For more than a decade, Swedish chef Petter Nilsson had been living and making a name for himself in France, most recently leading the kitchen at Paris' acclaimed La Gazzetta. He's gotten the attention of groups like Cook It Raw and Gelinaz!, cooking in Belgium, Peru, Lapland, and beyond. In late 2013, though, La Gazzetta announced that Nilsson had left day-to-day operations at the restaurant where he'd worked since 2006 and will remain as a co-owner. After years of traveling back and forth between Paris and Stockholm, where his family is based, Nilsson has now moved to Stockholm for good. And, on May 1, he'll open a new restaurant within the city's Spritmuseum, a museum that pays homage to all things boozy. As Restaurangvärlden reports, the Spritmuseum team plans to "give Petter free rein" over the forthcoming restaurant.
In a telephone interview this week, Nilsson spoke to Eater about his decision to leave France after all those years and what to expect from his new Stockholm restaurant that he says will be "a conclusion of all the restaurants that I have worked in and eaten at" over the years. Nilsson also talks about how a near-constant state of travel has affected his creativity and why it's unlikely that he'll ever develop his own restaurant group.
How did the opportunity with the Sprit Museum come about?
I think I just was available. Actually, a friend of our family is the head of the city theater in Stockholm, and the museum moved into where that theater used to be located. She knew about the restaurant because she stayed friends with the ones who moved in. So she told me that I should contact them because they were looking for me. It was just a good coincidence.
And why did you decide to return to Sweden?
It's mainly a family thing. My wife has been living in Sweden all this time, and she has her career here in Sweden. Now that we have children, it's easier [for us] to be in one place.
Had you always been anticipating a return?
No. This is a love thing, I would say. It's not a Swedish love thing.
Well, why wasn't that the plan?
I like France, and I don't fancy Winter that much. France is good for that. I wasn't really planning to stay in France when I moved to France, and then I stayed for like 15 years. I haven't to this day made any plans about, "Oh, I'm going to live there for the rest of my life." I don't know.
You never had a set career path.
No. We just know that we have 10 or 15 years in front of us when the children are small and we can't move back to France or somewhere more temporary than Sweden. But that's the way it is.
La Gazzetta, Paris. [Photo: Facebook]
What was it like leaving La Gazzetta? I'm sure people there are sad to have lost you.
La Gazzetta was a big part of my professional life.
For me, it came to me like, okay, I'm leaving. Cool. This is the last day. I'm still a part-owner of the restaurant so I haven't really quit, but I'm not physically involved in it, and I haven't really spoken to anyone down there since I left. I need some time off from that. But it was a big part of my professional life. I'd never been in one place so long as I'd been down there. It was a big part [of my life] and it has been really good. But, you know, I'd been going back and forth for about three or four years, staying for five days in Paris, three days in Stockholm, four days in Paris, five days in Stockholm. Sometimes you also feel kind of a relief to just to be able to be in one spot. It doesn't really matter where you are, it's more like just being in one spot is really nice.
I bet. And were you able to do much other travel during that time?
Traveling I've done a lot, but I have eaten in other restaurants in Paris maybe five times in three years. In Stockholm maybe a little bit more. I don't really have the time. When you travel so much, you don't really have the time to see anything. You lose contact. I've been seeing my friends in Paris after midnight because when I've been there I've been constantly working. I've just been like seeing people for a half hour after midnight when they've finished working.
It's not really a quality life. Leaving Stockholm at five o'clock in the morning to be in Paris at 10 o'clock in the morning and then finishing work in Paris at midnight and taking the morning flight at 7 o'clock to get back to Sweden, it's not much of a life, you know? So when the day came, I was just like, okay, I've made my decision. I'm staying in Stockholm. It was a relief, I would say.
So that was something you'd been looking for for awhile?
Yeah. In January last year, I said to myself that this is the last year.
Does it affect you creatively as well to be working on that exhausting schedule?
It has been very good for creativity.
I have been forced to delegate more, doing things over the phone and sending emails telling people, "Okay, we should do this and that," and then coming down [to Paris] and seeing how other people have transformed my ideas. I've seen good and bad things that I don't think I would have seen if I hadn't done it that way.
And then also, I've been out of the kitchen, say, every second week for the last year — it was like one week in Sweden, next week in Paris. Thinking about what you're doing and what you are to cook [when you're] outside of the kitchen is completely different from what I've been used to doing. For like 15 or 20 years, I've been thinking about food when I was working, not wanting to take it with me when I go home after work. And now I have thought about it much more at home and during the week when I haven't been working. It was like, okay, I think about the menu during the week when I'm not working, I set it up the week when I get [to Paris], and I let it run until I come back.
I think the most fun is the first two days of a new menu.
It has been kind of a nice process around it. I think the most fun is the first two days of a new menu. Then I get a little bit bored. So it's been kind of nice to take three days to set [the menu] up, work with it for two days, go off to Sweden for a week, and then come back and start all over again. So yeah, in that way it has been nice. In another way, it hasn't been nice because I haven't been able to have the control that I used to have being there every day. So you make choices. Like okay, if I'm not here, I can't do this. I think I need my eye to make this work.
Nilsson at La Gazzetta. [Photo: Facebook]
What do you mean? You can't do certain dishes?
Yeah. You know that if this [dish] is going to work, you have to do it this way and you have to do it this way all the time, repetitively. Maybe I just don't have the confidence in people to let them do it. When you're handling fragile things, I mean, if it's done in the right way it's going to be really nice, but if you don't do it all that well it's just going to be a disaster. There's a thin line always.
So you have to figure out how much you can trust people.
Yeah. And what responsibility you want to put on someone else's shoulders also. Telling them to do something that is almost mission impossible and then leaving for Sweden for a week doesn't seem very nice.
That's a good point. Well so I know you start at the new restaurant in April. What are you doing in the meantime? Holidays?
No. We open the first of May. There's kind of a lot of press already around it, so I think that we're going to be kind of busy from the first of May. So now we just have to figure out how to make it so it meets everyone's idea of what it's supposed to be.
What is your idea of what it's supposed to be?
I could never make a restaurant where you pay $400 per person.
I just want to make something nice. I don't want it to be a high-end gastronomy restaurant. I want it to be a nice and relaxed place where you eat very, very well. It's like a conclusion of all the restaurants that I have worked in and eaten at. You take the best of everything, and then after 25 years you have somehow gotten an idea of what you want to do. I could never make a restaurant where you pay $400 per person to eat one night. It's not my type of restaurant. I just want to make a medium-priced restaurant that's really good. I feel more comfortable in that layer. I don't feel comfortable in high-end gastronomy. I like going to those restaurants, but I don't fancy working in them.
What is it about them that you don't like?
I don't know. For me, it's just not worth it. I would feel bad about doing something [where] it costs $90 for a main course. I would never go to a restaurant if I had to pay that price to eat. I don't think it's worth it. For me, restaurants should be like a social gathering point. [A restaurant is] one of the few things that's real, where you meet in real life. I want it to be comfortable and sociable. That doesn't mean that you can't cook something that is interesting or something that is really, really good. It's just you make other choices.
Spritmuseum, Stockholm. [Photo: Facebook]
So what should people expect from the restaurant in terms of the menu?
It's going to change a lot every day, I hope. I've been thinking a lot about old Swedish traditional food and making, I wouldn't say new versions of it, but [that would be] the base. It's like when I came to France, I had a very romantic idea about French restaurants: there's cheese on the table, a bottle of red wine, and good bread. You have this red-and-white checkered tablecloth. And when I got there, it wasn't like that at all. But I stuck to my idea of what it was, and I just did my version of it. Not that I had to have red-and-white checkered tablecloths and put Camembert on the table, but I had this romantic idea of what it could be.
For me, it's just like this restaurant is a white page.
I think that's the same with Stockholm. I'd never lived in Stockholm before. Now I've been here for a couple of years. But I know as much about Stockholm as I knew about France moving to France. So, for me, it's just like this is a white page. I can do whatever I want. But I still have my thoughts about what the traditional Swedish restaurant in Stockholm would be, and then I'll just take my romantic view of it and make something that's just me.
Do you have any specific dish ideas at this point?
No. I don't know how I'm going to dress tomorrow. I have some dreams about what we are going to do, but mainly I have notions about the sensations I want to have doing it. It's more about that. I can't say, oh I'm going to make spinach with fish roe in a specific way. I could say that because I've been thinking about spinach and I've been thinking about fish roe, but it wouldn't make sense because I don't know really how it's going to be. But it's going to be good. It's going to be really good.
Good. And finally I want to ask you about the dining scene in Stockholm. Niklas Ekstedt told me last year that it feels like spring in Sweden with everything booming there right now. Do you see it that way, too?
Yeah. I don't get around that much. I think that in the last couple of years, a lot of restaurants have opened that are worth visiting. I mean, [I'm] coming back from Paris when Paris really has been [on] a good movement in the last couple of years where you eat really well for not so much money. I think that the Paris scene is much stronger than what the restaurant scene in Stockholm is. Not only that there are a lot more restaurants in Paris, but I think it's more interesting in Paris than Stockholm. But Stockholm has always been a city that has kept itself in the front of coming up with new ideas.
Everyone who had one restaurant in Stockholm now has three restaurants.
So yeah, I think one could say it's getting quite good in Stockholm. But still, there's a lot of anxiety and so many restaurant groups. Everyone [who had] one restaurant now has three restaurants. Something that you would see in America. I don't think it's very good to have three, four, five restaurants. Then you're a businessman. You don't cook anymore. I mean, if it makes you happy to have it, it's good. But when I started working less at Gazzetta, many people said to me that it wasn't as good as it was when I was there all the time. And somehow I believe them. I only had one and I couldn't be there all the time. So what if I have five restaurants? I wouldn't be able to be there.
The restaurant business has such tight economic margins, though, so how do you balance the need to make money with that?
I'm not a businessman, so I don't know how that works. If you want to make a lot of money having a restaurant, you make choices to work a lot, buy cheap things, and sell them expensively. I'm not into earning money, so I don't know. But I don't think that having a lot of restaurants is about making more money for many cooks. It's just like you have a restaurant, and you think it's fun to open another restaurant. It keeps you occupied with something else. It's just like, okay, if I can have two restaurants then I can have three restaurants. And yeah at the end of the day you will probably make some more money. But you will also stack a lot of problems on top of each other. You would end up having like 150 employees, and I don't think that you get such personal contact with the staff as you had when you only had one restaurant.
Okay, so that's not for you.
No. Not this year anyway. Maybe next year.