Magnus Nilsson is coming out with a book for his restaurant, Fäviken, but he doesn't want you to pay too much attention to the recipes in it. The chef, whose daring, 12-seat restaurant in the town of Järpen, Sweden — that's about 400 miles north of Stockholm — feels that it's far more important to pick up the text, read about the people, products, and techniques in it, and rely on inspiration and intuition to make something with it. Responding to your context is everything, according to Nilsson, and attempting to studiously recreate a recipe conceived in an isolated part of Sweden when you're maybe in a suburb of Chicago might be missing the point of his endeavor.
In the following interview, Nilsson talks about how the book came about, why he's okay with putting out a text at the age of 28, and what he hopes people get out of reading it. The book has an October 1st release date. For more on Nilsson, see an Eater Interview from earlier in the year and a preview of the cookbook. Also, don't forget about his upcoming multi-city US book tour/dinner series.
How and when did this project come about?
Back in 2010, I was approached by a few publishers, roughly at the same time. I felt a really good connection with Phaidon and with the person that ended up being my editor. Not to mention they make really, really beautiful books. That was basically it!
Were you looking for a book deal?
I wasn't looking, actually. It was that a few publishers were looking for someone. Like most chefs, I wanted to do a book, but I imagined it was too early.
What was your concept for the book? Broadly speaking, what did you set out to do and say?
The whole plan, from the beginning, was to give the people that don't have the same culture or background a context to why Faviken is what it is today. Why is it run the way it is run? What makes it wonderful to us?
It seems that one of the most important things that runs through the book is the notion of the return to nature, which Bill Buford takes on in his introduction. It's an idea that you seem to feel that Michel Bras embodies most completely, and that most people don't appreciate that or seek it out.
Maybe most people can appreciate it, but they don't seek it out. They don't try. It's actually something that's not that difficult to understand.
Can you explain how you view that concept and how you try to live it?
That's an extraordinary big thing to explain, since I just do it and live it. It's what interests me. I think that for everybody running a restaurant, I think that the most important thing is to make the most of what you have in your surroundings and situation. It's also about respecting the obstacles and limitations of wherever you are. For me, running this restaurant the way we do it, it just seems logical and sensible. If you take into account the geographical location, the logistical situation, the kind of produce we have here — all those things — it just makes sense to have this restaurant. I never sat down and thought to come up with this as a restaurant concept.
It's difficult to do. Some people don't have the means, or they live in a place that doesn't allow them it, or maybe they just can't see why they should do it. A lot of people tend to make chefs and restaurants into more than what they are, but to me, the most important thing about this place is that people come here, they give us money, and they want a great experience. That's the essence of what we do. People should not forget that. You can fit in philosophical, creative, and artistic things into that, but if you boil it down, it's about giving people a great experience. That's about it.
I consider myself as being a craftsman or really skilled at what I do. I don't think that I influence the world in the way that some other people seem to think. That might not be an answer to your question, but it's something I wanted to say!
You say you don't influence, but you have a fancy book coming out and you travel and appear around the world.
I don't mind influencing people. What I'm saying is that that's not the essence of what I do. If I'm happy doing what I'm doing, and it happens to influence people, then good. But it's not why I do this.
Back to the book. It seems that you write a lot. How often do you do it, and why?
All the time and about everything that I experience. Sometimes I write every day, and sometimes I write nothing for a few weeks because I feel like I have nothing to write about. I'm not a professional writer and never had to write — except for when we were doing the book — but I've been doing it more and more.
Is it just a personal outlet or do you use it to plan for the restaurant?
Yes, it's a good outlet for me, because I've never done it in a way that it is going to end up being read by someone else. It's not at all to plan for the restaurant.
Another key element is the kinds of techniques you use and don't use.
The important thing that the book tells you is that you have to make the most of what you have, as I've said. And that is reflected in our style of cooking. The most important thing for me is to take control. First, you acquire the best product, which most people say they do but few actually do. Then, when you have that, you don't want to mask it. I try to use quite simple cooking skills. Instead of using an elaborate technique or an elaborate plate, I try to keep it simple and absolutely perfect with a high attention to detail.
You emphasize the fact that there are many nuances to things some cooks might see as simple or even boring.
Exactly! That's a very good way of describing it. Look at pan frying, which people think is the simplest thing ever. You can break down seemingly simple cooking like that and see all of the details: most people see it as taking a pan, heating it, adding in fat, adding in a protein, turning it, and then serving it. There is so much more to it. There's so much to appreciate about temperature changes, precision, when to add the components.
Describing your plating as simple to me seems pretty incomplete — it's muscular, stark, ballsy. How do you see it?
To me, aesthetics are important, but it's probably more important for the product to look like what it actually looks like. A piece of kale should look like a piece of kale. I don't want it to look like something else. That's the base of how I plate. Also, I don't like when things are scattered around randomly all over a plate. I like to have a few things on the plate, perfect appearance, and plated in a way that really respects the aesthetics of the natural product. I don't want it to be too cut or too changed. That's extremely important to me.
Has it always been that way?
I think so, yeah. I really like that look.
How old are you now?
I'm 29 in a few weeks.
Did you ever feel like it was too early for a book?
I don't see the Faviken book as looking back too much. The ideas was to explain ourselves and why what we do makes sense. What you see in the book is one year, documented. There's nothing much older than that on there. It's not to supposed to a complete or retrospective look. And it's not a recipe book, either. I don't want people buying it so that they can reproduce the recipes. I want people buying it because they want to understand what we do, why we do it, and whom we do it with, Maybe that can inspire them. That's the most important part.
Since you've just brought the question of recreating the dishes up, let's finish with that: explain why you emphasize an intuitive approach to the recipes in the book?
It's extremely important. I think that sometimes people get too caught up in trying to exactly reproduce recipes. It's nearly impossible to do in any case, because they aren't the same person and they don't have the same equipment or circumstances. I would hope that if people try to cook recipes from the book, they'll see them as general guidelines. That's why I'm giving extensive introductions to each recipes, including the ingredients and producers. It explains why it's important to me and how the whole thing comes to be. If you read and understand that and then maybe put the book aside, you'll come up with something good.