Magnus Nilsson, chef, Fäviken
If you don’t open yourself to new influences and new experiences it’s going to be impossible to remain creative ...
Running one of the world’s best restaurants is no easy task, especially when you have to juggle commitments outside of the kitchen as well. Magnus Nilsson is a very busy chef – not only is he responsible for elevating Sweden’s Fäviken to the lofty spot of 25 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, he appears on two television shows and has just released a new cookbook. The Nordic Cookbook took three years of work to complete and is being hailed as one of the most comprehensive encyclopaedias the Nordic cuisine, which encompasses food from numerous countries. The tome is being released through Phaidon Books and we used the opportunity to pick Magnus’s brain on his love of food, how he juggled the workload involved in making the book and what keeps him engaged in the kitchen.
What inspired your love of cooking?
Cooking was always really important in my family. We ate really well when I grew up – like every one was always cooking. Both of my parents cooked a lot, so it’s just been there, you know. It’s was always something that was really important.
So, when did you decide that you wanted to do it for a living?
That was when I started high school. I went to high school for cooking.
You’ve since trained in some of the best restaurants in the world and you are currently running one of the best restaurants in the world – did you ever imagine that your love of cooking would bring you to this level?
Yes, I did actually. (laughs) That was always kind of the goal, obviously when you are starting out and you haven’t seen much you are pretty naïve about what success really means, but that was the goal from the very beginning.
Did you imagine that you’d end up specialising in Nordic cuisine, or was it something that you actively pursued?
I never really thought about it that way. For any creative person what you end up with – the product, what you produce – is kind of a composite of everything you have with you. Being Swedish, being Nordic and having that in my culture, it inevitably becomes a big part of what I do. I never tried to push it in any particular direction except for being better.
What is it about Nordic cooking that you love the most? Aside from it being part of your cultural heritage, what are some of the aspects about it that makes it such a rich cuisine?
What makes Nordic home cooking very interesting is that it is such a vast region geographically. Its not homogenous, there are many different countries in the region and many different cultures in the region so it really varies a lot. I knew that going into the project, writing the book, but I didn’t quite realise the extent until I was halfway through the research. There is a huge difference across the region. You can imagine from southeast Finland toward the Russian border to all the way up in Greenland – it’s pretty diverse.
The Nordic Cookbook is quite a substantial tome – what was your main reason for starting it? In the introduction you mentioned that up until now there hadn’t been a proper representation of the cuisine published. Did that factor in as well?
It was one of the reasons, for sure. The main reason is that Nordic cooking has received so much attention in the last couple of years but no one really knows what it is – not even within the region! Most of the information that is there is recipes for the herrings and the gravlax and the meatballs. You see some weird YouTube videos of Anthony Bourdain eating rotten shark from Iceland and then you have a few articles on restaurants – like Fäviken or Noma for example – and those things aren’t representative of Nordic every day eating. That’s what I wanted to expand on, basically.
Obviously there was a fair amount of travel – did you use the experience to explore and find out what was out there for your own inspiration?
Oh definitely. It has been super interesting. Going around and meeting all these people has been one of the great parts of putting the book together, for sure.
You do a great job of showcasing the similarities of the countries you visit, but was it a priority for you to point out the unique elements of what each country provides to Nordic cuisine as a whole?
Absolutely. For me, one of the reasons I didn’t want to write the book in the beginning was that it’s not a homogenous region. No one in the Nordic region identifies himself or herself as being Nordic. I really wanted to explain that to anyone who hasn’t got that already. I wanted to highlight what makes the different countries special but what also makes them similar to each other.
How long did the process take from inception to completion?
About three years. It was a long time in one way, but for this project it was perhaps not such a long amount of time.
How did you go about running your successful restaurant Fäviken with the commitments required for this book?
It’s always been a part of Fäviken to make research a priority, so I just integrated it into there. As well with Fäviken, its easy for journalists to write about something – when they don’t have much space or time – to pick the most obvious and extreme things and focus on that. Because of this I think people have gotten two things wrong about Fäviken. One is how remote it is, because it’s not very remote in comparison to many other things and second is how small the restaurant is – because at Fäviken we have 21 employees so its not a small work place. At the company with the charcuterie production and all we have 47 employees. There is a lot of capacity there to do other projects and stuff like that that.
Did you bring ideas and inspiration from your research back to the restaurant?
Definitely, and it’s going to continue like that as well. I’ve just finished this book so there hasn’t been time to get that much of it in yet but as I said earlier, every creative person is making and producing things that are composite. Obviously because this has been such a big part of my everyday life over the last three years it’s going to become a big part of the restaurant as well.
When you were sitting down and collating everything, did it ever strike you how it might have been too much for one book? Would you ever imagine trying to make a second volume?
There is loads of material that didn’t make it to the book. But now it would be the question of what would you do with it then? I tried to represent the whole region in one go so I don’t know how I would break down a second volume because you can’t do the same thing again with different recipes. Maybe we can do separate things? A Nordic baking book perhaps – about specific areas and specific techniques, I guess.
One thing that I thought was very interesting about the book is how you incorporated images of the landscape of the places you visited. How important was the relationship between landscape and food?
I think its very important because food comes from the circumstances where it is practiced, where it makes sense for it to be practiced for different reasons. I felt like it was important to have documentation of the different parts and it ended up being a big part of the book. It came quite naturally because I travelled so much around the region to do research I also had the opportunity to photograph in a way that you couldn’t do if you commissioned a photographer. You could have a photo budget of 20,000 euros for a book like this, and for a good photographer that is a week or ten days worth of work. You’d have to have them go to one country a day to make that work, basically. For me being able to bring my camera alongside the research and snapping away when things happen I think has really enriched the content of the book.
Is photography a side passion for you?
Yes, I have always done it. I was given my first camera when I was six or seven years old and I kept doing it but only for fun.
In order to help inform the research and direction of the book you conducted a survey of locals. The foreword mentions that there were recipes that you’d never come across – what trends or tastes did you unearth that you were unfamiliar with?
The most interesting thing with the survey actually was to see how different people perceive their food culture to what it actually is. If you ask people to give you a list of five everyday dishes from their country – like Sweden for example has meatballs and fried salted herring – they are definitely Swedish but they are not every day dishes. Very few people would cook these dishes on an every day basis but they are dishes that are linked to the culture of the country, and what they cook every day is completely different. This was also part of the book – that I tried to include dishes that aren’t necessarily the oldest dishes; I included dishes that had been developed over the past 20 or 30 years.
I noticed the blend between traditional and contemporary – each dish you write about has some historical context noted. Did you always want to provide that exposition for readers?
I think it’s quite important because if you don’t understand where things came from and what was done before and why, it is very difficult to relate to how we do it today.
What do you hope international readers will take from the Nordic cookbook?
I really hope that they read it and not just use it as a recipe collection. I hope that they read the narrative content because half of the book is narrative and half is recipes, roughly. I really hope it makes people excited about Nordic food and expands their knowledge of Nordic food beyond the most common things.
You’ve done work in front of the camera at times throughout your career on shows such as Mind of a Chef and Chef’s Table. What do you enjoy most about being able to participate in those types of projects?
I feel that we have something to say with Fäviken. One of the reasons the restaurant is what it is today is because we have something to say about food and how we eat. To do these television things about Fäviken as it is a really good way of documenting that and reaching a broader audience. Fäviken is, after all, a small restaurant – we do about four and half thousand customers a year, which is not that many. I think that Mind of a Chef had sixty five million viewers so obviously it reaches many more people that couldn’t possibly get to the restaurant. If I didn’t feel like I had something to say I wouldn’t do it.
What keeps you inspired and progressing the craft of cooking?
Mostly things that aren’t kitchen related, actually (laughs). The thing is that when you start cooking and when you start your first own restaurant all you want to do is cook, it’s the only thing you want to do because its been your dream for such a long time. To me after while you realise you can’t continue doing only that because that is not a full life. If you don’t open yourself for new influences and new experiences it’s going to be impossible to remain creative. For me it came down to a big decision two years ago, either I stayed in the restaurant every day it was open, did everything myself and continued doing everything as we had done it before or we expanded the restaurant a little bit, employed some more people, started charging a bit more and created dedicated creative time. We chose the second option and made it possible to do other things. I am very glad for that today, I don’t think the restaurant would have been open today otherwise. There is not point in running a restaurant like Fäviken unless it is fun, it’s fantastic to be able to meet people and get to be creative in other ways. You have to do other things.
If you are keen to try one of Magnus Nilsson’s recipes, have a go at making Swedish raw potato dumplings with sugared lingonberries, which can be found in The Nordic Cookbook out through Phaidon Books.