Magnus Nilsson, the executive chef of Fäviken, in Järpen, Sweden, needed a change. So he closed the doors last December of one of the top-rated restaurants in the world, after a run of more than a decade. The 24-seat restaurant drew a global following, despite its rural location six hours from Stockholm.
The soft-spoken, strongly opinionated chef, now 36, has visited the Twin Cities twice in the past four years to sold-out crowds. This year's visit, not surprisingly, has a twist. He will launch his virtual U.S. book tour for "Fäviken: 4015 Days, Beginning to End" (Phaidon, 324 pages, $59.95), from his home in Sweden to viewers via the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis on Nov. 7.
The new volume, his fifth, includes a catalog of every dish prepared at the restaurant, along with those recipes particularly iconic, most of which aren't realistic for at-home cooks (think Bird's Head Grilled Over Birch Charcoal).
Then there are essays, or what Nilsson calls his stories, some about moments in the restaurant and others about wide-ranging topics — the hypocrisy of sustainability in restaurants; parenting four children; cooking lineage and plagiarism; the need to close the restaurant. The essays alone — insightful, provocative, heartwarming — are worth a read.
Today Nilsson has directed his laserlike focus to his new — but very old — apple orchard in southern Sweden (some of the 10,000 trees are 100 years old).
"My next step is to become as good at gardening as I am at cooking," he writes. No doubt he will.
For his "real" job, Nilsson has taken on the role of director of the MAD Academy ("mad" means "food" in Danish), a program to provide skills and tools for a new generation of chefs and others in the hospitality field. And he's working with a Swedish foundation on environmental issues.
In an interview, Nilsson talked about the importance of hospitality, the rising interest in craft, the closing of Fäviken and the future of restaurants.
Q: Your first book ["Fäviken"] and the new one are bookends to the life of the restaurant. Did you think of this as a historical record?
A: I do so now when it's all done, but I didn't really think of it that way when I wrote the books. I didn't write the first book [published in 2012] with the purpose of it being a road map for the restaurant, and I didn't write this one for the end. But when I look at it now, that's what they are. The first one is about the restaurant that didn't exist [i.e. his ambitions] and the second one is about a restaurant that also doesn't exist [it's closed].
Q: When you started out with the restaurant, did you ever think an endpoint was in the future, or were you simply young and busy and getting through the day?
A: I actually knew that it was going to end, but I didn't feel like that. I didn't own Fäviken, I just ran it. And that was always a discussion point with me and my business partner Patrik [Brummer], that this would one day come to an end. But I didn't emotionally feel like that, even though I knew that one day I was going to do something else or that one day this place was going to become something else.
Q: You talk in the book about hospitality and what it means to you. Can you describe it?
A: For me, hospitality has always been very, very important and always has been. I don't know if it's because I worked with other things in restaurants. I've been interested in wine and things like that, or if it's because I really like going to restaurants myself, but I've always considered giving the act of hospitality more important than cooking or giving service or whatever. The idea of hosting people who want to have a good time, to me, is really appealing, and if you succeed, it's very, very satisfying.
Q: What do guests bring to the restaurant themselves?
A: You can't have a restaurant without customers, for very obvious and practical reasons, but that also means as a customer or guest in a restaurant you also have a responsibility to try to make the experience good for yourself. As much as it's an obligation for someone working in a restaurant to give hospitality, it's also the obligation of the customer to receive hospitality. If you're not going to be open to that, if you're not going to try to make it into a good evening yourself, it doesn't matter how good the staff or the team in the restaurant is. They are not going to succeed very well. That's also important.
Q: You've included recipes in the book, even though they are ones that few are likely to make at home.
A: I didn't mean to include them in the beginning. I wrote most of the narrative pieces before the recipes were decided to be included. I just felt like, halfway through the process, it would be such a wasted opportunity if they were not included as a backbone throughout the book, a kind of story line throughout the book. That's also the reason they are not presented in the kind of normal way as most cookbooks, where you have maybe starters or main courses or whatever categories separately. These recipes appear in chronological order of when they first appeared on the menu so they function as a kind of anchor for the overall chronological story line of Fäviken.
Q: Were you always interested in orchards or is that a newfound interest?
A: I've been very interested in gardening for about 10 years. It's one of those things where there really aren't apples and there are no orchards in the northern part of Sweden. So this seemed very exotic and very interesting, to grow perennial food crops that are, like, 100 years old and the oldest ones are 150 years old even. Yes, so it was sort of that. It's a very different kind of gardening. And I do like the idea of being a farmer producer, even though I'm not really a farmer. I do other things, too. I have an actual real job, as well. It's very appealing to me. It's an entirely new field that's been very difficult, but also very rewarding and interesting.
Q; You note in your book that Fäviken would not have made it through the pandemic. What are your thoughts about the future of restaurants?
A: This is something that not everyone is going to like to hear. We're in the middle of the crisis now and it's a crisis that's not going to end anytime soon. A lot of people will continue to lose their livelihood and a lot of people will lose their business and it will never come back again. But I also firmly believe that when this is over — and I firmly believe this will be over like any other crisis — people are going to want to go out and eat. People are going to want to start businesses, and it's going to come back. It's going to be different and it's going to be new businesses run by different people and maybe there will something else that's different, but I have a feeling that it will be less different than we think, to be honest. All through crises in modern history, the hospitality community and restaurants have shown resilience, not just in existing but in the ways they reinvent or start happening again. I think that's what is going to happen this time.
Q: What is your sense of the importance of craft?
A: Craft is a fantastic thing and it's been overlooked for the past five, 10, 12, 15 years in restaurants because other things have been more fashionable and considered more interesting. But cooking is a craft-driven occupation. There's much more variation in craft than people assume, and I think we'll see a higher focus of that in the future. With the flow of information on restaurants with social media, a lot of these other things are so easily replicable. Concepts that might have been unique once, they are so easy to replicate because we share them. But the immaculate practice of craft is not easy to replicate, because you have to actually practice and do it. You have to get really good. And that's not something you can just do looking at a picture. You can never do as good as a really, really skilled craftsperson.
Q: What's the best part of not having a restaurant?
A: Something I really appreciate now is that I don't miss working in the evenings, when everyone else is off.