Back in June — after stints in kitchen like Per Se and Blue Hill at Stone Barns — chef Christopher Haatuft opened Lysverket in his native Bergen, Norway. Media attention has been fairly generous ever since the opening, in part due to Haatuft's pedigree that includes a stage at Alinea and a gig cooking for the Norwegian ambassador to Paris. But much of this attention can also be credited to the way in which Lysverket seeks to differentiate itself from other local restaurants. Haatuft has embraced the jokingly coined term "neo-fjordic" to explain his desire for Lysverket to reflect its region in an organic way that focuses in part on the seafood his team pulls in while "fjoraging."
In the following interview, Haatuft discusses how he came to open Lysverket, which is a bar, restaurant, and club that's housed in a 1938-era art museum. He also reflects on how his experiences at restaurants in the United States have driven his ambitions and the challenges that he faces as a fine dining restaurateur in a region where dining out is not highly valued:
You've got some of the world's best-known restaurants on your resume, including Alinea, Per Se, and Blue Hill. Can you tell me more about those experiences and what you took away from them for your own cooking?
Since I started out writing about food, I've always read a lot. Since I started, I always bought every current cookbook and I subscribed to Art Culinaire. I think they had an edition where Wylie Dufresne and Grant Achatz were in the same issue. Grant was posting on eGullet [about] the opening of Alinea. So I was following that and then I saw pictures of the food. I'd never seen that kind of food before. So I wrote an email and asked if I can stage, and they let me in. So I'm just kind of lucky.
Up until then, I'd only worked in these tiny restaurants here where basically you have a super small kitchen staff and everybody does everything. So coming to Alinea was just mind-blowing. I'd never ever seen anything like it before. The discipline and structure and all that stuff, for me, it just totally changed my ambition. But I had to move back. And while I was back here in Norway, I helped open a restaurant and worked there for a couple years. That was the same as everywhere else I'd worked. Very small. It's a whole different economy of restaurants here than there is in the U.S.
Nobody really makes any money off them here. You don't have investors. You don't have the same kind of restaurant groups and investors behind the restaurants. All my friends that have restaurants, none of them really make any money.
But I had made a couple friends and one of them is Greg Baxtrom. He was the sous chef at Alinea when I was there. He was offered chef de cuisine at Stone Barns. We talked about it and I talked my wife into moving with me to New York to work with him. We stayed there for two and a half years.
That move to New York was a big, tremendous change because the restaurants are so different. In Norway, everybody makes $30 an hour minimum wage more or less. So we can't really afford to staff restaurants the way you do in the U.S. The service and all that attention to detail that makes fine dining places in the U.S., it's harder to do that here. Now when I'm the chef and owner of a restaurant, I can't afford to hire as many front of house people like they do in the U.S. because in the U.S. the service staff's salary comes from tips. But here I have to pay them $30 an hour. So it's very different.
Yeah that's a pretty nice salary compared to here.
I mean, you have a decent hourly wage. But the GMs in New York make more money than a GM would make here in Norway. We have a higher entry salary, but you never really make any money. Nobody really wants to be a career waiter. Even if you start out at $30 an hour, you never get close to the salaries you make in the U.S.
That's interesting. And so after your time in New York, you went back to Norway. Did you have the intention of this restaurant right away?
Well, I'd been in New York for awhile and due my circumstances, I needed to move back home. Like everybody else, I've been wanting to have my own restaurant since forever. I knew that after working at Per Se it would be hard to go home and start working for somebody else. I knew that if I was still working for somebody here in Norway, first of all, I wouldn't be able to make any money, and second of all, it would be so far removed from New York that it would be a major letdown. It was just another incentive to open up something.
At home, I met a friend who is a musician. I heard from a friend that he was looking for me. I ran into him at a bar and he presented this idea for the restaurant we have now. From there on it just went extremely fast. This was late February and it was a June opening after remodeling.
Wow, that is fast.
Tell me about it. It was extremely fast. And fun.
You are in an art museum, right? Why'd you pick the location?
There was a restaurant there for 10 years before we took it over. So all the infrastructure of the restaurant is already there. The owner group was five guys, two in the kitchen, two in the bar, and then the musician. So together we can have a nice cocktail bar with good DJs and concerts on the weekends and, of course, the restaurant. Everything kind of melds nicely together. In that art museum, all these different cultural institutions naturally gravitate toward us because we're in that space. And the building itself is a beautiful building.
[Photo: Antoine Bouillot]
And I saw the New York Post article making some ado about the fact that there's four Per Se alums involved with the restaurant.
Yeah, so me and the sous chef, we worked the meat station at Per Se together. One was on the AM crew and the other was on PM crew. We also have Greg Baxtrom. He's been with us for a month and he's going to stay some more. And then we have another friend of ours from Per Se who just recently finished up a stage at Noma. So he's here spending some time with us.
For being in Norway, I've been extremely lucky in having talented guys coming and wanting to spend some time with us. But it's also scary because some of these guys are just here for a short period. When they leave, it's hard to replace them with local guys. We're all used to working like we've done all our lives. Like in New York, you work a minimum 12 hours regardless of where you work in a nice restaurant. Here in Norway, nobody wants to work more than eight hours and the hourly wage is very high so it's a challenge to maintain that level here. So that's the scary thing for the future is getting enough talented guys.
That's interesting because you're right in the middle of so much that's happening in gastronomy. Why is the pool so limited for you?
There's a lot of attention to Scandinavia right now, but even though we're close to Copenhagen it's still an hour and a half flight to a different country. And Bergen is the second-largest city in Norway, but it's an eight-hour drive over the mountains to Oslo, which is four times as big as Bergen. So any talent we have in Norway, they move to the big cities. A place like New York attracts all these talented guys from all over the world and Bergen is basically the place people move away from.
I don't know. We just started, so I'm not super worried because we have a long lease and the people we have all work hard. If we keep on doing that, we'll be all right. But it would definitely help if more people would be ambitious. Here, most kids, when they're done apprenticing, try to get a job on off-shore platforms because there you'll make $100,000 a year right off the bat. And you have two weeks on and four weeks off. It's a pretty nice rotation. You have to make horrible food for a bunch of people who don't care about it. But that's what the kids want to do. When I have interviews with cooks looking for a job, I just say right off the bat that you will be working a lot and you won't make nearly as much as you do somewhere else, but we're trying to do something a little nicer. And most people aren't interested in it.
How do you try to instill that?
We have a couple of apprentices and you notice really fast which of them really wants this and who doesn't. The ones that want this, I try to make them proud of what they're doing. If our sous chef is working on some beautiful project, I tell them, "Go look at that guy. That guy worked at Pierre Gagnaire and Per Se and now he's here next to you making something really beautiful." They should be proud of it because they could go work at some other restaurant and have a much easier job, but they wouldn't be near such beautiful produce we get. We're probably the only restaurant here that uses live scallops and blue lobster and langoustines and all this beautiful seafood every day. I try to make them understand that what we're doing is not what everybody else in this city are doing. If they notice that, hopefully they'll be proud of it.
Let's talk a little more about your food. I saw it described as "neo-fjordic" and I'm curious what that means.
(laughs) That was a joke. The cook from Noma who is here, he coined the term "fjoraging." We go out to the fjords and forage. So we were just fooling around and I had a couple of beers and put "founder of neo-fjordic cuisine" or something on our Twitter handle, and it just stuck. And this lady from the New York Post asked me about it and all of a sudden I see this "sophisticated neo-fjordic cuisine." So I guess it's ours now. It's a particular branch of New Nordic cooking that nobody else is doing. We're doing the pioneer work. (laughs)
But more seriously, though, it is a joke but it's also kind of not. One of the most clear thoughts I had about opening a restaurant here is that it has to be specific to our region. That hasn't really been done here before. Every other restaurant that made somewhat nice food has always made traditional French food or Italian or whatever. So we have to try to figure out what makes this area interesting. We have to try to build an identity for the restaurant that's natural and organic from where we're located.
So even though we kind of fool around with going out fjoraging, we do go out to islands and pick oysters and small bay scallops and all kinds of seafood there. If you're just in the city, you order from one of these seafood suppliers and it could be anywhere in the world. So we try to kind of get an understanding of what we're surrounded with. At Per Se, they had an up-sell every weekend with Scottish blue lobsters. Those are our local lobsters and they're abundant. So it's a very natural thing to focus on seafood.
[Photo: Antoine Bouillot]
It seems like you're almost creating a culture there in terms of building suppliers and teaching cooks.
Yeah, absolutely. Just the issue of getting vegetables is extremely difficult here. Of course, you have the generic run-of-the-mill produce that the big companies are supplying, but we have to go out and actually find the farmers in our area and talk them into supplying us with whatever they have around their farm. We have one lady that has three cows, one of which produces milk. So she gives us milk, yogurt, cheese. She has a peacock, so she gave us peacock eggs one day. And she picks wild herbs and flowers and stuff for us. But I have to tell her that whatever you pick, I'll buy it. Sometimes I'll buy way too much of an herb, but I want to give her some consistency so that maybe she can expand and sell to other restaurants.
From Blue Hill at Stone Barns, we know the way Dan Barber relates to all of his suppliers is, to me, an ingenious way of doing it because you build these really tight relationships to your suppliers and you end up getting superior produce. That way of running a restaurant here is not very common. Most people just use the same supplier that supplies the grocery stores with pineapples and bananas and tomatoes or whatever. So I definitely have benefited from working at these places and seeing their approach to all the surrounding logistics of building a restaurant.
So this might be kind of a daunting question since you're only a couple months in, but to me this begs the question of what are your ultimate goals for the restaurant and for Bergen even?
Well, I've always said that our ultimate goal is to have a restaurant that the people that live here are proud to have in the city. If we can have that, then our base of operation is so strong that it's sustainable. If everybody's proud of it, then they'll channel all their friends and visitors and businesses and everything to us. To be that, I think we have to be a very area-specific restaurant. It has to be a restaurant that could only be in Bergen.
That is what keeps me up at night because I don't know how I do that. I have these flashes of inspiration, but it's something I think that has to grow organically. I don't think you can just sit down and write a business plan of how to do that. You have to let it grow. We've just been open for two months. We're still trying to figure out how consistently we can get the beautiful live scallops we're getting. One of our guys is classically French trained in one of the most classic French restaurants in Paris. So his references aren't burnt hay and sorrel and something fermented. It's classic French beautiful Escoffier food. And I just came from working at Per Se, and I don't want to lose the stuff they taught me there. I want to continue to try to do that well here.
It might not be the most commercial, smartest thing to do, but in the long run I think it's what ultimately is going to give us our own voice. We have restaurants here that just suddenly switched from classic fine dining or into New Nordic cuisine, and I don't understand how they have the balls to do that. What happens three years from now when it's not as interesting anymore or people are tired of burnt food? I don't know. It's easy to look at Noma and try to copy what they're doing, but what they're doing is a culmination of a 10-year-long process.
So anyway, my goal is to be financially sustainable for myself and for my employees and to be able to employ people in a way that they can actually stay in this business past 25. To do that, I need to have a successful restaurant. But I also want to maybe open a couple other places or grow so that we have more feet to stand on. That's definitely my goal.