There are a few heavyweights in Scandi food whose restaurants pop up in conversation with restless frequency, breathless descriptions of experience and a powerful sense of place bubbling on the lips of critics and food-lovers. Noma, Ekstedt, Fäviken, Frantzén, Maaemo, Geranium. Names like Rene Redzepi and the author of this book, Magnus Nilsson, evoke a powerfully visceral sense of the “New Nordic”, even for those of us who have never made it beyond Copenhagen’s outskirts. The influence of their ethos has stretched across large tracts of the Western world: their cooking and presentation style, their viciously intricate exploratory approach to ingredient, technique, seasonality, localism and preservation combined with the careful orchestration of the customer experience.
Fäviken is the second book from the Nilsson keyboard. I haven’t read the first but have been working through techniques in Redzepi’s thorough The Noma Guide to Fermentation and perhaps naively expected an equivalently complex, demanding but accessible reference book. The perfectly plain red and blue cover with its stark white text reminded me of my old university textbooks and it’s a chunky text-heavy 323 pages.
If you were looking for a book laden with evocative views inside the restaurant itself or the scenery surrounding Fäviken’s Swedish home, you’ll be disappointed. There’s the occasional black and white “chefs at work” study, and a smattering of exquisite Nordic landscape photos through the seasons. As Nilsson says, you can google Fäviken and it’s all there, the breathless social media postings of so many restaurant pilgrims. What you will find is a soothing sequence of the cleanest, most pared back food tableaus imaginable. This is both the absolute heart of and the most misleading element of this book. There is literally nothing simple about what Magnus Nilsson does, about what the Fäviken team achieve. The simplicity is a cruelly perpetrated illusion, and his desire for perfection is jaw-dropping in its rawness, fascinating in its depth and range. The book drips with allusions to the levels of quality to which he aspires and the extent to which he reaches it. It also takes you on journeys through his painstaking creative processes and how his influences enable that creativity.
There are no traditional chapter headings to orient you in what is a series of essays or collected musings enveloping the recipes they gave rise to. Instead, you’ll be instructed on “How to care for an apple tree”– a philosophical exploration of how the optimized use of an ingredient must be planned years, maybe a decade before it’s needed. Or in “Haut cuisine needs haut craft” an almost despairing and certainly frustrated analysis of the nature of the high-end contemporary restaurant environment’s inability to nurture true craft. And again, in “Haut cuisine needs haut produce”, an examination of the frame of reference that allows potentially exceptional chefs to judder below the line of quality they could attain simply because they have never experienced or truly understood a quality comparator and their ability or otherwise to achieve it (there’s no holding back in his withering views on vacpac wagyu).
I’d make an educated guess that many of Nilsson’s opinions are controversial. Without a doubt the audience for this book (ostensibly the story of 10 years of a restaurant he decided to close because his whole being shouted at him that “it had to stop”) is the audience for a philosophy of physical, emotional, intellectual, instinctual and financial investment in pursuit of perfect and unique, of having your mind blown and blowing others’ minds in return. He has very definitive views on wide-ranging subjects: the serving of bread; the quality and use of caviar; the fame that comes from running Fäviken; eating a single oyster; ubiquitous social media’s potential ability to destroy the element of surprise; restraint; decomposing leaves as an ingredient; money; bog butter; plagiarism. Nothing passes his attentions unscathed. His extreme focus on detail, from heated cutting boards, the precision of the timing and seamless approach to serving liver toasts or the “smiley face” in the gompa on a brown cheese pie, through to the placement of one or two salt crystals, is the measure of how he has shaped Fäviken. Our most fêted chefs, the most open-minded of restaurateurs, will read this and find themselves at the sharp end of Nilsson’s thoroughly logical critique of his own evolving practices and behaviours. They may see themselves implicitly portrayed by comparison as closer to the start of the journey of sourcing, technique and creativity, though they believe themselves to be nearer the end of it.
These explications of “the wisdom of Fäviken” wrap around extraordinary recipes. I read each avidly, absorbed by Magnus’ depictions of his methods and techniques including those expanded in their own sections (the section on “Cooking of meat” was thoroughly illuminating) and the depth of knowledge of chemistry and physics he applies both intuitively and through self-education. I wondered if I might exhaust myself with it by the end of the book but I remained gripped. I genuinely don’t know who of my peers would also be; when it comes to recipes it really is the textbook it first appears to be, and in that respect I appreciate it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. He has a marvellously uncomplicated and endearing use of language that helps, and surprising moments of realisation pop up regularly. It’s easy to fly through twenty pages then wonder where the time went when phrases like “farty funk”, “the mouthfeel of wet beach sand” and “a small egg coated in (sheep’s shit) ash” pepper the text, and when preconceptions like the way you use salt to give flavour are gently but fundamentally challenged.
There will sometimes be five or six pages of introduction to a recipe, often a couple of full pages of dense exposition, sometimes a brief paragraph, and rarely nothing. Recipes are often intricately detailed, with precise timings, volumes, temperatures, equipment and specific ingredients listed, as well as helpful notes on how to avoid common problems– too much of x will result in y–or how to match the precision of the production with the right choreographed presentation to give the customer the perfect experience. You might find an innocuous listing for a recipe ingredient for example, that reads “75g ättika vinegar matured in the burned out trunk of a spruce tree for a year”: ättika vinegar I can buy online, the burned out spruce trunk and year of maturing will demand a tad more personal investment.
And then there’s the most straightforward recipe in the book. Arguably it’s achievable by any one of us. The ingredients list reads baldly “several handfuls of perfect berries picked on a sunny evening and never refrigerated” and the serving instruction is “arrange on a plate”. But with every ounce of will and sinew in this book, Magnus is compelling you to understand one thing above all else: the perfect fruit will have taken years of investment, will grow by your doorstep, will be harvested at the precise moment you need them, will never be picked if it’s raining because “they are just not as good”. Just as Nilsson will donate an incubator to replace his chicken supplier’s broken equipment because chickens sourced from elsewhere frankly will not give him the product he has nurtured and moulded, just as he will find the ultimate source of “good” (you know from his descriptions that good means exceptional) milk, cream and butter, there is an expectation that if you try even the most basic of recipes in this book you will be highly unlikely to have the wherewithal to deliver the end result you might have hoped for. Ultimately, Nilsson’s food is also the product of a unique environmental and climatic situation, the detail of which makes for fascinating and enlightening reading.
However it also leaves me with the sense that his recipes are not there to be slavishly recreated, because you and I are never going to be in the position to have that same geographical and meteorological situation, nor immediate access to his intensely, obsessively personally husbanded produce. I read the book avidly front to back and was truly inspired to do many things, even as an amateur home cook. First, source the finest ingredients I can afford to as often as I can afford to, and to do so as close to the point of production as I can. Second, expand my frame of reference to improve my understanding of what excellence really is and trust instinct about what makes something great. Third, be creative: use my own small life experiences, memories and instincts to try to recreate a memory of food, to find the optimum point to eat something, to be simple when simple is perfect. And fourth, that serendipity can play its own part: that jar full of a tentative fermentation experiment abandoned in frustration in the cellar can sometimes turn out to be pure alchemy.
More than anything though, this book left me with renewed awe and respect for the few chefs I personally know who are bone-deep in their terroir, who are entwined with their suppliers to source the optimal ingredients at every level (right down to the neighbour’s long-nurtured rhubarb, or the village source of the best foraging spots for fungi or berries) and who use their lived memories and instinct to create experiences that are unique to them, their surroundings and the care they’ve lavished on the orchestration of the eater’s experience to be the best it can be. There are ideas and inspiration for these people in Fäviken, certainly, but there is also a reassurance that at heart, these are the real things that make the experience of food great. But they knew that anyway.
Inescapably, due to its publication date, the book ends with a reflection on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and on Nilsson as a person and a professional in the context of the voluntary closure of Fäviken just before the global impact hit. Touched with a little melancholy, it still manages to be a hopeful close to an intriguing peep backstage at a restaurant whose reputation will inevitably vibrate through future food culture.
If you decide to buy this book after reading our content, please consider clicking through our affiliate link, located within the post and in the footnote below.
Kavey Eats received a review copy of Fäviken by Magnus Nilsson from publishers Phaidon Press. Book cover and images from within the book provided by Phaidon Press.