The Magnus Nilsson episode of Netflix’s documentary series Chef’s Table tells the story of how a young cook found success and creative freedom by embracing the terroir of his homeland. At Nilsson’s much-heralded fine dining establishment Fäviken, in the small town of Järpen, Sweden, the chef pays homage to old styles of cooking with a menu that incorporates the best local ingredients.
“A lot of the things that are past, they are becoming extinct or are getting forgotten,” the chef says. “My job is to keep the original alive in a way that people can understand.“ An average tasting menu at Fäviken might include: wild trout roe in a crust of dried pig’s blood; pig’s head in sourdough with pickled gooseberry; a cottage cheese pie with preserved mushrooms; blood bread with moose broth, back-fat, and onions; and a cured reindeer meat pie.
What was Magnus Nilsson’s journey through the culinary world like?
Nilsson grew up in Jämtland, Sweden, not far from the site of Fäviken. He was a shy kid who got the cooking bug as a teen and convinced his parents to send him to culinary school in the nearby city of Åre. After completing the program, Magnus got a job at a well-regarded restaurant in Paris called L’Astrance. He stayed there for a few years and learned from the chef/owner that “the dish will never be better than the produce.”
Nilsson left Paris to work on a project in Champagne, but when that business plan eventually fell through, he took a job at a restaurant in Stockholm. Although he had more authority in the kitchen this time, the job ultimately proved to be unfulfilling for Magnus. “When I tried to do my stuff, many of the things I made were so strongly colored by my time at L’Astrance, so it didn’t feel like they were mine,” he explains. “It just felt like less well-executed copies of someone else’s stuff.”
After this experience, Nilsson moved back to Sweden with plans to give up cooking entirely. But when he and his wife were expecting their first child, Magnus decided to take a job at nearby Fäviken to help the owners sort out their wine cellar. That led to him working in the kitchen and eventually taking over the restaurant.
What was his “aha” moment?
Returning back Sweden with years of culinary experience under his belt, Nilsson viewed his homeland from a new perspective. “It’s still exactly the same place, it’s just that I see it differently,” the chef says. As he embraced local ingredients and Sweden’s culinary heritage, the dining experience at Fäviken transformed into something fresh and exciting. Soon, local and international critics began singing its praises, and Fäviken shot to the top of some of the most prestigious restaurants rankings in the world.
What are some of Nilsson’s most memorable quotes from this episode?
On isolation: “As a creative person, you’re always influenced by the experiences you have. And if one of them is that you’re constantly relating to other, similar restaurants, that’s inevitably going to affect what you do. If you look at the whole restaurant world, and you look at a certain bigger city, there is a feeling to many of the restaurants that tie them together. At Fäviken, we don’t have to relate to anything that we don’t want [because] it’s just us here. Just this little universe. It’s kind of limitless, you know?”
On seasonal cooking: “I sometimes get the question [of whether or not] our cooking is seasonal. And I think that is really intriguing, because what’s seasonal here in February? Nothing, you know, nothing grows here. But we have a lot of vegetables on the menu still. And they’re not fresh. They’re from last autumn, and they’ve been stored in some way, and that adds layers of complexity to the dishes.”
On paying attention to detail: “I notice everything that happens in the kitchen. I notice every single little detail, because I was there to develop them.”
On creativity: “Anyone can learn to duplicate a technique, but that’s not creative expression. What’s interesting is true development. It’s not something that happens over a couple of weeks or a year. But to me, it gives the base for true creativity.”