Unless you spend time in northern Sweden or have had the privilege of a meal at chef Magnus Nilsson’s 16-seat farmhouse restaurant Fäviken in Järpen, about 470 miles north of Stockholm, your first image of Nilsson is likely in a fur hat, from the first season of the Netflix documentary series “Chef’s Table.” In that show and in PBS’ “The Mind of a Chef” series, Nilsson talks about his restaurant, currently ranked 57th on the World’s Best Restaurant list, in a landscape of trees and snow and a hat even cooler than the one Marge Gunderson wore in “Fargo.”
And Nilsson does a lot more than cook. He’s the author of three books, perhaps most impressively “The Nordic Cookbook,” a 763-page, 700-plus-recipe masterwork of regional home cooking for which he took most of the photographs. Nilsson is in Los Angeles this month, to give a talk and to show that art, on display at downtown’s Union Station. Recently I talked to Nilsson by phone from Fäviken.
How have your photography and your cooking informed each other?
The photography, up until ”The Nordic Cookbook,” was always separate from the cooking, something that I did because it was very relaxing — or at least it used to be very relaxing. I think it was always especially so because it wasn’t my profession: I’m nowhere near as good a photographer as I am a cook, meaning that I have to concentrate a lot to translate the ideas that I have into the photos I want. And that’s somehow very relaxing. There’s no room for anything else. That all changed when I did “The Nordic Cookbook,” because it was about documenting food, whereas before it was just for fun. I haven’t quite figured out how they inform each other — yet. But I know they do, like with all creative outlets; there’s always a reason for everything you come up with, even if you don’t know exactly where it came from.
Mostly I use a Leica M9, which is quite old now, one of the first digital Leicas.
You’ve been taking pictures since you were a kid?
Yeah, I got my first camera when I was 6 or 7 and I’ve photographed since. Not always very frequently, but always since that time.
You must love Instagram.
I came very late to Instagram. I refused social media as long as I could — I didn’t feel like we needed it. It’s just something that seems to take a lot of time for most people, time that I felt could be more well-spent doing other things. But then I started, like a year and a half ago, and I don’t post very regularly. It seems like sometimes people are prioritizing to document what happens over actually experiencing what happens.
I refused social media as long as I could — I didn’t feel like we needed it.
— Magnus Nilsson
And then you start a project like “The Nordic Cookbook,” which is kind of an exercise in documentation.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was also not being like technically a professional photographer. I’ve photographed on commission for a few different American magazines and I’m really bad at it. I don’t enjoy it; and it bugs me that they want so many photos to choose from. And that’s something that I realized during the process of making “The Nordic Cookbook,” that that way of working kind of suits me. I have the camera, I take snapshots of things that happen; sometimes they turn out really, really good, and most times they don’t, and that’s also OK. I still have that memory — I have so many memories that would have been amazing photos, but I didn’t manage to turn them into amazing photos, and that’s sort of OK. Most of the photos that I take there’s only one of; there’s not a whole series to pick the best from. I only took one. That approach is very different from most professional photographers who have to deliver something.
You also seem more comfortable than many people jumping from one genre to another — you gave up cooking to become a wine writer. You’ve jumped before.
Initially it was because I became bored with cooking: It wasn’t pleasurable, it wasn’t fun anymore. I quit cooking many times, not just to become a wine writer. And I realized later, like these last five or six years, that it’s actually very helpful. Cooking is my primary creative outlet, and it’s also what pays the bills. Doing all these other things really helps me get excited about cooking, thinking in different ways about cooking. I’ve come to realize that I do a lot of different things and they all inform each other somehow.
You quit cooking to learn about wine and to take pictures — not to become a dentist.
Exactly. It’s the same with all these things. I do a little gardening for example, I write a lot. I’ve written all of my books, which I’ve come to understand is quite rare in the chef world. And all of these things, I don’t see them as separate anymore; they’re all kind of the same creative output somehow.
One of the many impressive things about “The Nordic Cookbook” is its authenticity. But that’s a problematic word — what does authenticity even mean anymore?
Almost nothing, I think. And it’s one of those things that you have to think about when you produce something like “The Nordic Cookbook,” which is — for me, as a chef, it’s kind of weird to produce that kind of book, as it’s not about what I think about food. It’s about what everyone else thinks about food and what they actually eat and actually cook and the way food culture actually looks. Authenticity is one of those things — it’s like talking about regional cuisines. Who decides? Who is it that decides what’s regional and not? Who decides what’s authentic and not? So I think in this day and age most of those words are almost impossible to use with any credibility, actually.
Which brings us to your hot dog stand. Is it still going?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. There are two fixed locations and then there’s the hot dog van. Now it’s winter, so it’s just sitting there, but I’m sure we’ll pull it out for some festival this summer. It’s in the garage at Fäviken. In the summer we usually tow it to music festivals.
So you have a hot dog van. You have Fäviken, one of the best restaurants in the world. Is there a difference between high and low cuisine — or are those more terms that mean nothing anymore?
There are physical differences: If you just compare them, there are a million differences. A place like Fäviken, where our average bill is more than $550 per head. So there are obvious structural differences between that and the hot dog van, which costs I think $8. But the idea that one is always necessarily better just because of the way it’s constructed — that’s kind of strange. My philosophy’s always been that you can do anything well, and you can do anything really poorly as well. I mean, I’d have an amazing well-made hot dog served really well by a nice person any day over a poorly executed tasting menu served by a [not-so-nice person].
So what’s in Fäviken’s root cellar now?
Right now it’s almost empty because we’re just to the verging of spring. It’s the last couple of weeks of the root cellar. Currently we’re working with the roots of the cabbage, which is one of those things you almost never see — you use the head and the leaves of it. There’s some Jerusalem artichokes, which are not very exciting but they’re very tasty this time of year. That’s pretty much it. We’ll start stocking it again in a couple months.
One last thing: That is the coolest fur hat I’ve ever seen.
It was made by a Sami craftsman, it’s traditional Sami wear — it’s silver fox. Yeah, they’re kind of amazing.