another place that was
They arrived. A fire was glowing. There was warmth. Fish were hanging, herbs were hanging, skins were hanging on wooden walls, from wooden beams, over wooden tables. They sat. A waiter in an apron came and met them. A paper programme posing as a menu was placed on their empty plates. It told them how the night was going to go– there was no need to choose– and then, a slow increase in pace. A sanded wooden knife smoothed the side of very good salted butter. It was a knife that was light in the hand and light on the bread. They chewed. They chewed. They swallowed. They licked the spoon, licked away the sticky, the salty. Then another plate, and another– the first six or seven came fast. One every 180 seconds. Linseed vinegar crisps, mussel dip. The napkins and aprons and animal skins were a curtain pulling open. When they had had their bite, the next one arrived. Whole grain wheat cracker, carrot salad, broth smoked reindeer. The performance had begun. Decomposing leaves, very fresh curds, crowberries. Another. Sourdough, gooseberry, tarragon salt, birds’ liver custard, malted cabbage. Another. Wild trout roe, retired dairy cow. From the window, they saw a pale grey that persisted even in summer. There had been snow, and they could taste it from their table. Then, things got a little bit slower, as new plates arrived every 7 or 8 minutes. What was that? They didn’t recognise it. Foraged from the nearby forest floor, some rowan berries, parsley stems, cured pork scallop. Words and tastes rolled new on their tongue, from their mouth. Colostrum. Some good butter spread onto grain, then lichen from a crag, then orange king crab, jewelled and glistening. Then a pillowed sourdough pancake, then potato dream - little things that looked like puddings. An egg in ash –I heard it was sheep shit– nested. A pickled marigold. After half an hour and a little bit of wine, the pace changed again. Increased. Egg preserved in sugar, crumbs, pine tree bark ice cream –very rapid now– bone marrow, frozen milk –chew, chew, swallow– pickled vegetables, meat birch pie – then they went back to placing courses. Tar pastilles. They sat down for two and a half hours – candy, smoked caramel– and they gave them 30 courses. Sunflower seeds, reindeer mince pie. If they controlled it perfectly–milk pudding, woodruff –no one thought about it being too quick – sugar-dried black currants, seeds, snuff –it was just delicious, until it just, closed.
There’s something about things that were. About things that leave shadows. Parking metres outside drained swimming pools. Fax machines. Places that were, though – they carry a different, inexplicable weight. Churches with leaves strewn across their naves and weeds peering from floors. Sunlight blurring over empty seats. Peeling posters in empty arenas. Worms reigning supreme. Maybe what’s heavy in these places that were, is the sense of expectation settled dormant between the dust. These places that were are places that were visited. Journeyed to by people in search of a transformative or enlightening encounter, but no longer.
Show us something about the world, about ourselves. Show us something we don't know and we will leave as changed people. We want an encounter.
It’s about discovery – says David Chang of Momofuku – I would rather trudge through some of the worst meals of the world, wherever they are, to get to that one thing that knocks me on my ass and makes me say ‘I just saw God in a restaurant’.
Yeah, I totally agree, says Magnus Nilsson, head chef of Fäviken.
Itineraries read and checked. Petrol tanks filled. Engines wheezed. Wet feet wiped.
An 18th century grain barn sat 373 miles from Stockholm on a hunting estate and farmland in Jämtland, between the Åreskutan mountain and the black Kallsjön lake. The journey was always part of the experience; they travelled by air, by tyre, by track. They dedicated their time to encounter something new. It was a pilgrimage.
Known for using produce almost entirely from its surrounding remote location, Fäviken was open from 2008 until 2019. Under head chef Magnus Nilsson's furrowed brow and steady hand it was harked as one of The World's 50 Best Restaurants in 2012. In 2015, Magnus Nilsson appeared on Netflix’s first season of Chef's Table and published a best-selling book with Phaidon. Propelled into the public eye, Magnus Nilsson waded his way through heavy snow, furred, booted and armed, towards 2016 when his restaurant was awarded two Michelin stars. Endless articles and interviews later, at the peak of its time, Fäviken served its last meal in December of 2019, without pomp or press-conference.
It made no sense, like leaving a table as soon as dinner arrives. The explanation? A brief letter on their website, an Instagram post and a promise to elaborate at some point, later on.
Fäviken: 4015 Days, Beginning to End – the Phaidon published book, was released in November of this year, to document the place that was.
Shortly before closing the restaurant, Magnus Nilsson bought Axelstorp Orchard in Sweden. I somewhat suddenly fell into [a] meticulously maintained world of terminal buds, 100-year-old trees and […] beautiful apples, beautiful fruit.
How to care for an apple tree– the first chapter. An arduous start to the tome, Magnus Nilsson explains with precise attention the painstaking craft of orchardry and in doing so, lays out a theme that remains, subterranean, throughout. The chapter winks to us, telling us that this book isn’t just about the restaurant, but about time and how we can use it with care. Our relationship with it. With each anecdote, photograph and quote from his previous books, Nilsson reinforces the methodology of growing and preparing food as a way to understand community, and one's personal and cultural heritage.
The book is built around a list of dishes, chronologically ordered by date of development, from roasted marrowbone of moose, dice of raw moose heart, thinly cut cabbage, toasts and herb salt on 19.11.2010 to grilled cardoon, fermented berries and oat sauce on 19.10.2019. Nubs of text from his first publication, The Nordic Cookbook (2015), act as shadows in muted grey typeface that surface as reminders of the time that’s passed between each dish, so that you can clearly see what was then and what is now. Photographs by Erik Olsson of plates adapted by season sit side by side on birch tables in birds eye view – Marrow and heart, grilled bread and herb salt. Summer version with petals of fireweed neighbours another photograph of Marrow and heart, grilled bread and herb salt. Winter version with just grated swede. These punctuate Nilsson’s stories of food that feel so vivid and real. We are taken to San Sebastian, Japan, and Paris. We are taken to meet a girl who held him by the hand at 3am to dislodge oysters from the rocks of Biarritz with a bottle opener and the keys to a rental car. We meet his friend Bruno as he expresses his love with a langoustine, cut in half like a book opened to page 100. We meet his wife Tove, making crisp flatbread at home in the morning, and Mr. Duck, a Sami farmer bringing meat and birch sap syrup from the forest to the restaurant. We meet chef Pascal Barbot and Kenichiro Nishi who serve him their own histories on their own plates in their own countries. We meet Nilsson’s parents. We meet Nilsson’s children.
Poaching an apple takes roughly 10 minutes. New potatoes roast in a hot oven after about 40. Rolling in water, small eggs harden in 3 minutes. Mussels cook in around six and broccoli takes 5ish to steam. To consider food is to consider time, and this is true whether it is eaten from ceramic, slate, plastic tub, tray or hand. What we eat is connected to a chain of history; of processes spanning seconds, minutes, hours, months as well as years passed. So why does time spent as head chef in a grandiose restaurant like Fäviken grant documentation? What is it that Magnus Nilsson hopes to draw our attention towards with his acute acknowledgement of time and its passing?
Why would anyone write a book about a closed restaurant, and who would want to read it? writes Nilsson.
It’s 2015, and I’m studying art at university. I’ve met someone I like who studies geography and keeps a trunk of snacks in their room, just in case. They offer me a chocolate biscuit after dinner and I accept it once, and again, and again. As term nudges forward and our studies of culture (that slippery word) converge, we form a late-night habit of internet trawling. We find ourselves sitting on the blue carpet spooning instant ramen from tupperwares into our mouths and watching videos of chefs plate things I’ve never heard of like wood sorrel and consomme. We watch episodes of Chef’s Table’s first (and at the time, only) season, and meet Magnus Nilsson one fusty night. In a curling Swedish accent he exalts food like an archeologist would exalt ammonite.
What’s interesting with food culture is that the second you stop practicing, it tends to die out really quickly
morsels of charred vegetables are plucked by big-boned fingers
you can't go back and understand how someone did something thousands of years ago like you can with sculpture or painting
hands move across the pass with intention, like dancers
you can actually look at marble carved in ancient Greece and you can see how it was done
he drives between stock-still silver-fir trees, a Hello Kitty air freshener swaying as he turns corners
but there aren't any cured hams from ancient Greece that are still here to show us how that was done. A lot of the things that have passed are becoming extinct or getting forgotten. My job is to keep the original alive in a way that people can actually understand
the back of a spoon is stroked against cream, and the divet is filled with birch syrup
this makes food culture very special because it is also the most important cultural manifestation that we have...because we all have to eat.
Five years on, I’m reading Fäviken: 4015 Days, Beginning to End and arrive at the chapter addressing why Nilsson left the job of which he was so impassioned; Why Fäviken had to close, really. In a tone that’s at odds with the publicity narrative attached to him of bone-sawing and hunting-gun-lugging, he recounts the moment he realised that it was time to end the era.
I couldn’t get up– he writes– I just couldn’t move. The burly giant of a chef writes about being scared and sad with a piercing vulnerability uncommon among the clichés of male head chefs today. He writes about dragging himself from bed to take his children to school, coming home and crying until they return. He writes about doing it all again the next day, and how the thought of taking his children to school felt very hard, and going to Fäviken felt unachievable / I couldn’t do it anymore. I told Tove that I had to quit, now. She asked me why, and if something had happened. I said no, and that I didn't know why, but that I had to.
I’m reminded of something Magnus Nilsson said in that Chef’s Table episode I watched at university. Speaking about his return to Sweden after years of work in Paris, he explained a newfound appreciation for his country’s diverse and expansive food heritage; it's still exactly the same place, it's just that I see it differently.
In the essays that follow Why Fäviken had to close, really, Nilsson’s focus shifts. Instead of centering the book on matters of retrospection, he turns to the future and shares thoughts on the hypocrisy of sustainability in restaurants. Despite his credo as a sustainable restaurant due to preservation, pickling, fermenting and foraging processes, Nilsson asserts that all restaurants are unsustainable and that chefs should stop gathering shoulder-pats for relatively inconsequential [...] efforts, instead, they should focus on trying to minimize their impact by becoming better.
They arrived. The sun was glowing. There was warmth. Diners were talking, chefs were talking, volunteers were talking. Someone in an apron greeted them with a smile, and a bowl of food shortly came. Bread is Gold. Another. Cannelloni made with surplus vegetables. Another. Sbrisolona Cake. Another. Raspberry ice cream made from mottled fruit delivered that morning.
Shortly after chef Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana became the World’s Best Restaurant in 2016, he announced Food for Soul, a cultural project reinterpreting refettorios (church refectories); places with communal tables where monks would welcome and break bread with the city's vulnerable.
I just saw God in a restaurant
Formed to fight food waste through social inclusion, Food for Soul joined architects, chefs and supermarkets to create the first refettorio in Milan, serving bread and three course meals from surplus produce to the hungry and in need, every day. They have opened six refettorios since.
There are countless other stories just like this one, and more are arising by the year; stories of the world’s leading and renowned chefs engaging with their conscience to enforce social change. In 2018, José Andrés (of two star restaurant minibar) was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in aiding the effects of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park turned his restaurant and team into a charity-kitchen during the pandemic, and, after closing Fäviken, Magnus Nilsson became Director of MAD Academy, a scholarship programme formed to teach chefs about their environmental and social responsibilities.
Every story about food is a story about society. We all have to eat. Maybe the questions that hang over head chefs now aren’t ones focusing on stars, rosettes and titles, but ones that have been asked for as long as food itself; how do we make this last? How do we make sure everyone gets fed?
It’s not unusual for successful people to turn to philanthropy, nor is it unusual for talented chefs to engage with their communities to make change- it’s definitely not new, either. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse has been urging chefs to source locally since the 70’s. DeVonn Francis of Yardy regularly teams with female chefs who use produce from marginalized farmers to host food events in New York to encourage and support queer and migrant culture. Michelin-star holding chef Vikas Khanna has used his industry knowledge to help feed 7 million hungry people across India, and Ianna Stewart founded The Okra Project to address trans violence and provide meals for black trans people, globally.
I imagine Massimo Bottura would feel pretty uneasy driving his sports car passed the homeless people of Milan after dumping a crate of fruit in the bin because they weren’t tart enough for his famous Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart dish. Chefs with stomachs that can handle that type of conscience prod are people worthy of fearing and questioning.
What is new, though, is the rise in white, male chefs – the chefs that have domineered the restaurant scene– who are facing communities and using their platforms to impact change. Chefs like Bottura and Nilsson. I’m not sure what has caused this shift, but the pandemic has certainly caused a surge in publicity.
Reading Fäviken: 4015 Days, Beginning to End as this year closes – a year so full of challenges for many industries, but hospitality in particular –I find myself thinking about how it’s not unusual for a restaurant like Fäviken to close its doors without pomp or press conference. A year ago it was - but not anymore.
Despite the long list of problems with the fine-dining industry, of which I’ve only scratched the surface, I can’t help but beam as I turn the pages of this book. I suppose there’s something bolstering about a person dedicating a third of their lifetime to something like food, with such intent – something uplifting about a burly man gleefully stumbling over sentences that describe the history of fermented carrots and the smell of burning juniper branches. I can’t help but miss Fäviken, even though I never ate there – I’ve never even been to Sweden.
What is it that Magnus Nilsson misses, though, from the 4015 days of unsociable work hours, acclaim and success beyond his years?
What I miss most about the place – he writes in the closing pages of the book – after the sense of community within my team, is actually the bread. I brought one of the crusty dense sourdough loaves home with me every night I worked, to make a sandwich – often with some salted butter and hard cheese, sometimes only with a thick layer of the good butter and nothing else. As Mia (formerly of Fäviken, now co-owner of Lille Bakery in Copenhagen) once told me, ‘If you can’t see your teeth marks in it (the butter) after having taken a bite, you haven’t used enough’. There is no bakery where I live in the northern Swedish countryside, so now I have to bake it myself every day (which I don’t).
Sitting on my lino floor, eating a doorstop of bread with salted butter as my TV murmurs the ten o’clock news, I stop reading to watch despairing chefs talk about their struggles this year, and managers cry about the changes that hang over restaurants of all kinds. I watch cyclists whip past the camera in slipstreams like a shoal of herring, with food from empty restaurants strapped to their backs, and notice myself mourning all of those places that were.
When Magnus Nilsson jokes about this book being a bit like what they do with dead artists– the comparison seems more apt than perhaps intended. Maybe Fäviken: 4015 Days, Beginning to End marks the passing of another chef turning from Michelin star collecting and stardom to community building and breaking bread.
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