature-inspired dishes, and speaks to the underlying warmth and beauty of his home.
That dichotomy was on display when he spoke earlier in October to an audience of devoted food lovers that included many local chefs at George Ignatieff Theatre in Toronto. The event, which helped highlight the release of the Nilsson's Fäviken cookbook, was hosted by The Cookbook Store and its proprietor Alison Fryer and kicked-off the store's autumn series of speaking events.
Nilsson's cooking at Fäviken Magasinet has been touted as part of the new Nordic cuisine movement, whose most well-known advocate is René Redzepi and his team at the world renowned Danish restaurant Noma. Both restaurants share a core philosophy where local and seasonal drive what's on the plate. That means foraged, native ingredients play a staring role, plating is often inspired by the Nordic landscape, menus are driven by the seasons and there's a reinterpreting of traditional Nordic flavours running through it all. Given that the comparison of Nilsson to Redzepi isn't entirely off, but it's not quite apt either. Nilsson isn't entirely comfortable with the comparison either. He sees Redzepi's food has very different and unique from his own. When you flip through Fäviken and see the minimalist approach to his dishes and plating you begin to understand his reservations.
Much of the media attention has been focused on Nilsson's meat dishes. There are magazine pictorials of him in a traditional wolf fur coat and hunting for wild game in the 20,000 acre estate where the restaurant sits. Many words have also been devoted to a marrow dish that has him sawing through a cow bone in the dining room before presenting it to customers. It all builds an image as if he's some sort of modern day viking, but it's at odds with his true passion and much of the focus at Fäviken Magasinet: vegetables.
“Favriken is not a meat-focused restaurant. For me the vegetables are what drive the food,” he said. “When you change the vegetables, you change the dish.” In such a northern location, which is more or less on the same latitude as the world's northernmost capital Reykjavík, Iceland, growing produce can be a little bit challenging. But the restaurant staff, which includes a gardener, have come-up with ingenious solutions. For instance, they make use of black cloth over the garden's soil to capture more of the sun's warmth. The result is a climate closer to southern Sweden. Aside from the obvious tropical fruit and citrus, the only real limit to what they can grow is tomatoes, celeriac and most tree fruit. Combining this with preserving techniques (pickling or canning as well as natural long term storage) means that even in a short growing season the restaurant is able to serve a variety of local vegetables throughout the year.
Talking preserving techniques also brings out another side of Nilsson. He's always had a love of science and at one point wanted to study marine biology. That love has stuck with him. He enjoys bringing science into the kitchen wherever possible and can cite studies, which have shown that in the right environment (90% humidity and sandy at consistent temperature) a fresh leek can last about 9.5 months without deteriorating. On the other hand he also believes that cooking is all about the senses and feelings it evokes. So even though there's no better way to cook a piece of meat or an egg to a consistent and even temperature throughout than sous-vide, you won't find an immersion circulator in Fäviken Magasinet. The restaurant does all its cooking over direct heat. Nilsson views sous-vide as the easiest and most base way to provide the highest quality results, but he sees no love in the technique. In his cookbook and during the interview he says cooking all comes down to pleasure. Both in the kitchen and the table, the sights, sounds, tastes and feelings not only give us pleasure, but last long after the meal is done. For Nilsson you simply can't experience that deep connection to the food cooking in a sealed bag as you do cooking over an open flame.
Nilsson is also a student of history, tradition and local mythology, so you detect a bit of surprise in his voice when people bring-up all the accolades and attention he has received recently. He readily admits he often uses ingredients and techniques like preserving that have long been used in the region. However where he seems to depart from that historical tradition and mythology is that he isn't bound by them. “I don't think about Thor and then make a dish,” he half joked. Like anyone working creatively he's inspired by the traditions he exerpeinced growing up in nearby Östersund and what's around him now in Järpen. For instance he uses lichen, a plant similar to moss, that's been used throughout northern Scandinavia as an alternative medicine and food. The hitch is that lichen is naturally very bitter—he refers to it as something you traditionally ate when you had nothing else. At Fäviken Magasinet he steams it for a long time to neutralise its acidity and then, for textural reasons, he gives it a quick flash fry. For those who have extensive experience with Scandinavian food, this preparation seems to change perceptions of lichen. One of the attendees who visited the restaurant, remarked that she never thought she'd eat lichen, let alone enjoy it. It's that drawing on the tradition and then re-interpreting it, that excites Nilsson and puts a smile on his face.
One of the challenges he addressed in the book and the talk, was the restaurant's remote destination. As Fryer remarked it's a plane, train and car away for most, so the restaurant's concept need not only be executed well, it needs to be unique and compelling for people to travel all that way. For Nilsson it made no sense to recreate something like the French dishes he learned in Paris. If people wanted that type of food they'd visit the source. So foraging, hunting for wild game, sourcing fresh local seafood and growing his own produce wasn't a just a philosophy, it was a necessity if he wanted the best possible product for a remote restaurant that only serves under twenty customers a night. He's still discovering new things foraging and feels he's a long way from discovering the region's full potential. Ironically, it's a situation like this where not having access to everything, actually makes creativity flourish. For instance no citrus meant he looked to vinegars and foraged plants like berries and leaves for the bright lift that a slight bit of acidity can provide for food.
He doesn't think it's ironic that people travel sometimes hundreds or thousands of kilometers to taste food with a very local focus, but he does find it interesting. For Nilsson the key to success with a local-focus isn't inherit in the land or proximity. “Local isn't better because of where it's grown,” he said. “It's better because of the relationships you develop from your dialogue with your farmers.” That back and forth dialogue is key understanding each other's desires and needs and partnering to produce something truly exceptional on the plate.
Nilsson's local-focus also dictates how he prepares food. If you put an enormous amount of effort into sourcing or growing the tastiest carrot or scallop, Nilsson feels your dish should look and taste appealing on the plate. But in doing so it need not look clever nor be transformed into something that barely resembles the original ingredient in both look and taste.
One of Nilsson's most interesting and somewhat unconventional thoughts is on meat. Like many chefs the flavour of well-raised beef or pork is something he wouldn't give up, but at the same time he understands and appreciated that means an animal must be slaughtered and the raising of it is energy and resource intensive. Along those lines many local-focused chefs make the effort to source grass-fed and naturally raised local beef that they butcher in house, so they can make use of everything and dry age it for the best flavour. Nilsson does all that, but takes things a step further only using older, retired dairy cows for beef and pigs that come from dairy farms and are fed a diet of traditional byproducts like whey. Just like his produce Nilsson is all about flavour first, so he wouldn't be doing this if he didn't find the flavour of beef and pork raised this way better. But he also finds the modern process of breeding livestock for a single purpose terribly inefficient and wasteful. For him this is a way of hopefully changing the practice back to something more traditional.
What really strikes about Nilsson right now is that he seems like he's in a place where his youthful energy has come into balance with wisdom earned. He's quick to give credit to Pascal Barbot of L'Astrance for inspiring his ingredient-driven approach. Where he was initially very frustrated at himself seeing elements of Barbot's plating style in his dishes, he's now come to terms that it's part of him. Instead he focuses his energy on creating a menu with a distinct philosophy at Fäviken Magasinet that is far away from the new French cuisine with Asian flourishes that Barbot cooks. It's been about three-and-a-half years since Fäviken Magasinet opened, but Nilsson says it has really begun to hit its stride in the past year and a half with Johan Agrell as a partner taking over front of house duties. Although he still loves and makes it a point for he and his staff to serve guests in the dining room and interact with them. Not being the sole employee, like he was in the early days, has given him a little more time to refine things at Fäviken Magasinet and explore what's possible.
Nilsson just finished a U.S. tour for the book, but for those intrigued by his philosophy the best place to experience it is by booking a table at his restaurant. For those looking for an experience closer to home, the Fäviken cookbook is available. But it's not the type of cookbook for those looking to visit the market and spend a weekend precisely recreating the restaurant's dishes. Even if you could source foraged ingredients like lichen, details like precise temperatures and timing aren't given in the recipes. It's also not how he cooks. Instead Nilsson devotes much of the book to providing a detailed explanation of the philosophy behind the dishes and restaurant. The hope is that adventurous cooks are inspired by what they read and swap out local and seasonal ingredients to suit their tastes, ultimately creating dishes of their own in the spirit of Fäviken. Given Nilsson's background and cooking philosophy that seems fitting.
Fäviken by Magnus Nilsson
Availability: The Cookbook Store
The Cookbook Store is also hosting similar talks with chefs about their newly released books including:
Famed California chef Tomas Keller (the French Laundry, Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, Per Se) talking about his new Bouchon Bakery book at 7pm on Oct. 30th at Isabel Bader Theatre, 93 Charles St. West, Toronto.
Amrita Sondhi talking about her book Tastes of Ayurveda at 6:30pm on Nov. 6th at the Cookbook Store, 850 Yonge Street (at Yorkville).
Anupy Singla talking about her book Vegan Indian Cooking at 7pm on Nov. 8th at the Cookbook Store 850 Yonge Street (at Yorkville).
Margaret Howard and Marjorie Hollands talking about the new edition of their Choice Menus: Low Sodium Version book, geared towards cooking for those on restricted diets, at 7pm on Nov. 14th at the Cookbook Store, 850 Yonge Street (at Yorkville).
Elizabeth Baird and Rose Murray talking about their new book Canada's Favourite Recipes at 6:30pm on Nov. 23rd at the Cookbook Store, 850 Yonge Street (at Yorkville).
Jennifer Low talking about her new book Everyday Kitchen for Kids at 2pm on Dec. 8th at the Cookbook Store, 850 Yonge Street (at Yorkville).
All details for all these events are available at the Cookbook Store's site or by phone at 416.920.2665.