Chef Niklas Ekstedt on cooking with fire
Long Reads 29.07.2018
Words Jessica Brinton
Photographs Sam Walton
Swedish chef Niklas Ekstedt is cooking up a storm – without ever using electricity…
Niklas Ekstedt, one of Sweden’s best-known chefs, was ‘doing a lot of research into old ways of cooking in Sweden, the way we cooked without electricity’ when he heard through friends about a guy called Simon Bolmgren. Both of their families had summered in the same small southern Sweden fishing village, and recently Bolmgren had taken over a 108-year-old cast-iron brand, Skeppshult, that ‘made beautiful products but had not been very well run’.‘It was an old company, from 1906, with a foundry,’ says Bolmgren. ‘It had been owned by a family for 60 years, then switching owners every five years, over 30 years, and now, us. The pans are made the same way as they were in 1906. Yes, with more machines, but the iron is still poured into the mould by hand.’ It so happened that Ekstedt was looking for some pans. He was not far from finishing his next restaurant.
And there was a story to this. Ekstedt, who has worked at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck as well as Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, wanted to cook with fire. Until recently, if you were a modern chef, the imperative to constantly ‘up-tech’, encouraged by the lucrative patronage of the big cookery brands, had made the cooking scene a sort of technocracy. ‘One machine mixes 3,000 spins per second to make a powder,’ says Ekstedt. ‘You have the convection oven; I mean, I don’t even know how to use one. They have computers, recipes. You have Roners, evaporators. It’s dangerous because then, in the end, you forget how to cook and only rely on the technique.’Cooking with fire was like taking a time-walk back to Swedish cooking before electricity arrived, in the 1930s – when grandparents would hand down their cast-iron cookware to their grandchildren when they left home. But Ekstedt says that after electricity, food ‘stopped.’ Stopped what? ‘Evolving. New ingredients, yes, but no new Swedish dishes have been invented since the 1950s.’ And so there was his dream: ‘I had this romantic idea of open fires, flavours and smoke,’ says Ekstedt. The challenge was to learn to control a simple fire to create the perfect dish’.
Sometimes the dream is easier as a dream than in practice. He had already spent months practising at the home of his head chef, Gustav, as well as his own. ‘Slowly it worked, but the difference between Nordic original cooking and grilling and barbecuing is that they used lower temperatures, while we needed flames and to put pots on the fire. We needed cast iron!’ When he and Bolmgren met, they spent an afternoon talking about the different aspects of cast iron, the alchemy of metal and food. ‘When I came out of the meeting, I was laughing, because I knew I had a success on my hands,’ says Ekstedt. ‘I couldn’t believe that no one had done it before, because it was so obvious. Why do we not use Nordic cooking techniques when we live in a Nordic country?’
This is a man who stands at the meeting point of dreaming and pragmatism, the place where you often find successful business people. ‘No one else was doing it. And yet it was so simple and so easy to replicate at home. You have some wood. You put a fire in your back garden, and you have a cast iron pan.’ Since then, what? The arrival of cooking and eating on a different timescale. Ekstedt calls his approach ‘the acoustic version’. Everything is paced: bread and home-churned butter arrives with the sweetmeats, but not before, and if you ask for some more, the waiter will ask, ‘are you sure? Your next course is on its way.’ It’ll be worth the wait: pizza with black truffles and duck liver. Sea cucumber, oysters, smoked avocado, almonds and parsley, sweetbread of lamb with pickled chanterelles, smoked lamb tallow and ramson, onion morels… and rib eye aged for 110 days: you won’t forget these in a hurry.
The winds of change are blowing in other quarters, too. ‘Everyone is looking to the ways in which their grandparents taught them. How did we do it, how can we grow what they grew?’ says Ekstedt. New relationships are being forged: the big chef becomes friends with the farmer to learn how to cook the vegetables. The sous chef goes into the forest with the forager. Ekstedt is getting to know the Sami people and their reindeer, and the people who pick mushrooms, and a lady who grows the original Scandinavian wheat and mills the fl our. Not forgetting the suppliers of the organic wines or the people who’ve taught them how to put acid into sour cream to make their own butter. ‘These agricultural people who are growing stuff, awkward people who refused to modernise; now the chefs are integrating with them in a beautiful way,’ Ekstedt says. Even the cooking itself demands a new quality of presence: you have to be cooking constantly. Can people taste the difference? ‘No. But it’s not always about flavour, it’s about keeping people focused and interested.’ There’s a lesson in this about modernity offering false economies but Ekstedt has no time for nostalgia. Yes, perhaps there is a longing there for something lost. Or yet to be found? ‘I never want to use that word because I want to strike forward and do something that feels new,’ he says. Technology hasn’t stopped; it’s shifted gear.
Ekstedt and his friends have invented a ‘Stone Age microwave,’ a glass box with a pipe feeding into it from the smoker, that allows them to cook food at a lower temperature than when it’s placed directly on the fire or in the wood oven. Bolmgren taught Ekstedt about the chemical reaction produced by acid on cast iron. Received wisdom advises not to cook tomatoes or lemon, but iron is good for us, and Ekstedt is so convinced that it produces a very specific taste in food, he is working with the Nordic Food Lab to try to look more closely at the chemistry. ‘Now when we need new stuff, we go to the hardware store. How can we drill this? How can we put a fire in this?’He says that his relationship with his equipment is totally different from other chefs; like ‘leather shoes you wear every day for years, it’s the same’. It would be hard to over-emphasise Ekstedt’s enthusiasm for this way of cooking, living, looking at the world. ‘It’s become the heart of who I am and what I do every day.’ When he opened the restaurant, the critics got it instantly. AA Gill visited with his family and wrote a rave review in a Swedish newspaper, and he has lectured to architecture students at Harvard. Perhaps the clients took longer: ‘They were like, “on an open fire? Birchwood and you don’t grill?”’ But the restaurant is always full. ‘If you can’t fill the restaurant, then you fail.’
Maybe he’ll start something in London soon: a pop-up for the summer months. He finds it exciting here. He admires the Young Turks, and the Dairy. ‘For so long, it was all about the influence of the Roux brothers and Gordon Ramsay, that French-British style of super-fine dining. And then, the explosion. Boom! So many chefs and places.’ It’s all happened so fast. ‘But a frying pan lasts for centuries because you can’t destroy it,’ says Bolmgren, trying not to say anything too libellous about how not-good-for-you plastic-coated modern pans are. Meanwhile, down at the Skeppshult foundry, the 30-strong workforce, some of whom have worked for the company for 40 or 50 years, is busier than ever, running from seven in the morning until 10 at night to keep up with orders, making cast-iron pans to pass down to future grandchildren. Just as it should be.