Swedish chef Niklas Ekstedt shot to fame in 2003 with his TV cooking show Mat - food in Swedish – but is now known more for his eponymous Stockholm restaurant that opened in 2011 and which eschewed gas and electric for more primitive cooking methods. Speaking at last month’s The Restaurant Show the chef discussed why, 10 years on, he has brought his fiery cooking style to London.
You’ve just opened Ekstedt at The Yard in London. Explain the reason behind this.
I’ve always loved London and I see England as my second home. As a kid my dad had a job in East Sussex, so we lived in England for a couple of years, and I fell in love with it. The first big city I ever visited was London, so it’s always been a very nostalgic place for me. I have always wanted to open in London so I could come over and visit the city as much as possible. England and Sweden are very similar - we don’t lean on a great gastronomic history and we are both open to different styles of restaurants, new flavours and cultures. This makes London a very vibrant and interesting city to hang out and eat in.
Was it hard finding a site for the restaurant?
It was very challenging finding a place where I could do my extraction and work with my fire cooking – and then the pandemic came. But there have been so many new inventions that now make it an incredibly easy working environment. We have a filter that is added onto the extraction system that takes the smoke and turns it into a water mist so that you can wash it out - it drains into the sewers. It is much better than 10 years ago when I started and there were so many complications and difficulties.
How would you describe your cooking style?
People think they are aware of what Ekstedt is all about but I when they come and see my cooking live and what I actually do they change their perspectives a bit. People think of me as cooking on a grill or in a pizza oven but when they look at in detail, they see my cooking is all about the flames and the heat and the birch - to use heat in the most effective way. It’s not so much about grilling it’s about heat, flames, and smoke, which is much more complicated. There are other restaurants that have been inspired by me but when guests come to my restaurants the dishes and the food is so different, people don’t expect it to have come out of a wood oven. I still have a new thing to bring to London.
How does your London restaurant compare to the Stockholm original?
It’s a little better maybe. I’ve been cooking every day in the kitchen and have developed a best of menu where I’ve taken the dishes that people have loved over the past 10 years in Stockholm and have made a seven-course set menu out of them. It’s a hit album of all the dishes. In Stockholm I like to push the boundaries of what people think is delicious but for the London restaurant every dish is just tasty – it’s not too complicated.
Will the menu change regularly?
I will change the menu as often as I can – in spring it will change quite regularly because of the availability of ingredients. It might sound strange, but I moved to England for the weather – it’s so much nicer than in Sweden. The seasons here last longer. Back home I need to pickle more and preserve more and it’s more complicated sourcing ingredients. England its great, the vegetables are all so nice.
Do chefs need to learn new skills to work for you?
Every time we find new chefs, we have to train them on a special grill and that takes extra days to do that. In my kitchen chefs are not just cooking but also making sure the fire is kept alive. The biggest challenge is staffing and teaching. We need to be better in our industry to train and to work with young chefs and help them develop. I see the challenges of Brexit. Working in England is way more complicated than in Sweden and I wish that England was a part of the EU. I hope one day it can be again.
How do they feel about not working with gas or electricity?
Most chefs embrace the idea which is why they apply for a job in my restaurants. But usually, the guys or girls who are really into it are the ones who don’t survive that long; after a while they want to start using gadgets. The chefs that aren’t that fascinated about it but try it anyway and find different ways to work around things are the ones who last longer. It’s like sailing a boat – you could take the easy option and put a motor on it but sailing it takes more time, more labour, more brains. But when you’ve got the sail up and going and the wind is blowing it’s great.
Are there things you can’t you cook because of your approach?
So much. All the other fine dining Michelin starred restaurants always want small vegetables such as asparagus or tiny turnips. I have to use things that are very big. With my style of cooking if I put something small under the fire there will be nothing left. Chocolate and anything that’s tempered is very hard because of the heat in the kitchen.
What trends are you seeing in Stockholm that might come over here?
The big thing in Sweden is that kids don’t drink. As a restaurateur it is very clear to me that the young generation have no desire to drink wine or booze, so we have to meet them with new drinks alternatives such as juices and kombuchas and have a strong coffee programme.
Niklas Ekstedt was speaking at The Restaurant Show, which will return next September as The BigHospitality Expo. BigHospitality, The Morning Advertiser, MCA Insight, Lumina Intelligence, World’s 50 Best, The Restaurant Show and the William Reed’s suite of event brands and platforms will together launch the show targeting specifically the hospitality industry of today – and the future.
The BigHospitality Expo will be the ultimate event for restaurateurs and chefs, casual dining operators as well as pubs and bars. The Restaurant Show, an exhibition also run by William Reed, that for over 30 years has attracted the UK’s best chefs, operators and exhibitors, will continue as part of the new BigHospitality Expo and will deliver even more for the restaurant sector. As well as The Restaurant Show, the new exhibition will feature Catering Equipment Expo. William Reed is also bringing Hostech, its hospitality technology content and event platform, to the show to deliver the vital tech and marketing innovations to help operators drive efficiencies, increase profits, and enhance the customer experience.
The BigHospitality Expo will showcase the best products, services, and innovations in the market and will feature a packed agenda of industry insight, keynote sessions and panel discussions with industry-leading speakers from across the industry. There will also be food, drink and business-focused workshops, masterclasses, and networking events, of which more information will be announced in the coming months.