As Niklas Ekstedt lights up the capital's food scene with his new restaurant, Sweden's reluctant celebrity chef tells Sophie Witts about his elemental approach – and why he can't kill his fridge.
With Niklas Ekstedt, there are no stupid questions. We're discussing the Swedish chef's Stockholm restaurant, where he cooks entirely without gas or electricity, and I'm curious how far this ethos can go. Would he cut out any other modern trappings, such as a fridge?
"It's not a dumb question," the 42-year-old reassures me. "I do have a refrigerator, but I've thought about it and wanted to get rid of it for a while." He pauses. "I just realised pretty quickly that it would be impossible."
It's a typically frank response from Ekstedt, who famously turned his back on the fuss and frills of molecular gastronomy for a more down-to-earth approach he has dubbed ‘analogue cooking'.
At his eponymous Stockholm restaurant, which holds a Michelin star, there are none of the water baths or vacuum sealers often found in high-end kitchens. Instead, everything is cooked simply over wood fires with smoke, soot and charcoal used to flavour the food.
It's been a dream for me to open in England, for a long time. London is my favourite city to visit
Now, the chef has brought this approach to London for his first international restaurant, Ekstedt at the Yard, which opened at the Great Scotland Yard hotel – part of Hyatt's Unbound Collection – in Westminster earlier this month. He has taken over the space once occupied by Robin Gill's the Yard restaurant, replacing its modern British dishes with a tasting menu that includes seared smoked venison heart and oyster flambadou.
Though Ekstedt describes the kitchen as a little less "raw" than his Stockholm restaurant, the techniques are the same, with a fire pit, wood-fired oven and wood stove used to cook its seven- and three-course tasting menus.
"It's very similar to what we do [in Stockholm]," he says. "It's a little easier here because the seasons are longer [than in Sweden] so we have a couple more weeks of different products. I'm a little like a child in the candy store, as there are so many new things to discover here, like the game and the vegetables. I'm finding new foraged produce that we don't have in Sweden, so I'm having a lot of fun."
A season in El Bulli
For Ekstedt, opening a British restaurant has been a long-held ambition. Born in Järpen, a small town in central Sweden, his family lived in England for a period when he was a child. After training at the Racklöfska cookery school back in Sweden, he moved to Chicago to work at two-Michelin-starred Charlie Trotter's and did a season at three-starred El Bulli in Spain, then the training ground for many in the molecular gastronomy movement.
In other interviews, Ekstedt has described his time at El Bulli as tough, and denies it has had any influence on his current style of cooking. "I take no inspiration [from there] and I don't use any of the techniques I learned there today," he says bluntly.
Ekstedt returned to Sweden to open his first restaurant at the age of 21 in the harbour town of Helsingborg, and it was a critical success. Swedish television soon came calling and his debut show, Niklas Mat, was a national hit. Other restaurant projects followed but, at what seemed a high point in his career, something didn't feel right.
"I was a little tired of the persona that I became," sighs Ekstedt. "I didn't really start cooking to be on TV or to be a celebrity chef.
"I had a restaurant that was a modern European-focused fine-dining restaurant, and I got tired of it and wanted to stop cooking and do something else for a while. My first son was born at that time, and I took a little break."
So Ekstedt closed his restaurant and dived into research, finding inspiration in cooking techniques he felt had been largely forgotten.
"I quickly realised that Scandinavian cooking was so much more than a focus on ingredients," he recalls. "I started reading a lot about old-style Swedish food and how we used to cook. Suddenly, I felt that was my calling, so to speak. Food just became more delicious when I used the cast iron and the birch wood, and started smoking and fermenting things."
By 2011, the chef had returned to Stockholm and turned his new passion into a restaurant called Ekstedt. He describes it as having the "Stone Age equivalent of a microwave oven", with a smoker, fire pit, and wood-fired oven and stove. The new approach paid off, with the restaurant winning its Michelin star in 2013.
Last year, despite his aversion to celebrity, Ekstedt returned to television screens as a judge – or ‘food god', according to the show – on Channel 4 cooking competition Crazy Delicious. Appearing alongside American chef Carla Hall and Heston Blumenthal, he judged unconventional challenges that saw the creation of strawberry cheesecake buffalo wings, and deep-fried burgers containing peanut butter, jelly and ice-cream.
Ekstedt has "no idea" how he became involved with the show. "They just called me up and asked me if I wanted to be in it, and suddenly I was in a studio with Carla Hall and Heston Blumenthal, which was a very surreal experience," he says.
When I ask what it was like working with Blumenthal, he takes a moment to find the words. "It was intellectually challenging because he's always ahead of you in his way of thinking. He kind of twists thoughts and ideas in a direction that you didn't think was possible. I find it very interesting to be around people with different ideas, but his ideas were so different that they challenged me to understand them." He laughs, adding: "I think I did eventually, but it was hard."
Despite his ongoing success, Ekstedt's Stockholm restaurant was not immune to the challenges of the past 18 months. In March 2020, Sweden became one of the few European nations not to impose a full-scale lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Restaurants and bars were able to remain open with social distancing in place, but travel restrictions meant Eksted's international customer base disappeared overnight, forcing the team to rethink the menu.
"Before the first lockdown we were 60%-70% tourists and suddenly we were 100% local clients, so we started cooking for the neighbourhood," he says. "It was fun, in one way, to do that. Of course, there was big pressure and we were very worried about what was going on in the world, and a lot of foreigners that worked with us left. But the first lockdown – it was like you could see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Rising coronavirus rates, however, prompted a toughening-up of the rules later in the year, with restaurants and bars banned from selling alcohol after 10pm. They were also hit with limits on table sizes, and later ordered to close from 8:30pm. Ekstedt admits this phase was more difficult, forcing the restaurant to switch to an afternoon service during the week. "We managed to keep floating, but it was a very challenging period," he says.
It was in between lockdowns in the UK that the chef first got wind of a vacancy at the Great Scotland Yard hotel. Ekstedt always retained his ambition to open in London and ran a well-received residency at Carousel in 2016.
"The hotel was looking for chefs to do a pop-up restaurant in between lockdowns and I told them I was looking for a permanent address in London, and we started discussing from that," he explains. "It's been a dream for me to open in England, for a long time. London is my favourite city to visit and I've always wanted to have a restaurant there."
Ekstedt at the Yard is tasting-menu only, priced at £135 for seven courses with optional £80 drinks pairing and a £45 non-alcoholic option. A three-course version is £75 with a £50 alcoholic and £35 soft-drink pairing. Dishes include flamed mushroom, lobster with caramelised cream, sweetcorn and black truffle; hay-smoked mallard with black pudding, trout roe and buckwheat; and a cep souffle with pine-needle ice cream and wild blueberries.
The menu will change seasonally, with the chef keen to take advantage of the produce available in the warmer English seasons compared with the long Swedish winter. Ekstedt will be based in the UK until the restaurant is up and running, then he plans to be "a bit back and forward" between London and Stockholm.
Although he says the opening has gone well, towards the end of our call, Ekstedt asks if I have heard of any plans by the UK government to make it easier for people from overseas to come and work in hospitality. He claims to have had no issues recruiting for the restaurant, but has felt the impact of staff shortages.
"I think we're like a new kid on the block and I took a lot of staff that worked with me previously. But I can feel that [London] is lacking staff in the city," he says. "It's not only waiters and bartenders, but the whole logistic system is also a little bit broken because of the lack of staff."
Staffing issues aside, with his first London restaurant open, does Ekstedt have any grand plans for further UK sites? The chef is typically straightforward. "I've never had a five-year plan to do something like that. I've always just followed my dreams and done what I want to do. It's just nice to be open and have happy customers, because it feels like this restaurant has been a long time coming."
The tasting menus
Wood-oven flatbread, seared smoked venison heart, allspice, lingonberries
- Charcoal cream, vendace roe, ember-baked leek, smoked deer
- Oyster flambadou, smoked apple, beurre blanc, nasturtium
- Flamed mushroom, lobster, caramelised cream, fava beans, sweetcorn, black truffle
- Hay-smoked mallard, black pudding, trout roe, buckwheat
- Woodruff mousse, sorrel sorbet, raspberries
- Cep souffle, pine-needle ice-cream, wild blueberries
- Flamed mushroom, caramelised cream, fava beans, sweetcorn, black truffle
- Hay-smoked mallard, black pudding, trout roe, buckwheat
- Cep souffle, pine-needle ice cream, wild blueberries
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