Gustav Knutsson

19th May 2016

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

19th May 2016

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

We are 10 minutes late for our meeting with Gustav Knutsson at the Stora Saluhall market in the centre of Gothenburg and we’re slightly flustered about it. Gustav runs the kitchen at Bhoga, one of the best restaurants in the city – it won a Michelin star in 2014 – and chefs of his stature generally don’t like to be kept waiting. We find Gustav idling outside in the square, taking in the morning sunshine. Rather than chide us for bad timekeeping, he dismisses our apologies with an easy grin and asks how we’re enjoying the city. Later in the day we mention our morning with Gustav to another local chef and his face lights up. “Such a nice guy,” he enthuses. “And so calm!”

This is very obviously true. First Gustav takes us around the market, pointing out some of his favourite suppliers and picking up some vegetables for lunch. Then we wander along the canals to his apartment in Stampen, just east of the city centre, and in a very laid-back fashion he begins to cook. Sunlight filters through the window into an orderly white-surfaced kitchen. Chart music burbles away in the background. Gustav’s wife Iza, a restaurant manager, drifts in and out but generally leaves him to it – he does all the cooking in this household.

Gustav usually makes Asian food at home – he spent a formative year and a half working in China – but today he’s preparing a dish that’s more in line with his approach at the restaurant: pan-fried cabbage topped with fried egg, yellow beans, fresh peas and grated cheese. (The emphasis at Bhoga is on clean, crisp Swedish flavours; vegetables are the star of the show.) While we wait, Gustav fries up some bread and serves it with anchovies – he brought back a stack of tins from Barcelona – and chunks of lemon.

Eventually we sit down to eat in the dining room next door. If I’m being honest, the prospect of eating cabbage and eggs didn’t hugely grab me when he first mentioned it, but this dish knits together beautifully, managing to be both fresh and comforting at the same time. A perfect meal for an easy-going summer’s day in Gothenburg.

Continued below...

Are you from Gothenburg?

No, I’m from a small town about 30 miles north of here, in the middle of nowhere, but I’ve been in Gothenburg for 12 or 13 years. It’s a good city, even if rains a little too much. The restaurant scene has grown a lot in the last five or six years: the prices have gone down a little bit, the quality is improving a lot and people are going out more.

Have you always worked in restaurants?

Yeah. It’s the only job I’ve ever had. I went to catering school outside Gothenburg, in a small city called Uddevalla, but I did all my apprenticeships here. Then in 2009 I went to China and Hong Kong for a year and a half.

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What prompted that?

One of the owners of the restaurant I was working at was Chinese and he wanted to open a place in Guangzhou, the third biggest city in China. We went over and tried to do the same thing there.

How did it go?

Not very well. The plan at the beginning was that me and the restaurant manager would stay just for a few months to get it started, then come back. It took us quite some time to realise that we were in the wrong place – it was a Muslim area and we were a wine bar. But they’ve changed location now and it’s going pretty well.

It took us quite some time to realise that we were in the wrong place – it was a Muslim area and we were a wine bar

Did you find China interesting?

Yeah I loved it. The people were really nice and Cantonese food was really good. I was quite young, 23 or 24, so it was actually a big thing for me. When I came home, I realised how much I’d changed in terms of how I worked – with other people, with produce. We didn’t have any suppliers in China, just one guy going out every morning and buying all the stuff for us. There would be communication problems, we’d get the wrong things quite often, so me and my sous chef would go with him twice a week. It was really nice going to the fish market, to the really big vegetable markets. Where I’d worked before, we usually just bought from one supplier.

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Were you cooking European food?

Yes.

But did you absorb any influences from Chinese cooking?

Yeah, some. At Bhoga we’re really focused on Scandinavian food, but at home I cook Asian food all the time – particularly Chinese. I love the flavours: ginger, coriander, stuff like that.

What kind of things do you cook?

Lots of noodle soups and salads. Or pork, coriander and ginger dumplings. After a long day, I’ll probably make a Chinese noodle soup with fermented beans.

“It really takes you through the whole background of the menu, which is almost more interesting than the recipes themselves.”
Gustav on his favourite cookbooks – see Pantry

Did you grow up in a family that was interested in food?

I don’t think my parents were that interested when we were small, but it’s grown on them a lot in the years. They really love food and wine.

Have you influenced them?

I think so. They’re often at the restaurant.

When you’re not working, does food play a part in how you plan your day?

Yeah definitely. We spend most of our time talking about what we’re going to eat and where. We’ll often start with pancakes.

Savoury?

With vanilla ice cream and fresh berries, and a little salt because pancakes should be a little bit salty. We had that yesterday.

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That’s a good way to start the day.

Yeah. We’re usually off on Sundays and Mondays and they’re not really good restaurant days here in Gothenburg. That’s quite sad actually. We should have more restaurants open so the chefs can eat.
Iza: But sometimes it’s better to eat at home – you get better food at home.

Who’s doing most of the cooking?

Iza: Not me, I’m not allowed to cook [laughs]. Gustav thinks it goes faster if he does it. Sometimes I help. I set the tables. That’s my thing.
Gustav: It’s also relaxing to cook at home.

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You enjoy it, even though you’re in a kitchen most of the week?

Yeah, it’s a whole different thing. There’s no pressure, no one’s saying quick quick quick.

Unless Iza’s hungry.

That happens [laughs]. At the restaurant, even though I’m one of the owners and the head chef, we still have a concept – organic Scandinavian food – and the guests expect a particular thing from us. You can’t use ginger, because ginger doesn’t grow in Sweden. But at home you can do whatever you want.

I took a picture of the big sign over the restaurant and sent it to my sous chef asking what it said. He replied afterwards saying it was cat, rat, dog – their specialities. It was all they served

On a day off, do you have breakfast, lunch and dinner at regular hours?

No! Regular hours are not our strong point. I start every morning with tea – always green tea. I used to have snus, the Swedish tobacco you put under your upper lip, but I’ve cut it out.

What have you replaced it with?

Sometimes paper, to get the same feel [laughs]. No, I haven’t replaced it with anything. But tea is important. I don’t drink coffee because I drank too much before and it upsets my stomach. Iza’s mother is from Iran and she loves to eat yoghurt mixed with cucumber and a lot of salt, so that’s something we eat in the morning. It’s refreshing.

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Is there any food you don’t eat?

No. I eat everything I think.

Even in China?

Yeah. I had dog once.

Would you have it again?

No. Not because of the taste, but because I don’t think we should eat dog. I didn’t know it was dog at the time. I was with the driver who was buying all the supplies for the restaurant. We were outside the city, just me and him, and we didn’t understand each other: he only spoke Cantonese, I only spoke Mandarin. I understood that he wanted to go somewhere. He called my sous chef and explained that he wanted to visit his family and have lunch with them, because he hadn’t seen them in a while. I said of course. This whole lunch was set up for us. I took a picture of the big sign over the restaurant and sent it to my sous chef asking what it said. He replied afterwards saying it was cat, rat, dog – their specialities. It was all they served. The cat was horrible. The other things were pretty good.

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Even the rat?

The rat was pretty good – it tasted like chicken [laughs]. Dog was quite good too – it was a stew, almost like boeuf bourgignon.

On The Menu

Lunch with Gustav Knutsson
Gothenburg, July 2015

To eat:

Anchovies on toast with lemon
Cabbage, eggs, peas and gruyère »

To drink:

Water

Tell me about a meal that’s changed your approach to cooking.

I think you change every time, if it’s a really good restaurant. The last good meal we had was last Sunday in Copenhagen at a restaurant called Geist. I love that place. The tempo’s really fast and everything’s really loud and the interior’s really black. I’ve been there eight or nine times. The food is really good. Usually it’s just three or four things on a plate and loads of it. I had one dish that was just peas, scallops and horseradish, but it was a lot of horseradish, a lot of scallops and a lot of peas. Really intense flavours. You don’t need anything else.

Do you two agree on food?

Iza: Yeah most of the time. Sometimes I’ll think something is horrible but Gustav likes it. At Geist, there were things that I didn’t like at all. The dessert we had with old milk, old bread and chocolate or something – really odd, not good.

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But Gustav liked it?

Gustav: Yeah. The combination was good.
Iza: It was really odd. With the chocolate powder all dry and old and funky? I didn’t understand that dish. But we do agree most of the time.

Any good cooking tips you can share with us?

Gustav: Keep it simple. Buy really good produce – vegetables. Half of the work is done if you buy really good stuff.

Then it’s just a matter of not messing it up.

Yes exactly. Don’t overcook anything. If you have a cabbage, don’t cook it for five hours, cook it for five minutes instead. Of course it depends: some things are better if you cook for a long time. But in general, if the vegetable is fresh, the flavour is going to be much better if you cook it really quick.

Bhoga is at Norra Hamngatan 10, 411 14 Göteborg, Sweden; www.bhoga.se/en

Follow Gustav: Instagram | Twitter

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Posted 19th May 2016

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

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