Chef Magnus Nilsson came very close to closing his remote two-Michelin-star restaurant Fäviken in Järpen, Sweden – not because of money worries, or staffing issues (there is an “endless stream” of people who want to work there, he says), or a calamity caused by the extreme weather in that part of the country, but because, he and his partners were, well, just a bit miserable.
“We couldn’t make our every day lives function,” says the chef of the tipping point three or so years ago when they decided things had to change or they would close-up. “You realize, if I’m not interested in working six double shifts a week, I can’t very well force anyone else to do that.”
The Welfare of the Staff
No one at Fäviken does double shifts anymore. Staff works eight-hour days across a 40 to 45 hour working week, with five weeks of holiday per year. This applies to Nilsson too, who now only works three evenings a week, instead of six. Not for him a reduction in opening hours, as has happened at other top restaurants in the Nordics like Noma and Maaemo – he feels staffs simply aren’t at their optimum if they’re working longer than eight hours.
They had to hire more personnel of course, and put their prices up by 50% to account for the changes, which was a gamble, but one that paid off, as they’re in a privileged position, he says – if you’re already flying in to eat at one of the world’s best restaurants (once you get to Stockholm, the restaurant is still an hour’s flight and a 75 minute drive away), the price hike is unlikely to bother you. Nilsson feels his restaurant is one of the few that is actually taking real concrete action when it comes to the welfare of its staff.
“[Restaurants] have not gotten very far in terms of staff sustainability, which is strange because people have been talking about it my whole career,” he says. “There are surprisingly few restaurants who address that issue, like seriously! We’ve tried for the last three years and we’ve succeeded really well, and we’re beginning to reap the benefits of that now in how long people stay and things like that.”
Why does he think so little progress has been made? “Because the current system works. As long as people keep putting up with working too long hours, not getting paid and all these things, then it will continue to function,” he says. “I know a handful of restaurants that have actually done something. The rest of them talk about it and then it’s business as usual – even very high profile restaurants. I think that’s systematic.”
Trial and Error
When Nilsson opened Fäviken in 2008 he was 24-years-old, and despite working in some of France’s best kitchens, had only ever been responsible for a section. He certainly hadn’t been a head chef. How to run a business, how to manage staff – there’s no roadmap, he says, but there should be.
“If you have a bit of talent and you’re prepared to work hard it’s not that difficult to become a pretty good craftsman, once you learn how to cook,” he says, “but then the next step, how to manage money, how to manage people and all these things, no one ever tells you that... So, for me personally, it was a process of trial and error, an unnecessarily long process I think now looking back. That sort of culminated in our decision as to whether we were going to continue and make all the changes or just stop. And it shouldn’t have taken seven years to come to that point you know? That knowledge, it’s available.”
How chefs gain access to that breadth of knowledge easily, Nilsson isn’t quite sure, yet, but presumably it’s going to take the best chefs coming to together to pool their experience and create some sort of resource.
“I’ve seen that a lot of people in my part of the restaurant world, the very ambitious part that perhaps has a bit more resources and time than other parts, are beginning to really discuss this and address it as an issue. So I think there is going to be some change coming. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be very much, you know...”
Fine Dining Is Not Sustainable
It’s worth mentioning at this point that my interview with Nilsson takes place in Bangkok where he is due to speak at the first ever Re Food Forum, a symposium focused on sustainability in the food system organised by the team behind Bangkok’s BoLan restaurant – it’s actually kind of strange to see Nilsson in shorts and t-shirt, so used are we to seeing him wrapped in furs, or at least a thick parka, in press shots.
When we meet he’s putting the finishing touches to his presentation, one in which he’ll be sharing some perhaps controversial views on the issue of ecological sustainability in fine dining restaurants, given the current climate (no pun intended). It’s worth pointing out that Fäviken has very little food waste.
“I think food waste in restaurants is a much smaller issue than people say. Food waste as a global problem is not really tied to restaurants, it’s tied to retail, where close to 40% of what’s sold between wholesale and retail never reaches the end customer or is never eaten,” he says. “Restaurants, for economic reasons, have always been pretty good at minimising food waste … it’s good that people do everything that they can and every little helps, but I think that’s one of the least important points in tackling sustainability actually.”
Restaurants like Fäviken and its ilk are, Nilsson concedes, unsustainable by their very nature, when you have the international gastronomic jet set flying in from all over the world to eat there. And that’s okay.
“It’s sort of beside the point,” he says. “I don’t think anyone wants to live their life in a way where it’s the same every day, where you have just your provision for the day that’s sustainable and that sustains you.
“Everyone needs to do what they can, especially when you’re in a position like mine when you have a lot of eyes on you and you inspire a lot of people. I think the most important thing in discussions around sustainability, when you talk about restaurants like Fäviken, is to admit to yourself that what you do is entirely unsustainable.”