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Niklas Ekstedt on 'Stone Age' Technology and His New London Project

Photo: Niklas Ekstedt in Boston, December 2013/Rachel Leah Blumenthal

Restaurant kitchens all over the world are beginning to look more like laboratories. Equipment like immersion circulators are standard in many kitchens, even far outside of the fanciest spots. Food enthusiasts line up for hours to hear lectures on science and cooking from some of the top chefs in the world. But in Stockholm, one Michelin-starred chef has taken a step back. At Niklas Ekstedt's restaurant, Ekstedt, there's no electricity in the kitchen, aside from the required ventilation and refrigeration. Food is cooked over a fire pit in cast iron and on rotisseries, or in a "stone age microwave," or in a replica chimney. Ekstedt's food is technique-driven, but those techniques are the opposite of the increasing gadgetry and modernism elsewhere — they harken back to Scandinavian techniques of centuries past.

Still, food and science are inextricably linked, and old-fashioned technology is still technology. Kitchen science isn't always full of modern, high-tech gadgets, and experimentation doesn't always require a lab. At Ekstedt, the science is in the rustic techniques: how can you control a simple fire to create the perfect dish? How can you get reliable results from a "stone age microwave" when the rest of the world is using computerized convection ovens? How can your modern restaurant succeed with a kitchen without electricity? Ekstedt's research comes from the Scandinavian culinary history, and his experimentation comes from playing with fire.

Ekstedt visited the US last week to help review the final projects of Harvard architectural graduate students, whose studio, Alimentary Design, uses food to take a different perspective on architecture. After a day of reviewing projects and cooking hay-wrapped sea bass on a bonfire outside of the school, Ekstedt spoke with Eater about his use of technology (or lack thereof) in the kitchen, the past and future of Scandinavian cuisine, and the future of the restaurant industry. He was joined by Jan Åman of Atelier Food, part of a Stockholm-based "research, change and communication studio" called Atelierslice that works in the realms of food and more. Åman was involved with coordinating the collaboration among the Harvard studio, Ekstedt, and others.

Back in April, you spoke with Eater about how you built the kitchen at Ekstedt like a Scandinavian kitchen "would have looked 200 years ago."
Niklas Ekstedt: Well, not the architecture of the kitchen but more the techniques. And then of course we had to adapt those techniques to a modern kitchen. So it's not a museum.

You recently built a "stone age microwave." What does that mean?
NE: The stone age microwave is a brand new invention in the restaurant. It's just a glass box; it's just like an oven without anything in it. We can add heat to it from a pipe, which comes into the box from the smoker; we can regulate the amount of smoke. We can also put a little bit of ember into the bottom of the oven. It lets us cook at a little bit lower of a temperature, around 140, 160 degrees Celsius (about 280-320 Fahrenheit). The problem we had before was that the open fire was so hot, or the wood oven was so warm, so we didn't really have anything in between. So now we can cook at a little lower temperature.

Does it taste like something that has been cooked in a regular smoker?
NE: No, it's like an oven with a tiny bit of smoke. The whole idea with it is to be able to cook like in a wood oven, but not that hot.

Jan Åman: I had this conversation after going to Ekstedt. This is not high tech in the sense of lab technology, but it's technology that's so driven that you get a very special kind of food. I think it's really incredible that through these limits of technology, you get a higher level of gastronomy than in any other place in Sweden. I mean, maybe there are as good chefs, but through having these limits in terms of how you can cook, you actually get a very special flavor.

NE: Also, the new Nordic food has been having a really hard time finding itself technique-wise. I mean, the products — they are good. And now the old, good restaurants in Scandinavia, the high-end restaurants, use local amazing products. But the future will be: how technically will you cook them? In what way will you cook them? And that, I think, will really make a huge difference.

New Nordic food has been having a really hard time finding itself technique-wise.

JA: In that sense, if you look especially at art, you have Marcel Duchamp in the beginning of the twentieth century, you have Warhol, a few others, redefining art not from the object itself but from how you can perceive art. Technology. What material you work with. And I think that's what's happening here as well, and I think that's actually a parallel to what we're doing at Harvard. Not to discuss what's just on the plate but how it comes there. What produces the structure, how a structure like that actually produces the food.

In terms of a very concrete example, Ekstedt. You have a sort of limited technology that makes the chefs more creative, let's say. Otherwise, it's like any other Cubist painting that you had at the turn of the century, or any other sort of art object, or any other high-end cuisine dish. I mean, you can go to almost any restaurant in the world, and it's like going to McDonald's, but it's high-end cuisine. That's the shift that you made at Ekstedt: no, it's not any other high-end cuisine. It's actually driven through a kitchen without electricity. And that makes all the difference in the world.

NE: Yeah, I think in terms of food, a lot of high-end restaurants are so advanced now, and all the super techniques and super machines that are made and marketed for the high-end restaurants are for perfectionists. One machine mixes three thousands spins per second to make a powder. You have the convection oven; I mean, I don't even know how to use one. They're so high-tech. They have computers, recipes. You have Roners, evaporators. Tons of this equipment that a lot of chefs are leaning on can be really, really dangerous because then in the end you forget how to cook and only rely on the technique.

You've done internships at places like elBulli, The Fat Duck...places where that kind of cooking is the norm. What made you decide to go in virtually the opposite direction technology-wise?
NE: Well, when I was going to open Ekstedt, I knew that I was going to get a quick response, and I was going to get a lot of food critics to come and eat at the restaurant, because I'm a known name in Sweden. I really wanted to surprise them, and I really wanted to do something totally different than they had experienced before. The head chef of Ekstedt, Gustav Otterberg, who was with me from day one — I hired him for the project because he's the person who knows outdoor cooking, and he knew much more than I know about how to cook in the wild. I hired him before I bought the restaurant [laughs] because I knew that he would be super important for the project.

Nordic food but with the Nordic techniques. It makes sense, no?

When he was on board, I financed the restaurant through financiers and bought the location. And then we just sat down and we said, well, we want to do a Nordic kitchen, and that was the whole idea — to surprise and to do a Nordic kitchen, Nordic food, because we thought it would be so exciting to cook Nordic food but with the Nordic techniques. It makes sense, no? [Laughs.]

Are other people starting to follow suit?
NE: We see it happen everywhere. There are people following and doing. When you're doing something that gets a lot of attention, it's bound to happen, and I think it'll be great if people copy us and try to cook like us, because it's a great way of cooking, and there are no secrets. We're a totally open kitchen. If you want to cook this way, put up a fire, put a cast iron pan in the fire, and just cook, you know? It's not a very hard way of cooking, but you really need to be focused, and you need to be cooking. You can't put it in the convection oven and put the computer on and go down and have a cup of coffee. You need to be on the stove constantly.

[Photo: Ekstedt]

In April, you mentioned that there were a lot of cookbooks available from the 1700s and 1800s, so those cooking techniques were written down, available to you. How did you approach learning about how to cook over an open fire? Did the books say what kind of woods to use, things like that?
NE: There are of course recipes in those books, but they're not very contemporary at all, and we can't really use them because we want the restaurant to be one of the best restaurants in the country, one of the most interesting restaurants in the world, but we're competing with these restaurants that have everything — they even have labs! We have a guy chopping wood in the garage. We're so much more rustic than the other ones. So when we looked at the old books and the old recipes, it was more what people were using technically, like how did the fire pit look, what did the cast iron stove look like, did they use strings, did they use rotisseries? So it was more a technical research.

When cooking over the fire, do you have much control over the heat?
NE: With the cast iron, yeah. With the pan. Actually, we use a laser thermometer in the pan. We put the pan in the fire, and then we can measure the temperature with the laser beam. It's kind of high-end.

So, do you have any other things in the kitchen that are a little bit high-end?
NE: No, just the thermometer.

And you have no electricity aside from the required ventilation?
NE: And in the refrigerator.

Walk me through the preparation of a dish at Ekstedt. How would it differ from the prep in a kitchen with more high-end technology?
NE: For mise en place, we have a big fire in the fire pit, a big cast iron pan over the fire, a box on top of the smoker so we can have sheet trays in there. Let's say if we make tomatoes, we smoke them over a string in the chimney, and then we boil the sauce, reducing it over the fire in the big pan. Then during service we kind of change the fire pit, so we take away the big pan, open a smaller fire where we re-heat the stuff from the mise en place, just quickly reheat it with cast iron in the fire. Then, if we use meat, for example, we just give it color in the fire, finish it off in the wood oven, and then assemble everything.

You mentioned earlier that you think your cooking could work well here in Boston; the products and wood that you used to cook at Harvard yesterday were similar to what you'd get at home. Are there any other cities that could be a good fit for you?

I'm actually looking into it as we speak, to open something in London.

NE: London is definitely my number one choice. I'm actually looking into it as we speak, to open something in London. But I haven't found a location and I haven't found a local partner yet.

Any other changes or things in the works?
NE: The head chef Gustav, we took him out of service, and he's only working with techniques. He's completely technically driven, so every day he works on changing and refining and making the techniques better. This summer we will rebuild the whole kitchen, because we will have worked for three years, and so we've of course put down loads of notes on how to make all these techniques different. We're going to keep all the good elements, but we're going to put the kitchen even further into the dining room so that the fire pit comes closer to the client. I think the distance between the fire pit and the guest is one of the biggest advantages at the restaurant, that you're so close to the stove, and while it's high-end fine dining cuisine, it's not that plated. We only work with three to four items at a time on the plate.

It'll be exciting to see how the Nordic kitchen will catch up in the future. I'm really looking forward to seeing someone do it the way that French high-end cuisine was introduced in the US around the 1970s and 80s. Then those great chefs starting making simpler restaurants and bistros and brasseries, and I would love to see that happen with Nordic food in the US. A lot of the high-end Scandinavian restaurants in New York, for example, they're very sophisticated — a little pretentious — and I would love to see someone cooking Scandinavian food at a more base level, not only trying to copy the high-end restaurants in Scandinavia.

[Photo: Ekstedt]

Outside of New York, I'm not sure how prevalent Scandinavian food is in the US. I don't think we have Scandinavian food in Boston at all.
NE: No, I don't think so — maybe I'll have to change that.

How would you describe it to a person who has never had it?

The French call Scandinavians the Japanese of Europe.

NE: First of all, it's simplicity. The French call Scandinavians the Japanese of Europe. Take off our shoes when we go into a house, make everything a little neater. So you can really tell that in the food as well. It's usually just three to four things. Acidity and a lot of product, a very clean product, a clean palate. Not a lot of flavor, not a lot of spices. So it's simple food, very product-driven.

With such product-driven cuisine, does Sweden have a big farm-to-table movement?
NE: I think so, but I think that's the biggest misconception of Scandinavian food and the new Nordic food. A lot of South European chefs, a lot of American chefs, think that it's a geography-related — locally farmed, locally produced food — that that's the Scandinavian movement. But it's not really that.

When I grew up in the 80s and 90s, when I went to culinary school, everything that was French and Italian and Spanish was good. Everything that was Nordic was bad. We did not see ourselves as a great country of food. We saw ourselves as cooks, good cooks. But we didn't use the heritage or our own cuisine in the restaurants. We did it at home, but we didn't serve it to guests or clients. But what happened in the late 90s and the beginning of the century was that a lot of the young Scandinavian chefs started to use products from Scandinavia, so they kind of flipped the map. Instead of doing foie gras, truffles, tomatoes, olive oil, they started using reindeer, herring, berries, local oil. And it wasn't about a farm-to-table movement. It was something totally different. It was about looking back to our culinary history and looking to see what products we could use instead of using Southern European products.

JA: The reason I invited Niklas to come be part of this final exam at Harvard is of course for the cooking and everything — but also, the cooking is put in this wider context, a larger perspective. We're going to do a sort of study or seminar series on whether the restaurant business is really a future business, in terms of how you make that into a better environment to work in. I think that that's really what struck me with Niklas and the discussions we had yesterday at Harvard — the idea of the kitchen, the idea of the food is put into a discussion of much more than that, which I think is necessary to be really creative. I think that's really why things are happening at Ekstedt as well — because it's not just the cooking itself. It's the cooking and the relation to other things. For instance, if Nordic food is interesting because Nordic food is just, like, using reindeer, it becomes kind of boring.

NE: That's another super interesting aspect to it. How can we use the Scandinavian model to make the restaurant business more exciting to stay? The problem that we have in this business, and almost everywhere that I go, is that a lot of young people are in the industry and the business, but when they get a little older and when they start having a family, a lot of them leave. I think if we're going to make this industry and restaurants really sustainable for the future, this will be the biggest challenge. And I think there are a lot of things that we're doing in Sweden right now that could make it much better for a lot of employees all over the world in the restaurant business, in terms of working hours and in terms of how to look at the restaurant business' future.

— Rachel Leah Blumenthal
· Ekstedt [Official Site]
· All Ekstedt Coverage on Eater [-EN-]


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