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Firedancer

By: Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Burning ideas. Swedish chef Niklas Ekstedt is singlehandedly creating a countertrend to modern cuisine, wowing diners with near-forgotten techniques and food that’s… hot like fire.

Niklas Ekstedt couldn’t care less about Michelin stars or awards ceremonies. At the restaurant bearing his last name, the Swedish chef, author, and TV star relies on ancient techniques, open flames, and culinary storytelling. The Northern firebug sat down with us for an exclusive interview to explain why he regrets striking out on his own at 21, why chefs need better managers, and why people are always underestimating Sweden.

So what was the inspiration behind this extraordinary culinary philosophy of yours?

Ekstedt: My parents raised me in a little village in the north of Sweden, far away from all the hectic rush of the city. Nothing out there but pure nature. With my food now, I think I’m picking up where I left off as a child. We used to walk around in the forest collecting mushrooms, berries, and herbs. It was a very sheltered childhood.

Most teenagers end up wanting to do the exact opposite of what their parents tell them. Were you that way, too?

Ekstedt: When I was 18, I wanted nothing to do with regional, seasonal, or sustainable food. I wanted to cook in the classical French tradition, and I wanted to do it as far away from home as possible. That’s why, when I turned 19, I moved to Chicago to work at Charlie Trotter’s, which was one of the most hyped restaurants in the world back then, a lot like Noma or elBulli. So there I was, a Swedish hayseed in the big American city.

Ekstedt Swedish chef cooking without electricity

Image: Helen Pe

Besides being known for his progressive culinary ideas, Charlie Trotter was also famous for not mincing words. What was it like working for him?

Ekstedt: It was super hectic there, but that’s no surprise. Every famous chef in the world was at that restaurant – either inside, cooking in the kitchen, or outside, as a customer. So you can imagine how crazy that was in the beginning, for a young Swedish kid who didn’t know anything about the world. It was a huge learning curve for me, of course – especially in terms of discipline, hard work, and English.

Just a short time later, you decided to start your own restaurant. Did you take that step too soon, at age 21?

Ekstedt: Yes and no. I had my dad’s full support; we actually opened the restaurant together. But looking back now, I think I’d have done it differently.

Why?

Ekstedt: I was just too young, from both a business and a culinary standpoint. When you’re young, you’re always in such a damn hurry, and nothing can ever happen fast enough for you. Nowadays, I always tell my son, “Take it easy. Enjoy these years. You’ll be an adult soon enough.”

Over the years, your restaurant, Niklas, became what’s now Ekstedt. If you compare the two concepts now, what would you say the big differences were?

Ekstedt: The two restaurants are just fundamentally different. The food I make now reflects my childhood, my life, and me as a person. It’s authentic. At the same time, it’s contemporary in a way, even though it’s actually old-fashioned.

You do almost all of your cooking over an open fire, working with completely fresh products. You also do without electricity to a large extent. It’s a pretty elaborate endeavor, and you probably can’t do much advance preparation, right?

Ekstedt: Right, obviously. In my opinion, modern cooking is too obsessed with details. Amuse-bouches here, appetizers there, and then some petit fours. I wanted to create a restaurant where there’s one set menu with five or six dishes, and none of that extra stuff. We don’t have cold desserts, either – all of our food is hot. And we get our products from the region. Actually, we only use electricity because we have to. We’re required by law to store products in a refrigerator, for example. Even though we could do it differently, we’re not allowed to.

Why do you feel such a need to cook without electricity?

Ekstedt Swedish Chef

Image: David Loftus

Ekstedt: In Sweden, we’re obsessed with new technologies. The minute something new is invented, it’s all, “Out with the old, in with the new.” That means a lot of old technologies are being forgotten, and my team and I are trying to breathe new life into them. I’ve spent a lot of time studying old techniques and preparation methods. I can’t even tell you how many books I’ve read over the years about them. And the deeper I get into the subject, the more I realize that the time we’ve spent cooking with electricity is just a tiny fraction of the time we spent cooking without it. At Ekstedt, we’ve basically gotten to the point where we create our food based on different techniques. Like, our first step is to decide we want to try out some specific technique, and then after that we start thinking about what products we could use with it.

What techniques are you currently working with at the restaurant?

Ekstedt: Most of the techniques we use are fast-paced and made-to-order – nothing like American barbecue culture, which is all slow-and-low, hours and hours of grilling. We’re big fans of open flames here, so smoking is one of our most important food preparation methods. We do a lot of experimentation with different Scandinavian varieties of wood or grass. We also pickle a lot of products and ferment them so that we can get through the long winter months. Our menu doesn’t change radically from one month to the next – it’s a continuous process of developing and redeveloping our dishes. In fact, we have our own team of people working in a test kitchen for that exact purpose. Vegetables are definitely another focal point for Ekstedt. Generally, we all focus too much on proteins when it comes to grilling, even though grilled vegetables are the real highlight of the meal. No aluminum foil, no vacuum bags, none of that. I think preparing food in plastic bags is silly anyway. Just throw the entire vegetable into the fire. Larger vegetables are best for that, because they can withstand the flames. Cabbage or kohlrabi, for example.

You’re also preparing regional cuisine in Sweden, a country with long winters and short summers. Why would you do that to yourself?

Ekstedt: From a climatic point of view, that’s true – we have a short harvest period here. But geographically speaking, Sweden has unbelievable product diversity. We have the Baltic Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, lots of forests with amazing wild animals (in winter, too), huge swaths of farmland with unique plants and herbs… Sweden even has vineyards now. A lot of people think Scandinavia has a harsh climate, but we have a wider variety of products here than most European countries do. From the end of the Second World War until the late 90s, though, Scandinavians only cared about French, Spanish, and Italian products. So it’s a very healthy development that people here are finally concentrating on their own cuisine.

All the hype around Claus Meyer’s and René Redzepi’s New Nordic Cuisine has caused a lot of changes in Scandinavia. Was that sort of a blessing and a curse?

Ekstedt: Well, of course it’s a little stressful, because diners at our latitudes base their expectations on those places. I have the advantage of being a little older – René Redzepi worked at my restaurant, in fact. So I was lucky enough to have made a name for myself already before all that hype broke out. My food was always very technique-focused, whereas at Noma the emphasis was more on the product. All the same, though, Noma was an unbelievable inspiration, and without it I probably never would have opened Ekstedt.

You didn’t just make a name for yourself through your restaurant, though – you’re also known as a TV chef. How important is that combination?

Ekstedt swedish Chef

Image: Per-Anders Jörgensen

Ekstedt: I think of television as a very personal medium, a way for me to travel around the world meeting interesting people and finding a lot of new sources of inspiration. It’s also a welcome change of pace – it gives me a break from day-to-day restaurant life. Of course, it turned me into kind of a celebrity chef in Sweden, so I didn’t have to worry about customers or Michelin stars or reviews. On the other hand, people’s expectations are on a whole different level when it comes to chefs they know from television – and the TV personality isn’t the same person as the guy in the restaurant. Filming takes up a lot of time as well, which makes the restaurant side of things a little more difficult, because competition in Stockholm is merciless. The city has a lot of excellent restaurants; again and again, you see really good places going out of business.

Why is that?

Ekstedt: The national and international market is very fast-paced, and it requires people to have a wide range of skills, particularly young people. The restaurant world is fairly unique in terms of forcing creative types to think about business profitability as well. Painters have gallery owners who exhibit and sell their work; musicians have managers to handle the business end of things. Gastronomy has gotten so competitive that a lot of excellent chefs are being hampered in their creativity – they can no longer focus on what’s important, which is cooking. Plus chefs just simply aren’t trained in business administration, they don’t have any experience in that area. I’ve been very lucky in that regard, because I’ve always had people around me to help with business questions.

You seem like you’ve broken free of all that pressure – like you’ve managed to create your own recipe for success. Would you agree?

Ekstedt: I love food, and I love the culinary world, every aspect of it. I don’t focus too much on the cooking itself, or on awards or Michelin stars. I just love telling stories with my dishes, and I’m always striving to improve that process. I’ve often gotten to the point where I said, “I don’t want to be a chef anymore. I want to do something different.” But life has a funny way of throwing the best offers at you just when you’ve decided to quit. To me, it’s always been important to have a Plan B. I have a lot of different projects going – I always have an alternative. That helps me sleep at night.

How are you handling the current employee shortage in the restaurant industry?

Ekstedt: Good question. We’re putting a lot of thought into that. One of the biggest issues is when employees you’ve invested a lot of time in decide to move to another restaurant in the same city. That always just creates bad blood between restaurateurs. I think paying your crew well is pretty much the be-all and end-all. So it’s also important to me to make sure that employees are paid from the minute they arrive at the restaurant to the minute they leave. Here in Sweden, fortunately, we also have a legal system that’s really good to employees.

Where would you say the problems are in terms of the next generation?

Ekstedt cooking on fire

Image: Mathias Nordgren

Ekstedt: There just aren’t enough good trainee positions for young people. Nowadays, restaurants are opening and expanding to new locations at an unbelievable pace, but there are just too few companies and institutions focused on training. A lot of people, especially service staff, just work in restaurants on the side until they find something better. We need to change that on a fundamental level. And we’ve also failed to give immigrants a shot at getting their foot in the door of the restaurant world.

What are your plans for the future?

Ekstedt: I’m the kind of person who’s never completely satisfied, so I have a couple of projects in the works. It’s too soon to go public with them, though.

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