A chat with Chef Niklas Ekstedt, Swedish tv personality, award winning cookery author and the only chef-restaurateur who decided to ditch electricity and cook over an open fire
In his homeland, Sweden, Niklas Ekstedt is a celebrity but his name, and his restaurant is especially known among gourmand around the world since his restaurant received its first Michelin star and Zagat has proclaimed it one of ‘Ten Hottest Restaurants in the World”, and the EKSTEDT restaurant is really “hottest”, because since they use only flames for cook. The flames of the fire, whether over a wood-burning hearth, in a traditional stove or directly over the flames using only traditional Nordic cooking techniques and only traditional Nordic ingredients. No electric cookers no gas burners, the only electricity used in the kitchen is for the coffee and ice-cream machines.
The owner and founder of EKSTEDT Restaurant Chef Niklas Ekstedt originally heading towards a career as a professional snowboarder, a serious injury led him to pursue his other passion in life, food, for which he has never looked back. The culinary career of Chef Niklas Ekstedt began working for a number of world renowned chefs, including Charlie Trotter in Chicago, Alain Ducasse in Paris, Heston Blumenthal in the UK and carried out a brief internship at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli in Spain.
He opened, at the age of just 21, his first restaurant, “Restaurant Niklas” in Helsingborg, a town in the south of Sweden. The restaurant was an immediate success and won several awards. In search of further challenges, Niklas Ekstedt conceived the bold idea of creating a cuisine using only flames to cook with. He opened Restaurant EKSTEDT in 2011, the restaurant has received numerous awards for its way of presenting and preparing food, including one Michelin star.
Since 2003, Niklas Ekstedt has hosted a popular cooking show on national Swedish television. His latest show Niklas Ekstedt saw him visiting some of the world’s most exciting culinary destinations, meeting with Sean Brock, Massimo Bottura and Elena Arzak, amongst others, along the way. He has also written four cookbooks, one of them published in English; “Scandinavian Classics” (Skyhorse Publishing).
How did you come up with the concept of a restaurant that uses only open fire technique for cooking?
I really enjoy talking about my restaurant and about the concept because it wasn’t a success from the beginning. It was quite a challenge actually when I first started out with it. The whole idea of the restaurant was to work on Nordic food and Scandinavian cuisine, but not just copy Noma. I wanted it to be more than just the new Nordic so I made the restaurant based on technique that originates from our lifestyle in Sweden and the way we used to cook before electricity.
We built a kitchen the way it would have looked 200 years ago. It was more like a historical project since the beginning that we really wanted to find out how food tasted when we cooked it using ancient techniques, but served it in a contemporary way. So that’s how it all started. Then when people showed up and started eating it and enjoying it, we were very surprised and happy.
You only use Scandinavian wood, never thought of using other types of wood?
I believe that Nordic birch wood and Juniper Scandinavian wood gives the food a really unique character, one that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.
The positive characteristics and negative, of this way of cooking.
Most cooking in restaurants is very temperature-driven, but here at Ekstedt we can’t control it and the wood changes things – depending on how wet or dry it is, it changes the way the food cooks. Everything is more labour-intensive, it also takes a lot of time, which is why we had to condense the menu to 5 items only instead of 12, which is what we were planning to have initially.
We also had to change some of the ingredients because a lot of things would just disappear in the stove, You’ll try beautiful asparagus, and it will just shrivel up and disappear. And we’ve had to use bigger chunks of whatever ingredient we’re using. These are some of the challenges we’ve experienced in the past but obviously, cooking over a fire has its benefits. I’m particularly proud of my chimney-baked avocado, for instance. It’s not an ingredient many chefs use, even though Scandinavians love it. Dishes like the avocado are infused not just with the smoky campfire taste of the wood, but also a unique flavour from the stove itself. It’s towards umami or soy and there’s something slightly metallic about it.
Questions about technique and high temperatures are things we hear a lot. How we adapt to the high temperatures we’re cooking with. But once you start working with it, it’s so natural – it’s like sailing a boat. Instead of starting the engine, you have to put the sail up. It’s not like just switch it on or switch it off, you have to physically get everything going with the fires.
A smell of food that you love and a smell that you hate.
I hate the smell of Durian fruit.
A memory related to a flavor.
Smelling wild mushrooms fried in butter takes me right back to my childhood.
A dish of your childhood that you mostly remember.
Surströmming is fermented sea herring and a staple of traditional northern Swedish cuisine. One of my earliest food memories is eating it in my parent’s garden because the smell is so strong, we couldn’t take it inside!
The worst dish you’ve ever tasted.
Fried chicken nuggets- I despise them.
If you were forced to eat only two kind of dishes for all your life what should they be?
Definitely Smørrebrød (traditional Swedish open sandwich on dark rye bread.
The speciality of your restaurant not to miss.
Lamb ribeye with roasted eggplant, smoked tallow & sprouts or Lobster with chimney smoked tomatoes & butter.
An ingredient that you dislike, never use, and do not eat.
Generally speaking, I’d try any food – except for bananas, which I really dislike and refuse to serve – and I find pleasure in eating and cooking.
Two ingredients you could never give up.
Salt and sugar.
A risky combination, but that works.
Cast-iron and lemon.
The foreign country with the best cuisine.
That’s a tough question but as far as areas go, I think I’d go with South Carolina. I just love the food scene down there. Sean Brock from the Husk Restaurant is one of the chefs in our documentary and the Basque country near San Sebastián is of course still very exciting, too. Also, I’d say Estonia or Lithuania. They’re so close, yet there’s still that Eastern European feeling that is so new to us Scandinavians. These two countries are definitely on my radar.
An object you just cannot do without?
My cast-iron pans
Your favourite wine and the best label.
At my restaurant, I buy small quantities of great wines, and prefer them to be as natural as possible to match the natural flavors of our food.
Your favourite cocktail and the best bar it is served in.
I love drinking an Old Fashioned at Kaken bar in Stockholm.
Your favourite food market.
I love Union Square Market in New York as it is a real farmer’s market, not just for tourists.
Would you share with our readers one of your secret food places?
If we’re talking about Stockholm then I’d say Rosendal Garden Bakery – it’s my favourite. I think Stockholm has developed a great bread culture and has amazing bakeries, the one I just mentioned is great!
Favorite blog or website.
YR (Norwegian weather app).