Fäviken, the "world's most daring restaurant," is a 12-seat barn on a 24,000-acre hunting estate 375 miles north of Stockholm, in northwestern Sweden. As a teen, the chef, Magnus Nilsson -- who has been described as "part Viking lumberjack and part Shaman" -- created a 20 year business plan that ended with him running the world's best restaurant. But after working at Michelin three-starred Parisian restaurants L'Arpège and L'Astrance, Nilsson stopped cooking and trained to be a sommelier. Working at Fäviken brought him back to the kitchen, and now, the restaurant is ranked thirty-fourth in the world.
This past month, the twenty-eight-year old chef published Fäviken (£35 / €45/ $49.99, Phaidon 2012, www.phaidon.com). But unlike most cookbooks, Fäviken is not a recipe book. The quantities are given as guidelines rather than exact instructions, techniques very rarely include cooking times or temperatures, and the average home cook is unlikely to prepare any of the recipes. Instead, Nilsson hopes the featured people, products, and techniques inspire readers to make something of their own.
Just as the best travel books describe an internal and external journey, Fäviken tells the story of a chef discovering his cuisine in the woods of Sweden. The sense of place is palpable and this is both an aspirational and inspirational ode to nature. Nilsson's restaurant is local, sustainable, and seasonal out of necessity, and as a result, he appreciates his ingredients.
In an age where you can find the same food anywhere in the world and have little knowledge of the ingredients in your overly processed power bar or how many miles your organic raspberries traveled, it is refreshing to see Nilsson working with real food and using techniques--preserving, hunting, and foraging--central to the ancient past. Nilsson takes control of the entire process from growing and sourcing each exceptional and unique ingredient to plating the final dish.
Recently I sat down with him at the NoMad Hotel library to discuss his book, philosophy, restaurant, and the future.
Louise McCready Hart: Your philosophy about food is called Rektún mat.
Magnus Nilsson: It means real food. It is something my grandfather used to say when I grew up and it has so much meaning to me.
LMH: In the US, different organizations talk about real food as in not processed, not manipulated.
MN: It's food from the surroundings, from the farm and the earth.
LMH: I like your idea for a drivers' license equivalent for meat-eaters for which the test would be raising and getting to know the animal before killing and eating it.
MN: I think that would make a huge difference.
LMH: I have visited Bev Eggleston's small and humane processing plant in Virginia, but the regulations in the US make it so difficult for a small farmer. I admire the fact that you raise your animals, butcher them, and age them. How much do you see yourself as a scientist, how much a farmer or hunter, and how much a chef?
MN: I am first and foremost a cook, but for me, all those other parts are part of the cooking process. Cooking doesn't start when you put something in the pan. It starts when you select the seeds for the carrot or talk to the farmer.
LMH: Those who are unfamiliar with your restaurant might lump you and René Redzepi into the same New Nordic Cuisine.
MN: They quite often do. The comparison is inevitable, and I don't mind it because anyone who has been to both restaurants will see that they are very different. What I have a problem with is New Nordic Cuisine where a large region that is very diverse, with four different countries that are very different from each other, is bunched together. No one would take a Spanish chef, an Italian chef, and a French chef and call it central European cooking.
LMH: You said different publishers came to you wanting you to do a book. Can you tell me a little bit about how it came about and what the process was like?
MN: I enjoyed it a lot. I was approached by a few different publishers and chose Phaidon because they make great books and they are very good at distributing their books all over the world, which is the purpose of doing this book. I started writing in early September and handed in the bulk of the material by the end of the year. We kept sending in recipes and working on the text all through spring and finished May this year.
LMH: The introduction to Fäviken sounds like the beginning of a manifesto for how to rediscover nature and one's place in the world through food. What would you like your readers to gain?
MN: I hope that they have a nice read and that they like it. I hope that I can explain the context for our food and why this makes sense for where we are.
LMH: The role of a chef has changed dramatically over the past ten, twenty years. Today, chefs are expected to become a brand with lucrative deals that eclipse their work in a kitchen--or multiple kitchens. What is your 20-year plan now?
MN: The past two or three years, I was focused on figuring out the framework for how we want to run the restaurant. That's pretty much done now and we're quite satisfied with how things are going. Now our plan is to continue developing within that framework, working towards perfection. I don't know how long that will take--five or ten or twenty years? One day Fäviken is going to be finished and I'm going to know that it's finished. It's not going to be developing anymore for the restaurant or me personally.
LMH: You've written that you don't believe in change for the sake of change, but that you do believe in evolution of dishes. Have you travels on this book tour provided any inspiration?
MN: I'm sure it has, but I don't know how. It's not like I've seen things and picked out menus straightaway. I don't work that way. I think in every craft or profession where there is an amount of creativity involved, the end result, the product, is everything you experienced coming together at some point through your craftsmanship and your skills. I think that like everything you do inspires you. It's not always visible, but it's there.