Magnus Nilsson might be the head chef at one of the world’s most remote restaurants, but his influence has spread across the world. Fäviken has become famous for its daring celebration of the Swedish natural larder, and Nilsson has become a kind of rugged icon of Nordic cooking. He is one of the most notable proponents of sustenance cuisine - foraging, hunting, curing, and pickling whatever ingredients can be found in the harshest of harsh environments. But the menu at Fäviken is elevated to a level beyond mere sustenance. Nilsson’s food is all about taking on the wilderness and winning.
Perhaps the joie de vivre experienced while dining at Fäviken has its roots in Nilsson’s time as a young chef in Paris. He moved there after attending cooking school in Åre in Sweden, but struggled to find suitable work at first. Settling into a role at L’Astrance with Pascal Barbot at the age of 19, he remained in France for three years before returning home to Sweden.
Uninspired by the lack of quality ingredients in his homeland, he began to lose his passion for cooking, and he decided to become a wine writer. After attending oenology classes, he was offered a short contract as a sommelier at an unassuming little rustic restaurant restaurant on a remote hunting estate among the forests of Jämtland, hundreds of miles north of Stockholm in north-western Sweden. That restaurant was Fäviken.
As Nilsson describes it, it was the kind of place that served moose fondue to middle managers of an insurance company. But soon he found himself working there as a chef, and everything changed. They stopped ordering produce from around the world and focused instead on local ingredients. The limitations of the environment (nothing grows between October and April) forced them into investigating ways of preserving food. Drawing on the natural lichens, berries, fish and game of the area, and Nilsson’s natural inclination to create, Fäviken won two Michelin stars, and became a beacon for high-end Nordic cuisine that continues to burn brightly.
Signature dishes such as scallops cooked in the shell over birch coals and juniper branches allow the ingredients to speak for themselves. No salt, pepper or butter is added, but the shellfish are served on a bed of moss and lichen beside a smouldering chunk of charcoal. Another dish called ‘broth of lamb filtered through the forest floor’ magnifies the close relationship between Fäviken and its immediate environment. Meanwhile, Nilsson’s wild trout roe in a warm crust of pig’s blood might resemble something from a high-end Japanese sushi restaurant, but it speaks of the resourcefulness of the people that have lived in this unforgiving environment for centuries.
Fäviken is also committed to sustainability. Through recycling and composting, it has managed to reduce its waste to virtually nothing. It’s all part of Nilsson’s belief that a restaurant and its food should reflect the values and culture of a people. His book, The Nordic Cookbook, aims to document this relationship between the people and the landscape, and examine how and why they came to make the food they eat. The book contains over 700 recipes from across the region, including Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland. But people travel from much further afield for the Fäviken experience, and that’s partly down to the Netflix-factor.
Nilsson starred in an episode of the first series of Chef’s Table, and it opened up his restaurant to a whole new audience. Despite the remote location of Fäviken and the challenges involved in reaching it (especially in winter), people from all walks of life save up to travel here in their droves. They come for a middle-of-nowhere adventure, to see the ancient fur hunter’s coat hung on the wall of the rustic wooden cabin in the wilderness, to be served by the Viking chef that refuses to compromise. But most of all, they come for Magnus Nilsson’s food, in all its natural, seasonal and creative splendour.