Swedish chef Paul Svensson is known for being a hardcore vegetable aficionado and a cook of the highest calibre. His frequent TV appearances, including a judge gig at Top Chef Sweden, has made him a household name in Sweden. Svensson has also written several cookbooks and is currently at the helm of the restaurant at Fotografiska, a photography museum in Stockholm, and most recently ReTaste, a pop-up restaurant with focus on sustainability.
“I have a huge love for vegetables. I want to change people’s perspective on how we look at what is exclusive and what is not,” says Svensson. “People need to understand that if you work with nature, the most reasonable thing would be to start creating dishes out of vegetables, versus parts of the animal kingdom. Also, we should get a better point of view of what an ecosystem really looks like. If we want to keep it like this, we should enjoy it in a right way with the right sort of proportions on the plate. It’s all about cherishing and showing that vegetables have the same pleasure perspective as shellfish, meat or anything else.”
Although we are seeing more and more plant-forward restaurants popping up, it’s important to understand that it wasn’t always like this.
“When we started out, approximately 14 years ago, we went the opposite way. We started creating the dish with the vegetable, and then we added meat or fish. It was so different. People thought it was very peculiar. Moreover, back then there was no sustainability aspect to it; there was no ‘if we do this then we are going to save the world.’ It was just about pleasure. We noticed that doing things this way creates more complex, tastier, fresher and basically more interesting food.”
Nordic Plant-based Flavours
Operating in the Nordic countries does have its difficulties. “One of the challenges we face in Sweden is that we don’t have the variety of vegetables that they have in California, for example, where the season to grow vegetables is all year around more or less. In Sweden, people have mainly been growing vegetables to get large quantities instead of growing a wider variety.”
“We have a peculiar way of looking at a carrot because a carrot is not only just ‘A’ carrot. There are thousands of different seeds of carrots which, of course, provide a thousand different flavors but they also offer a thousand different textures. We need to figure out what kind of products we need to grow at what place and at what time of the year. So, maybe in a few years when you go to a restaurant, you might be eating only carrots, but you would not get fed up because there is such a massive difference between the flavors, textures and the looks of it.”
Plant-based food has become a long way, but it still has even a longer way to go. “We are only in the starter position of what we can do with vegetables. There is so much more to examine when it comes to plant-based food. Many things we have been taught are wrong. For instance, if you look at a cucumber and say this is a mature cucumber, it’s not. It’s an immature cucumber, but we don’t know that because that’s what we have been taught throughout the years. A mature cucumber is yellow. It’s a lot about tradition and norm.”
Developing New Senses Through Food
Talking about fine dining and high-end restaurants, Svensson emphasizes that exclusivity is not just about money. “There is the perspective of ‘is it priceworthy’?' Can I pay the same amount of money for carrots that I would normally do for scallops, for example? We need to get the consumer’s perspective to change a bit. It’s not less pleasure because we eat things we wouldn’t eat before, it just means more pleasure. The curiosity and surprise when you realize something is tastier than you thought it was, makes it exclusive. If you eat waste and it’s tastier than caviar, it becomes exclusive even though it doesn’t cost anything. It doesn’t have anything to do with a price.”
“It’s fascinating to see the difference in people’s eyes when they are developing new senses through a dinner,” says Svensson, who recently launched a pop-up restaurant in Stockholm called ReTaste.
“I’m really interested in how a fine dining kitchen can also be a healthy kitchen. There are always walls between different sectors of cooking. Either you do plant-based, super fine dining French kitchen or you do a healthy kitchen. Providing bridges in between to make a kitchen that is plant-based but super tasty and fine dining would be a natural evolution. Why should we make food that is not good for us, it doesn’t make any sense."