From the islands of Stockholm to the streets of San Francisco, Sweden’s food culture is becoming a powerful symbol of the country’s spirit of innovation.
San Francisco is a special place. Since the 1960s, this distinctly Californian city has attracted freethinkers, risk-takers and those looking for a different way of life. If you’re after an antidote to anonymous shopping malls and beige suburbs of the modern US, this is where you’ll find it.
That’s why it should come as no surprise that this most international of cities – it’s home to the first Chinatown in the US – boasts an incredible selection of global cuisines. And fittingly, one of the most talked about is Swedish (well Swedish-American). It’s called Pläj – and is a sign that Sweden’s innovative food philosophy is spreading all over the world.
“We opened here because San Francisco is so diverse,” says Swedish chef Roberth Sundell, who co-owns Pläj with his American wife, Andrea. “The people are really interested in exotic cultures, and they’re particular about what they eat.”
First, the name: according to the restaurant’s website, “Pläj is a phonetic spelling of the word ‘play’. It’s a celebration of food, drink, and great company, and a place where cultures come together.”
Roberth and Andrea – who is originally from Arizona – were living in Truckee, Lake Tahoe, when Roberth was asked to put on a Swedish-themed dinner for 250 guests in San Francisco. One diner – a general manager of three hotels – was so impressed he asked the pair to take over one of his restaurants. And so Pläj was born: dedicated to mixing Swedish food culture with local produce.
“We live in Petaluma [north of San Francisco] surrounded by farmland and right by some of the biggest, most famous creameries in the world,” says Andrea. “We go to Green String Farms to pick up our produce, working with the farmer to get the best ingredients.”
“San Francisco is so diverse. The people are interested in exotic cultures, and they’re particular about what they eat“
Head chef, Pläj
A quick look at the menu shows the interplay between tried-and-tested Swedish recipes and locally sourced ingredients. Traditional stalwarts like meatballs, lingonberries and gravlax are elevated with innovative cooking methods and unbeatable ingredients. There’s even elk carpaccio.
Of course, it’s not just about the food: the intimate atmosphere is important, too. Andrea, a former interior designer, says, “What I hear at the tables all the time is, ‘I love this place because you can hear yourself talk, you can have a conversation.’”
While Pläj retains many of the signifiers of regular restaurants, Stockholm’s Gastrologik – run by Jacob Holmström and Anton Bjuhr – discards everything that isn’t essential. Including menus. The reason? To place the emphasis squarely on the food.
When Jacob and Anton set up Gastrologik six years ago, they decided to use only ingredients from Sweden or, if they were really stretched, other Nordic countries. Like Noma in Copenhagen, which also specialises in locally foraged food, this restriction concentrates creativity.
“The reason we got rid of the menus was because you never know where nature is tomorrow,” says Anton. “This means that we can’t really decide what ingredients we’re going to use tomorrow. We have an empty canvas every day. None of our guests know what they’re about to have until their food’s in front of them.”
This purist attitude hasn’t hindered them, however. With an interior courtesy of Swedish architect Jonas Lindvall – and a Michelin star for good measure – Gastrologik is a leading light of the Stockholm food scene, with combinations like sea urchin, beans, rose vinegar and algae crust winning over even the most sceptical of diners.
“If you’re ever lacking inspiration, you visit the farm and automatically go back home with tons of ideas“
Head chef, Gastrologik
“If you’re ever lacking inspiration, you visit the farm and automatically go back home with tons of ideas,” says Anton. “You go to a farm in July and pick broad beans straight from the bushes then find out you can eat the leaf and the flowers. The instant we learned that we put leaves on the menu.”
And using only fresh, local food means the pair have to rely on traditional methods of preservation like pickling. “In order to have unique ingredients during the whole year we need to preserve half the menu for the winter,” says Jacob. “But that work has to be done in the summer and we can look at old techniques, how it was done before we had refrigerators or imported goods. For example, how can you use only Swedish ingredients in January when fresh vegetables are nowhere to be found?”
Another Stockholm restaurant, Oaxen, is also pushing the locally-sourced food angle, but they’ve cut out the middle man by using their own farm. For 17 years, the restaurant was based on the tiny island of Oaxen, south of Stockholm. But in 2013, owners Agneta Green and Magnus Ek moved to Djurgården – a largely rural island in central Stockholm – enabling them to fulfill their grand vision for the restaurant. A key part of that is being able to cook vegetables that have only just been picked.
“If you can shorten the time from when a vegetable’s been harvested to when it’s consumed, your ingredients will taste far nicer,” says Magnus. “It’s not that we grow better vegetables than anyone else, it’s just that we can use them straightaway.”
Oaxen is divided in two with a regular bistro, Slip, alongside the fine-dining restaurant, Krug. Unlike at Gastrologik, menus are a key aspect of the experience, though what makes Oaxen special is the ever-changing relationship Magnus has with the food he cooks.
“If, for example, you have a fish, and it stays on the menu for a long time, it’s not going to be looking or even tasting exactly like it did the first time. It’s going to evolve and change. My job is to make it better.”
“It’s not that we grow better vegetables than anyone else, it’s just that we can use them straightaway”
As at Pläj and Gastrologik, sustainability is at the core of Oaxen’s ethos, but here they go a bit further, using waste as an energy source.
“We separate our waste,” says Magnus. “Food waste is turned into biogas and the premises are kept at the right temperature using environmentally friendly geothermal heating and a heat recovery system.”
Looking out to the tiny island of Beckholmen from Oaxen’s tranquil waterside location on Djurgården, it’s clear how entwined Sweden’s food scene is with the land that produced it. But what’s really surprising is that this sustainable, innovative food culture is now being by championed by chefs and diners thousands of miles from this corner of Scandinavia. It seems good taste has no boundaries.