It began when he lit a fire, both figuratively and literally.
When the longhaired 27-year-old from Jämtland climbed on stage, two years ago at acclaimed food fair Identità Golose in Milan, no one in the international world of gastronomy knew who he was.
The chefs who guest at the fair tend to make technically advanced dishes, planned-out precisely in advance, then neatly laid out on the plate.
Magnus Nilsson did the opposite. He lit a fire on stage – so large that they were forced to turn off the fire alarm – and left it burning slowly with a big elk bone grilling in peace.
He sawed up the elk bone in front of the audience and hollowed out the marrow, which he then served on toast with finely chopped raw meat.
“It was primitive, but still unbelievably sophisticated”, remembers Joanna Savill, food journalist from Australia and organiser of the large Sydney Food Festival.
After the spectacular show in Milan, she immediately invited Magnus to Sydney to repeat it at a packed and formal banquet.
In record time, Magnus Nilsson and his restaurant Fäviken Magasinet outside little Järpen in Jämtland has won every international foodie’s heart. The rumour that an exceptional restaurant lies deep in the woods of Norrland, with space for only 14 guests each evening, has reached diners in Brazil, California, London, Japan, and Australia, who fly in to experience Magnus Nilsson’s hyper-original cooking.
Deep-fried reindeer lichen, unsalted trout roe in pig’s blood croustade. Ice cream made with duck eggs in the middle of the dining room in a small, antique, ice cream machine from Husqvarna. Grilled beef from seven-year-old milk cows, hung for half a year in their coat of fat – a provocative and simultaneously incomparable taste experience. The unique and extremely exclusive matsutake mushrooms, which are otherwise exported only to Japan, are served lightly grilled at Fäviken. A small cake of pine bark is inspired by a many thousand-year-old Nordic tradition, though here delicately refined.
To understand the reasons for Magnus Nilsson’s explosive success, we need to understand how the chef’s role in society is changing.
The older generation of chefs in the Western world cooked food. Good food for the sake of enjoyment, but maybe not much more. It wasn’t expected that a chef would have to more to say than how many egg yolks were needed for a recipe, or how best to cut a steak.
Today we see Jamie Oliver involved in a political struggle to raise the quality of school food, Michelle Obama collaborating with chef Dan Barber on political food issues. Chefs are invited to UN seminars on the environment, and they work with scientists to dismiss old myths about cooking methods.
Food isn’t just about nutrition and enjoyment any more, it’s also high-level politics. And chefs are weapons in the global debate.
“Travelling is great fun, but also hard work sometimes. I only say yes to invitations I think are going to be rewarding in themselves, like living with monks in Korea, meeting and taking pictures with acclaimed street photographer Joel Meyerowitz in New York, or visiting a sea-urchin picker in Norway”, says Magnus, who in the spring was invited to speak at the UN environmental conference at Rio de Janeiro.
One chef who’s completely changed the perception of cooking in modern times is Spaniard Ferran Adrià. He and his now-closed restaurant El Bulli outside Barcelona turned every rule upside down and invented so-called molecular gastronomy – a kitchen that resembles a laboratory and which, since then, has been copied by restaurants the world over.
A fake olive that tastes better than a real one; dishes that were both cold and hot at the same time; chemically complicated dishes made from jelly that had never previously been tasted. Absolutely ingenious and occasionally provocative; like Star Trek, John Coltrane, and Willy Wonka, but with food. Ferran Adrià voyaged as far as he could, out into his psychedelic universe of taste, and everyone tried to follow.
Then he suddenly quit.
The American food writer Bill Buford, who’s also an author and literary scholar, calls Magnus Nilsson’s simple cooking “caveman gothic”. He compares it to the return in literature to clean storytelling, without debauched formal experiments.
“There was a time before American literature when every author wanted to write technical and formally complex works like James Joyce”, he says. “Then suddenly Raymond Carver turned up with storytelling – simple but intricately structured sentences. Back to Basics, quite simply.”
The hole in gastronomy that opened when the ingenious Spanish surrealist suddenly laid down his palette two years ago, is now filled by Magnus Nilsson from Jämtland, who cooks food over an open fire and not in machines developed for space experimentation.
For many years, the trendiest discovery you could make in a gastronomic kitchen was finding the pseudo perfect temperature to cook something at. Eggs boiled at 64 degrees centigrade, meat slow-cooked at 76 degrees for 4.7 hours, and so on.
For Magnus Nilsson, cooking isn’t about relying on temperature and machines, but on a trained sense for when the food is perfect.
It isn’t just about sophisticated preparation of wild game, or storing fresh vegetables in boxes of sand during the harsh half-year winters, but also getting back to fire.
Every morning the handmade grill in the kitchen is lit with charcoal from a nearby pile. No roaring flame, just a gently burning grill. Soft smoke spreads subtly through the kitchen, and out to the wood-lined dining room during the morning, long before customers are welcome.
Practically all the food that’s served year-round at the Fäviken farm comes from the land round about. The fish comes mostly from the other side of the mountains in Norway. Magnus has hunted and fished since childhood. He knows the natural world that surrounds him like the back of his hand, even the latin names of most of the edible mushrooms and plants in the Jämtland forest. He is extremely knowledgable about everything from dairy production, vegetable growing and artisanal slaughtering to the most complicated fermentation techniques, and the break-down process of enzymes in meat and fish. In addition, he’s a fully qualified sommelier, a profession that takes time to master and something few cooks in the world have taken the trouble to do.
He is talented in all fields that concern food – before it’s even got to the kitchen, chopping board, and oven.
“I wanted to be a marine biologist or a chef. And I ended up a chef”, says Magnus, who’s gastronomic path began at catering school in Åre. “At home there was lots of cooking the whole time I was growing up, both by my parents and by my grandma and grandpa. Food’s always been important for us. And later on I realised that it’s a perfect way to express yourself. It’s largely a craft, but one that still needs a certain artistic and creative disposition.”
Because Magnus Nilsson is aware that it’s difficult to prepare food for more than 14 people at the level he demands of himself, there are no more than 14 seats in the dining room. And there’s no menu to choose from either; everyone eats what’s offered that evening. In addition, everyone has to begin eating together at 19.00.
All these little rules aren’t a gimmick or a tacked on concept, but are there to create the conditions for an exceptional eating experience; a rigid frame to allow the creativity to flow freely.
That creativity has now attracted a small fan club, and some fly to Sweden just to eat at Fäviken, like young billionaire Andrew Heinz, heir to a certain American sauce business and stepson to former presidential candidate John Kerry. A shy man who’d rather not talk about his background and absolutely won’t be photographed. His private plane waits obediently at Östersund airport while Andrew eats.
Perhaps other fans also go to Frantzén/Lindeberg in Stockholm, and the now legendary Noma in Copenhagen, on their Nordic gastronomic pilgrimage. Restaurants who’s current chefs are close friends of Magnus Nilsson.
“At the moment, there’s a lot of interest in Nordic food. I think it’s fantastic that there are so many good and unique restaurants today in our relatively lightly populated region”, says Magnus.
Fäviken isn’t just a restaurant; it’s a whole farm, part of which is a private residence. Owner Patrik Brummer, best known as one of the founders of asset management company Brummer & Partners, bought the estate ten years ago – chiefly for the hunting prospects. But a small restaurant was included in the concern.
The idea to bring in Magnus came when Patrik Brummer and his wife Ann-Charlotte ate lunch with him at small, top restaurant L’Astrance in Paris, where he’d been a chef for three years.
“We saw that, despite his youth, his competence was recognised by his colleagues at this starred Parisian restaurant. We were impressed by his ambition and decided that he should be able to try to start the restaurant at Fäviken up his own way”, says Brummer.
A few years later, Magnus Nilsson was there at the restaurant preparing food equally well for those who lived in Åre, for the family’s hunt dinners, and during Fäviken’s own opera performances. He had just returned from Paris.
“But, you know, we couldn’t in our wildest dreams have imagined that it would go this well. Ann-Charlotte is certainly the one who has created the external opportunities at Fäviken and made it what it is today. The fact that the restaurant lies in this particular environment has clearly played a decisive role in attracting people”, Brummer suggests.
But how does it feel having a public restaurant on your farm?
“When we took over Fäviken, we wanted it to be alive and active even when we weren’t there. So a restaurant was part of that vision. And it’s great fun getting mail from friends abroad who’ve read about Fäviken in the Financial Times and other newspapers.”
What food does Magnus cook best then, privately?
“Everyone in my family likes different things! But I definitely prefer his hamburgers made with elk meat, they’re amazing. After a long day’s hunting they’re something I long for.”
Magnus Nilsson is introspective and intellectual, he speaks knowledgeably about environmental pollution and politics, or music and art. Maybe this is the reason that he’s made an international breakthrough in gastronomy, and maybe even outside that world before long.
“He is enormously creative in other areas too and has loads of exciting ideas that we sometimes talk about. Magnus is well prepared to be an entrepreneur, so we’ll see what happens with other projects in the future”, says Patrik Brummer.
Will we see Magnus Nilsson on the world’s TV screens before long, like a gourmand Gordon Ramsey? Or like Jamie Oliver, on a vespa through the countryside, with a school class on his back and a plastic-bag of artichokes hanging on the handlebars? Hardly. Probably his archeological gastronomy, as I call it, is a little too intellectual for broad-appeal TV entertainment. But don’t be surprised if in the future Magnus Nilsson carves out his own niche in the global, food media roar, but in an entirely new way – now, when we’ve maybe had our fill of food programmes that simply entertain.