All In | Gunnar Karl Gíslason

13 Jul 2021
6 min read
Inspired by Iceland’s incredible landscape, chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason of Dill restaurant in Reykjavík, Iceland creates an extraordinary dining experience rooted in fresh native ingredients, foraging and sustainability.

Founded in 2009, Dill aims to deliver a unique and memorable dining experience dedicated to Iceland. Since its inception, Gunnar Karl Gíslason and his team have continued to explore innovative methods and preparations for native ingredients, bringing new life to the plate and diners’ palates. Gíslason traverses the country, exploring the vast and multi-faceted Icelandic countryside in order to deliver a procession of unique dishes and flavours, all inspired by his native terroir. At Dill, respect is given to all the raw materials that come into the kitchen. No matter how big or small, everything is used and treated with the attention it deserves, which isn’t surprising for a chef who spent his childhood summers on farms in the countryside.

“Since I was a kid, I worked every summer at farms out in the countryside, so I would have bet my bottom dollar on me becoming a farmer. It was and had always been my dream, or that’s until I entered a professional kitchen for the first time.”

“I believe I was about 16 when I got a job as a dishwasher. I very quickly found out that if I worked hard, they would allow me to fill up the salad bar or even flip a burger or two. Needless to say, I quickly became a very fast dishwasher. I also just really loved the whole atmosphere in the kitchen, there was just something really different about it, and whatever it was I wanted in, all in. Shortly after I started my apprenticeship.”

Once he finished culinary school in Reykjavík, Gunnar worked at a host of restaurants in Europe, from the classic French-style kitchen of Hótel Holt in Iceland’s capital to Christie’s and Saison in Denmark. The latter became a defining experience in his career, thanks to Head Chef Erwin Lauterbach’s passion and dedication to using only the very best raw ingredients. Denmark’s only two-Michelin-starred restaurant at the time, Kommandanten, was Gíslason’s next stop, followed by a stint at two-Michelin-starred Ensemble. After returning to Iceland and working under celebrity chef Siggi Hall, Gíslason took the Sous Chef position at acclaimed brasserie VOX in 2005. By 2007, the chef had reoriented the menu to focus on Iceland’s wondrous native ingredients, and two years later, he took the leap to open his own restaurant.

“Dill was opened on the 13th of December 2009 and it was located in the Nordic House here in Iceland. The Nordic House was designed by the very famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and was home to a cultural institution that opened in 1968 and was operated by the Nordic Council of Ministers. Its goal was – and still remains – to foster and support cultural connections between Iceland and the other Nordic countries.”

“Back then, I had been flirting with the idea of opening some kind of Nordic kitchen. I was working at a restaurant where I was allowed to take that idea pretty far, but never too far. So it truly was my dream to open up my own restaurant, being able to do whatever I truly wanted. I fulfilled that dream in 2009 when I opened up Dill. It was located in the Nordic House so it really started as a Nordic restaurant focusing on everything I could get my hands on from the Nordic countries without giving it too much thought. Later on, my focus became more and more about Iceland and what it has to offer.”

Through the exploration and showcase of native Icelandic ingredients, Dill has become of the country’s most lauded restaurants, boasting one Michelin Star and being awarded Best Restaurant in Iceland by White Guide Nordic. A success forged by many factors, explains Gunnar: “It´s so hard to say what elements have led to Dill’s success, and I´m sure it has to do with a lot of things. It’s not just one thing that makes a restaurant successful, that’s for sure.”

“I think it´s great teamwork, a good atmosphere between the co-workers and the endless and tireless effort of moving forward and always trying to be better, even if it means taking big risks and enduring change every now and then.”

“Getting stuck on the same road can’t be good; when you feel at rest in our business, it is a clear sign that you should shuffle the cards again. Being on the edge is also just so much fun, even though at times it might be risky. It has just always been my feeling that comfort and complacency is not the right place for a restaurant owner or a chef.”

This constant drive to be and do better means that Dill’s menu is always evolving, leaving no opportunity for a signature dish says Gunnar: “I guess we just change the menu too often for there to be a signature dish. But having said that, there are plates that live longer than others, and there are plates that keep changing every now and then as the seasons alternate.”

“When we relocated Dill in October 2019, we changed the way we build our menu. Now we are even more focused on sustainability. We truly want to make sure everything that comes in our doors gets used. So, the whole setup is with that in mind. For example, when we receive a whole fish, we might get two to three servings from that same fish, serving everything until the whole fish has been used. The same goes for meat and so on. My favourite dishes, or should we say the ones that make me happiest, are those that make me truly feel like we have accomplished exactly that – no wastage.”

“We try our very best to stay local, and all main ingredients are always sourced locally. However, we do live on a pretty small island in the middle of nowhere and our climate, with its long, dark winters, makes it very hard to be 100% local, so there will always be something we need to get imported. But we do everything we can to do that as little as possible. “

Growing up in an even remoter location, in a small town called Akureyri at the base of the Eyjafjörður Fjord, Gunnar’s exposure to restaurants and cooking inspiration was fairly limited in his formative years, so he looked to books to be his culinary muse.

“Born and raised in the north part of Iceland where the selection of interesting restaurants were very limited, I guess I got most of my inspiration through books that I got sent from abroad or talked my lovely family members into buying for me when they were travelling to foreign countries. Little did they know that cookbooks are often pretty big, thick and therefore very heavy.”

The chef has since written his own cookbook, in which he brings his culinary philosophy to the forefront. Titled North: The New Northern Cuisine of Iceland, the book shines a spotlight on Icelandic ingredients, producers, wild plants, and tradition, mirroring his ethos at Dill.

“I always try to create a dish in as few steps as possible. I want what’s on the plate to shine, not to spend months in a lab, weeks in preparations or hours of plating. In most cases, dish creation starts with a single raw material, and then we build on it from there. That raw material, more often than not, would be a vegetable or even a wild herb, tree or sometimes a definitive flavour that I’m looking to somehow complete the menu depending on the season.”

The restaurant’s ambience is designed to accentuate the menu and dining experience, ensuring guests can comfortably enjoy their meal, says Gunnar. “The restaurant is really set up to be earthy, warm and cosy. I truly wanted to create a space where our guests would feel at ease. A space where one feels welcome and comfortable. Everything from the décor to the lights and music should be warm, welcoming and unpretentious.”

Despite the industry facing one of its most challenging years yet, the chef remains optimistic about the future of fine dining: “I think the future is bright and lots of restaurants are taking very important steps toward becoming better. I´m not talking better at making food but getting better at sourcing the right ingredients for the right reasons and using them all. There are more and more restaurants focused on sustainability and reducing waste in general. Taking care of the earth and our atmosphere is the most important thing we can do, and I believe those are matters that restaurants are thinking more and more about. We just need to make sure to keep on moving.”

“Restaurants are obviously going through a truly rough sea as we speak, and my restaurant is most definitely one of them. It’s no joke, and there is not a lot we can do except cross our fingers and hope that we get out of that storm as soon as possible. It deeply worries me about what will happen to all the amazing restaurant workers if this goes as badly as possible. It affects a lot of people, and what happens to them in those crises and after is on my mind at all times. I try my very best to take care of my team and comfort them as I can, and luckily they do the same for me. Together we will get through this.”

“My one and only plan is to get through this storm and keep my family and team safe. It´s the biggest task I have ever dealt with.”

This editorial first appeared in FOUR‘s 03.20 Edition

Photographs © Sverrir Arnar Fridthjofsson