Swedish chef Magnus Ek is a pioneer in many ways. He started using edible plants and foraging for food more than 20 years ago when it was still unheard of at the time. He did it without much fanfare and you could say that he is one of the early pioneers of the new Nordic cuisine.
He is conscious of the fact that the ecosystem surrounding food is set to change but he cannot tell the direction it will go. “If I look at the kitchen of 20 years ago to how it looks now, it is completely different. The pace of invention and innovation has been incredible. And the curve is building really fast,” he says.
Magnus Ek opened his restaurant Oaxen Krog in Sweden more than 20 years ago at a time when foraging what not what restaurants did.
Today, he still forages almost every day. He actually says he has more time for it now than in the past because things have become easier. “It used to be very difficult to find the vegetables I needed in summer. I used to have to go to different farms and it would take half the morning to find what I needed. Today, the vegetables that I don’t grow are delivered to my restaurant which makes it a lot easier,” he says.
“When I opened the restaurant 20 years ago, to have a fine dining you needed to serve fois gras and Russian caviar. If you did not have these on the menu, then it was not considered to be a fine dining restaurant. Even our staff needed to be foreign otherwise they would not be considered good,” he told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview.
“I thought it was so wrong. For a few months in Sweden we produce the best vegetables in the world because we have great soil and the sun is almost shining 24 hours a day. The nights are colder and more moist so it is a superb climate for growing vegetables for a few months of the year. I thought it was rubbish not to use the produce that we produced. I started to make things using local produce like they used to do 50 to 100 years ago. Back then, importing food was not possible because it would be ruined. You could not transport fresh food from a distance like you can today.”
He knew that just because you could get vegetables from anywhere in the world did not make it right particularly if it could be grown close to you.
The chef runs his restaurant, the Oaxen Krog and Slip at Djurgården with his wife Agneta Green. The couple had started their restaurant on the remote island of Oaxen in 1994 and kept it open till 2011 but had to move closer to Stockholm because it was not profitable. It was here that Magnus developed his cooking philosophy of using wild ingredients and local produce before this came into vogue.
The new restaurant is in a former shipyard on the island of Djurgården. It is still close to nature but also in the centre of town.
Magnus tells me the garden is very much an integral part of his cuisine. “It is extremely important to get your hands dirty. It is this way that you learn new things. If you farm your own vegetables you see things that you would not normally see. When you grow a carrot, 30 per cent of the carrot is the green stuff that you will otherwise not see.”
A pioneer in many ways, he tells me that aqua agriculture will be the future. “I believe that it is feasible and ask why shouldn’t restaurants grow their own fish. You can have nutrients for fish from the vegetables. I think that we will see more of this in future.”
He tells me that for long chefs have been too concerned with what Michelin thinks. “Michelin has done great things for gastronomy but they have also done bad things. If you look at Paris 10 years ago but even five, six, seven years ago, it was no longer interesting to eat there. Today, there are many restaurants that do not necessarily care about what Michelin things about them and they cook some amazing food. The same is happening in France. At one time they had to much say on food,” he said. He added however that the guide has been important for Nordic cuisine because it has given it credibility. “I am of course very happy for my two stars but it is not what makes me go to work each morning,” he says.
Magnus does not think that food or cuisine is becoming internationalised because of chefs travelling around the world and participating in too many events. “When people go to eat, they want to eat in a variety of restaurants. They do not want to eat nordic food or sushi each time. They want to have different food from different locations,” he says,
For the past few years there has been a lot of focus on Nordic cuisine. Denmark may have got the most attention but Nordic cuisine also includes Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland and there are chefs who have been studying its past. “If you take French and Italian cuisine you have had famous chefs that have been writing cookbooks since the 1700s. We did not have that. Instead we have had a lot of cookbooks on home cooking for poor people. What chefs in the region have been doing is taking these old recipes and reinterpreting them.”
He tells me that for example when it comes to preservation, what is being done is to take something and change it to something that is different. “When you consume something straight away it is different to when it has been preserved. Preservation changes the product to something that we like. But everyone is interpreting techniques and composing recipes in a different way. You can say that we share the same philosophy and thinking but the results are different.”
Living on an island has meant that he finds most of his inspiration from nature. That also happened when he changed island to the restaurant’s new location. Coming up with new ideas is different. “Sometimes you get an idea very suddenly and you cook it and it works. Other times it takes much longer,” he says.
We speak about food allergies and I ask him whether it is something he sees more and more in the restaurant. “You have to deal with it as best you can. People do not really understand what goes into preparing something. If you order a car and ask not to have a CD player you understand why it costs more. But people do not understand that it costs more to make a dish without onion because you need to start from scratch and create something specific for a person.” He tells me this is not a problem because they are there to serve clients but adds that sometimes they email people to ask if they have specific dietary requirements, they even phone them and then when customers show up they say that they cannot eat particular things. They do not understand how much time and work it takes to prepare a dish,” he says.