When Magnus Nilsson got to Fäviken, a remote estate in northwestern Sweden, in 2008, he didn't want to cook. He had recently come back to his homeland after working some of the great kitchens of Paris, with the goal of becoming a wine expert; he was there to help develop a cellar. But Nilsson liked it, and the opportunity evolved. He eventually took over the restaurant, which to that point had earned a decent reputation for serving fondue to skiers, and turned it into one of the most talked-about dining destinations of the last few years.
Nilsson had always kept the notion of building an ambitious restaurant at the back of his mind ("It's the only thing I was familiar with"), but he never aimed to be a symbol of hyperlocal cooking or preservation or even less, New Nordic cuisine. He wanted to do great food, and it just so happens that many of the practices that have earned him acclaim — and comparisons to neighbor and admirer René Redzepi — just naturally follow from that. Here, in part one of our interview, the chef talks about how it all happened.
When you got to Fäviken, you didn't want to cook, right?
That's true. In the beginning of Faviken, I worked with wine.
To go back a bit further, I basically stopped cooking after I stopped worked in France, where I was at L'Astrance. As you know, the French have a tremendous culture when it comes to produce and things like that, but when I moved back to Sweden, all the produce was less good than what I had in France. Also, everything that I was cooking looked like something extracted from Pascal Barbot's restaurant. They felt like inferior copies of someone else's cooking [laughs].
You also were at L'Arpège.
Yes, I worked at L'Arpège for a couple of weeks. I was fired from there, you know.
But that was because of the language barrier?
I couldn't perform because I couldn't understand anything. No one spoke English, either. When I went to France, I thought I spoke French, but I really didn't. But I spent like three years with Pascal.
Now back to Fäviken.
I decided that I wanted to be a wine writer instead of cooking when I came back to Sweden. I went to oenology school and found it very interesting and all that, and then I had a friend who would cater the hunting parties for the family that owned Faviken. He asked me if I wanted to come to the estate and help the family establish their cellar and teach them about administering and buying wine; that's how I met them.
I was supposed to work there for like three or four months, but at the end of that initial period when we had been getting along very well, they asked me if I would propose something for the restaurant. The restaurant already existed since 1986, but it wasn't doing very well. They had gotten the restaurant in the deal to buy Fäviken in 2003, but they didn't really like it because it didn't correlate with their vision for the estate. They had worked to improve everything about the estate, but the restaurant wasn't quite there.
What did you propose?
I thought that in order to have someone travel that distance, it needed to be very high quality. I also thought that it couldn't be too big, since you need to be able to fill it. Then, we wanted to use as much as possible of the products that were already being produced on the estate — quite a lot of game, root vegetables. I decided I would stay one year to help them implement all of this, and during that year, I realized the potential of the place and the produce and the fact that you are actually able to get people to travel there for the food. I had a hard time believing it.
So it wasn't empty or anything like that?
People were already coming. The restaurant was rather well known, but not for high end or ambitious cooking. They were known for doing moose fondue for corporate groups! It was popular because it was near a ski resort, but mostly in the winter.
People started coming more and more because the food was better, but I didn't realize how difficult it was going to be to recruit people. I thought it would be much, much easier. I had promised them that I was going to find someone else to do this for them within one year, but after eight months, it was still just me working there. I had a communal table for eight people and I would do both the service and the cooking. Then, when I finally found someone to work in the dining room after about eight months, I began to realize even more that people were noticing the food. That is when we sort of transformed into what I see as a proper restaurant — November 2008.
At that point, was your vision for the restaurant fully formed?
Yes. By the end of 2008, I started to realize that it was going to be possible — the thing is, I'm kind of pricklish in that I'm not happy to work anywhere that isn't a really ambitious restaurant. If ever I was going to run a restaurant by myself, it was going to be that kind of restaurant. When I got into wine, I thought I didn't want to be running a restaurant, but that feeling was still there. I always dreamt about running that kind of place earlier in my career. It stayed at the back of my mind, because that is the only restaurant I'm familiar with.
What I was getting at was more the idea of producing on the estate, preserving through the seasons, and using exclusively what was around you.
What's interesting and kind of very good about that is that that was just a very small part of the restaurant — using produce from our own region. The preservation started little by little, and as time went by and we started employing more people, we saw the possibilities of getting produce from the region and growing more on the estate. About two years ago, in 2010, we had gotten to the point that we had so much produce that we had either grown or gotten from the region that we didn't need to buy anything. All of the basic stuff — the onions, the potatoes, the carrots — were all there, so we didn't have to order a thing. And we also stopped buying lemons and things, because we never had enough "other stuff" on the list to make it worth the green grocer's while to bring them.
So, things just evolved in that direction. I realized that having those limitations, while kind of self-imposed but not consciously so, was really good for the creativity. You need to find different solutions when you're not in a big city where you can get everything. If you don't have that luxury of availability, it can yield very interesting results. When I realized that, we decided we were going to not just being sloppy and not ordering the lemons but to work with only the produce from the region.
Adam Sachs called Fäviken the most daring restaurant in the world. Just how difficult and extreme is it, in your view? Or, at the very least, what are the challenges?
It's actually not that difficult [laughs]. Up here, it just makes sense to do these things, because people have always done them. For me, running a restaurant or any business is to make the most out of the possibilities that are present in your surroundings. If you run a restaurant in a big city, me, personally, I don't see the meaning in doing the things that we are doing here. You have different limitations and different realities than we have. If you have someone that can supply your carrots all year round, you might as well buy them if they are good enough. If you don't have that, then you need to find yourself a solution.
But it's not that extreme or that difficult — we just do it ourselves. If you buy a carrot in New York City this time of year, it won't be fresh. Someone will have stored it for you. The difference is that we grow the carrot and have perfect control over it in the summer, and then we store it ourselves. The good part of it is that we have a level of control you don't have when you buy your produce, but the bad part is that you have a lot more work and take the risk that you might not succeed and have your products go bad.
The big challenge is to keep the flow of produce going the whole year so that you have the same quality, no matter what the season. In the summer, there is so much produce up here. You get anything and you get any quantity. In the winter, who knows? So for us it's all about planning and acquiring enough quantity and storing in the right way so we can account for seasonal fluctuations and even everything out.
What are some of the most important methods or resources you've developed to supply the restaurant while accounting for the change in seasons?
The most important one is they store all the vegetables for winter storage versus just root vegetables. We also salt and dry food quite a lot, because that's something that up here — you fatten your pig over the summer, kill it in the autumn, and then you preserve it through the winter. So we have a big curing room for pork, mainly. We also have the fish pond, which is one of those things that is very useful in the winters. In the summer, we may go into the mountains and get more fish than we need, so we just put them in the pond and keep them there. In other words, I can serve trout in January without having to take a snowmobile anywhere. I just go three hundred meters and poke a hole in the ice.
You don't talk about localism in the "fervent" way that some chefs do, which I honestly didn't expect.
We are so well known for being local and environmentally friendly and all that stuff, but the only criterion we've used when developing produce has been quality. We never strived to be super local or to have the highest possible degree of respect for the environment. Those things are great, but they were secondary, in the sense that we didn't come to realize that until later stages. Surprisingly, very often quality just correlates with those ideas.