Chef Magnus Nilsson Experiments
The Swedish food served at remote Fäviken takes the cuisine to intriguing new levels.
I met Magnus Nilsson on the eve of a Swedish Midsummer, the national holiday celebrated by a country that experiences its diurnal extremes studiously and seems to count hours of light in grams, like salt or flour or any other ingredient that you would like to have around, just in case. The schools were closed. There were few vehicles on the roads. The sky was big and gray, and it was raining. It rained and rained and rained. Every now and then, a Maypole had been erected, soggy strings of colored flags or flowers. You could see families gathering to prepare an all-night meal, opaquely visible through their kitchen windows. Many had fogged up.
Fäviken is a loose confederation of farm buildings, once an agriculture hamlet, now more a name than a village, vaguely located around the midway point in the Swedish landmass and not far from the Norwegian border. In the winter, people come for the skiing, the short slopes illumined for the all-day night. In the autumn, they come for the moose, hunting them among the birch. In the summer, they don’t come. There is a slow overnight train from Stockholm that no one takes. There is an interminable drive, with rigorously enforced, frustratingly modest speed limits. I came by a plane and landed in Ostersund, an hour and a half away, the “town” where Nilsson grew up. His grandfather had once owned a farm nearby, 50 acres, beef cattle, dairy cows, chickens, root vegetables, surrounded by open forests that seem to go on forever and where the grandson was taught how to behave in the woods, how to be small and deferential, how to kill animals and prepare them for eating, along with woodsmen tricks (filling the cavity of the hare you’ve shot with pine needles to keep it from rotting) and the wild vocabulary of a place just far enough away to remain unvisited and undisturbed.
I had booked the region’s only taxi driver. Before dropping me off, he got a call to pick up a sick person (two hours in one direction, then four hours to the sole hospital) and was gone, and I was—where? North, obviously. Very far north, in fact, although you wouldn’t describe it as the romantic postcard north. It was more middling north than extreme north, and more ordinary north than exotic north. No Arctic Circle, for instance, although still north enough, or at least out of the way enough, to be near nothing else but water. The water was everywhere, and in everything, a wet flatness, where the sea was hundreds of miles away. It was like being landlocked by a sponge. In November 2007, when Nilsson began contemplating how a project far from nowhere might work, he prepared a spreadsheet, made projections about costs and revenues for a kind of dinner so original that people might make the extraordinary trek to come here to eat it. In this, he was dead right. He made assumptions about staffing, for preparing those dinners in such an original way that dedicated young cooks would move here in order to learn it. In this, he was dead wrong. Jenny Fredriksson, a school friend, suggested that he hire her brother, Johnny.
Little Johnny? He had been 11 years old when Nilsson saw him last. In his mind, there was that: an image of scrawny adolescent. No, he’d find someone.
Nilsson began welcoming diners in January. He prepped, cooked, waited, cleaned up and did the laundry. He was the staff. By the autumn, moose season, he was in trouble. Jenny phoned again. “Magnus, Johnny is working at Michelin three-star restaurant.” It is called Aqua, in Wolfsburg, not far from Berlin. He had been there five years. “He wants to come home.”
By November, Nilsson’s first anniversary in business and still on his own, he made his first hiring: a waitress. At Christmas, Johnny was in Sweden to see the family and phoned: “Need some help?” On my midsummer visit, two and a half years later, there were now two people in the kitchen.
Nilsson’s surprise that no one wanted to come to nowhere is now one of his soft-humor anecdotes, but the episode is symptomatic of an air of unworldly disconnect. He and his wife, Tove, bought a house on top of a hill, with a yard and gravel driveway, and have two children, both toddlers, whom Nilsson, unpredictably drifting off into some thought obsession, has a tendency to misplace. The week before, he lost Ella, his daughter. His wife, studying to be a nurse, was away; the children were in his care; and, like now, it was raining and raining and raining. The wet outside, the warm inside, a sheltering coziness, and Nilsson was at the computer writing up thoughts that he had been having about meat. Why is it that beef cows are always slaughtered young? Twenty-four months, never older. The tissue of a younger animal has fewer flavors than an older one. It is less complex, the muscle less oxygenated. Do people prefer tasteless beef? Do they even know what good beef is? Nilsson then realized that he hadn’t heard from Ella in some time. He called out. His daughter was 18 months old. Where could an 18-month-old go? He checked rooms. He checked the kitchen, the bathroom. He opened the front door. Very heavy rain. He ran down the hill to the highway, from where, just in front of a neighbor’s property, he spotted his daughter. She had taken off her clothes. Water was streaming down her hair. There were cars, trucks. She was buck naked and dancing with a stuffed animal. It was a pink rabbit that, when squeezed later, half filled a sink.
Nilsson had been experimenting with slaughtering old dairy cows. This had been the basis for his beef thoughts. Sixty years ago, a cow was a cow. There was no distinction between the ones raised to be eaten and the ones that made milk. Now, a dairy cow at the end of its life is a problem, because no one believes they can eat it, and no one will buy it except dog-food factories. This was the lament of a farmer Nilsson knows. The farmer was complaining. The farmer wasn’t allowed to kill the animal (EC regulations) or bury it on his property or burn it, and the money he would get for the dog food wouldn’t pay for the transport to get rid of it. Farmers always complain; Nilsson always listens. Nilsson then asked if he could buy the farmer’s cow. In the event, the animal had got saggy, and Nilsson couldn’t use all the meat. For his next purchase, he picked a cow that was firm to the touch. It was seven years old.
He had it killed at a slaughterhouse and broke it down into different cuts. The big cuts, what in English is called “the standing rib roast,” were aged. Conventionally, beef is aged for two to four weeks to tenderize it. Nilsson mentioned a figure that I asked him to repeat. “Six months,” he said. He had taken an animal three times older than any animal any of us have ever eaten and was now aging it ten times longer. He took me to the building where he did his butchering, clinical enough to seem more like a medical facility than a place for food. Hanging from a rack were giant black chunks of meat. They were disfigured and weird. They looked like fossils.
The aging, he had found, wasn’t tenderizing the meat. It was concentrating the flavor. “When people talk of how beef needs to be marbled, they’re talking nonsense. There is no marbling in those baby cows. There is just blubber.” The exposed parts of these weird black chunks had been covered with kidney fat to prevent spoiling. He pulled some back to illustrate the texture of what was underneath. “Do you see how the fat runs lightly through the whole thing? The muscles have broken down, as they would in any creature in its maturity, and the fat is genuinely interspersed between them. This is marbling.”
I thought: There is a loneliness in what Nilsson is doing, an excitement of discovery that he has no one to share it with. Then I thought: No, it’s aloneness, not loneliness. There is also joy and no sadness, a sense of a science newly found, very 19th century. You can see why he needs to write it up. You are no longer alone when you are telling a story.
There is also a hint of Jurassic Park in Nilsson. You listen to what he is up to, his preoccupations, his experiments in fermentation, his insistence on cooking everything over an open flame (“I do only direct heat”), as though it’s what all of us should also be doing (stupid us!)—to get home early tonight in time to build a camp fire in the living room and cook our dinner there—and you think: What egg from which century did you hatch from? He has what I think of as an outside-inside thing. On the outside, he has a familiar, easygoing MTV charm, a blue-jean informality. He wears a chef’s white coat—it is crumpled, or hasn’t been quite correctly buttoned—but no toque or hat, even though he has long blond hair that he is always having to toss his head to get out from his eyes, a rare piece of vanity. He is effortlessly companionable and has a persuasive, no-worry reassuring manner and a low-key slow-mo way of conducting a conversation.
But on the inside, there is a different person.
In France, a cook starts young, younger than is possible in England or the United States. Sweden follows the French model. Nilsson was an apprentice at 14. He attended cooking school in nearby Are at 16 and by 18 had graduated and was working as a line cook in a kitchen at a 16th-century inn with Michelin-star ambitions, on the Kattegat, the sea between Sweden and Denmark. At 19, he was in Paris, suffering the usual catalogue of French kitchen indignities (humiliated, mocked, fired, turned out) until he ended up at Pascal Barbot’s l’Astrance. Barbot was a powerful influence, so powerful that Nilsson has been erasing the effects of his time there ever since, but the influence is apparent in the implicit details: the spare way that Nilsson plates his food, and in a shared idea of what a restaurant can be. L’Astrance has 20 covers; Fäviken, 16. Neither place has a menu; both chefs, in effect, make it up on the spot. Both places have idiosyncratic hours. L’Astrance is open four days. When it was closed, Nilsson was eating.
“I spent every euro I had, every tip, the catering jobs I took for extra income, all of it, eating at restaurants.” He ate at hundreds of places, 200, 300, he doesn’t know how many, but it included just about every three-star establishment in France, Belgium, Spain, Monaco and Switzerland. Michel Bras, the wild, isolated, idiosyncratic landmark on a mountain in the treeless, windy Auvergne, was an exception. Nilsson didn’t eat there once; he ate there three times. “In Bras, I met my match. In Bras, I met a chef who was better than I will ever be. I realized: No matter what I do next, or how hard I work, or what I learn, or how dedicated I become, I will never be this good.” It was a manly confession, not least because it acknowledged that no one else had this effect.
I pressed Nilsson. What is it, exactly?
He thought, puzzled. “You know, I don’t think I can describe it. Or not in technical terms, because it has nothing to do with technique. It begins before you reach the restaurant, the winding roads, the barren mountains, the final approach, the wind, the fauna, the wildness…” He stopped.
“It’s the family, too,” he said, “how everyone, the mother, the children, are all involved in the food.” He stopped. “It’s in an extra feeling that Bras has for the food.”
Nilsson sighed. “It’s a touch. He has a way of communicating with the dish. A plate comes alive when he makes it, and it vibrates. Do you understand? It actually vibrates, especially if you’re open to that kind of experience.” Nilsson took breath. “And I am. I believe I am open to that kind of experience.” He paused, thinking. “Actually, Bras, for me, is like a demigod.”
It is one of the ironies of the planet that the most seasonal cuisine naturally arises out of the least generous seasons. The seasons in Sweden make the Swedes season-obsessed. The seasons are stingy, mean, unreliable and then briefly glorious. To live in Sweden is akin to being on the top of a very high mountain. For two days, you will have the most glorious sun on the planet and be surrounded by thousands of wild herbs. For two days, at the end of August, there will be cloudberries in Fäviken. They will be everywhere. Then: They are gone.
So Nilsson rediscovered the seasons. But he also re-discovered fire. The seasons: They’re the earth. But fire: That’s humankind. It is one of the essentials, like the human body in painting or the story in literature, an elemental unit. You don’t taste the seasons in food that has been rendered in a dehydrator. You taste an exaggerated confection: impressive but contrived. I don’t taste animal when I pull meat from a plastic bag in a circulation bath. And I want to taste both, the living and the killed. Magnus Nilsson may, in the event, be walking more closely in Michel Bras’s evanescent footsteps than he realizes, reconnecting to the earth and the wisdom of grandfathers and something, it’s hard to know what to call it, that makes a plate vibrate.
The Dish on a Dish
Magnus Nilsson deconstructs his “Sirloin of beef dry-aged for 20 weeks, sour onions, turnip thinnings and green juice.”
The Beef: “We buy whole animals from the farmers in the region, which we break down and hang in a refitted barn not far from the kitchen. I’ve figured beef out superficially—I know essentially how it works. But just grasping the chemical processes that happen inside the meat—you could continue your whole life without knowing all of their aspects.”
“The green juice is made from lovage and turnip leaves pushed through a juicer into a bowl coated with birch-leaf oil, to prevent oxidation. It’s meant to taste like the air smells when you work in the garden.”
“Turnip thinnings are raw, peppery leaves cut from the plant to give it more room to grow. Usually these leaves would be composted. We use them.”
“The onions [under the leaves] are cooked in yogurt whey, so the mixture gets very acidic. The high pH level lets them keep some of their crispiness, even though they’re cooked through. The acidity makes the onion flavor sharpen and identify itself, so you get an interesting texture and good flavor. Everything is chemistry.”
Getting to Nowhere
Step one: Get to Stockholm. Scandinavian Airlines (flysas.com) runs comfortable flights to Arlanda Airport out of New York and Chicago, where most West Coast flights will connect.
From Arlanda, SAS runs several daily hour-long flights to Ostersund in the north. Fäviken (rooms, from $305; dinner, from $190; Fäviken 216; 46-70/220-4880; favikenmagasinet.se) is a 45-minute drive from the airport in a rental car, available at the airport, or via taxi for about $200 each way.
Check in is at 5 p.m., but guests are welcomed at any time and shown to the guesthouses on the property. “Dinner is at seven” is the only instruction, and walking the estate is the principle predinner activity (bring your boots).
Dinner itself begins with small plates by the fire and stretches over 10 or 15 courses, alternately comforting and feral, from buttery, still-hot langoustine to dense forest mushrooms with monkfish and vinegar. Afterward, at 10:30 or 11 p.m., coffee, tea and housemade digestifs are served by the fire. Breakfast is laid out at 9 a.m.—leave time to enjoy it before journeying back to civilization. —Maud Doyle
Bill Buford’s essay “Nowhere” was published as the forward to Fäviken, by Magnus Nilsson (Phaidon, October 2012). The book contains dozens of recipes, as well as Nilsson’s fascinating and incisive musings on food.