Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson
Photograph by Erik Olsson/Courtesy of Fäviken
Ever meet someone for the first time and instantly feel like you’ve known that person forever? Magnus Nilsson is one of those folks for a handful of Minnesota chefs. Nilsson, 32, is the world-famous, world-changing chef behind Fäviken, a restaurant in Järpen, Sweden, and a constant star on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. It’s also where he tested two of the most significant northern food books of the last decade, Fäviken (2012) and The Nordic Cookbook (2015).
What Nilsson does at Fäviken, which is located inland near the Norwegian border, is at once familiar and awe-inspiring. He ice-fishes, and then figures out interesting ways to cure the fish using the frozen wind. He gets old dairy cows and imagines methods to cure their meat and saw their bones in ways that make folks reared on the mild flavors of Michelin-starred restaurants swoon. And he’s perhaps the first person in recorded history to make sprouted, root-cellared turnips cool.
Fäviken’s ripple effect can be found at Scandinavian-leaning Twin Cities restaurants like Heyday, The Bachelor Farmer, Upton 43, and FIKA. Jim Christiansen, chef of Heyday, went as far as making the 4,000-mile pilgrimage from Minneapolis to Fäviken for dinner. “There was a simplicity in [Nilsson’s] food that just changed how I look at food,” says Christiansen. “I still think about that simplicity today.”
Bachelor Farmer chef Paul Berglund made the same trek. “When I ate at Fäviken, I was really taken aback by the stark nature of his food,” says Berglund. “One of the really special dishes was a slowly roasted fish served with a very briefly steamed vegetable. The stark nature of the dish, just those two components, and the reverence he had for those two ingredients definitely influenced the way I think about the importance and the fleeting nature of our food resources here in Minnesota.”
It’s not just professional chefs who feel this connection to Nilsson. Certainly something must be said about how his towering, chubby-cheeked dude-ness adds to his familiarity. When he starred in PBS’s Anthony Bourdain–narrated series The Mind of a Chef, we got to see him ice-fishing, frying a pork chop over a campfire, and cooking lefse-like flatbread with his mom, which made him seem entirely like the next person on the stool at the snowmobile bar in Brainerd or the guy throwing Frisbees at the Surly beer garden. One of us! One of us!
As it turns out, this familiar-seeming super chef is getting his first-ever museum exhibition, and it’s in Minneapolis (not Stockholm!). It came about because Scott Pollock, the director of exhibitions at Minneapolis’s American Swedish Institute, was chatting with the art director of Nilsson’s publisher, Phaidon, about Minnesota’s warm Magnus feelings, and the art director said, “You should see the amazing candid and landscape shots that didn’t end up in [The Nordic Cookbook].” Now the best of those shots, some 30 photographs presented as 4-by-6-foot prints, will be on display at the ASI June 2 through August 14, accompanied by a host of dinners, cocktail parties, talks, and celebrations when Magnus Nilsson is here in early June for a week to meet his Minnesota fanclub. What does our long-lost cousin think of his distant Minnesota family? We talked.
Photographs by Magnus Nilsson/Courtesy of Phaidon/Nordic: A Photographic Essay of Landscapes, Food and People.
We think about Scandinavia here in Minnesota—do you in Sweden think about us?
Because Sweden is such a small country, I think most people here have relatives or distant relations in the United States. I remember growing up, people would say, “Chicago is Sweden’s third-biggest city” because several hundred thousand Swedes live there. I have relatives in Chicago. I think one thing you don’t have in mind in the U.S. is that while many [immigrants] stayed, a good third stayed for 10 or 15 years, and then came back and brought a lot back with them. There are ways Sweden and the Scandinavian countries were changed, and continue to be influenced, too. I’m looking forward to traveling to the U.S. to learn about those connections. I thought I knew the Scandinavian countries, then I traveled for three years to research [The Nordic Cookbook]. I never realized until maybe halfway into my research how much diversity there was today in the Nordic countries. That’s probably true for most things: You never know you realize virtually nothing until you realize it. That’s why I am so looking forward to this trip. It will be a chance to find the surprises.
Fäviken’s magic comes through in its setting and dishes; Photographs by Erik Olsson/Courtesy of Fäviken.
You’re a photographer now.
No, not really. I got my first camera when I was like 6 or 7 years old. It was an old Kodak Instamatic. I found it in a cupboard at my grandparents’ house—I asked if I could have it, and I could. I’ve been photographing since, but I’ve only ever done it for myself. With The Nordic Cookbook it was the first time the photos were kind of used for something. It is an important documentary work in the sense that it hasn’t been done before—no one has really bothered documenting the complete food culture of Scandinavia or the Nordic region before, as far as I know. The last one I know of is a book called Food from Scandinavia, which was put out by Time Life publishing in the ’60s. That writer probably went dozens of times during a period of several years, with a photographer, really putting time onsite trying to understand and finding a way to communicate. Today, in the way we consume media, with Instagram and other social media, those projects don’t happen. It doesn’t exist anymore. And I think that’s kind of sad.
Nilsson’s idea of roughing it: cooking cod cheeks in the wilds of Norway; Photograph by Jason Lowe.
There’s the old saying, “We eat with our eyes,” but past that, what do food and photography have in common?
With the type of restaurant Fäviken is, I don’t think it’s any different from photography, actually. All the photographs were shot with a specific purpose of documenting something—a cultural occurrence or a moment, and then also something that’s aesthetically pleasing or interesting. So you feel the original purpose, and then you happen to add, most often because you were a bit lucky, a layer of something more on top. It’s the same with the restaurant. A restaurant is a place where there’s a business transaction, and the product you’re selling is the experience—the food, the drinks, the service, the hardware, and so on—but you can do that and then you can add other things on top of it: interest, excitement, novelty, and stuff like that. What’s the purpose of eating? To fuel our bodies, and we have to do it, and most people, they actually take pleasure in eating and that’s why restaurants exist. Photography, it’s kind of the same thing because the purpose of those photographs was to supply the information of that moment that I photographed, and then if we can further elevate it to something more than just fuel or just information, it’s similar.
Magnus Does Minnesota
Chef Magnus Nilsson will be involved in a series of events at the American Swedish Institute in conjunction with his show, Nordic: A Photographic Essay of Landscapes, Food and People, June 2 through August 14 at the Institute’s Osher and Turnblad Mansion galleries.
Craft-Sprit Beer/Spirits Tasting Party & Exhibition Preview, ASI Courtyard/FIKA, Wednesday, June 1, 7–10 pm
Featuring tastings by local distilleries and breweries, live music by Minnesota artist Ben Weaver, and an appearance by Nilsson. Tickets: $30 for members, $35 for non-members
A Night at the Chef’s Table, ASI Courtyard, Friday, June 3, 7–10 pm
Curated by FIKA chef John Krattenmaker, with special guest chefs Tim McKee, Ryan Cook of Sea Change, Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma and Brasa, and Jim Christiansen of Heyday. Special remarks by Nilsson. Tickets: Visit asimn.org for up-to-date information.
Magnus Nilsson Book Signing, ASI Larson Hall, Saturday, June 4, 10–11 am
Featuring travelogue stories by Nilsson.
American Swedish Institute, 2600 Park Ave. S., Mpls., 612-871-4907, asimn.org