"We've been hunting alligators," Magnus Nilsson said, a little out of breath, as he slid into a chair at Charleston Place's Thoroughbred Lounge. He pulled a sweep of long blond hair back from his face and started showing us pictures on his digital camera.
It was shaping up to be quite a week for the 28-year-old Swede. He had spent two days in New York City, then arrived in Charleston for a signing at Heirloom Book Company followed by a $250-a-head event at McCrady's, where he and Executive Chef Sean Brock teamed up for a much-anticipated 14-course dinner.
And that's how he found himself sprawled on the back of a live alligator, its jaws held shut with silver duct tape, just a few minutes after it had been pulled from the water. Just Brock's idea of "showing Magnus around the Lowcountry."
"What are you going to do with it?" we asked.
"Cook it, of course," Magnus said.
And why not? At Fäviken Magasinet, his 14-seat restaurant in the remote woods in Jamtland, Sweden, Nilsson regularly serves game he shoots himself, like grouse, woodcock, and hare. He pairs it with vegetables grown just outside the restaurant door and with dairy from nearby farms. It's an approach that's gotten his restaurant declared one of the top 50 in the world.
And now he's written Fäviken to explain how he does it.
Most reviewers have focused like a laser on the book's odd ingredients and involved preparations. "Few but the most monkish of readers," the Daily Beast commented, "will have the time, equipment, or dedication that Nilsson counsels for his dishes," citing cow hearts, birch syrup, moose-meat powder, and mead.
Public Radio International's The World sent a reporter to Whole Foods on a facetious quest to procure the ingredients needed to make "Marrow and heart with grated turnip and turnip leaves that have never seen the light of day, grilled bread, and lovage salt." He managed to find only a cow's femur for the marrow, and even that had to be special-ordered.
In a recent compare-and-contrast profile, the Washington Post put Nilsson side by side with Nathan Myrvhold, the former Microsoft executive whose massive Modernist Cuisine has been hailed as the pinnacle of high scientific cookery. Myrvhold was billed as the "self-taught molecular gastronomist" and Nilsson as "a dedicated locavore."
It's an obvious set of pigeonholes, but for Nilsson, at least, it doesn't work. Yes, he does serve a severely local cuisine of northern Swedish ingredients gathered from within just a few miles of the restaurant. But, as he makes clear in Fäviken, it's not because of any strict "locavore" philosophy. "It's the only way for us to get the quality necessary for what we want to do," he writes.
An obsessive pursuit of quality, not locavorism, is what really defines Nilsson's cooking. In his early 20s he apprenticed in leading Paris restaurants like Pascal Barbot's L'Astrance, then trained as a sommelier before taking over the kitchen at Fäviken, a remote mountain estate that, at the time, specialized in "moose fondue dinners for corporate groups."
At first, he used the same truffles, foie gras, and parmesan that you would find in any ambitious European restaurant. But he grew dissatisfied with the quality of produce he could get from Swedish wholesalers and that led him to raise his own vegetables and explore what he could find in the surrounding woods. And that's when he found his true culinary passion.
Fäviken documents that passion, and it's absolutely nothing like your typical star chef's cookbook — those formulaic one-page-recipe-and-facing-page-glossy-pic vehicles whose primary mission is to look beautiful sitting unread on a coffee table.
For starters, Nilsson wrote all the text himself (and in English, to boot). There's no dust jacket either, just a blue cloth cover bespeckled with simple, black Nordic drawings. "I like a book to age in a beautiful way," Nilsson says. "So you can have it in the kitchen and spill things on it and not ruin the jacket."
The book was commissioned to include 25,000 words and 120 recipes. Nilsson ended up submitting 100,000 words and 45 dishes. And, to their great credit, his publisher Phaidon actually accepted the thing.
The book reveals the inner convictions of a culinary romantic, which is something far different from a locavore. In the cult of "fresh local ingredients," technique doesn't really matter. The key is to find the freshest, most pristine ingredients and do as little with them as possible, treating them simply and minimally. There's much more to Nilsson's cooking than that. Technique does matter, but not in the classicist sense of a set of well-defined procedures handed down from one generation to the next. Nilsson's cooking is an intensely personal, unique, and individually discovered thing.
Lots of chefs do their stint in Paris then come back home and apply the techniques they learn to their own locales. The New Southern movement that so shaped Charleston cooking, in fact, has often been explained as Southern chefs learning classic French techniques and applying them to local ingredients like grits and country ham.
Not Nilsson. When asked how his years in France shaped his cooking, he said, "It's a very good place to build up a frame of reference," and added that it taught him to value using really good produce.
The technique, though, is all his own. Fäviken provides detailed instructions on Nilsson's method of cooking meat over direct heat. Where did he come up with it? "I pretty much learned myself by trying," he says.
And also by thinking about it. The words thinking and thought appear again and again in Nilsson's book. "You have to think all the time, make conscious decisions," he told us in the Thoroughbred Lounge. "The reason you do that is to have enough control ... if you don't have enough control there's no way you can perform at a very high level."
This is not the hyper-scientific rationalism of Myrvhold's Modernist Cuisine. It might be better expressed as "thinking for yourself," taking the time to pay attention and, through trial and error, mastering your own style of cooking.
This lesson is what Nilsson thinks is most transferrable from his book to the home cook. "When you do barbecue at home," he said, "you probably do it without thinking much about it. If you put a little more thought into it, you raise the quality so much without really putting in more effort."
Thanks to his intensely thoughtful approach, Nilsson can go to a totally new city and, with ingredients he has never used before, pull off dishes that leave diners reeling. At his dinner with Sean Brock, Nilsson wowed the McCrady's crowd with a divine bowl of samp grits with lemon, clam juice, and red bay that was creamy, acidic, and elegant. It was the first time in his life he'd ever cooked grits.
Nilsson's cooking is very much in line with Brock's, for the two share a similar temperament. In fact, it was very hard to tell who cooked each course. A dry-aged duck breast was simply seared and adorned with vibrant orange persimmon segments and a small pool of nectar squeezed straight from the fruit, a small serving of Anson Mills Brewster oats on the side. A tiny filet of grilled swordfish was topped with slightly charred cabbage and melting fermented cabbage juice cream then adorned with a thick truffle reduction resembling a softened dark chocolate but more pungent than sweet.
For the evening, the McCrady's team cleaned out the fireplace and lit it for the first time in over a century, filling the entire restaurant with the stunning aroma of spruce, forest, and smoke. In Sweden, Nilsson cooks scallops over burning juniper branches. In Charleston he cooked Capers Inlet oysters over hickory with embers of red bay. Just a few days later he teamed up for a similar dinner with Daniel Patterson of Coi in San Francisco and cooked Pacific oysters over redwood branches.
The style, in other words, transfers. The key is practicing and focusing and paying enough attention that you learn your own individual methods.
If you pay similar attention to the text of Fäviken, it's clear that Nilsson isn't advising American cooks to go down to their local Whole Foods and start badgering the butcher for cow hearts. In a full page describing "how to use the recipes," he openly admits that his instructions are imprecise and the quantities given are mere guidelines.
His point, instead, is to "show you the right direction to take and help you understand what our cooking is all about: intuition, passion, and happiness."
This cookbook, in other words, is about inspiration, not instruction, and it's a splendid example of culinary romanticism at work. Creativity and imagination, not inherited patterns and forms, are in the driver's seat. Who makes the rules? You do. Strong emotion is the richest source of aesthetic experience.
It's a self-conscious rejection of the empirical, scientific approach that drove the molecular gastronomists. "I think you can feel the love that the person preparing the food has put into it when you eat it," Nilsson writes in Fäviken as he describes how to cook birds over direct heat. "And love does not thrive in a hot-water bath."