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Chef Magnus Nilsson in front of the 'duck wall' in the chiller room where game birds are aged for up to two weeks.

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Snack Shack: sous chef Uvis Janicenko delivers an afternoon snack to a small hut overlooking the restaurant's herb garden.

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Grouse, lingonberries, brown butter.

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Wings of birds are used to decorate the dining table.

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Colostrum with blueberries.

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Guests staying on site will be greeted on the way to dinner.

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Guests are invited to relax with drinks and snacks before heading upstairs to the dining room.

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Bucolic scene on arrival at Faviken.

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Storage facility for roots and vegetables, to be used during winter months.

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Left to right: Tobias Rehberger, Carsten Holler and Rirkrit Tiravanija inspect a recent find.

Dinner Most Fowl at Faviken

A bird-only challenge sends chef Magnus Nilsson into creative overdrive as he creates an unforgettable dining experience at his fabled restaurant in Sweden
Oct 26, 2018 5:50 AM

By any measure, dinner at Faviken Magasinet – a fabled restaurant in Sweden surrounded by pine forests and far removed from any hint of urban sprawl – is an experience to remember. Its isolated setting in a wilderness area south of the Arctic Circle, within a 10,000-hectare forest and former hunting estate, puts it firmly in prime foraging territory, high on the bucket lists of dedicated locavores and food-obsessed purists.

Add to that a rustic, wood cabin-like dining room in a converted 19th-century barn, a menu that is proudly uncompromising, focusing entirely on seasonal local produce – much of it found on the estate and prepped on site – and the mad-professor-meets-Viking-warrior intensity of Faviken’s driving force Magnus Nilsson, and you have the makings of something quite special.

Bird-Brained

Most diners won’t live within driving distance of the estate – 10-year-old Faviken is nothing if not the epitome of destination dining, after all. I had made the trek to the restaurant once before some years ago but what brought me back in mid-September 2018 was something more esoteric: Stockholm resident and renowned contemporary artist Carsten Holler’s interest in birds – specifically game birds.

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His friendship with Nilsson and regular visits to Faviken had resulted in an unusual request: a bespoke menu featuring only birds, hunted on the estate. Nilsson, a native of the area who hunts and fishes many of the products that show up on Faviken’s seasonal menus, was happy to oblige.

Winter in Jamtland, a sparsely-populated highland region that is home to the nomadic Sami tribe, can be soul-destroying. Temperatures of -30 C or colder are routine, but fresh air and sunny skies in early autumn will turn any hardened urbanite into a nature lover.

After a one-hour flight 750 km north from Stockholm to Ostersund, the jumping-off point for the ski resort of Are, followed by a 45-minute drive to the restaurant, expectations are likely to be reasonably high.

Faviken’s remote location demands exploration beyond what’s presented at dinnertime, and overnight guests (a handful of comfortable farmhouse-chic style rooms are available on site) who take time to absorb the idyllic setting, walk the grounds or even relax in a sauna, will be amply rewarded.

Food for Thought

There was also a secondary purpose to the trip. Holler, an entomologist, songbird collector, amateur chef and heavy thinker, is also the architect of The Brutalist Kitchen Manifesto, a culinary doctrine based on one essential rule: a single ingredient per dish – water is allowed, but no cooking oil, spices or seasoning is permitted. What did Nilsson make of this concept, Holler wanted to know. And is there room in the restaurant universe for one-ingredient cuisine?

Holler had been commissioned by Interview, the New York publication founded by Andy Warhol in 1969 and recently reincarnated, to interview Nilsson on the topic. Invited along for the ride were fellow artists Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tobias Rehberger – rock stars of the art world in their own right who also subscribe to the cooking-as-art, relational aesthetics dictum in their work.

The manifesto states in part: “Brutalist Cuisine is not about a lack of sophistication, but a lack of combination and a commitment to purity.” It adds: “The use of overlooked, hard-to-get, or rare ingredients, or ingredients which are generally discarded, is characteristic of Brutalist Cuisine. Elaborate cooking techniques are allowed, as is raw or quickly heated food.”

The (culinary) world according to Holler had been stewing in his mind after a visit some years ago to elBulli and a dish that required him to eat bird brains – beak, bones and all – something that in his book qualifies as the very definition of Brutalist. It triggered a need to apply conceptual thinking to food.

“I’m sick and tired of people telling me how I should eat,” says Holler, who objects to the multi-layered cuisine that he encounters at most restaurants. “The eater has more freedom when he’s presented with a one-item dish.”

As the person behind one of the most unique dining experiences in the world, Nilsson has a different perspective. “Running a restaurant, as much as it is a matter of craftsmanship as giving people pleasure, is different from other creative expressions,” he says. “It becomes obsolete if it doesn’t give pleasure – if you create a restaurant where the food is terrible, no one is going to come.” He adds, “Food is closer to craft than art. I’ve never felt the urge to conceptualise too far – I just want guests to be happy.”

Nilsson and his kitchen team cook using only direct heat, disdaining techniques such as sous vide. “Cooking is craft and the pleasure is in the process,” he says. “That’s what I get pleasure from, and guests get pleasure from the result.”

Every dining experience is about setting expectations, he adds. “If you decide something is going to be terrible, it will be. What I don’t like is when people don’t deliver what they say they will deliver; I think McDonald’s delivers exactly what you expect, so that’s fine.”

The Dining Experience

Faviken delivers in spades, and then some. Everything at the restaurant is orchestrated down to the tiniest detail. Guests are expected to arrive in the dining area at 7 pm. A large digital clock in the kitchen keeps the staff on its toes and each course arrives at a pre-determined time, helped along in part by a minimalist Jamtland folk music soundtrack – the same music is played every evening at the same time so servers know exactly which course accompanies each track. A chef appears at the start of every course, quick-claps his hands twice to get the diners’ attention, and explains what they’re about to eat.

“My only conscious decision is what kind of product I use and what equipment I have – I happen to live here and I cook my way,” says Jamtland native Nilsson, who turns 35 in November. “It’s very rare that when I go to a restaurant and see a dish, I don’t know how it was made. Even if I eat, say, Thai food, I can pretty much figure out how it’s done.”

The broad discussion between artist and craftsman takes place outdoors and covers everything from culinary theory and the value of cookbook recipes to fishing for brown trout across the border in Norway. It tapers off as the Nordic sun sinks slowly towards the horizon in a blaze of orange and gold. Nilsson has to head back to the kitchen in order to check on, as it happens, the first course in our menu for the evening -          Wild Duck Torte, a pie made with croissant pastry and a filling of avian insides, served with pickled pear. “This we don’t make very often – the last time was in 2007,” he says.

A procession of bird-related dishes follows and it is testament to the creativity of the chefs that no two dishes are the same: seven different birds (grilled or pan-fried and served with different condiments) are featured, reduced from nine because, deadpans Nilsson, “you took too long to eat some dishes.” Including snacks and add-ons, the final count is somewhere around 20 dishes.

After the torte there is Hazel Hen and Blue Jay with hearts on toast, Wood Pigeon, Thrush, Grouse, Capercaillie (with ‘Tasty Paste’) and Teal (a type of wild duck). Livers, berries (the type favoured by each bird breed) and yes, bird brains are in attendance. By the time the desserts – colostrum with blueberries, bone marrow pudding, mini reindeer and birch pie, plums baked in a sugar crust – come around, I’m ready for a change of pace, possibly involving aquavit.

 The next day, a spectacular breakfast (farm fresh eggs, warm sourdough bread and cloudberry jam, smoked ham, multi-grain porridge) makes for the perfect coda to the Faviken experience. About 6,000 people get to sample it annually and not surprisingly, reservations are extremely hard to come by. “Some people have been here 30-to-40 times but I don’t think you should come more than once or twice per year,” says Nilsson. The rest of us should be so lucky.

The details: With some exceptions (such as hunting season), Faviken is open year-round and booked out months in advance. There are 16 seats in the upstairs dining room and an 8-seat communal table downstairs. Dinner is priced at SEK 3000 (about S$455) per person. Wine pairings are available at SEK 1750 ($265) and accommodation (highly recommended) is SEK 2500 ($380) per double room, including breakfast. Transfers from the airport to the restaurant can be arranged for around SEK 1900 ($288) per vehicle, depending on size. www.favikenmagasinet.se