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Just the ingredient

Self-taught Swedish chef Mikael Jonsson thinks English asparagus tastes like grass and British chickens are ruined by the weather - oh, and his Michelin-starred London restaurant is a global gastronomic sensation

  • Just the ingredient
  • Just the ingredient
  • Just the ingredient
  • Just the ingredient
  • Just the ingredient
  • Just the ingredient
  • Just the ingredient
  • Just the ingredient
  • Just the ingredient

Words Andrew Humphreys
Photos Ania Wawrzkowicz

Mikael Jonsson, the Swedish chef-proprietor of Hedone, a Michelin-starred restaurant in London, has not yet written a cookbook, but if he did, it might read something like the following:

Name of dish

Common garden vegetable
Odd third ingredient

To prepare

Spend two months sampling fish/meat around and across England, reject all. Continue to Scotland, spend a further two weeks carefully sampling, select individual small supplier. Spend two months testing common garden vegetable around and across England, reject all. Travel to France, find acceptable common garden vegetable and appoint supplier. Cook fish/meat and common garden vegetable lightly. Add grated odd third ingredient to taste.

Jonsson has been called an 'ingredient absolutist'. Which is to say, he's probably the fussiest guy you could ever meet when it comes to food. The slip sole served at Hedone, for example, comes from one of two fishermen in southwest England - and if he can't get it from them, he doesn't serve it. He won't touch market fish or auction fish. The same goes for lobster and scallops. "I like to control how I get the fish and where it is stored, and so on," says Jonsson. He must be a nightmare to go to the supermarket with.

It is a controlling impulse that seems to have paid off. I have eaten at Hedone a couple of times and have been wowed by the clean, clear flavours of the food - but what do I know? Listen instead to AA Gill, the notoriously barbed food critic on the UK's Sunday Times, who gave the restaurant a five-star review, a line from which is quoted on the restaurant's website: "If I had to... recommend just one gobstopping, heart-racing dinner in all of London, it would be Hedone". Praise doesn't come higher. And, of course, there's that Michelin star, awarded last September after the restaurant had only been open 14 months. For global food nerds, a trek out to Chiswick in the dormitory suburbs of west London is gaining the status once afforded to the pilgrimage to Cala Montjoi bay and elBulli, or to the drive to Järpen in remote central Sweden to reach Magnus Nilsson's Fäviken.

When I meet Jonsson one Thursday morning he's tending the oven. The restaurant works Tuesday to Saturday and he begins each of those days baking bread. He doesn't trust anyone else to do it. Hedone only serves one kind of bread, a sourdough made with a starter dough that Jonsson has personally nurtured since childhood. When I tell him I ate at Hedone two weeks before, he winces. He'd recently been on holiday in France, taking his dough with him to feed it every day, and the dough doesn't travel well, he explains, so the bread during the week I visited was a little below par. My wife and I ate three baskets of it.

Obviously, this food obsession goes back some way. Jonsson grew up in the south of Sweden, on the west coast and in Gothenburg. His grandmother was a fantastic cook and he treated the kitchen as his playroom. "When others were reading comic books," he says, "I was reading cookbooks." His precocity had him develop an interest in wine and start his own collection well before he was of a legal age to drink it. He was baking his own bread before he was ten.

"My grandmother had a great big fruit garden with different kinds of apple and cherry trees, and the flavour from some of the older trees was astonishing. We were growing vegetables as well and I just learned very early how things should taste."

When Jonsson was 15 his parents arranged for him to spend two weeks on a work placement at what was at the time the best restaurant in Scandinavia, Johanna. The idea was to show him the reality of life in a professional kitchen - he loved it. Tragically, a different kind of reality intervened and allergies, notably eczema and asthma, blocked that career path. Instead he trained in law and a successful career took him to France, where he could indulge his love of food and wine. For years, he ate and drank, and later blogged, gaining a reputation as a piercingly acute critic of high-end dining establishments.

Then, in his 40s, Jonsson changed the way he ate. He took up a Paeolithic diet, eating all the stuffwe're not supposed to eat, like red meat and natural fats, and avoiding grains, sugars and manmade oils. The allergies disappeared, allowing him to fulfil the dream of opening his own restaurant.

For me there were two places where you can run a fine-dining restaurant without losing money," he says. "London and Paris."

Running restaurants elsewhere, including in his native Sweden, he reckons is more of a philanthropic exercise: "Anybody running such a restaurant in Stockholm needs an investor behind them paying the bills." Red tape put him offParis, coupled with a feeling that maybe London, which has undergone something of a dining renaissance in the last decade, would be more receptive to his style of cooking.

At the mention of cooking styles, I bring up New Nordic and wish I hadn't. The poster restaurants for the current prevailing trend of locally sourced ingredients, lightly cooked, even raw, are places like Sweden's Fäviken and Copenhagen's Noma, both held up to be shining examples of a New Nordic Cuisine. "I don't subscribe to that idea at all," says Jonsson. "The new so-called Nordic chefs have been trained mainly in France and it's the ingredient-driven values of the French they have picked up. Then organisations have paid a lot of money for journalists to go to Scandinavia, especially Sweden, and write stories. Jury members of the 50 Best Restaurants have been invited to go there and eat." New Nordic Cuisine is, he believes, a complete media fabrication.

The drawback to opening a restaurant in London was that Jonsson considers English produce generally inferior to what's available in France. He doesn't, for instance, believe you can get a good chicken in England.

"They don't like the weather here," he says. He also points out the English reluctance to pay for top-quality produce. "France is the best place for chickens, because there is a market for chickens sold at maybe 12 or 13 euros per kilo. That market doesn't exist in England." He also doesn't use British vegetable suppliers due to issues with freshness and consistency.

It's not a line to endear Jonsson to his British peers, but he's more than willing to back his assertions. Last year he invited several UK chefs to a blind asparagus tasting - their English varietals alongside stalks grown in the Mallemort region of southern France. By comparison, he says, the English asparagus tasted "like grass".

However, he insists "there is fantastic stuff to be had". He spends Sunday and Monday, the days Hedone is closed, sourcing ingredients: fish from southwest England, shellfish from Scotland, and red meat from a variety of sources ("Beef is very difficult to find in consistent quality"). Although game is "great and easy to find" in the UK, his pigeons come France because he prefers how they kill their birds: strangled rather than shot, with the guts left intact, which makes for more flavour. (The pigeon, incidentally, is served feet on with tufts of feathers at the ankle, a pointer to diners that the bird arrives whole in the restaurant and not filleted in bags.)

His food philosophy extends to the layout of his restaurant, and the kitchen at Hedone is as open to view as it is possible to make it. All prep and cooking is done in full sight of diners. "I work with only exceptional produce and to be able to make that claim credible you have to show that you have nothing to hide." Patrons can elect to sit at a counter almost nose to nose with the working chefs and examine every dish that leaves the pass. However, that scrutiny works both ways. Diners at the counter are also subject to the scrutiny of the intense and watchful Mikael Jonsson. Just don't ask for the salt.


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