In the concluding installment of our interview (part one here), Chef Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken talks about his simple approach to cooking, the importance of place, and his desire to keep things small. He also problematizes the New Nordic label and urges outsiders to try to consider more restaurants than "the first one they found out about."
To the frustrating part of the interview: try to describe your cooking.
If I were to generally describe my style of cooking, I would say that it is very light. For me, it's all about just getting the perfect product and just showing it as it is. I try to treat it as little as possible without manipulating it. The cooking here is very simple — there are very few things on the plate — but it's not simplistic. We try to take so much attention and care to everything that's on there.
Even if it's a piece of carrot: either someone in the kitchen or I decided which variety we were going to cook. We then grew it, we stored it, and then finally, eight months later, actually cooked them. That whole process is part of the cooking. It all influences the end result.
Did you decide to cook this way when you realized you were a Pascal Barbot copy, or did you figure it out gradually?
The only decision I made related to stopping being a Barbot copy was the one to stop cooking entirely. The way my food has developed has just been because of the passage of time. Things happen to you, and if you are a sensitive person, things will happen. Things develop under the different circumstances you find yourself in.
So, place is obviously an important part of your cooking.
I think it's very indicative of the place. Everything tastes a different way in relation to where you are in a place. I've been thinking a lot about place in the past two years and the things that mark your region or your style. It's really difficult to define generally, but I think it's somehow easier here. There are so many other things besides what is on the plate that help define the experience. I think the surroundings, the circumstances help you understand the cooking. If you were to bring our dishes somewhere else, with produce from somewhere else, it's not really a Faviken dish anymore. You miss the feeling when you drive there, you miss the house, you miss the atmosphere.
I've talked about this a lot with David Chang. He said something once that was very wise in relation to his miso and soy sauce projects: "If you use only American produce and ingredients according to a technique that's Japanese, isn't that still American cooking?" It's probably more American. It's an interesting thought, because it's so difficult to define what something is or where it comes. Ultimately, it's up to the eater to figure out exactly what it is.
Can you talk about how the experience at the restaurant changes over the different seasons?
It's a very different experience, and that's one of the cool things. Everywhere in the world you have seasons, but here you have very marked seasons. That obviously affects the cooking. I think the main difference is that in the summer all I try to use is things that are very, very fresh. Peas, for instance: someone will have gone to the vegetable patch and picked those peas five minutes before they are prepared. In the winter, though, it's the other way around. If you have a vegetable in March, it will have been stored for five or six months. Those big contrasts are great.
You probably get this question a lot: do you like them all the same?
I do, actually. As a restaurateur, I would be stupid to say that I prefer a certain season, but honestly, I don't have one. I often get antsy towards the end of a season because I'm looking forward to the change.
As you develop the restaurant, do you see yourself sticking to what is around you or perhaps looking elsewhere for inspiration?
I definitely feel that there is so much here to discover and learn and projects to develop that I can't see myself looking anywhere else. One day, though, if I feel that I'm finished, I will change. I don't believe in restaurants that stand still. And that's something that I'll easily be able to identify. If you're pushing yourself to find new things and keep pushing forward, you'll know when that time has come.
Are there any specific things you have in mind that you want to tackle?
No projects specifically, but I want to continue to keep it full. That's the only thing that is really important to me right now. It's a bit difficult, because we really are so far from everything.
Is it full now?
Yeah, it's doing well. This time of year is a bit slower, but the winters are crazy. In the winters, we could bring in hundreds of people a night if we wanted to. The summer gets very busy eventually.
It's actually very interesting, the customer breakdown. In the winter we have about eighty percent customers from the Nordic countries, and the rest from other countries. In the summer, it's the other way around, because the Swedes will go to the beach.
How has the press affected business?
It definitely has helped. If you get good reviews and you are working in a city, you can see the difference very quickly. But here, it has been steady and gradual in its increase. It definitely doesn't happen overnight. We're pretty much full all year round, when two years ago, we would be lucky to get between ten and twenty people in an entire week during the summer months.
Do you ever feel like people come to the restaurant with expectations that are too high?
No, never, actually. Maybe I should have that feeling, but I don't. I don't know why. We can't really change anything, and if there expectations are different from what we can offer, I can't really do anything about it.
Does the seclusion ever get to you?
Not really [laughs]. This is where I'm from. I'm used to living here and I like living here. In terms of customers, I should also add that I've realized that it's not that bad to be really far away, because we get really good customers. We don't get business dinners, for instance. Not to generalize, but they are often really boring, because it doesn't matter where they're eating. We have very motivated, keen, and interesting customers. I've never worked anywhere where the guests have come so far to get what they want.
How do you feel about people comparing you to Noma? It's inevitable, that desire to categorize, but is it fair?
I think it's inevitable in one way, because both restaurants are in the same region and have received press. But I will tell you that every person that has tried both places will say that they are different restaurants. Noma is one of my favorite restaurants and René and I are very good friends, but we cook in completely different ways, even though we have the same toolbox, more or less.
The standard question I get is, "Do you feel part of the New Nordic cuisine?" The answer is always "No," for me. I don't think it really exists. I think people made that up to have a label to easily categorize what is going on in Scandinavia at the moment. There have been restaurants in this area cooking ambitiously for quite a long time. Noma was the first to reach out to a bigger audience. That's the first one to gain international critical acclaim and become world famous. And because of that, I think people outside of Scandinavia take it as being the symbol of what Scandinavian cooking is. The fact is that there have been places like Mistral that have been around for longer and doing something completely different. It feels a little bit blunt to talk about all of these restaurants that are doing their own thing under one label.
It's almost as blunt as saying "Central European cooking" and talking about elBulli and Michel Bras as part of the same movement.
It's obvious that there have been exciting and interesting things going on in Scandinavia and very ambitious restaurants, but I think that if you are going to label them — which is honestly fine by me — it's necessary to look beyond the first one you found out about [laughs]. There are unique and ambitious restaurants that don't really resemble Noma or each other.
Another thing: a lot of people think that the natural development of this restaurant would be to become like Noma or Matthias Dahlgren.
Being like them in what way?
Bringing in more people, becoming more complex, more controlled, and technically, better. All of those things are great, but if I wanted to run a restaurant with seventy employees, I would go to a city. I want to be doing this, because I like to do my cooking myself with a small team. I don't want to train a ton of people to do that for me. I really like cooking and doing it myself every day. The bigger your restaurant, the more you have to deal with other shit. And I'm honestly very happy staying small and keeping it this way.
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