Inspiration Monday: Fäviken

Magnus Nilsson is a chef in a remote part of Jämtland. His restaurant seats only 14 people each night but it is regularly voted the best in Sweden and among the top two dozen in the world. I’ve never been to Magnus’s place or even to Scandinavia but it has a rare grip on me these days.

I first learned about Magnus in the Netflix series, Chef’s Table (I keep recommending this series here on this blog but no one ever seems to comment on it. Your loss; I think is is so inspiring for artists of all palates and palettes.) but have enjoyed a much deeper dive into his mind since buying his first book, Fäviken. I’ve been meaning to write about it here for several weeks but have waited because I can’t easily distill its pleasure into the few paragraphs I allot myself here.

Magnus, like many of the finest chefs, is an artist. But his art is not in virtuoso classical cooking or conversely in wild experimentation. Rather he is an artist who celebrates a deliberate, careful observation of the world around him and creates work that makes us experience life more vividly.

His restaurant typically serves up to thirty courses per meal, courses made up primarily of ingredients found in the surrounding forest. He uses burnt stumps, sheets of moss, and last autumn’s leaves. Most of his game he himself hunted and recently. His beef comes from old dairy cows, hung and aged for many months. He raises his lambs alongside his children, then weeps as he slices their wooly throats (the lambs, not the kids).

His dishes include:

  • A little lump of very fresh cheese, floating in warm whey with one petal of lavender
  • Very light broth of pig filtered through moss
  • Leeks picked just minutes ago, sheep’s cream whisked with mead, grated cod’s roe
  • Pine tree bark cake, pudding of milk and cream, acidic herbs and frozen buttermilk, grated hydnellum suaveolens
  • A tiny slice of top blade from a retired dairy cow, dry aged for nine months, crispy reindeer lichen fermented green gooseberries, fennel salt

Does this sound precious and effete? Not to me. Hearing him speak or write about his process is to realize what it means to be 100% in tune with one’s surroundings, to appreciate the bounty of the surrounding land, to recognize the difference that a few minutes makes to an ingredient’s flavor, to be absolutely present and to believe in doing things well or not at all.

…is the guy just an anal, Nordic lunatic?

My favorite page is called “Giving a Carrot the Attention It Deserves” and covers how to grow the right variety for your climate and soil type, what the weather should be like when you pull it, how to correctly pare one’s fingernails before handling the carrot, how cool the rinsing water must be, how to hold the carrot when rinsing, the right type of peeler to use and how old it should be, the right angle to wield it, down to which way to lay the peeled carrot on the plate. I first read this page, out of context, and thought, is the guy just an anal, Nordic lunatic?

But when I read it again, after reading all the pages that preceded it, I realized the purpose of his obsession. It is about care, about doing things the right way, about recognizing the essential, a kind of honor that Hemingway would have recognized. Doing things right is very hard, but the purpose is not to be exclusive or judgmental. It is to celebrate life by living it well. And it is to show the rest of us that each day can be gulped down whole or savored thoughtfully.

He concludes this page by saying: “The questions you must ask yourself about every detail are these: does this make the end result better, and do I have the time and capacity to do it at the moment? If the answer to either of these questions is no, do it in a different but equally thought-through way that better suits the needs and possibilities available to you. The important idea is not always to do things without compromise, but with thought-through attention and decisions that lead, little by little, towards creating a better result.”

The recipes in this book are uncookable unless you have 10,000 acres of Swedish wilderness and a very special mind. But I can taste their wisdom on the page, can learn from their philosophy, and apply it to the bowl of Raisin Bran I’m about to make. And the drawing I’ll do right after.

38 thoughts on “Inspiration Monday: Fäviken”

    1. You did leave a comment however I need to approve all comments by readers who have never posted here before. And now I have and here it is. If you’d like to return and say something more substantial, Liese, please do.

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  1. Love Chef’s Table and in particular Magnus. Love his all absorption into his art. Another flick that gave me great feelings about a life devoted to art is Bill Cunningham, NYC. He puts me in mind of some Tibetan teachers I have met -so kind, funny and real. As do you come to think of it.

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  2. I wanted you to know that someone out there took your advice. We inhaled the series in one day. Now we are the pushers trying to get all our friends to watch. It’s inspiring seeing someone with so much passion and creativity. He makes me want to create. If you like this, you should check out “Mind of a Chef” Season 3. They do about 6 episodes on him, it’s wonderful. Enjoy!

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    1. I’m glad you liked it and are spreading the word. I have watched a couple of episodes of Mind of A Chef but unlike Chef’s Table, it is s not beautifully shot or artfully edited and feels more like a TV show than like a work of art. Nonetheless, its a good option for those who don’t have Netflix and/or hunger for more Magnus. The book, Faviken, is sublime, and a worthy addition to your library, even if you never cook.

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  3. I had started watching Chef’s Table and got side tracked. I enjoy the show and it’s back on top of my list. Watching people who are passionate about what they do is always inspiring and absorbing. These days, too many people just go through the motions of every day and don’t find that spark to make it special.

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  4. I love that way of thinking. You can’t apply that level of perfectionism to every facet of life but when you do it mindfully with things that are important to you, it’s enriching. It’s also a refreshing change from society’s common culture of apathy and carelessness.

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  5. Faviken, sigh. Someday I will eat there. In the meantime, I remain inspired by Magnus Nilsson’s passion and drive to be creative and focused on doing things as well as possible. Not a lunatic thing to be doing at all. I heard him on Evan Kleinman’s Good Food podcast (KCRW) recently, talking about the new Nordic Food cookbook that is touched on in Chef’s Table. He talks about his favorite chicken -banana dish growing up!

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  6. I love Chef’s Table. The episode on Magnus was the first one I saw and it hooked me into watching additional shows. I suspect the media exposure and tiny size of the restaurant makes it difficult to get a reservation and expensive…..but….it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

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  7. Agree completely and take it to another direction. I walk my dog and look, smell, hear the most incredible things just as she does – she taught me to enjoy the present. The stars at night are worth more than all the movies I’ve ever watched. I just had to look long enough. Thanks again for your enriching blog.

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  8. I totally agree that Chef’s Table is fabulous, and I hope there will be more to come from that series. I have watched it several times already and do a freeze frame sketch from time to time. Definitely inspirational!!

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  9. This series blew my mind. I sat in awe of each chef, releasing all of the passion they had for the love of their art and the love of the land from which their art began. Thanks for passing along that series to those of us who had not seen it.

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  10. Can’t seem to post on comment page. I agree that chefs table is awesome. For some individuals life is their art medium…

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  11. Sounds like the chef is approaching the ingredients with mindfulness. Of the lives he is taking to feed others, how to best prepare it for flavorfulness. I myself will look hard for Nantes carrots in the grocery store. You cannot always find them but they are, in my opinion, the absolutely best flavor of carrot you can buy. Look in the greentop section of carrots!

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  12. Having become Vegan three years ago now has turned me into a more mindful cook and eater. So obviously, I was turned off to much of his animal food preparations, but fully appreciated his carrot care. Thanks for sharing. I sat reading this over my carefully put together and cooked Organic Steel Oats, with organic banana slices, organic coconut shreds, organic coconut milk, organic almonds and cinnamon. I was fully aware of the very many times my teeth bit through and thoroughly chewed each bite.

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  13. I’m inspired to read this book and look for the series at my local video store (only one left in the county). Thank you. I had never heard of this man before. I’m glad you revisit things that you have posted about before. Carrie

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  14. Danny,

    Thanks for the recommendation. We blew through all the episodes and enjoyed each one. The passion, art and enthusiasm of these chefs is wonderful, and their stories are inspiring for both cooks and us who make art.

    Thanks again,
    -John

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  15. I’m sure this is the least relevant reply to your post, but you always make me laugh. (The lambs, not the kids) sent me howling. I don’t have the patience for that type of attention to detail, but like you, I can appreciate those who do. Excellence is never a waste of time. Thanks for the laugh and the thoughts.

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  16. I watched all of the Chef’s Table series in one sitting earlier this year, and I wanted more, more, more! Each episode was a masterpiece, and each chef an inspiration. Thank you for inspiring us!

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  17. Chef’s Table is something I’d definitely watch…. I must have missed when you mentioned it earlier… I’m a bit addicted to cooking shows especially the ones with “real” content. I will add it to my que. Thanks!

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  18. Okay, Danny. I finally, through post-dental exhaustion (no root canal, thank you), got around to binge-watching Chef’s Table. The first three, in fact. A person needs sleep at some point. I’m eager to find Blue Hill at Stone Barns Farm now as I’m certain I’ve driven by it many times in our area. Where else might I find raw turnip served to me on a spike for untold fortunes?

    Thank you for sharing this fine Netflix series!

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  19. My son recommended Chef’s Table to me months ago, but it wasn’t until I saw your mention of it in a previous post that I checked it out. Man, am I glad I did, and Magnus was one of my favorites. I recognized the title of this post right away. I love how driven all the chefs are about their work. They have such a clarity in their eyes…their faces are so open, they say, “This is who I am and what I’m about”. Listening to Magnus talk to his soux chef about leading by example was so compelling. He wasn’t being “the boss” as in “do it because I said so”. He (basically) said, “do it because you know I’m right”. I love the quote you posted from his book, so applicable to life in general. Just like everything, it’s not about the carrot. Thanks, Danny, for always recommending the best to your readers! Happy 2016!

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