Swede treats Foodie wun­derkind Mag­nus Nils­son on why it pays to be nice to staff

The Swedish chef on why it pays to be nice to staff and why his restau­rant dou­bled its prices overnight, writes Cather­ine Cleary

The Irish Times Magazine - - NEWS -

Mag­nus Nils­son doesn’t have a life- chang­ing mes­sage to de­liver at this year’s Food on the Edge in Gal­way. Not yet any­way. When we speak, he hasn’t fig­ured out what he’s go­ing to say. He doesn’t do the talk­ing cir­cuit much now. You get the im­pres­sion he’s over the thrill of stand­ing in front of an au­di­ence and talk­ing about his root store.

Nils­son is still boy­ish, bearded and long- haired, hav­ing put a restau­rant at the end of the world on the map when he was just 24. Fäviken is in a vast es­tate in the Swedish province of Jämt­land. Din­ner in­volves a long trek through al­most empty coun­try­side, an overnight stay and a bill for the whole ex­pe­ri­ence of more than ¤ 600 a head, if you opt for the wine. That’s be­fore you even book a flight.

Next year Nils­son will be 10 years in his do­main. Al­though it’s “just a num­ber”, that an­niver­sary has prompted some re­flec­tion. You get the im­pres­sion of a chef who is still ex­cited about food but slightly jaded by the cult of chefs and frank about his early days of ter­ror­is­ing per­fec­tion out of his team.

We talk on Skype, Nils­son sit­ting in an of­fice in front of a book­case packed with files, an un­ro­man­tic view of this fairy­tale place hinted at by the glit­ter of north­ern sun­light through a win­dow be­side his right shoul­der. The heart of Nils­son’s food is pre­serv­ing, pick­ling and stor­ing sup­plies over win­ter when noth­ing grows in the snow and ice.

“It’s still the ba­sic fun­da­ment of what we do. We never cease to learn about th­ese things. There’s so much to dis­cover still, I think, if you’re open to it,” he says. Trav­el­ling around and meet­ing peo­ple, you “stum­ble on knowl­edge”.

Nils­son grew up and trained as a chef in Jämt­land and then worked in Paris, at Pas­cal Bar­bot’s restau­rant L’As­trance, for three years. He re­turned to Swe­den and left cook­ing for the wine world be­cause he hated spend­ing his days try­ing to im­i­tate Bar­bot’s dishes. He ar­rived at Fäviken to help them with their wine list. When they couldn’t find a head chef, he went into the kitchen him­self. Fäviken be­gan with eight seats. Now there are 16 in the restau­rant and a fur­ther eight at a com­mu­nal ta­ble.

The restau­rant’s iso­la­tion dic­tated the food. Nils­son turned his back on the world and be­gan to dig where he stood. “For us that’s been so im­por­tant. I of­ten think about that how much harder it must be on some level – ob­vi­ously each per­son run­ning a restau­rant has their own prob­lems and up­sides – but I of­ten think about that how much harder it must be in a city where it must be in­evitable to al­ways com­pare your­self to the other restau­ra­teurs.”

He had the free­dom to cre­ate his own king­dom. Was he a kind ruler? “Th­ese days I’m pretty kind,” he grins.

Does that mean he has mel­lowed? “I would say so. I mean ab­so­lutely. I opened Fäviken when I was 24 – not ma­ture for that task, look­ing back. It’s al­ways easy to look back ... When you’re that age and you open a restau­rant, all you want to do is cook and suc­ceed and it’s not easy in the mo­ment to al­ways see what’s the best and most sus­tain­able way of do­ing that.

“The fact is that you can claim that be­ing very tough and very strict doesn’t work but that’s not true. In the short term it does work. If peo­ple are scared and pushed to their lim­its they will suc­ceed in the short term. But the prob­lem with that is that they don’t last very long, and it’s a very in­hu­mane way of look­ing at staffing a restau­rant and run­ning a busi­ness.”

Now staff turnover among the 20- strong kitchen team is low. “For me that’s a good sign that we’ve suc­ceeded in fig­ur­ing out how to main­tain pre­ci­sion and very low tol­er­ance for fail­ure but still in a hu­mane way and also keep­ing peo­ple mo­ti­vated, let­ting them grow and in­vest­ing in peo­ple.”

To­day no one in Fäviken works a dou­ble shift. The work­ing week is 40 hours, with a max­i­mum of 10 hours over­time on top. In- terns are lim­ited to 12 trainees a year. They come on a three- month pro­gramme, for which they pay Fäviken ¤ 1,200-¤ 1,400 for train­ing, room and board and some trips. Be­cause he charges them, Nils­son says, his trainees are “much more mo­ti­vated” and not just look­ing to add a well- known name to the CV.

All of th­ese changes came at a price not just to the trainees, and it was a dra­matic one. Two years ago “we just dou­bled our prices, which was an in­sane de­ci­sion to do, but we felt there was no other way”. The menu went from 1,700 Swedish krona (¤ 177) to 3,000 (¤ 312) “overnight”. Wine pair­ing is a fur­ther 1,750 (¤ 182). A shared dou­ble room costs 2,500 (¤ 260). That was what it cost to set the restau­rant on a sus­tain­able course, Nils­son says. And din­ers still queue up to pay. Why does he think peo­ple come to eat at Fäviken?

“Hope­fully be­cause they have a good time here.”

Is it an an­ti­dote to modern life? “I don’t think so. Peo­ple are here for less than 24 hours. I think if we ran a place where you stayed for a long week­end or a week I think that would def­i­nitely be part of the rea­son peo­ple would come.”

Does he hate to see peo­ple pho­tograph­ing their plates? “I think that a lot of chefs do that to­day – ‘ Oh, you can’t take pho­tos of food’ – and I think that’s stupid. I mean why isn’t that part of the priv­i­lege that you pay for when you pay ¤ 500 to eat? To de­cide whether you want to doc­u­ment or not.”

Staff will tap some­one on the shoul­der “if we see that the ea­ger­ness to doc­u­ment af­fects ad­versely the ex­pe­ri­ence of the diner, then we usu­ally tell them, re­mind them about why they’re ac­tu­ally here. Be­cause some peo­ple are so fo­cused on doc­u­ment­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence and not hav­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence, and that’s very sad.”

Does Nils­son see Swedish food cul­ture im­prov­ing thanks to his suc­cess? He says there is sub­stan­tially bet­ter pro­duce, es­pe­cially veg­eta­bles, but that’s been the big­gest change. “I think, gen­er­ally speak­ing, peo­ple do not eat bet­ter to­day than they did 10 years ago. Those who are mo­ti­vated, at least they have the op­por­tu­nity to­day to eat bet­ter.”

But wasn’t the Nordic food move­ment sup­posed to save the world from bad di­ets and the en­vi­ron­men­tal dev­as­ta­tion of in­dus­trial food pro­duc­tion when meth­ods prac-

I think that a lot of chefs do that to­day – ‘ Oh, you can’t take pho­tos of food’ – and I think that’s stupid. I mean why isn’t that part of the priv­i­lege?

tised in th­ese fa­mous kitchens trick­led down into real life?

“We’ve come to a point where chefs are sup­posed to have an opin­ion about ev­ery­thing and to de­liver very wise stand­points on ev­ery sub­ject mat­ter imag­in­able, re­ally, and you’re sup­posed to change the world. The truth of the mat­ter is, a restau­rant like Fäviken doesn’t re­ally change the world on a greater scale. It can set an ex­am­ple. It can lead peo­ple in a cer­tain di­rec­tion, but that’s not, I mean – func­tions that de­cide how peo­ple eat is much much larger than that.”

Part of the prob­lem is the bubble that chefs and foodie types in­habit where we “tend to mostly speak to our­selves”, Nils­son be­lieves. So it can eas­ily feel that peo­ple are eat­ing bet­ter, “but it’s only the same peo­ple who did that 10 years ago who are al­ready mo­ti­vated.

“A lot of chefs and restau­ra­teurs take on this sort of over­coat of world im­provers and that’s the goal. The fact of the mat­ter is that most of them can’t and most of them don’t do it for the right rea­sons, ei­ther. There are other rea­sons why you might want to do that. Ob­vi­ously there are some amaz­ing peo­ple who re­ally make a change on a big­ger scale but for me it’s like mak­ing the com­par­i­son be­tween food and art. I hate the com­par­i­son with food and art, but in this case it’s ad­e­quate.”

There’s the fine art painter who paints a beau­ti­ful land­scape, he says “takes an inor- Fäviken, headed by chef Mag­nus Nils­son, is set on a 24,000- acre farm­ing and hunt­ing es­tate in re­mote Jämt­land. di­nate amount of time, costs a lot of money, and ma­te­ri­als are ex­pen­sive and be­comes some­thing that’s com­pletely nonessen­tial for hu­man sur­vival. You still make it and it has a valid rea­son to ex­ist, and there is also an­other painter who paints fac­to­ries, like hectares and hectares of fac­tory walls with the same paint and they’re equally im­por­tant. They af­fect each other. To try to make the fac­tory painter into a fine- art painter to paint all the fac­to­ries in the same way is a very silly idea.

“A restau­rant like Fäviken is an ex­treme anom­aly. That’s not the way that peo­ple are sup­posed to eat on an every­day ba­sis. In any way. No one does that. No one should do that. It should be some­thing very spe­cial.”

So should chefs give up the nar­cis­sis­tic delu­sion that they have the power to find the big fix for the world’s food prob­lems?

“No, ab­so­lutely not. But we should also be a lit­tle bit re­al­is­tic about who does what and maybe make the world a bet­ter place by be­ing bet­ter at the stuff that you mas­ter well and that you have a chance to ac­tu­ally con­trol. And then lead by ex­am­ple rather than try­ing to do it the other way round and forc­ing a change that can’t be forced. Be­cause ev­ery­one with half a brain sees that the cur­rent food sys­tem doesn’t re­ally work, if you look es­pe­cially at the farm­ing side of things ... We have top­soil de­ple­tion, which is a sci­en­tific fact. We have global warm­ing, which to a large ex­tent comes from farm­ing. And there are many other fac­tors. And if a lot of peo­ple who are clever enough to see this as a prob­lem still can’t make the change, why hasn’t this change al­ready oc­curred on a larger scale?”

Food his­tory has les­sons in sus­tain­abil­ity that Nils­son serves in his restau­rant, like beef from for­mer dairy cows. “The beef in­dus­try in north­ern cli­mates it used to be, un­til the 1950s, just a by- prod­uct of the dairy in­dus­try. No one had beef cat­tle. You had cows and then they be­came meat in the end.” But he is wary of ro­man­ti­cis­ing that past. “It’s very easy to be pas­sion­ate about th­ese things and say ‘ Oh, we need to farm like we did 100 years ago. It’s gonna be so much bet­ter,’ but then it’s like ac­tu­ally not be­cause 100 years ago peo­ple were still starv­ing across Europe.” The wun­derkind has grown up.

Food on the Edge takes place in Gal­way Oc­to­ber 9th and 10th. See foodon­theedge. ie for tick­ets and more de­tails

Mag­nus Nils­son: “We’ve suc­ceeded in fig­ur­ing out how to main­tain pre­ci­sion and very low tol­er­ance for fail­ure but still in a hu­mane way”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: LEISA TYLER/ LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

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