The Long Read: In an age when chefs are regularly compared to artists and philosophers, Magnus Nilsson is among the worlds most renowned. But is the simple act of cooking ever worthy of such veneration?
Magnus Nilsson, the 32-year-old chef at Fviken, Swedens premier fine-dining restaurant, is not fond of repeating himself, but there is one sentence he repeats with such frequency and resolute force that it takes on the quality of a koan: Do it once, perfectly.
He says it when observing that one of his chefs has failed to place the dollop of burnt cream in the same place on every dish, or when explaining why he paid so much for his elaborate recycling and composting facility, which has reduced the restaurants waste to practically nothing.
This, too, was the guiding principle behind his most recent book, an encyclopedic record of the past several hundred years of Nordic home cooking comprising 730 recipes, including about 30 that Nilsson expects no one ever to cook. (That is not the point, he explained. It is a documentary.) When the publisher tried to strike one recipe from the collection because it was both impractical and, they feared, controversial (it included whale meat), Nilsson offered to return his advance and put the manuscript in a drawer, rather than publish it incomplete. He explained his reasoning with an amused shrug: Do it correctly or do not do it.
One of the central theses of The Nordic Cookbook is that a countrys dinner table reveals a great deal about its cultures values, economy, landscape, religions, politics, and even family structure. This idea is not original to Nilsson, but the Nordic Cookbook is the most exhaustive recent attempt to catalogue a segment of the world through its food. To compile it, Nilsson amassed 11,000 articles and 8,000 photographs, interviewed hundreds of people, and travelled to the farthest reaches of the region, from Sami country to the Faroe Islands. He did this in his spare time.
Nilssons day job, however, is running Fviken. Set 375 miles north of Stockholm, deep in the forested province of Jmtland, Fvikens 32-course tasting menu demands a journey: an hours flight from Stockholm to stersund, then a 75-minute drive north-west. Nilsson is quick to point out that the flight from Stockholm actually makes Fviken relatively low-fuss in terms of destination dining nevertheless, the restaurant is positioned like the prize at the end of a quest. Its setting is, especially to non-Swedes, otherworldly. In Jmtland, timberlands and mountain vistas unfold and unfold with little human interruption. There are only three people per square mile. At the height of summer, the sun shines for 24 hours a day. In the winter, the temperature drops to -40C. Reindeer wander the woods.
As a home for a fine-dining restaurant, it is an odd choice, yet Nilssons embrace of this landscape has set him apart as one of the most important, innovative chefs working today. In the eight years since its opening, Fviken has become a pillar of the new Nordic trend in food culture alongside Ren Redzepis Copenhagen restaurant, Noma. Like Redzepi, Nilsson is a forager he is also a hunter and expert gardener and much of his food is designed to bring you into some sort of encounter with its origin. One of his signature dishes is a single scallop poached in its own juices, which arrives at your table in its gigantic shell atop a bed of moss and burning juniper branches cut from behind the kitchen the ocean meeting the forest.
Food as an exercise in high aesthetics has been part of popular culture since the Spanish chef Ferran Adri brought his restaurant, El Bulli, and its pioneering molecular gastronomy lab to international fame in the late 1990s. But Fviken is at the vanguard of restaurants whose food is also talked about as an expression of moral values. This comes, in part, from Nilssons commitment to regional and local sourcing: he cooks almost exclusively with ingredients that can be bought within a few hundred miles. His chefs forage moss, herbs, grasses, mushrooms, flowers and seeds from the grounds every day, and about half the produce for the restaurant is grown in their garden. During the long winter months, when the sun only breaks the horizon line for an hour or two each day and the land is sheathed in snow and ice, the kitchen serves mostly foods they have harvested and foraged in the warm months and then preserved. With his pickled hand-picked carrots and dried cloudberries, Nilsson is the man millions of aspiring locavores wish to be.
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