ELLE KWAN discovers Björn Frantzén's award-winning New Nordic cuisine
CHEF BJÖRN FRANTZÉN'S list of dishes reads like the fantastical imaginations of a Roald Dahl Character – a Willy Wonka about to go wild with invention in his chocolate factory. One description: oyster “45min”, with Jersey cream, perfumed juniper berries, dried seaweed, frozen sea buckthorn and walnuts. Only a Whizzlepop is missing.
It's rare, in a food-centric place like Hong Kong, to unearth menus new or ingredients never before tried. Items considered oddities elsewhere such as sea urchin or durian dessert are commonplace here, while our taste for extravagance means high-end truffles or Parisian macaroons are also within easy reach. But on Björn Frantzén's menu, the never-trieds multiply.
Frantzén's factory is his kitchen, and in truth what goes on in there is actually quite wild. As a part of the “new Nordic” movement, which sprung up after chef René Redzepi's Noma opened and began topping lists such as the World's 50 Best Restaurants, Scandinavian chefs, including the Swedish Frantzén, have re-plated notions of the region's food. For many of us, Sweden's culinary wonders stop at meatballs and gravlax, potatoes and cream.
Frantzén shrugs. “The reason our food is like that is because that's what people could store. When you have minus 30 degrees Celsius outside it's not time for basil, you know?”
His own time for basil was early in his career. Having worked at top-rated places in Europe, Frantzén headed back to Sweden, and, like many other Nordic returnees, replicated dishes he'd trained with, using classical techniques and ingredients. He says it was fine turning out those well-honed western European recipes on home turf, but he felt more could be achieved.
“What happened was that chefs like René [Redzepi] and me and Magnus Nilsson from Fäviken went abroad to train in some of the best restaurants in the world and then we came back to our own regions and thought, “Hold on, are we always going to keep on doing it the way its been done? It's never been good enough. We never had a three-star Michelin restaurant. Nordic history in food and gastronomy is very short – it's not very strong if you compare to Italy or France. It's like we had a blank page.”
It's here that we arrive at dishes such as veal sweetbreads with toasted flour, beef with deep-fried moss, dill flowers, hazelnut milk and fudge of fermented garlic – ingredients in dishes that have won Frantzén two Michelin stars and a number-12 ranking on the World's 50 list for his Stockholm-based Restaurant Frantzén. There, in an uncluttered dining room with good strong wooden furniture, a diner will find dishes of purity. About 95 percent of ingredients are Swedish and they're frequently pickled, fermented or dried. Scattered among them are handfuls of Asian influences. Creative flashes marry items together. They arrive later, plated, looking artful but rustic, still lifes depicting rambling woodlands, dark undergrowth, a cobbled coast.
Bringing these dishes to Hong Kong is no easy task, being so influenced by Scandinavia. Frantzén says he's up for the challenge, even introducing a new creation for a pop-up venture hosted by The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong recently. “If it works here, then it'll work anywhere,” he says.
Quite the poster boy with his chiselled features and eyes like sparkling water, the 36-year-old chef looks every inch the football star he set out to be. An injury halted his professional career early on. “Cooking was always a second choice so I never put any effort into it, but I got injured and couldn't keep playing so I had to stop and think, ‘What the fuck am I going to do now? Let's take up this cooking thing, you know?' ” he says.
The high standards, drive and competitive spirit demanded by professional football were willed into a determination to succeed in food. “I went to the best restaurants in Sweden and asked if I could work for free, and then it just rolled on from there,” he says. He chased Michelin stars in London and France before returning home.
Football, he thinks, prepared him to shoot for the stars, and deal with it when he got them. “The closest you get to that [feeling] 10 minutes before kick off, when the expectation is very high, is running a Michelin-star restaurant,” he says.
Frantzén describes his precise and carefully masterminded cuisine as “Nordic kaiseki”, and says that Asia's food history shares links with Scandinavia's culinary traditions. Fermenting, pickling, salting and drying are common in both cultures, he says. Since Restaurant Frantzén opened five years ago, his team has worked to let each individual flavour stand out. They've incorporated raw ingredients, almost eliminated sauces and use natural sugars.
But while the ratings stack up thick and fast, takings at the restaurant, which has just 18 seats and 12 cooks, don't rocket in the same way. “It is great for gastronomy but not for economy,” is how Frantzén wryly puts it. Across the road from the restaurant, he's opened The Flying Elk, a British-style pub that serves the quintessential English favourite, cod and chips, and which eases the financial burden. On any given night he can be seen dipping between the two establishments keeping tabs on the kitchens.
Unusually for the heated, pressure-cooker environment of a top-performing kitchen, his team of cooks at Frantzén remains largely unchanged from when doors opened and pots started simmering five years ago. Frantzén is most pleased with their progress over the past two years. “We are where we want to be and we just really, really want to dig into that. We aren't taking elephant steps anymore, it's small steps now,” he says.
He's still pernickety about what makes it onto the plate. An idea he has for combining rosehips and chilli just won't seem to come together. “I've tried all sorts of things. An appetiser with crab – that was crap. I've done it so many different ways I'm almost giving up. I'm adding sugars to it now to try and make a dessert,” he says.
Not that he gives up easily. When asked how long these two ingredients have been puzzling him, he scratches his head and smiles. “Oh, seven or eight years,” he says. “Seven or eight years.”