“This was quite easy,” says Magnus Nilsson matter-of-factly, pointing to the handsome, 272-page cookbook that sits on the table in front of him. “It’s all from my head. I’d sit down on a bus or a plane or in a cafe and just write. When I handed in the manuscript it was 100,000 words of narrative text, which is a lot, and I thought they were going to cut away three quarters of it – but there’s 97,000 words in there.”
This statement is symptomatic of the way this unassuming 28-year old takes life in his stride. He hunts; he fishes; forages; cooks; runs an internationally acclaimed restaurant, is father to two children – and he writes cookbooks. That’s just what he does: and he seems to do it as effortlessly as he sweeps the long blonde hair away from his eyes. Like the 12-cover restaurant from which it takes its name, the book is an extension of Nilsson’s mind, imagination and humour – a confluence of thoughts, ideas, explanation and narrative: and an intensely personal journey.
Spending time on planes is something Nilsson is getting used to. After a few days in London, he’s jetting off to Toronto; New York; Charleston; Seattle; Chicago and San Francisco to promote the book, though when he travels he usually likes to close his restaurant. “Technically there’s no difference in the food when I’m not there because we have a great team, but I know that people expect me to be there. You’re paying for a personal kind of cuisine and I respect that. I love cooking there. You wouldn’t run a restaurant like Fäviken if you didn’t enjoy being there.”
By “a restaurant like Fäviken”, the softly spoken Swede is referring not just to its extraordinary location at the bottom of the eastern slope of the Åreskutan mountain in his native Jämtland, but to the way Fäviken has grown from the most unlikely of beginnings into what's now considered one of the best restaurants in the world (or 34th if you follow the S.Pellegrino list). The gourmet jet set fly in from all over the globe, and pay anything from £300-£350 to experience the 20-odd courses created there. And this is the way it always had to be: with a restaurant this isolated (the nearest airport is an hour and a half’s drive away, and reportedly just one taxi driver in the whole region) it has to be the kind of experience that people are prepared to go out of their way for.
Nilsson grew up steeped in nature – it’s hard to escape it in this region – learning about self-sufficiency and where food came from on his grandfather’s farm. He knew from an early age that he wanted to be a chef, embarking on an apprenticeship at fourteen, but it wasn’t a path that ran smoothly. On returning to Sweden after working in the top kitchens of l’Astrance and L’Arperge in Paris, he became disillusioned with his cooking: “Everything I was cooking looked like what I cooked with my previous chef in France. So I stopped, because it felt pointless and didn’t make me happy in any way.”
So he began studying wine in Stockholm instead, also working for a Wine Spirit Education Trust diploma in London, and then in 2008 he went home, taking a job as sommelier at Fäviken – the isolated farm, on a wild, 8400-hectare estate in his native Jämtland. When he was asked to add some food to the equation by the owners he said yes, “because I thought it would be easy to get someone in to work on the food,” but the estate’s remote location and his relative unknown status meant that in fact it wasn’t – so it fell to him. “When it opened it was just me and eight covers and I cooked and served.”
At the mercy of the unforgiving, erratic Swedish seasons, Nilsson uses game, fish, vegetables and herbs from the surrounding estate, concentrating on fresh ingredients in the summer and employing traditional mountain kitchen methods of preserving, pickling and ageing ingredients for the sparse winter months. He also works with suppliers to cultivate the produce he wants: one example is his poultry supplier, known fondly as ‘Mr Duck’. “When he started his business he didn’t have the money to buy the breeding ducks we wanted, so we bought them – so we own the ducks, and then we buy the result in the end as well. We did that because we really wanted that variety of duck and we wanted him to apply his philosophy of how to keep birds to those ducks, so we both work on the produce to get a really good bird.”
Nilsson’s simple, natural and sometimes downright esoteric approach (some recipes call for the inclusion of “autumn leaves from last year” for seasoning) is designed to reconnect his diners with where their food comes from. One of his most famous dishes calls for beef bones, which have been warmed over hot coals in the kitchen, to be sawed open by the chefs in the dining room so that the guests can watch the bone marrow trickling out. “Many people find things like that shocking because they’re not used to it, but if you’re eating bone marrow, someone sawed that open at some point. I want to show it to the diner because I want them to feel the scent of this warm, grilled bone, I want them to hear the sounds – to make their dining experience complete.”
Another thing that sets Nilsson apart is his training in wine, something that he says has had a tangible impact on his food. “It’s definitely altered the way I cook and taste things,” he says. “You realise when you’re working with wine that it’s all about the balance. Lots of chefs try to make it taste as much as possible – but that’s not how it works. Often it’s better not to change too much, but to leave things as they are and then create a great balance from that. It’s like talking: if you talk really loudly no one actually listens to what you say. But if you talk normally and you have something really interesting to say people will tune in.”
And what defines his cuisine? “For me, it’s all about getting the product right. Everyone says that they have the best produce, which is never really the case because not everyone can have the best produce and most people aren’t prepared to put enough money and time into getting it, but we really do. 50 per cent of the work at Fäviken is getting the produce in, before we even start cooking it. Then, because we’ve put so much effort into getting that quality of produce, I believe we shouldn’t do that much with it. I like to cook the produce the simplest possible way and present it in an even simpler way, so that nothing overshadows this perfect product that you had in the beginning. That’s the basis of Fäviken – but obviously we have variations on that.”
His interest in the microbiology of food is one such variation, and when he’s not preparing and cooking ingredients, he’s altering them through controlled ageing and fermentation, often challenging accepted notions of what’s edible (he ages his meat for six months, and some for up to nine months until it’s decomposing). “Microbiology is present in so much more food than anyone realises,” he says. “The food industry has been interested in this for a long time – without lactobacillus [bacteria that eats carbohydrate to produce lactic acid, lowering the pH level and preserving the product] a lot of the food we eat today wouldn’t exist. I mean have you ever eaten an olive fresh from the tree? It’s disgusting and bitter, but when you add salt and you make sure that you have lactobacillus growing it turns into something delicious.
“When you start looking into things like that it just all opens up and you start to realise just how much there is to understand. I find it fascinating because when you start to try and understand things from a scientific perspective, which is a different way to what most chefs do, it just opens up a whole new world of possibilities that you can use for your cooking.”
Fäviken by Magnus Nilsson is out now.