Niklas Ekstedt

17th September 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

17th September 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

Arriving in Sweden, we tell the man at the car-hire office in the airport that we’re here to interview some people about food. “What kind of people?” he asks. Oh, we say, an architect, some coffee expertsa sommelier, a farmer and a couple of chefs like, for example, Niklas Ekstedt. He looks impressed. “Ekstedt? You know he’s a celebrity over here?” We had a vague idea but didn’t realise he was quite so well-known. “Yeah he’s on TV a lot, he has a famous restaurant in Stockholm… Apparently he’s a really nice guy too.” The man gives us a discount on our car-hire package. “That’s because you’re meeting Ekstedt,” he explains.

Two days later, we turn up at Ekstedt’s house in Djursholm, on the northern outskirts of Stockholm. It’s virtually countryside out here and all the houses on the lane are separated by big leafy gardens. Ekstedt’s place has a summer-house feel: white wooden walls, verandas on either side, boat trailer at the back. Nobody answers the bell but the front door is wide open so we venture in. Ekstedt – barefoot, wearing a white t-shirt and brown skate pants – strolls out of the kitchen to welcome us.

What follows is one of the most laid-back interviews we’ve ever done. Ekstedt puts on some coffee and checks on the barbeque out front (the 37-year-old is famous for cooking with wood-fire only at his eponymous Stockholm restaurant: no gas, no electricity1). Then we retreat to the other veranda to chat about his career, which is intricately bound up with his love of board-based activities (snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing have all played a part in his development as a chef).

His wife Katarina, a former pro snowboarder, and their two young boys (Vinston and John) return from town and we gather at the kitchen table for lunch: a magnificent whole turbot, grilled and finished in the oven. He serves it with a simple potato salad spiked with tiny pickled wild onions, gathered from a local forest in early spring. Afterwards we take turns trampolining in the back garden with a snowboard strapped to our feet (a favourite family pastime). Then Ekstedt takes us for an easy-going drive around the neighbourhood, dropping by the allotment garden where he spends much of his free time – we feast on sweet little strawberries growing wild on the margins of his plot. There are worse ways to spend an overcast Monday afternoon in Stockholm.

Continued below...

Where did you grow up?

I’m from from a town in the north of Sweden called Åre, which is Scandinavia’s largest ski resort – the Chamonix of the north.

Are you a good skier?

I’m a snowboarder, both me and my wife used to compete. I wanted to be a professional snowboarder. But the ski academy I went to in Åre also happens to be a very prestigious culinary school – Magnus Nilsson went there2. It’s kind of ironic because the ski academy is supposed to be the best in the country but they never deliver any talent, whereas the cooking school produce all the best chefs in the country. I ended up at the school without any skills or any grades, because I was a snowboarder, but I was a local so they had to take me. So it was just a coincidence that I started cooking.

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Did the school spark your interest in cooking?

It did eventually. I went for three years and the final year was exciting. I injured myself snowboarding – I had a quite severe spine injury – and couldn’t snowboard for that whole year, so I had to go to school. There was no excuse. That year we had a new teacher in culinary arts who had a great way of inspiring the students: he taught us a lot of things, showed us cool cookbooks, he was pretty nice guy. He sparked my interest in cooking. Also he encouraged my parents that I had a talent and I should choose the profession.

Did you go straight into a kitchen after graduating?

Yeah, I finished school on Friday and on Sunday I left for the US. My first job was at Charlie Trotter’s3 in Chicago. That was great. I was only 18 years old so I couldn’t go out drinking or anything, so I thought I might as well just work. I skated quite a bit too. I was hanging out with the ghetto kids who were all smoking crack on the weekends, then in with the chefs getting high on fine dining.

I was hanging out with the ghetto kids who were all smoking crack on the weekends, then in with the chefs getting high on fine dining

Sounds pretty intense.

It was great fun. But then I moved to LA and that kind of sucked. LA was horrible. In Chicago all the chefs wanted to be chefs, whereas in LA everyone wanted to become an actor. It sounds clichéd but it was true. So the restaurant business there was weird. But I wanted to move there because the weather looked nice and there was big skate scene and I wanted to start surfing. But I just ended up working and working. Then my visa expired and I couldn’t apply for a new one, so I went to France.

Paris?

No I went to Grenoble in the Alps because my back was better and I wanted to snowboard a little bit.

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It seems like your career decisions were all related to standing on a board.

Yeah [laughs]. In Grenoble I worked at a boulangerie, did a little bit of snowboarding, learned a little French. I met a Danish girl there and that summer I moved to Copenhagen. That was pretty much the luckiest move I’ve ever made. I applied for a job at the best restaurant in Copenhagen at that time, Pierre André, which had two Michelin stars. The chef’s daughter was ill at that time so he wasn’t around very much, and the guy who locked up the door was René Redzepi [now head chef at Noma].
He was the first guy I met in Copenhagen and we instantly became friends. He helped me out with everything. He was talking about this restaurant in Spain I’d never heard of called elBulli. He was like, I really want to go and work there, but then he applied for the French Laundry4 and we ended up swapping: he went to the French Laundry and I went to elBulli for a season.

In elBulli you didn’t learn much because you weren’t really cooking… You might as well have been working on the Findus line peeling potatoes

Did elBulli have a big effect on you?

Not really. I think of it as the restaurant that least affected me – cooking-wise at least. In fact it slowed me down a little bit. There were 60 of us for the first three weeks, then they cut out 30 and kept 30, including me, and we worked for free the whole season. It was almost close to slavery. You even had to pay for the staff party, it was horrendous.
The system there was very strange. He [Ferran Adria] is the one who turned apprentices into the machine of the restaurant. Before that the apprentice was the one who stood next to the cook and learned things, but in elBulli you didn’t learn much because you weren’t really cooking. We were in the production kitchen doing the really basic elements, which would then go to the real kitchen to become a dish. You might as well have been picking strawberries or working on the Findus line peeling potatoes. But of course I got to know a lot of people so it was fun.
Then I came back to Sweden and René helped me set up my own restaurant in Helsingborg.

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That’s down in the south of Sweden near Malmo, right?

Yes. It’s where my mum is from. That restaurant5 was a pretty instant success. I had it for seven years, then I decided to move up here.

Have you been in Stockholm ever since?

Yeah, since 2007. It’s kind of hard not to be in Stockholm – it’s where everything happens in Sweden.

When did you become interested in cooking with fire?

When I moved to Stockholm I bought this house out in the archipelago. I always had this romantic dream that I was going to live out on the islands in a house without electricity, but it was a dumb idea. It’s just very harsh, it’s cold and windy and in the winter it gets a lot of snow. Since the house didn’t have electricity, I started reading about old Nordic ways of cooking with fire.

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Were you thinking about your Stockholm restaurant at this stage?

No. I had closed the restaurant in Helsingborg because I was kind of tired of cooking. I wasn’t going to retire, but I felt like I hadn’t controlled my own brand. I did TV and I became like a celebrity – ridiculous word – but I became like a celebrity in Sweden. It terrified me, the whole thing. I wanted to do something else. I thought maybe I’d write a couple of books. I started snowboarding again. I thought that living on the island would be amazing… It took me three months before I was looking for a restaurant again.

So the restaurant business is something you can’t escape from.

No. It’s a drug.

Has the Stockholm restaurant always been wood-fire only?

Yes. I specifically looked for a location where I could use fire.

And the idea came from being on the archipelago.

Yeah, from cooking for myself. At the same time I felt I needed a concept for a new restaurant. At the time, a lot of my friends were starting to peak with their new Nordic cooking. And I couldn’t do another Fäviken or a Noma number 3, I had to do it differently.

You certainly didn’t make things easy for yourself. Was it a challenge?

Yeah it was. You could compare my cooking to a sailing yacht competing with motor boats: almost impossible. Yeah it was really difficult.

Have you managed to get this far without any major accidents?

Oh we’ve had so many. Breakdowns, sprinklers going off, ovens falling apart, it’s just endless, a whole book of mistakes. But now it works well.

Did you ever come close to burning the whole place down?

No, thankfully not. But I’ve come close to me burning up inside. And economically it’s really a nightmare, because it takes so much more effort to cook with wood.

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Where’s the wood coming from?

It’s from pretty close by. It’s dried, two-year-old birch wood. We use a cubic meter a day. Birch might not be the best wood but it’s the cheapest and easiest; it burns at an even temperature so it’s easy for me to write recipes for it. Some of the wood we buy from old houses – we buy Nordic pine and shave it down, and use the dust on top of the birch to get extra flavour if we’re smoking something. We use juniper too.

It must make barbequing seem like the easiest thing in the world.

Yeah [laughs]. Charcoal is so much easier. It’s engineered to work on a grill. Whereas every tree has its own history and life. Cooking meat and fish is actually quite simple, it’s things like bread that are really complicated.

La Gazelle is a very simple place in Hötorgshallen market run by two Turkish guys who make 2000 kebabs a day. So they know what they’re doing.
Niklas on his favourite Stockholm restaurants – see Address Book

I enjoyed seeing your appearance on MasterChef.

Oh you saw that6. Good. I had a lot of Brits in the restaurant after that. It had a much bigger effect than I thought it would. I’d never seen MasterChef before, not even the Swedish one. It’s not that big over here.

Are you working as hard as you were at the start?

I think right now I’m more in the kitchen than I’ve ever been: I’m super-hands on, cooking every day. I think that was what freaked me out: it’s the only thing I know [laughs]. If I stop cooking, what else would I do?

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You’ve written cookbooks.

Yeah a few. Right now I’m working on my first cookbook in English. It’s still a work-in-progress but I’m trying to write a modern take on the smorgasbord.

Do you still snowboard?

Yeah, everything: snowboarding, skating, surfing.

What’s an average day for you in terms of eating and cooking?

At home? When the kids are not in school, breakfast is chaotic. It’s not like a meal, it’s more like: whoever survives [laughs]. Whoever is able to walk down the stairs from the bedroom to the kitchen is the one who makes breakfast. It’s usually not me.
Katarina: It’s never you.

What do you have for breakfast?

Knackebrod, Swedish hard bread and yoghurt and stuff like that.

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Keep it simple.

Yeah, but then we eat a proper lunch. When the kids are at school, they have lunch there: the food in schools here is really good. At all the schools, they brag about who has the best chef.

Where we come from, schools brag about who has the worst chef.

It’s really good here. Lucky kids.

Does your wife cook?

No she doesn’t. Well, she makes breakfast. But I’m the chef, at home as well as at work.

On The Menu

Lunch with Niklas Ekstedt
Stockholm, June 2015

To eat:

Wood-grilled turbot and potato salad »

To drink:

Coffee
Water

Do you enjoy cooking at home, even when you’re working a lot?

Yeah, almost always. It’s just so different. There is almost no similarity between cooking in the restaurant and cooking at home, so it’s kind of nice.

Do you have a fallback dish in this family?

Katarina: Tacos.
Niklas: We make lamb tacos for the kids. There’s this Mexican bakery in the city that makes tortillas. It’s called La Neta. It’s really nice. Usually I buy those on the way home and then I take some lamb from work.
Katarina: Everyone loves them.

Are the kids interested in food?

Niklas: Yeah, a little bit. But it must be strange for them. Sometimes they must think that everyone snowboards and cooks all the time.

You can follow Niklas on Instagram and Twitter

His restaurant, Ekstedt, is at Humlegårdsgatan 17, 114 46 Stockholm. Find more details on their website

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  1. If you watched the episode of BBC’s MasterChef 2015 when they visited Stockholm, you would have witnessed the three finalists frantically trying not to burn themselves in the Ekstedt kitchen
  2. The school is called Racklöfska. Magnus Nilsson, who runs Fäviken, is one of the most highly-regarded chefs in Sweden
  3. Legendary Chicago restaurant in business between 1987 and 2012, a year before its chef-owner died of a stroke
  4. The French Laundry is chef Thomas Keller’s restaurant in Yountville, California. (Keller later opened Per Se in New York.) ElBulli was Ferran Adria’s groundbreaking restaurant in Roses, north of Barcelona. It closed in 2011.
  5. Niklas was the name of his first restaurant – he opened it when he was 21. The premises now houses the Koppi roastery and coffee shop, which we visited later in our Sweden trip
  6. The episode went out on BBC One on 22 April 2015

Posted 17th September 2015

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

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