Fäviken's Magnus Nilsson on his new cookbook and enduring the Swedish wilderness
Blazing a trail from his 24-seat restaurant in the Swedish wilderness, Magnus Nilsson is an enigma. We talk to him about his career, his new cookbook and why restaurants are different in the Nordics
By Lydia Winter
Published: Friday 27th November 2015
With his long, wild hair, steely gaze and fabled restaurant in a remote corner of the Swedish wilderness, Magnus Nilsson is a hard man to picture in the Basil Fawlty role.
But that, says the Fäviken head chef, is exactly how it felt in the restaurant's early days, when he joined as a wine consultant only to end up running the show. "It was just me doing everything," he explains. "It was like Fawlty Towers."
But Nilsson is downplaying things. In 2008, he took on the dual role of Fäviken's sommelier and head chef alone, and transformed the tiny space into one of Europe's most sought-after dining destinations. So when you learn that he's spent the past three years developing a book containing more than 700 recipes – not to mention taking all the accompanying landscape photography himself – at the same time as running a restaurant with a reputation for the extraordinary, it's hard not to wonder what's driving him.
His series-stealing appearance on Netflix's Chef's Table (which he says he'll never watch) showed someone with a quiet intensity, who demands perfection in the kitchen and keeps a close eye on the business of running it.
But while it's clear he didn't go looking for the limelight, it appears to have found him anyway – despite Fäviken's defiantly hard-to-reach location. And, listening to him talk about Nordic cooking – a subject he says he initially had no interest in writing about – you can see why. His authoritative air belies the fact that he's still only 31, and his knowledge of Nordic food is as vast as you'd expect from someone who claims to own more than 400 books on the subject.
Fäviken's landscape is barely hospitable for six months of the year
Nevertheless, casually dressed in head-to-toe black and armed for our feeble autumn weather with a thick plaid jacket, Nilsson remains warm and approachable as he chats about the pros and cons of being at the helm of a restaurant known for restless innovation.
Fäviken's unusual menu – trout roe served in a shell of dried pig's blood, and scallops cooked over juniper branches are just a couple of examples of what you might come across – was born out of Nilsson's interest in traditional Nordic cooking, which he studies and then reinvents using ingredients that are all farmed or foraged on its 20,000 acre estate. And that's what makes Fäviken one-of-a-kind: the landscape is an almost inhospitable wilderness for six months of the year, meaning that the kitchen looks to methods of preservation that are hundreds, even thousands of years old, and works the unique resultant flavours into his dishes.
The Nordic Cookbook is a no-holds-barred documentation of Nordic cuisine, whether it's the killing and eating of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands or the collecting of guillemot eggs in Iceland – both topics that are viewed rather sensitively on our side of the North sea. We talk to the man redefining Nordic cooking, for people at home and abroad.
What distinguishes true Nordic cuisine from other northern European cooking?
It's probably one of the most misunderstood food regions, simply because of the way it's talked about and consumed – which is mostly in people's homes. If you and I were to go to a restaurant in Madrid, there's a pretty good chance we could have a traditional Spanish meal that's quite representative of the way people eat in their homes on a weekday, and you can't do that in any of the Nordic cities, or at least not as far as I know. There are plenty of restaurants but they're not really a good representation of what people actually eat.
Why do you think that is?
Because it's not really in our culture. If you look at southern Europe, half the food culture has been carried by restaurants for a very long time – the idea of going out to eat has been there for a long time.
In the Nordic countries, restaurants were usually somewhere you went once every two years to celebrate something, or maybe where you went to get drunk – or a bit of both – and that's it. I think that's a real pity, because it means it's really difficult to discover more than just well-known classics like herring, gravlax and meatballs without someone showing you the dishes in their own home.
Do Nordic people actually use the techniques and recipes in the book every day, or have they moved on and now you're resurrecting them?
Some are used every day. For me, it was important that this book was not going to be purely a historical, romanticised portrait of food culture, so it contains rare and historical dishes because you need them in order to understand the more common dishes of today. But most of what's in The Nordic Cookbook is stuff that's cooked on an everyday basis in many Nordic homes, and I think that to me was really, really important.
Most people don't even know which countries make up the Nordics
How did The Nordic Cookbook come about?
I was asked to do this book by Phaidon, and I declined. I was little bit offended that they wanted to do a book about a food culture that I felt didn't exist, because they're all separate countries and cultures. I thought it was a little bit offensive to lump them into one cookbook – like taking Italian, Spanish and French cuisine, throwing in some German and calling it a European cookbook.
But later on I realised this was why the book was necessary – because most people, even within the region itself, don't even know which countries make up the Nordic region, and even less so what you eat in the different parts, how they're all tied together and how they differ from each other. That's kind of the idea of the book – to explain all these cultural factors that underline the way people eat.
Nordic cooking is closely linked to the natural environment – are things different in London?
Different dishes and techniques are always closely linked to the place where they are practised, regardless of whether you're in London or northern Scandinavia – it's just that the environment is very different. In a big city like London, Paris or wherever, you'll have a much greater influx of different cultures and that's what defines the food culture there. For me, from the north of Sweden, wilderness and nature will be a bigger part of what makes up my food culture.
Why did you take all the photos yourself?
Photography has been my passion for more than 20 years, and it seemed convenient – my commissioning editor had seen some photos I'd taken and liked them, so she asked me if I wanted to do it.
It made sense, because you couldn't produce the kind of photography we have in this book by commissioning a photographer. Many of the shots aren't planned – they're just things that happened when we were out researching and meeting people.
The book includes some images and descriptions of killing and eating whales and seals that might shock people in the UK. How would it be viewed in Nordic countries?
Well, where I come from we don't eat whale or seal and it's viewed much the same way it is here – it's a very strange thing. But I pushed very hard to get those photos in the book because I feel that if you set out to document a culture you can't censor it based on opinions like that. If you do, it's not documentation – it's a fairytale-ised, fake picture of reality. These are very important cultural expressions, even though they're practised by very few people.
The whaling shown in the book, for example, takes place in the Faroe Islands and it's not practised by many thousands of people – but it's such a big part of their culture and it wouldn't be complete without me describing it. I tried hard not to impose too many of my opinions on the subject matter as such, but I just wanted to describe the whales. And if I had an opinion somewhere, I always kept it separate from the recipes or the method and noted it separately in the introduction.
Even though you trained as a chef and worked in restaurants in Paris for several years, you joined Fäviken as a sommelier. Why?
Because I was tired of cooking. I was going to start a restaurant in Paris and had a project lined up, but when the financial crisis hit that was over and I couldn't find anything interesting to do. I came back to Sweden with the intention of returning to France.
You changed Fäviken radically when you arrived – why?
Because it wasn't functioning, and because I was asked by the owners. I came to do wine consultancy, basically, and they asked if I wanted to stay and help them change the restaurant. They bought the estate in 2003 and got the restaurant as part of the deal. They renovated the whole estate massively, turning it into something very, very high quality, but they didn't feel the restaurant at the time matched their ideas about what Fäviken was going to become.
So they asked me if I wanted to stay one more year and be part of the changes – they said that they wanted a restaurant that utilised the produce that's already there. I said I thought the restaurant should be small enough that it would be full every day – rather than having 80 seats on a Saturday and 10 on a Tuesday – and it needed to be good enough to merit the journey. That was the basis of it.
Fäviken's famously small – would you ever consider expanding it?
Fäviken is bigger now than it was in the very beginning, when it had eight seats and it was only me working there. The next step was 12 seats, and I employed one chef and one manager in the dining room, then two years ago we maximised the dining room to make it 16 seats, Finally, last year we added a communal table in the entrance hall with another 8 seats, so it's really 24 seats. People tend to not put much emphasis on that because it's much cooler if it's 12 seats.
I've found 24 is a really good number. We employ close to 25 staff in the restaurant – with 12 seats, that would be halved, and that's half the people involved in the creative process. Every aspect of the restaurant today is better, but I don't think we should have more than 24 seats. It's at capacity now.
What about expanding beyond Fäviken?
I like to have different businesses, like our hot dog place [Nilsson set up a hot dog stand in the ski resort of Åre called Korvkiosk] and the little charcuterie factory we bought three years ago. The whole idea was to make everyday charcuterie, using the same quality as Fäviken but for local retail and local supermarkets. It worked out really well – it's still there – and as a natural consequence of that we started doing hot dogs.
But when it comes to restaurants, creating even one takes a long time, and I've not had the urge to build another. If you want to spread your ideas more widely, there are better ways of doing it than opening more restaurants; if you want to make more money, there are also many other ways. It's difficult to run restaurants right.