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28 July 2014

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Starter for 10: interview with Magnus Nilsson

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magnus nilsson 2012 - 242_MN_standing_RESIZED_Magnus_Nilsson_2012.jpgSwedish chef Magnus Nilsson (pictured, right) is chef-patron of Fäviken, a 12-seater restaurant located in the remote village of Jämtland in north-west Sweden. The restaurant, voted number 34 in the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Awards 2012, is celebrated for its imaginative use of foraged native produce and its approach to nature, both at the table and in terms of its location. Square Meal caught up with Nilsson and discussed the importance of free time, his link with Noma, and his take on ‘New Nordic cuisine’.

What inspires you as a chef?

In any professional craft where there is a certain amount of creativity involved, whatever you produce is the sum of everything that you have experienced. I’m almost never inspired by other restaurants; I go to them because I love eating and having a good time. More often than not, I find inspiration from elsewhere – I’ll see something in the street and then forget about it, and half a year later it might end up in one of my dishes. It could be anything – something aesthetic that might inspire me to use the same aesthetic language on the plate. Nature is a large part of my life in general, so that definitely filters through.

Do you think that London restaurants lack something by not being close to nature?

I think running a restaurant is all about making the most of whatever possibilities and difficulties your location presents you with. Running Fäviken the way we do makes sense for us, but it wouldn’t make sense here in London – here, there are loads of people who could store carrots better than me, for example, but at Fäviken I store my own carrots for a reason. If I were to run a restaurant here I would definitely make the most of the huge influx of products from all over Britain.

Does it annoy you when the press labels Fäviken and other Scandinavian restaurants as serving ‘New Nordic cuisine’ when in fact you’re doing different things?

There are two things that annoy me about the term. One is that it implies that there was an ‘old’ Nordic cuisine that wasn’t particularly good so they changed it for a new one. This isn’t really true – there have always been very accomplished restaurants in Scandinavia, but until René [Redzepi] shone a light on Nordic cuisine with Noma, nobody knew about them.

Another thing I find very weird is that people lump all Scandinavian restaurants together, when it’s a large and very diverse region. No one would take Ferran Adrià from el Bulli in Spain, Michel Bras from Bras in France and Massimo Bottura from Osteria Francescana in Italy and lump them together as serving ‘Central European cuisine’.

Ferran Adrià and his followers have, however, been saddled with the term ‘molecular gastronomy’, which they dislike.

But when somebody says ‘molecular gastronomy’, everyone immediately understands what they mean. The problem with ‘New Nordic cuisine’ is that it makes people think of something very similar to Noma because it’s the most accomplished restaurant we have and it’s got the most coverage in the press. I hope that people who book a table at Noma take the opportunity to visit other restaurants in the region while they’re there to discover its diversity. Our restaurants are not all the same and are not easily identifiable as ‘New Nordic’ restaurants.

Do you socialise with René Redzepi?

I know René very well and Noma is one of my favourite restaurants; I’ve been eating there since the beginning. We have a lot in common: we like the same restaurants; we have roughly the same number of staff per meal produced; and we share almost the same produce so we work with the same toolbox. However, the outcome is completely different.

When René and I get together, it’s usually just to have a good time – we don’t talk about work! Some people are inspired by other chefs, but I would prefer everyone to just focus on their own product and try to make it the best they can, because it would make for a much more diverse dining scene.

faviken book 2012 - FAVIKEN_flat_cover_smaller_Magnus_Nilsson_2012.jpgWould you like to do the same thing as Redzepi, who brought Noma to Claridge’s this summer?

Noma at Claridge’s was very impressive – I’ve spoken to quite a few people who went there and they were all very happy with the experience.

However, even if you move your food, you can never move the experience of a restaurant because that’s attached to the place. With Fäviken, the journey is very much part of the experience. If I did a dinner here in London, people might understand that it’s not going to be Fäviken, but somehow they would still expect it to be. And it’s not – it will never be.

What kind of diner does Fäviken attract?

Most of our customers are very ordinary people who have an extraordinary interest in food. When you run the kind of restaurant that we do – a destination restaurant – you tend to attract wealthy people who are very food-orientated and want to tick an experience off their list.

We’re lucky because many ambitious restaurants don’t really have many return customers, but some of our customers come back very often, which makes me very happy. Our most frequent customers are actually a British couple who live in London – they celebrated their 20th visit a few weeks ago. They’ve been with us almost since day one and they come back four or five times a year.

We have very few customers who just don’t get it. Inevitably there are a few who don’t understand what we do, but amazingly few. We have very good customers.

Does Fäviken’s isolated location and small team mean that tensions arise?

I don’t think that it’s more tense here than anywhere else. Like all very good restaurants, Fäviken attracts a certain type of ambitious chef who wants to work hard. I want my team to be very focused – they need to be absolutely dedicated to perfection, and if they give us that then I want to give something back to them. We like our staff to be able to have a life outside the restaurant, so we don’t work double shifts, and next year we’re going to introduce 10 weeks of vacation, to give something back to the people who plough their energy and effort into the restaurant.

What has been your biggest kitchen disaster?

We very seldom have problems with service because our system means that the way dishes leave the kitchen never changes. Sometimes, something doesn’t turn out that great so we skip that dish and no one notices anything. It leaves room for very few disasters.

Are the dishes in Fäviken, your first cookbook (pictured, above left), accessible for the home cook?

Some are simple; some are more complex. I hope that people don’t try to replicate the recipes as such – the idea is that they read them, then close the book and make something based on what they’ve read combined with their own experiences. The book is a gateway into my world, and for those who haven’t got the same cultural background as I have, it’s an explanation of why what we do in the restaurant makes sense.

Fäviken by Magnus Nilsson is published by Phaidon, priced £35.

This article was published in October 2012.

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