Fire, fika and fish aprons: Meeting Sweden’s most-celebrated chefs

Sweden top image

Douglas Blyde travels to Sweden to meet two of the country’s best-known gastronomic personalities: lauded home cook and cook shop owner Leila Lindholm, and fire-cooked food fanatic Niklas Eksdedt.

Niklas Eksdedt’s fire-led restaurant feels an odd choice on Sweden’s hottest day of the year so far. However, the hushed extraction system proves mighty effective at draining surplus heat from his four furnaces. ‘It sucks six hundred of litres of smoke litres per second up fourteen floors, then ejects it a further ten metres into the air,’ Eksdedt proudly tells me. ‘It cost half the price of the restaurant.’ But isn’t the landlord terrified of brazen naked flames? ‘He’s not worried! Ninety five percent of kitchen fires start from the deep- fat fryer, which we don’t have here.’

I sit at table 101, close to the coalface, as chef calls out, in English, ‘Service!’ for my langoustine. Its flesh, steamed in its own now peeled-away charred exoskeleton, pops like a burst balloon on my palate, and is served with micro-planed asparagus and hard-dried scallop roethat’s shaved like bottarga. The latter, I remark, is the colour of Swedish chef Leila Lindholm’s bathroom wallpaper, which features exotic animals from Bengal tigers to a diplodocus. ‘It’s very different to my house,’ offers Eksdedt. He sits down and tells me that he was first a customer at one of Lindholm’s shops, before becoming her friend; now, they jointly present popular food-related podcasts, and have a mutual television project forthcoming. .

Although a reservation at his restaurant is coveted, Eksdedt has a determinedly-casual vibe, its decor stripped to the bones. Squares seem to inform it all, from the caged letters of the sign outside, to the steel lattice ceiling.

Explaining the colour scheme, as well as dining utensils themselves, Eksdedt tells me that his native northern Sweden, a seven-hour drive, is famous for copper. ‘Can you believe people are skiing there now?’ he says. Tableware is hand-crafted, tactile and precise, including a miniature font-like bowl. Eksdedt reads my mind. ‘You could baptise a hamster in it, perhaps?’ he muses.

Eksdedt describes himself as an accidental restaurateur. ‘My mum was a terrible cook; Dad did it all. When he travelled, my brothers and I took over. The nearest McDonald’s was three hours away! There was a lot of picking, pickling and hunting.’

Before opening the restaurant, Eksdedt says he found himself ‘really stressed’ in southern Sweden’s fine dining world. ‘So I took a break in 2007, having the idea only to hike mountains.’ However, he soon returned to operating someone else’s restaurant. A more productive interval occurred. ‘I bought a house in the archipelago with no electricity and took my wife and our just- born son. There, I experimented with different techniques of cooking with fire, learning to maintain temperature.’ That led to the realisation that, birch is preferable fuel, being, he says, ‘the cheapest to buy, with an even burn point.’

When I ask Eksdedt about why orders are called out in English, he looks a little sad. ‘We have a Jamie’s Italian here in Stockholm. I’m worried we could become entirely English like Copenhagen already has.’ He does however admire the UK, praising its ‘willingness’ towards ‘beautiful food in all its forms, compared to conservative Sweden’.

Finally I ask Eksdedt, who has known environmental extremes from birth, and who clearly values the elements, how he would define luxury. ‘Time and details,’ he says. Which is why Japanese and Swedes have a lot in common.’

Eksdedt |

‘You too will be hooked,’ repeats Leila Lindholm, approving of my suggested slogan for her new fish-based apron design.

I meet Lindholm outside one of her five kitchen cabinet stores, where it transpires her baby blue bike is not a prop within the carefully-considered mise-en-scène, but a useful form of transport. We stroll the boardwalk to her nineteen twenties clapboard home.

With sun swallowed hungrily by its large, original, curtain-free rippled glass windows, Lindholm’s white but warm kitchen feels like a set from one of her many books covering food and design. ‘Celebrity is not the same as in the UK,’ she says of the undressed windows. Through the open door, the mostly-edible garden nods to the organic farm which her mother now tends.

Her kitchen is an homage to London. ‘I collect beautiful things,’ she says, leaning against the shiny SMEG fridge. ‘It means I’m completely hopeless to travel with, dragging home everything,’

After coffee, Lindholm prepares lunch, I ask from where her impetus to cook arose. ‘Most of my childhood memories focused on the kitchen,’ she says. ‘Then, as a teenager, I realised I could go to restaurant school.’ After three years of practical study, Lindholm swapped the Swedish archipelago for another island: Manhattan, where she worked in leading Nordic restaurant, Aquavit. ‘It was more common to see women in top US kitchens than Swedish ones,’ she recalls. After two years, she returned to Stockholm, embarking on, tangentially, food styling.

However, most likely inspired by the profession of her journalist stepfather, it would be communication that would propel her to fame. ‘I remember seeing chefs on television who simply wanted to prove themselves, concocting recipes to watch rather than do yourself, using hard-to-find ingredients. I decided to change that; to make food accessible.’

Lindholm’s resulting morning television cookery show soon migrated to primetime. Then came the baking show. ‘It was a big breakthrough; there hadn’t been a bakery show before on Swedish television.’ Lindholm was voted television chef of the year, and her book on baking became a best-seller.

Lindholm also makes travel programmes. I ask which country particularly enveloped her. ‘Namibia,’ she says, instantly. ‘Extremely, powerfully beautiful, and not at all what I assumed. Very structured, with signs of German architecture; the Germans had organised it!’ Lindholm also developed an affinity with Morocco, and that country infuses her home, from the lantern in a guest room to motifs on crockery.

What could Sweden teach the UK, I ask? ‘Enjoy a fika!’ she says, referencing the national need for repeated coffee and snack breaks. ‘It’s so important to Swedes that it is built into the working day; a way to socialise.’

Leila Lindholm |

With comparable beauty to Richmond’s Petersham Nurseries, Rosendals Trädgård is just moments from Stockholm’s centre. The biodynamically-farmed edible garden oasis includes a small vineyard, an orchard dating to eighteen sixties, and a large café.  In 1983, three gardeners began to resuscitate it with the equivalent of 100€. Today, Victoria Lagne and her team aim to inspire city-dwellers to take interest in nature’s workings. ‘Last year, we built six inspirational balconies. We also run fikas with the head gardener.’ The restaurant takes a ‘farm-to-fork-to-farm’ approach (the latter representing compost). ‘You grow soil here as equally as plants.’

Rosendals Trädgård |

The tour of Stockholm’s Spiritmuseum begins in a copper-clad foyer, representing distilling apparatus. Highlights include the Absolut vodka art collection begun by Andy Warhol, and a focus on the country’s one hundred and fifty breweries (there were just nine in 1988). Also interesting is the examination of Sweden’s whisky scene, developed in 1961 through the Skeppets brand. Although criticised for its overwhelming ‘smokiness’, rare examples today change hands for 30,000 Kroner (£2,300). ‘If there was an earthquake, I’m going to drink it,’ confides tasting room manager Nadja Karlsson of the museum’s only bottle.  The restaurant, guided by avant-garde Petter Nilsson, is arguably Stockholm’s most desirable lunch spot.

Spiritmuseum |

Reached by a narrow-gauge steam railway, or less romantically, road or rail, Gripsholm Vardshus is Sweden’s oldest hostelry. It overlooks fourteenth-century Gripsholm Castle, home to the National Portrait Gallery. Charming idiosyncracies at the hotel include two cabinets brimful of the owner’s antique corkscrew collection, and the wine cellar, with reasonable-value older bottles. Savour a platter of langoustines and oysters on the heated terrace, where staff lower the national flag at 9pm prompt.

Gripsholm Vardshus |

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