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Niklas Ekstedt on Cooking With Fire and Why it Feels Like 'Spring in Sweden'

Photo: PA Jorgensen

Niklas Ekstedt's Stockholm restaurant Ekstedt has been on a steady rise since opening in 2011, earning kind reviews from the likes of British critic A.A. Gill and, most recently, its very first Michelin star. But success wasn't a foregone conclusion for the restaurant that has abandoned modern technique in favor of the historical. Ekstedt has taken a new turn on the "New Nordic" concept with a commitment to using only traditional Nordic cooking techniques — cooking over open fires and using wood ovens instead of electricity — rather than only traditional Nordic ingredients.

Now that he has that first Michelin star under his belt, Niklas Ekstedt talks about how the experiment that is Ekstedt and why he thinks it is springtime for Swedish gastronomy.

How did you come up with the concept?
Thank you very much for calling me. I really love to talk about my restaurant and about the project because it hasn't been a success from the beginning and it was quite a challenge when I first started out with it. But the whole idea of the restaurant was to work on Nordic food and Scandinavian cuisine, but not out of the product. Because usually the New Nordic cuisine has always been about the product and not the technique. I wanted to open a restaurant where we looked into the techniques of the Scandinavian kitchen and how we used to cook in the Nordic countries before electricity.

We don't only use open-fire technique. We also use wood ovens and cast-iron stoves. Basically we built a kitchen how it would haves looked 200 years ago. It was more like a historical project from the beginning that we really wanted to find out how food tasted when we cooked it in ancient techniques, but served it in a contemporary way. So that's how it all started. Then when people showed up and started eating it and enjoying it, we were very surprised and happy. We just wanted to figure out how it was in the olden days to cook. It all turned out really well, but there were some challenges on the way, of course.

What kind of research did you do into recreating this kind of historical kitchen?
That's why I love Sweden, in one way. The high taxes and cold weather, you have to live with it. But they document everything. The Royal Library in Stockholm is just full of information about these techniques. If you look at the 1700s and early 1800s, there were a lot of cookbooks written. And because there was no electricity in the kitchens, all the techniques — how to cook the food and what wood to use and what stove to put it in and how to look at the ember when it was perfect — all these techniques were all written down. It was all there for us. It was just waiting to be discovered, and we started reading about it and talking about it and trying it out.

[Photo: Ekstedt]

What was the initial reaction from people before the restaurant even opened? You said it was difficult at first.
It was a mixture between laughter and how will it be possible to do a service. A lot of my friends who weren't chefs and who weren't in the business were like, "Oh it sounds amazing, it sounds so fun." But everyone who cooked or had a professional restaurant career behind them were like, "But how will it work in service? How will you cook stuff?" And, of course, that was the challenge and it still is the challenge to work in a modern type of restaurant and at the same time use very old techniques.

The reactions from the guests in the beginning were a little bit surprising. The problem we had from the start was that people thought that the restaurant was a grill. They thought it was a steakhouse. It was really hard for people in Stockholm to understand that the restaurant was not a meat restaurant. It wasn't open-fire grilled meat. It was just us using these techniques, but serving a modern type of plated food. Then after awhile the food critics and the other chefs loved it and wrote nicely about it. Then we were full, so now it all changed.

What were some of the specific challenges you've come up against using these techniques in a modern kitchen?
There's two elements that are really difficult, and one of them is, of course, the heat. I can understand why it was only prisoners and slaves who were cooking in these kitchens in the olden days. It gets really, really warm from the cast iron and the open fire. But we are slowly learning how to control the fire and keeping the heat down. And we are gradually teaching ourselves how not to heat up the kitchen too much.

The other challenge is the hard labor. We have to carry all the wood into the restaurant and we have to chop it up. It's a heavy kitchen. It's not very soft day at work. It's like working in a steam train.

[Photo: Ekstedt]

Could you talk a little more about wanting to explore Nordic cuisine from techniques instead of the ingredients? What brought you to that?
I, of course, am in love with the Nordic food and Scandinavian cuisine because I'm a part of it and I'm raised with it. But there had been so much talk and so many restaurants had been focusing on that type of Noma-orientated way of looking at food, toward foraging and cooking wild game and wild herbs and all that. I don't have anything against it, but I'm a little tired of the thought of it.

So I wanted to open a restaurant, but I didn't want to focus it toward the Nordic food of being only product-driven. I wanted to focus on the Scandinavian techniques because I thought that in the New Nordic kitchen they use a lot of normal types of cooking techniques like sous vide and convection oven, induction and all that. The old Scandinavian techniques had been forgotten. I think those techniques were really, really important in the Nordic food before we got a lot of influence from Southern Europe. So I wanted to try it out in a restaurant.

Can you tell me a little more about those techniques?
We tried a lot of techniques, but one that we found out the best is cast iron and open fire. It's not very complicated, we just put an open fire and then put a cast iron pan into the fire. And then we just cook in there. We do stocks and reductions and mushrooms and vegetables and everything in that.

The other technique is that we use a chimney. But because we have electricity and ventilation — because it's the law — we don't have a proper chimney. So we built a fake chimney, which is three pipes sticking up toward the ventilation. In those pipes, it's a replica of an old chimney and in that chimney we smoke and cook stuff in a lower temperature. And also we use hay and fire and juniper wood. We dip the juniper wood into water and then we put the fish or the meat onto the wet juniper wood and then put the juniper wood into the fire and let the fire burn.

Another technique that we use is a Swedish west coast technique that we found out in one of the books, too. It's like wet seaweed. That's how we open shellfish, mussels, oysters. We put them into wet seaweed and then we put the wet seaweed straight into the fire and let the oysters and shellfish open in the seaweed in the fire.

[Photo: Ekstedt]

Oh wow. And so you received your first Michelin star this year. How was that for you to find out?
We were so focused on actually getting the service done, we were so happy that guests came and that we could cook and that people were paying for the food because it was more like an experiment. And then when they awarded us with awards and Michelin stars and people started talking and writing about it, we were all like, "Well, we're so happy, but all we wanted to do was actually to survive a service." And we did. So we were very happy and very surprised.

Actually, I was in the laundry cleaning my kids' clothes when Guide Michelin called. So I was in with dirty underwear and stuff in the laundry. And there I was on the phone with Guide Michelin telling me we had a star. I was just like, "Well, have you been to the restaurant? Have you seen it?" It's not a typically Michelin restaurant. It's very rustic. It's just wood and simple chairs. But we were very happy.

When did you see things turn around with the regular customers filling up the place? Months in?
Yeah, like three to six months in. We had A.A. Gill, the British food critic, he came in with his whole family and totally freaked us out. Then he wrote the piece in Sweden's largest newspaper about the restaurant experience and how great he thought it was. That's when it all changed for us because if a British food critic thinks it's great, the Swedish food critics basically don't want to write bad about it either.

And Stockholm earned another one-star restaurant this year, too. How do you see the city as a culinary destination right now?
Right now a lot of things are happening in Sweden. We've had a lot of focus on Denmark in the last couple of years. Ten years ago, we all in Stockholm thought that we were the culinary number one city in Scandinavia and suddenly out of nowhere Copenhagen came with all these restaurants and [World's] 50 Best nominations. We were all going like, "What happened?" So they all became more famous than Stockholm. We were all surprised and thought that, with our big ego, we didn't understand what was going on.

But it was really good for us because I think that Stockholm became more humble and ready for it. And now I think Swedish cuisine and Swedish chefs have gradually started getting confidence back and started serving a product that's not anyone else's but, in a sense, their own. And, of course, with Faviken's huge success and Frantzén/Lindeberg's success, it's opened up a lot of doors for us and we're very happy for it. It feels like it's spring in Sweden.

And what's next for you?
I will definitely focus on the restaurant. I have two small kids at home that need loving because I've been away a lot with the restaurant. I will spend some more time with my children. But then, of course, I would love to show these techniques to the world because it would be lovely to have another restaurant one day in another city as well. I think because the restaurant and the cooking is not so product-driven, it's more technique-driven, it could easily be able to take them to another city. It would be fun to try it abroad one day.

· Ekstedt [Official Site]
· All Ekstedt Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Stockholm Coverage on Eater [-E-]