All eyes are on new foodie favourite, Magnus Nilsson

By Nici Wickes

The eyes of the world are on chef Magnus Nilsson who creates surreal food in a desolate landscape

Magnus Nilsson, the 28-year-old chef from the Faviken Magasinet restaurant in Sweden. Photo / Faviken Erik Olsson
Magnus Nilsson, the 28-year-old chef from the Faviken Magasinet restaurant in Sweden. Photo / Faviken Erik Olsson

Because we are on opposite sides of the world, I have to wait until well after midnight to call Magnus Nilsson, the 28-year-old chef from Sweden that "they" say is the new Rene Redzepi of the food world. As I wait, trying to stay awake, I stare blankly at the images on the home page of Faviken Magasinet - his restaurant, housed in an old grain store and barn in the woods of a 9700ha property in northern Sweden. The restaurant is currently ranked 34th in the World's 50 Best Restaurants (in the respected international awards sponsored by San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna) but instead of feeling inspired I'm tired and grumpy, and the website makes me feel worse. Pictured against the eerie frozen landscape of Jutland, Sweden, where the temperature is minus 1C and the GPS co-ordinates are shown in case you're trying to drive there, it looks desolate as much as it does beautiful and I am struck by a feeling of immense isolation.

Then suddenly the man in question is on the line. He is warm and friendly and I'm immediately swept away with his enthusiasm.

I sit up straight. I am, after all, in conversation with the chef the world is talking about - the Super Natural, a tag given to him because of his singular focus on the use of local produce and ability to dream up such unimaginable combinations as rosehips and lobster or scallops with smoking juniper branches. A man who saws through cow bones in the dining room (for the marrow, you understand), to give people a dining experience that has been described as visceral, surreal, emotional.

What underlies it all is his strict adherence to the seasons, which is no mean feat when you consider Sweden's extreme climate. He talks of burying produce to last the long Swedish winter (October to April), how it changes in that time and how it's what makes for creativity. He's coming to the Southern Hemisphere as one of the esteemed international chefs at the upcoming Melbourne Food and Wine festival and I want to know how he'll transport his concept, given it is pegged so inextricably to his immediate surrounds.

"Well, when I came to Australia last time, I really had a shift in my thinking. Up until then, when we travelled we brought with us most of our ingredients, as a way of control and also to be able to share what we do properly. At Customs control in Australia, though, I got fined $500 and had them all confiscated, which then meant I had to get much more creative. I needed to not bring product with me, just my ideas. These can translate anywhere and on to whatever the surrounding produce is. It was a big step for me. So this time, I won't be bringing any produce and that makes it more exciting."

After he finished his training in Sweden, Nilsson spent time in some of the best kitchens in France, first at L'Astrance then L'Arpege, but then he gave up cooking to train as a sommelier because, "I was trying to get away from cooking, I didn't want to cook anymore." He arrived at Faviken, aged just 24, in 2008, primarily to establish a wine cellar for the estate, not to cook. However, a staff change saw him left in charge of the kitchen and eventually he was asked to take it over and to begin again, this time with his own concept - dramatically different from what they had been doing, which was serving moose fondues to hundreds of guests.

Nilsson wanted to do something much smaller and more ambitious, something that people would travel for, focusing entirely on local produce. Now the restaurant seats a mere 16 diners with a set menu that uses produce from the surrounding area and preparation and cooking techniques and traditional methods that could have been long-forgotten.

"We've been misunderstood when it comes to the whole 'locavore' label," he explains. "I think that we do stand for 'local' but we're not local because it's local, more that we are about quality and that is always the first factor, then if ingredients are local you can have better dialogue with suppliers and therefore can manage quality better. And I believe that to get really creative and do new things you have to master techniques first."

I suggest that winter could present a grim outlook for the kitchens in Sweden but no, Nilsson loves it as much as any season. "The pigs are fatter, root vegetables are being cellared and pickled and the fish and shellfish are never better."

Does he have a favourite ingredient season? "Always the next one" he laughs.

"If you have limitations, like the seasons or what is available to you, then it is easier to be creative. There is more incentive to develop. The best restaurants in the world can have anything they want, any ingredient, but that doesn't always help. In fact, it creates a narrower diversity."

Nilsson does it his way and dislikes the whole "New Nordic Cuisine" banner. As he says, you'd not consider grouping Italy, France, Spain's finest chefs and restaurants and called then "Central Europe cuisine", so why do it for the diverse regions that make up Scandinavia?

I ask him to predict the future for food culture: "I see more diversity and a different ambition for restaurants that will see chefs doing what they want to be doing, not looking to what others think they should be doing.

"The restaurants that everyone is talking about are often still focused more on what others are thinking, on keeping their reputation, instead of moving into what they know or want to know."

Does he feel happy with where his cooking has come to now? "Very. And with where I'm going. We need to find our place in the world and do what we love to do, not what others want us to do. That's what I'm trying to do"

Magnus Nilsson: Magnus vs.Wild, Saturday March 9, 11.45am-1pm; Langham Melbourne MasterClass weekend, March 8-10. For bookings go to melbournefoodandwine.com.au

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