Magnus’s magnum opus
Photography: ERIK OLSSON
2:15PM, Sep 18, 2012
Magnus Nilsson is unflinching in his ambition. "Fäviken Magasinet is going to be one of the world's great restaurants," he writes in the introduction to Fäviken the book. "At least, it is if I can help it. Perhaps not in the traditional way, but in its own way."
Ambition is not uncommon in male chefs in their late twenties, of course, but Nilsson's sights are set higher than most. Fäviken occupies a hunting lodge in the wilderness of Jämtland, a sparsely populated province in central Sweden. The 14-seater doesn't get a lot of walk-ins.
Nilsson's book is a rallying cry for things done well. Almost everything you eat at the restaurant comes from the surrounding countryside, not because the chef is a locavore ideologue, but simply because he is very, very serious about the quality of ingredients he'll accept and has found that growing, hunting and butchering as much produce himself as he can gives him the most control and the best results.
In his foreword, author Bill Buford relates a conversation he had with Nilsson about the things he learned cooking with Pascal Barbot at L'Astrance in Paris. "The first was produce," Nilsson said. Chefs, Nilsson went on to say, rarely pay attention to their ingredients. "There's a delivery, it's unpacked, they cook it. For most cooks, an onion is an onion." "You went to Paris to learn how to spot a good onion?" "A good onion, a fresh one, pulled out of good earth, sweet and tasting of onion. But it's not just onions, its haricot vert, it's dried beans, it's garlic, your shallots, fish."
It's not uncommon for chefs to fetishise top-dollar ingredients - the provenance of certain animal proteins and meat is touted almost as bragging rights - but to bring this level of care and attention to each and every single thing that passes through the kitchen is unusual.
Surprisingly few cookbooks give anything near as much detail as Fäviken on what things should taste like. Nilsson notes, among other things, the particular phenolic maturity of berries grown in Jämtland, the flavour of trout fed on late-summer insects and the particular subtleties imparted by birchwood charcoal. He spends a good page discussing the ins and outs of cooking a really good vegetable broth, and on the subject of selecting autumn leaves for another broth, he cuts straight to the quick: "There is no need to clean them, just avoid taking dirty ones."
The names of dishes work the same sort of magic - at once plain-spoken yet undeniably wild: "A big langoustine seared in a dry pan with fermented juice of mushroom and oats." Or better still, "Wild vegetables steamed so briefly that they are just wilting on the plate, cream whisked with mead and dried cod's roe." No ironic air quotes or ingredient-comma-ingredient-comma-ingredient elliptical posing here.
If any of this makes Nilsson sound like some sort of beatific dullard, you needn't worry. He's a wry chap, as witty as he is eloquent. He mentions the kitchen's love of ham and pineapple pizza for staff meals, and he is as likely to be photographed wearing black Iron Maiden T-shirts that make him look like an extra from Wayne's World as he is the monastic white of chefs' garb. And he is quick to share the credit for the experience of eating at his restaurant. "You will discover in the book that what makes Fäviken special is that it is so much more dependent on different people and circumstances than any other restaurant I know of."
Common sense is Nilsson's religion. And he's clear-eyed when it comes to the reality of reproducing his dishes at home. "If you read the recipes with an open mind and make an effort to follow the principles, the results will be delicious," he writes, adding that they can never be exactly the same as if he made them, or as if anyone else made them, either. "Every cook is unique, and every product too.
"If it tastes good, it is right, and if it doesn't taste good try again." Amen.
Fäviken ($65, hbk) is published by Phaidon. Catch Magnus Nilsson in person at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival in March 2013.