The Viking cometh: Top chef Magnus Nilsson talks about his hotdog chain

The Viking cometh: Chef Magnus Nilsson.
The Viking cometh: Chef Magnus Nilsson. Photo: Jason Lowe


Give Magnus Nilsson your sandwich and he'll tell you who you are. Give the man a hotdog, and you've got a friend for life.

Seven years ago, Magnus Nilsson gave the world a restaurant it didn't know it needed. Faviken seats 12, is set in an old barn in far north Sweden and serves a menu of things that are foraged, fermented, found and hunted. Eating here is as much a pilgrimage as it is dinner. A hyper-local, hyper-seasonal experience currently ranked number 25 on the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best, it's tipped to make a fast ascent in years to come.

And so to continue the theme of bringing the world things it didn't know it needed, here's the new The Nordic Cookbook: an encyclopaedia of recipes, stories and images captured from every region in the area. Think of it as akin to Larousse Gastronomique for the Vodka Belt.

Chef Magnus Nilsson's Faviken restaurant in Jamtland, Sweden.
Chef Magnus Nilsson's Faviken restaurant in Jamtland, Sweden. Photo: supplied

And Magnus Nilsson really didn't want to write it. When he first heard about the concept, he was pretty offended by the idea of trying to shoehorn so many Nordic regions and all their specificities into one book. "But after a while I realised it was useful, and a good idea," he says. "No one knows, really, what Nordic cooking is. What the difference is across the regions and why. I could have gone on doing it forever."

The heavy metal-loving Swedish chef with his long blond mane is as comfortable being photographed grappling haunches of meat as trekking the Scandinavian wilderness decked in furs. And he's convinced that the humble sambo can tell you everything you need to know about a place. It's a taste chord that strikes through the beating heart of civilisation as we know it. It has terroir. Really.

He's certainly got an evocative turn of phrase. He could be talking about collecting northern fulmar eggs along the narrow edges of volcanic islands ("A truly exhilarating and life-affirming experience, slipping around on a narrow step of red stone with a vertical drop of several hundred metres on one side and angry birds trying to vomit on you to protect their eggs on the other.") Or describing the importance of "bread cuisine".

Shrimp salad with lobster and crab.
Shrimp salad with lobster and crab. Photo: Supplied

"To me, a sandwich says a lot about a country. If you observe the way the sandwich looks, you can tell so much about a society and the way it's based."

For Nilsson, the ultimate sandwich is open, on flatbread, thickly buttered with a thin layer of cheese. "Despite all the variety that's available today and everything I can get access to, it's still funny I'd savour something that is so absolutely boring."

There's a certain bleakness and beauty to the book. For all the light (snow-covered peaks and fields, fishing adventures on the high sea, salty-looking locals at work in their kitchens) there's also a fair amount of shade, weighing out all that well-worn copper kitchenware and those lovely farmhouses out with haunting landscapes and some really arresting imagery.

It's not every day you see a book where a brace of puffins – better associated in Australia with those well-loved children's books than with lunch – are laid out in a row, their sweet little orange beaks and black and white feathers waiting to be stuffed with spiced cake. It's a picture that looks simultaneously alarming and delicious.

The chef had to fight quite hard to get it into the book. Not quite as hard, though, as he did for the graphic double-page shot in which a group of Faroe Islanders butchers a pod of pilot whales in thigh-deep water. It's a confronting thing, and a bloody image that won't sit well with a lot of people.

He argues that as a documentarian, it isn't his place to take on the role of deciding what's important in culture. "I wouldn't want to do it – sit on a whale and push a spike through its spine – but I felt it was such an important thing culturally for them. If that story and picture hadn't been in there, the book wouldn't have been complete regardless of what I or other people feel about whales or bloodied water.

Chef Magnus Nilsson describes things as they are.
Chef Magnus Nilsson describes things as they are. 

"I think once people read the story, they'll understand what it's about. And actually, the Faroese way of hunting is completely misrepresented. Because it's not whaling, it's whale-hunting. The meat is not sold, it's distributed among the community. And it's a really different thing.

"Pigs are incredibly smart as well – some of the smartest mammals, except for humans. Very few consumers of pig meat ever shed a tear for them. They're killed by the millions and many of them lead very miserable lives – and that's fine but the sustenance hunting of small whales is not?"

For Nilsson, it was important to capture everything, regardless of his own feelings and opinions on some of the subject matter. He feels a great responsibility to do the areas in the book justice.

Chef Magnus Nilsson's scallop " i skalet, ur elden ", cooked over burning juniper branches.
Chef Magnus Nilsson's scallop " i skalet, ur elden ", cooked over burning juniper branches.  Photo: supplied

"I want to still be able to visit these people without getting stoned to death for misrepresenting them."

So there's the thousand-years-old culture that is Faroe Island whale-hunting, but then there's Swedish nacho quiche. Nilsson argues that a dish becomes part of a region's food culture once it's been around long enough to become a part of people's everyday lives. So for all the chokladbollar​ and flotmylje​, he also makes arguments for Nordic pizza.

He writes about traditional eel parties, "calf's dance" pudding and how to eat a lamprey. If you've ever seen a picture of one of these things, which looks like a Satanic interpretation of an eel, it's hard to imagine a right way of eating them. But Nilsson insists he enjoys the experience. Mostly.

Puffins waiting to be stuffed with spiced cake.
Puffins waiting to be stuffed with spiced cake. Photo: Supplied

"Halfway through eating this crunchy, delicious eel," he says, "you realise what it is that you're actually eating and then it kind of becomes less appealing."

He's a complicated guy, is Magnus Nilsson. When he's not running Faviken, or writing Norse food encyclopaedias, he's busy becoming a Swedish charcuterie and hotdog kingpin. What started out as a bit of fun and a way to hold on to a chef who no longer wanted to work nights has become a smallgoods success story. And, being the kind of man who both owns a charcuterie factory and has a pig farmer in his employ (his name is Eric), it makes perfect sense that he'd follow up by opening a hotdog kiosk near a ski resort.

"It has everything you would expect to find in a hotdog kiosk, only with nice people from Faviken doing it," says Nilsson, who likes his 'dog on flatbread with mashed potatoes and vegetables.

<i>The Nordic Cookbook</i> by Magnus Nilsson is on sale now through Phaidon Press, $59.95.
The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson is on sale now through Phaidon Press, $59.95.  Photo: Supplied

"It's like a hotdog burrito. I would have a shrimp salad on the side – it's quite unique to Sweden – and then I would have a bottle of chocolate milk."

Nilsson also recently bought and reconditioned an old 1980s campervan, spray-painted the whole thing black, put a neon sign on the roof and is about to take it on tour, around music festivals. Just imagine seeing Jens Lekman​ or the Knife with a really good hot dog in hand. "It's super fun. I never felt the need to start restaurants everywhere like other chefs. I think that seems terribly, terribly exhausting."

Highbrow chefs, getting low

It's all very well to have a plethora of fine dining restaurants, best-selling cookbooks and awards. But what's next? These famous chefs are all taking a path less worn but no less loved, putting their own delicious spin on fast food.

Magnus Nilsson, Swedish hotdog kingpin

What happens when being listed as the 25th best restaurant in the world is no longer enough? Hotdogs, naturally. Magnus Nilsson, head chef of Faviken, will be launching his second hotdog kiosk in Stockholm in the coming months, not to mention his hotdog van, which he'll be touring around music festivals, this European summer.
Korvkiosk, Årevägen 81, 830 13 Åre, Sweden

David Chang, Manhattan's fried chicken impresario

If you've followed the career of this walking riddle trapped in a puzzle trapped in a burrito, it should come as no surprise that the mercurial David Chang now has his sights set on owning the spicy fried chicken sandwich game. Fuku (read into the name what you will) is all about normavore eating – the restaurant world's answer to normcore dressing. Just think about Jerry Seinfeld eating a sandwich and that's everything you need to know.
Fuku, 163 First Avenue, New York

Neil Perry, Sydney's very own burger king

It's been a work in progress for the Rockpool chef, but we're here to tell you that Neil Perry has officially nailed his burger now. It's all about a soft, golden bun, giving patty covered in melted cheese and very little else. This is to be the first of many Burger Projects to be launched around the country, not only providing delicious sandwiches but also work opportunities to the nation's struggling youth.
Burger Project, World Square and Martin Place, Sydney

Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, applying West Coast sensibilities to fast food

Los Angeles-based Choi (lord of the Korean taco, and the man behind the famous Kogi food trucks) and Daniel Patterson (head chef at San Francisco's Coi) have started a crowdfunding initiative not so much to take down the fast-food industry as to make it a little better for you. They'll be opening their LocoL shops in struggling neighbourhoods (the first one is rumoured to be around the corner from the infamous Crips headquarters in LA), paying their workers above-minimum wage and nixing the high-fructose corn syrup in favour of healthier alternatives.
LocoL​, welocol.com

Christian Puglisi is spinning pizza in Copenhagen

Sure, Noma might get all the attention but stop a second and spare a thought for chef Christian Puglisi's restaurant, Relae – plenty of excitement, major skill and nowhere near the same burden of expectation. And now he's taken to pizza. Baest, which opened last year, offers Naples-style pizza using local flour and organic, hand-stretched mozzarella made on site. The fastest slow food in the world now wears the New Nordic badge of honour.
Baest, Guldbergsgade 29. DK-2200 Copenhagen     

Magnus serves up food and stories

Pope Joan goes Nordic

Join Magnus Nilsson at this once-in-a-Melbourne lifetime event. Meet the Swedish chef and try a four-course menu inspired by The Nordic Cookbook, executed by Pope Joan's Matt Wilkinson. The event will be hosted by Gemima Cody, chief restaurant critic at The Age on Wednesday November 25 at 6.45pm. $150 a head for a four-course sharing menu, including matched beveragesby Fowles Wine and a signed copy of The Nordic Cookbook.

Pope Joan, 77-79 Nicholson Street, East Brunswick. To book tickets call (03) 9388 8858 or go to popejoan.com.au

A wild rumpus with Magnus Nilsson, LP's Quality Meats and Pinbone

Thought the Faroe Islands and the outer realms of far north Sweden were wild? Wait till you see what happens when you let Magnus Nilsson loose in a kitchen with the team from LP's Quality Meats and the Pinbone crew. Not to be missed, and a first for the city, this event will be hosted by Terry Durack and Jill Dupleix, on Friday, November 27 at 6.30pm. $230 a head, including matched beverages and a signed copy of The Nordic Cookbook.

LP's Quality Meats; Suite 1, 16 Chippen Street, Chippendale, (02) 8399 0929. Bookings: lpsqualitymeats.com

Nilsson will also join food writer Barbara Sweeney on Thursday, November 26 for a night of food stories at Carriageworks, Eveleigh. Tickets: $55 admission only; $85 admission and signed copy of The Nordic Cookbook.

Bookings: foodandwords.com.au and trybooking.com

The Nordic Cookbook is on sale now through Phaidon Press, $59.95; phaidon.com/nordicbook