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food / travel

The Swedish Chef Who May Just Be The World's New Culinary King

What many considered the planet’s best restaurant, Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli in Spain, recently closed its doors. So where to now for a genuine out-of-this-world meal? North – way north. In Sweden's Jämtland, a bearded chef named Magnus Nilsson is

Chef Magnus Nilsson at work in northern Sweden's Fäviken Magasinet restaurant
Chef Magnus Nilsson at work in northern Sweden's Fäviken Magasinet restaurant
Lorraine Haist

JÄMTLAND -- People are a rare sight in the north of Sweden. On average, two per square kilometer live in Jämtland province bordering Lapland. From here, it's just 350 km to the Arctic Circle. So why are we here? To eat at the restaurant that has the world food scene abuzz: Fäviken Magasinet. Its 27-year-old chef, Magnus Nilsson, was recently described by René Redzepi, of the Copenhagen restaurant Noma (currently considered to be the best restaurant in the world), as his "successor."

Anybody wishing to experience the cooking that a genius like Redzepi is willing to stick his neck out for will have to wait three months to book one of the 12 places in the restaurant where Nilsson serves a dinner-only, one-menu-for-all meal from Wednesday through Saturday. Not only that, they have to take a trip that makes negotiating the curving roads that led to Ferran Adrià"s now-closed El Bulli look like a trip around the corner to the convenience store.

Fäviken, the 8,400-hectare estate that Patrik Brummer, founder of the first Swedish hedge fund and a hobby hunter, bought in 2003 is really, really far away. It takes a good three hours to drive here from Trondheim, in Norway, past wooden houses painted Falun red, ochre yellow, powder blue. After a while the road seems as endless as stretches in the American Midwest.

This time of year the sun goes down in the early afternoon, over deep brown tundra, forests of conifers and birch, streams, gleaming black lakes and fjords, scythed fields and meadows with a few grazing sheep, cows and horses, all shimmering in the golden light. When we reach Lake Kalljön, on the western shores of which Fäviken lies, the thermometer reads zero degrees, and an icy wind blows between the estate's late 19th century wooden buildings.

Kitchen in the old granary

"That's nothing, in the winter it's minus 30 degrees up here," says Magnus Nilsson laughing. With his long blonde hair, beard, tight black jeans and Chelsea boots he is a commanding presence. We are standing in the tiny restaurant kitchen, formerly the estate granary built in 1745. Besides him, three other cooks work here. A large window looks out on fog-enveloped Åreskutan mountain to the left, and a traditionally built Swedish cellar storeroom to the right.

Flanked by blocks of granite in a hillock overgrown with grass, the entrance to the storeroom looks more like the doorway to an ancient burial chamber. Inside, however, are cabbages and artichokes buried in sand piles; carrots, radishes, turnips, grow in plastic crates filled with earth.

"Supplies last for up to 12 months," says Nilsson. "This fall we bought 2,000 kilos to last the winter. Our own small fertilizer and pesticide-free garden produces 3,000 kilos of fresh fruit and vegetables annually and is enough to supply the restaurant for the few months outside the cold period."

That the restaurant can exist virtually autonomously – 70% of the products are home-grown; the only products that come from a distance of more than 200 km away are salt (from France), sugar (Denmark), alcoholic vinegar (southern Sweden), coffee and wine – is thanks to Nilsson's careful planning and management.

Hyper-local, product-oriented cuisine

After training in Stockholm and in the nearby ski mecca of Åre, Nilsson worked for three years at L'Astrance, a Paris restaurant with three Michelin stars. The chef there, Pascal Barbot, is known for almost fanatically seeking ever-better products. Nilsson is part and parcel of his own hyper-local, product-oriented, terroir cuisine.

Born and raised in Östersund, Jämtland's capital, Nilsson – like most of the people from this area – knows where to find edible mushrooms, berries and herbs. On his grandparents' farm he learned techniques for conserving food: pasteurizing, preserving vegetables, berries and blossoms in vinegar or whey, pickling, smoking and drying meat and fish, also drying herbs and mushrooms.

The "leek machine" is one of Nilsson's happy discoveries. Leeks can survive Sweden's icy winters if put in a sand-filled freezer set at zero degrees and 90% humidity. "Under those conditions, leeks go into hibernation, like an animal," Nilsson says. "You can serve them during the cold period or plant them in the garden in spring."

At Fäviken, Nilsson doesn't only sow and forage and harvest – he also kills. "He has hunting in his blood," says former boss Barbot. During hunting season, Nilsson and his team, sometimes joined by estate owner Patrik Brummer – who owns 60% of the restaurant (Nilsson and sommelier/manager Johan Agrell each own 20%) – shoot hares, game birds and elk.

And that morning, Nilsson will have fished the trout from the lake that at dinner, with a warming fire in the fireplace and candlelight illuminating the dining room, is served on stoneware plates accompanied by aromatic, dried mushrooms and preserved calendula blossoms.

Making the case for "real food"

"We serve what we want to, when we want to," Nilsson says, explaining his philosophy of "real food." By that he means he doesn't follow trends – although he does follow the rhythms of nature. "The products here and their quality are what brought me back to cooking, "he says. Nilsson explains that after he returned from Paris, frustrated with the second-rate products usually available in Sweden, he trained as a sommelier with the intention of converting to wine journalism.

Then Patrik Brummer hired him to come to Fäviken and look after his private wine cellar. Nilsson saw the potential of the remote, nature-bound place at once: "The fact that you couldn‘t get a lot of products here stimulated my creativity."

So since November 2008, Nilsson, a master of the cooking techniques of modern gastronomy at the highest levels, has been cooking instead with his senses. He makes each course on-going, using direct heat mostly from an open coal fire, with no thermometer. "Sticking a piece of meat in a vacuum pack and then into hot water is no fun at all. You can't smell the meat, and it doesn't look good."

Finally, the meal. The lightly salted wild trout roe, served on a crust of dried pig's blood; the perfect beef, hung for seven months after slaughter, served on crunchy reindeer lichen; the leaf of Savoy cabbage cut one hour before serving and blanched for 15 seconds; the pungent butter that smells like cheese. None of this is for cowards. Even if you are used to close-to-nature cooking, Nilsson's creations can sometimes seem like a slap in the face: it is that fresh, so intense that you are unlikely to have experienced anything like it ever before.

Read the original story in German

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