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The chef who played with fire

We spend the day with Niklas Ekstedt, the Swedish television chef who decided to ditch electricity and cook over an open fire at his rugged Stockholm restaurant

  • The chef who played with fire

    Swedish chef Niklas Ekstedt takes to his prime ingredient – birch wood – with glee

  • The chef who played with fire

    The letter from Michelin congratulating Ekstedt on its first Michelin star

  • The chef who played with fire

    Diners can watch Ekstedt and his staff cook over the open fire, which burns at up to 700°C

  • The chef who played with fire

    Diners can watch Ekstedt and his staff cook over the open fire, which burns at up to 700°C

  • The chef who played with fire

    Pike-perch on ice

  • The chef who played with fire

    Large cuts of meat are needed to withstand the heat

  • The chef who played with fire

    A flame-cooked surf ’n’ turf

  • The chef who played with fire

    Sampling sulphur-free wines to match with the food on the new menu

  • The chef who played with fire

    Niklas Ekstedt manages to carry off posing over the firepit at the heart of his restaurant

  • The chef who played with fire

    Chimney-baked avocado, king crab and almonds, one of the dishes on the new spring menu

Text by Steve Vickers

On a cold morning in a dingy garage in Östermalm, Stockholm’s wealthiest district, Niklas Ekstedt is clutching a well-worn axe. He takes aim at a birch log and then smashes the blade right through it, laughing as flecks of wood spray across his denim shirt and turned-up jeans.

It all looks like good fun, but for the 34-year-old chef, who’s still best known for fronting cookery shows on Swedish TV, it’s an important part of the day. That’s because all the food at his rustic eponymous restaurant, Ekstedt, is cooked with fire – whether over a wood-burning hearth, in a traditional stove or directly over the flames. The only electricity used in the kitchen is for the coffee and ice-cream machines.

Back in the restaurant, the amiable Niklas is showing me round on the day the five-item menu is changing – new dishes include chimney-baked avocado and king crab, and juniper-smoked pike-perch. He laughs a lot, eats sweets (“nutrition isn’t my thing,” he admits) and altogether doesn’t seem to take himself – or life – too seriously. Indeed, the tattooed chef has the air of the snowboarder he wanted to become before he suffered a back injury in his late teens.

Standing at the open kitchen’s blackened firepit, where strings of cherry tomatoes sweat over the ever-burning flame, he says Ekstedt is “more a historical experiment than an actual restaurant. The whole concept was to build a restaurant that focused on the unique Nordic cooking » techniques – the ancient, pre-electricity type of cooking. It’s like eating in a hut in the woods.” Experiment or not, the restaurant has been a sensation – the smoky campfire flavours have wowed critics, seen the Zagat guide name it one of the world’s hottest restaurants and ensured the simple 50-seat space is constantly booked up 30 days in advance.

But Niklas’s success never felt guaranteed. He was – and still is – the darling celebrity chef who’s been on TV since his show Mats (Food) first aired in 2003. He’d opened his first restaurant in Helsingborg on Sweden’s south coast at a precocious 21, having already worked in the kitchens of Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck) and Ferran Adrià (elBulli); his second restaurant in the nearby village of Viken continued his training in fairly classic, Provençal-influenced cooking.

But then he felt like taking a risk. He and the now-head chef Gustav Otterberg started thinking about a new approach to restaurants, given that Scandinavia had mined the “locavore” local-food movement almost to its conclusion. “When I wanted to open up this restaurant, Gustav and I started talking about how to not focus on the product – although that obviously has to be excellent – and to focus on the technique.” The result was Ekstedt, which opened in 2011. “For a couple of days when we first opened the restaurant to the public, I was looking at Gustav and saying, ‘Is this really going to work?’” remembers Niklas. “All the critics were coming because they know me from the TV, it was terrifying.”

He needn’t have worried. Apart from a few customers who “were disappointed it wasn’t a Spanish barbecue”, the critics were wowed, including notoriously waspish British food writer AA Gill, who described the food as “both fundamental and inventive”. The biggest endorsement now sits on the restaurant’s front counter – a newly opened letter from Michelin, congratulating the venue on its first Michelin star. It’s a big deal for everyone involved, and every delivery person and staff member passing through the restaurant – carrying boxes of silvery fish or trays of pockmarked morel mushrooms – offers Niklas their congratulations.

Niklas was as surprised as anyone when Michelin came calling. “It’s not exactly the restaurant you design if you’re going for a Michelin star,” he points out, gesturing at the lack of white tablecloths. Indeed, it’s a utilitarian space, clad in unflashy pine, with slightly wobbly floor tiles.

The Michelin star was also a surprise because cooking with fire has some serious limitations. This may have been how everyone cooked in Sweden until electricity arrived in the late-19th century, but the stove isn’t exactly designed for large-scale cooking. “Most cooking in top restaurants is very temperature-driven, but here you can’t control it,” Ekstedt explains. “And the wood changes things – depending on how wet or dry it is, it changes the way the food cooks. Everything is more labour-intensive.” Originally, they’d planned to have 12 small dishes on the menu – but the time and effort that had to go into each dish forced them to condense the menu to only five items.

The fire, fed by 1m3 of logs each day, is so hot Ekstedt had to install special chimneys and sprinklers that go off at 700°C rather than the usual 450°C. And they also had to change the ingredients. “A lot of things just disappear into the stove. You’ll try beautiful asparagus, and it will just shrivel up and disappear. And we’ve had to use bigger chunks of whatever ingredient we’re using.”

Yet, obviously, cooking over a fire has its benefits. Ekstedt is particularly proud of the chimney-baked avocado on the new menu. “It’s not an ingredient many chefs use, even though Scandinavians love it,” he says. Dishes like the avocado are infused not just with the smoky campfire taste of the wood, but also a unique flavour from the stove itself. “It’s towards umami or soy and there’s something slightly metallic about it,” says Niklas.

He is increasingly distracted as the day goes on. He has to nip out to buy lamb from Östermalm’s Saluhall, a food hall founded in 1888 that he says is the “most expensive place to buy meat in Stockholm”. He’s barely got back when he has to jump up to meet the man wheeling in crates of freshly chopped logs; and the wine expert who arrives with a cooler bag full of half-empty bottles, pouring Niklas samples of sulphur-free wines so he can match them with individual dishes.

Despite having to be in so many places at once, Niklas seems sanguine that Stockholm’s smartest will come and pay SEK850 (NOK750) to try the new five-course menu, which also includes sweetbread baked in hay; spring lamb with smoked tomato, herbs and salty caramel; and baked rhubarb, butter-fried sponge cake flambéed in Punsch, a Swedish liqueur, with goat milk ice cream, honey and salt.

“I’m not competing with anyone,” he says. “For a lot of restaurateurs, particularly in Scandinavia at the moment, it’s like Blur versus Oasis. I don’t take it so seriously.” He also seems to have come to terms with being the celebrity chef who went off-piste. “I mean, on the one hand I’m that soft, nice guy on the mainstream channels, cooking for kids; then I come to this restaurant that’s macho, rustic, even a bit hardcore. I enjoy being in both worlds. My life is like a theatre and I’m just an actor.”
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