In the restaurant world, he's a rock star chef, with Fäviken, in northwestern Sweden, rated midway in the Top 50 internationally. That alone makes diners swoon.
But Magnus Nilsson is much more.
Thumb through his 768-page opus, "The Nordic Cookbook" (Phaidon, $49.95), a three-year project that entailed thousands of miles and a steady stomach (seal soup, stuffed puffin, rotten shark and, of course, lutefisk), and you discover a history professor — a hungry one at that — who documents the foodways, past and present, of the seven countries that make up the Nordic region. (See if you can name them: The usual four and three more: Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, which together encompass 1.3 million square miles.)
Delve into his text and you find a journalist, a chemist and biologist, as well as folklorist interested in both tradition and innovation, and the reasons behind them. Read carefully and a poet appears on the page, when you least expect it, then a teacher patiently explaining the how and why.
No less important is the photographer, a Leica M9 camera dangling from his shoulder, to take digital notes on travels throughout his beloved region and beyond.
This soft-spoken Viking, with the hipster look and dry sense of humor, wears the crown of Scandinavian restaurant royalty well. His effusive joie de vivre (no Nordic angst here) is visible in film documentaries that bring his spirit and restaurant alive to those of us who can't make the six-hour trip from Stockholm (or the two-hour drive from the nearest airport), much less get a reservation at the 24-seat Fäviken. All this demand is for a restaurant tucked into an 18th-century red barn, part of a 24,000-acre hunting estate in Järpen, Sweden.
Next week in Taste we'll talk about Nilsson's cookbook, a must-have volume for anyone serious about Nordic culture, whether or not food is of interest (though, really, how can food not be of interest!).
Today we consider his photography, which illustrates his cookbook and has been curated for an exhibition that opens next week at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, and continues through the summer before heading to other cities.
Nilsson fell in love with photography as a youngster, after his grandmother gave him a used Kodak Instamatic that had been languishing in a cupboard. He was only 6, but he was smitten. Since then, a camera has been at his side, enabling him to create what he calls his "snapshots."
"You never know when something amazing is going to happen, when a person is going to do something interesting or when the sky is just so beautiful it hurts," he writes in the exhibition catalog.
But much took place between that first click of the camera shutter and his perilous perch on a cliff on the Faroe Islands, looking for eggs from the fulmar (a sea bird).
First there was culinary school in Sweden, and then a three-year stint in the kitchen at L'Astrance in Paris. On his return to Sweden, he found himself so discouraged by the lack of good quality ingredients that he gave up cooking and studied wine to become a sommelier.
When he arrived at Fäviken at age 24, it was with a short-term contract to stock the wine cellar. But then the restaurant kitchen reclaimed him. When a new chef was needed — and no others were interested in such a solitary outpost, called the most isolated restaurant in the world — he took over. This father of three, now 32, feels he is where he belongs, not far from where he grew up, near streams where he catches trout year-round and forests where he hunts and gathers components (grouse, spruce, juniper, autumn leaves) for his seasonal, hyper-local dishes.
Nilsson and I chatted recently by phone about his upcoming exhibition and his first trip to Minnesota, where more people of Swedish heritage live — almost 600,000 — than anywhere else in the U.S.
Q: Your photographs add so much dimension to your cookbook.
A: You could never produce these if you had to commission a photographer to do it. It would be impossible to pay for that time. Those photos were taken over many years, with hundreds of days of travel throughout the Nordic region. It's been really nice for me to discover, with publishing "The Nordic Cookbook" that people actually really enjoyed the photos and that they were interested also in exhibiting them. I am not a photographer. I run a restaurant. That's my main occupation and I never really thought around those lines. It's very nice to exhibit photos like these. They really serve a purpose of documenting a way of living and a culture. It's a very interesting way of spreading that information to people that you probably wouldn't reach otherwise.
Q: What inspired you as a photographer for this project?
A: For me, it's the act of documenting. It's a very good way of collecting information and making it possible to understand if you haven't got the context or background information. Let's say you have the recipe. You can re-create a dish, but without any more information than the actual recipe text and the ingredients list, it's very difficult to understand much about the culture of the region or why a dish makes sense.
Photography is such a good way of sharing information, very detailed information. It can evoke a lot of feelings, and it can be very beautiful or disturbing or provocative and, by evoking those feelings, it can also spike an interest in what it depicts. It's a very efficient way of transmitting information.
Q: As an artistic endeavor, how does photography differ from cooking as a process for you?
A: The biggest difference is that cooking is always consumed instantaneously. It can't be stored, it can't be traded or it can't be transported. It's produced and consumed at the same time, like live music. Photography is documentation. It's capturing a moment and then re-creating it many times when you produce prints. That's a huge difference.
Q: How important is creativity in the life of a chef and photographer?
A: Creativity is very important. I'm very fortunate like that because I was allowed to create a business around my way of being creative at the restaurant. Photography to me is much less about creativity and more about capturing the moment. This is probably because I'm not as good a photographer as a chef. If you're an art photographer as a profession, then the expression of creativity is much more than I have. What I do is document things that actually happened, and explain cultural occurrences mainly within food and mainly within the Nordic region — sometimes they turn out pretty to look at, too, which is an added bonus.
Q: Why is there such an explosion of attention on Nordic food right now?
A: If we focus on Nordic restaurants, it has a lot to do with the fact that we have always had a strong market of really good high-quality restaurants in the Nordic region, or at least in Scandinavia, but they were all for domestic consumption. They weren't for people traveling from abroad. They were there, but people didn't really go to the Nordic region to eat, mainly because no one knew that there were plenty of good restaurants already.
Then Noma [in Copenhagen] opened the doors to Scandinavia when they put the spotlight on their ambitious kind of restaurant, the same kind of restaurant Fäviken is. All of a sudden, journalists came in and they discovered that there was already something there and it was really good — and that no one had told the story. So it became something that was very easy to write about, I think. One thing led to another. It turns into a prophecy spiral and, with the influx of more guests, more journalists and more people, more restaurateurs and chefs, and they created more restaurants.
Q: How important are restaurants in the Nordic region?
A: This is a very, very small part of the actual culture of eating in the Nordic region, which I talk a lot about in "The Nordic Cookbook." The restaurants and part of Nordic food culture that has been getting all of this attention is such a tiny part, like two handfuls of restaurants who have gotten all this attention for the past seven or eight years, or maybe five years, or whatever. But even though we all reflect Nordic food culture through kind of a restaurant filter in a contemporary way, it's not exactly how people eat. And there's the gap.
If you go to eat in Spain, for example, you can have a very ambitious contemporary meal that reflects the culture of the area, just as you can in the Nordics. But you can also can go to a simple restaurant and have a very authentic Spanish everyday meal. And that doesn't exist in the Nordic countries. And that's a huge difference, and I think that's something that's going to mature in years. I think Nordic food culture has a very, very interesting future ahead of itself.
Q: Your look at home cooking reflects a world far different from that of restaurants. Why is that?
A: It helps if you look at why it differs and how it differs from other food cultures that have more recognition historically. If we continue with the Spanish food culture, it's very accessible in the sense that you can go to Spain and have a very ambitious meal. But when you have that simple everyday meal at a restaurant, you actually get a real understandable Spanish food culture as served in a restaurant.
In the Nordic region, I would say, for reasons of climate, we don't really have the tradition of eating everyday meals in restaurants. That's a pretty new occurrence. We're looking at something that has happened after the Second World War, something that has really taken off maybe in the last 10 to 15 years. Before that, you did not go out for an everyday meal in a restaurant. An everyday meal of a traditional kind is something you have at your home.
As a traveler or journalist or someone who wants to experience food culture, even today, coming to Sweden, if you don't know anyone who is willing to take you into their home and cook everyday food for you, you are not going to get this. That's a big difference between Scandinavian and Nordic food culture and Central European food culture, which is very accessible. Lots of that happens in the streets and the restaurants. I think this is one of the reasons it's much more difficult to understand, and much more difficult to enjoy, because you can't access it. Even if you go to Stockholm and go to a restaurant that calls itself a Swedish restaurant and that's considered a Swedish restaurant, what you eat there is not going to be what people eat in their homes. It's going to be a version of that, passed through a kind of French filter. It's not representative of everyday cooking.
Q: Beyond your restaurant, you've started up two other ventures: a hot dog stand and charcuterie company. Those are foods that would seem to be much more everyday-oriented than what you serve at Fäviken.
A: We started the charcuterie three years ago, and that had a lot to do with that being an opportunity to change the dynamics of the countryside here and create demand for a product that would basically disappear otherwise. That would be pig farming in this area and, in the long run, dairy farming. If we could create a demand for these meats, more of these spots [farms] would be able to stay open, and so far, that's taken place. The hot dog place was a natural continuation of that — using our own products and showing that something relatively cheap can be nicely done. They operate independently of the restaurant, as their own entities.
Q: When the restaurant is closed for big chunks of time, is it related to climate or your need to do other things?
A: Mostly because we want to do other things. This year we are closed just seven weeks. It differs from year to year, and has a lot to do with what other projects we are working on and what else is happening around us. Last year we had a lot to do with charcuterie. We had lots and lots of things that needed attention. So we shifted people from here to there and some people went on to more creative experiments.
(For more on Nilsson, see the PBS series "The Mind of a Chef," from 2014, Season 3, Episodes 9-16, and the Netflix documentary "Chef's Table," from 2015, Season 1, Episode 6.)