The lost art of Nordic cooking
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2017)
Plain and simple impatience was at the root of a great idea. Niklas Ekstedt wanted to grill on a wood fire but was not prepared to wait for the embers to develop, so he put a heavy cast iron frying pan directly into the flames. The fire, crackling and popping, its sparks spraying, surrounded the pan. The aroma of the food mixed seductively with the spicy smoke of the burning birch wood. This sparked off the idea for a revolutionary fine dining restaurant in Stockholm. “Ekstedt” cooks without electricity, old-fashioned on an open fire, and does so with such success that it has been awarded a Michelin Star.
Niklas Ekstedt grew up in a little village in the north of Sweden. Like so many young people, he wanted to get away as fast as possible and travel the world. Originally, he wanted to become a professional snowboarder, but a back injury changed that plan, so he concentrated on his second passion in life, food. When he began his cooking education, he was told that the barren north is not a region where one could find good ingredients. Niklas therefore soon became enthusiastic about Italian olive oil or French poulet de Bresse. Soon he was cooking in the kitchens of the most famous names of the culinary world, for example at Alain Ducasse in Paris, Charlie Trotter in Chicago, and he also met elBulli’s Ferran Adrià. When he opened his first restaurant in Helsingborg at the age of only 21, which focused on ultramodern molecular food and which served dishes such as asparagus cloud with fried rice paper, Ekstedt was regarded as the gastronomic wunderkind. Many awards followed, as did more restaurants and as of 2003 he is the star of his own successful cooking show on Swedish television. The programme is called “Niklas Mat” and has already led him to the most exciting culinary destinations around the world. However, at some point Niklas reached a stage from where he could not go any further. He was looking for new challenges, whilst at the same time feeling compelled to return to his roots. He wanted to mark the now world-famous Nordic cuisine with his own personal stamp. Together with his then head chef, Gustav Otterberg, Niklas researched the historic cookbooks of the 18th century at Stockholm’s National Library, thus slowly developing the idea for a restaurant with open fires. When “Ekstedt” opened after some technical hurdles in 2011, it was immediately a resounding success and still is today. In the meantime, there are seven different stoves and fireplaces in Ekstedt.
Niklas Ekstedt tells us how he realised his dream and why “Ekstedt” represents an homage to old times, his childhood and his home region Jämtland.
Niklas, is cooking over a fire more sensual than cooking on a modern steel stove?
Yes, definitely. I think it’s more sensual because you need to fully concentrate on what you are cooking because you cannot rely on your equipment. You always have to remain focused and watch what you do closely.
Why did you decide to only cook with wood and not with power? Is that a sustainable approach, or more of a differentiation from other restaurants or Nordic cooking styles?
I wanted to explore how we cooked before electricity in Sweden, or more precisely, I wanted to discover it. That is why I decided that the restaurant was to focus on all the Scandinavian cooking techniques, which are mostly fire and smoke.
How did you learn to cook with fire in such a brilliant way?
Well, it was trial and error for months. But I quickly realised that I needed a lot of people in the kitchen. Cooking in an old way is way more demanding and requires a lot of effort.
I guess it will also differ somewhat from what I cook on my backyard barbecue. Please describe the fire cooking stations at your restaurant.
In fact, that is quite different. The biggest difference with our cooking and barbecue and grilling is that we use real fire, not embers, to cook. The old way of cooking in Scandinavia was very focused on high temperatures and cast-iron pots so that’s the way we cook now. It really doesn’t have anything to do with the barbecue traditions.
Are you using different kinds of wood for various dishes?
We mostly use birchwood but sometimes we use fruit trees such as apple and cherry to flavour the smoke. When we cook fish we also use juniper wood
Did you have a special design concept in mind for the interior of your restaurant “Ekstedt” to match your cuisine and cooking style perfectly?
I wanted the interior to reflect the way that we cook and also the way I was raised, up high in the north of Sweden, in a small village called Järpen.
Smoke and burning wood is of course the first smell we recognise when entering your restaurant. Is that an important part of the whole sensual experience at “Ekstedt”?
Absolutely. I think the particular smell, the ambiance and the atmosphere is what makes my restaurant very unique. Many of the guests really appreciate it.
Tell us about the importance of smoke in your cuisine. Is every dish a little bit smoky?
We try not to use too much smoke when we cook. We use it to bring out and enhance certain flavours from a dish or an ingredient. But we do not want to kill them with a very strong smoke flavour.
Does this rustic-style slow cooking demand different kinds of kitchen equipment?
Honestly, it’s very simple cooking that doesn’t really require any gadgets other than a fire pit, good wood and a big cast iron pan.
Is there a favourite product you always love to cook with, apart from wood?
I love to cook all kinds of seafood on the flames. That’s my favourite thing to cook on the fire.
What’s your favourite dish on the menu at the moment?
My favourite dish on the menu are the doughnuts. Just the way that they are cooked in the wood oven with some jam and sugar - it really sends me back to my childhood.
Niklas Ekstedt was born in 1978. He spent some of his childhood in Järpen, a small village in the north of Sweden. A back injury made it impossible to fulfil his original dream of becoming a professional snowboarder, and so he started an apprenticeship to become a chef. At 21 he opened his first restaurant and more soon followed, including the “Eksted” in 2011 in the centre of Stockholm. Niklas has his own TV Show on Swedish television and has written 5 cook books, one of which, “Food from the Fire”, has also been published in England. Niklas lives with his wife and two children near Stockholm.
Picture credit © Mathias Nordgren