21 August 2014

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Starter for 10: interview with Mikael Jonsson


mikael jonsson_hedone 2012 - Mikael_smiling.jpgFormer lawyer and food blogger Mikael Jonsson has been in the headlines since opening Chiswick-based Hedone last year, as much for being stabbed in his restaurant as for the critical acclaim that greeted his food. Square Meal caught up with the Swedish chef, who revealed the secrets of his 70-day aged beef, why food bloggers aren't important, and how the attack has left him injured for life.

You're obsessed with sourcing the best produce, but what makes you different to other chefs?

Take beef, for example. I go to O'Shea's of Knightsbridge every week to cherry-pick what I want. Out of say 1,000 animals, there might be 50 that are good enough for O'Shea's and only two of those that we will work with. I'm looking for meat that has good marbling inside and a specific amount of fat outside. They are basically freak animals.

We make decisions about how to age the meat when I visit, moving it to different rooms where there are varying temperatures and humidities. I have my own shelf there, with a sign on that says ‘Belongs to Mikael Jonsson. Nobody ****ing touch.’ We age the beef for at least 45 days, but sometimes get up to 70 days. To my knowledge, no other chef works with beef like this.

Do you think that diners appreciate the effort that you put into food sourcing?

I'd say 95 per cent don't really notice. For some things it can be quite striking – especially beef and fish – but not for everything. A lot of chefs eat here and they are always impressed with the quality of the produce. Having a two-star chef with a big ego asking you how you cooked the turbot and where it came from; that feels pretty good.

What have you learned since you opened?

It's been a steep learning curve. When I started I hadn't run a kitchen. It's only in the past couple of months that I feel we've been finding our feet. I've also been surprised to find out how so-called top kitchens work with seafood. I've had ‘stagiaires’ (chef interns) from Michelin-starred restaurants who don't know how to fillet a sea bass. They tell me they normally get the fish already filleted. It saddened me, and explains why it's so hard to get good-quality fish in this town.

Why do you only offer set and tasting menus at Hedone?

We don't offer a lot of choice because I want as little waste as possible. I also want to offer really good quality, rather than have a large menu with many things that we’re not doing very well. The menu can change from lunch to dinner and from one day to the next. Sometimes I even change it during service. It all depends on what produce comes in.

Are you enjoying your life as a chef?

I don't really have a life now. I'm here all the time, but whatever I've done I've always been completely absorbed by it. I love being in the kitchen, but we'll see how many years I do it for. I want to try to find my own style of cooking and that's extraordinarily difficult. I don't know whether I will ever succeed. If one day I realise I'm not going to make it, then I will probably get bored and do something else.

What do you think of food blogs now that you're a chef?

The food blogging scene is of no importance. I don't think people pay any attention to them. They have very little influence in terms of trade for restaurants. The few bloggers that have been here and written positive reviews haven't pulled in any people. You can tell by how much the phone rings.

So is there still a place for professional restaurant reviews and guides?

Definitely. The restaurant critics from the national newspapers are very important. When AA Gill gave us five stars, the phones went crazy. We were completely booked up for the next three months, which was not necessarily a good thing because we weren't prepared for that and a lot of our regular customers couldn't get a table.

What was the best restaurant you visited on your travels before setting up Hedone?

My dream restaurant in Japan is the [Michelin] three-starred Kojyu. It's got an open kitchen and bar counter, like we have here. The open kitchen is not simply for show. I want to prove we have nothing to hide. I also like to be able to interact with customers who want to understand what we are doing.

What happened when you were attacked last October?

I'm a bit sick and tired of talking about it. It started when someone was peeing on our delivery door. I went out after this guy and had a bit of a verbal disagreement. About 10 minutes later, several people ran into the restaurant and cornered me. I got a glass in my forehead and was stabbed in my arm. I had about 16 stitches in total. The police managed to catch them and a woman was convicted in April for GBH. The doctor told me that if the glass had been 5mm lower, I could have lost my eye. I'm numb in that part of my head and will be for the rest of my life.

What’s your earliest food memory?

Smoking fish from the fishermen in Åhus [in Sweden], where we used to spend our summers. I was interested in food from a very early age and always wanted to be a chef, but I couldn't because I had quite severe food allergies. I went to law school instead, but later on I changed the way I ate. I followed the Palaeolithic diet, avoiding grains, sugars and man-made oils, and the allergies completely disappeared. I still avoid sugar and am gluten intolerant, but I'm able to eat the bread we make – probably because of the long fermentation time.

This interview was conducted and published in July 2012. Interview by Patrick McGuigan.

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