An Oslo Chiaroscuro
During my last visit to Oslo, I was lucky enough to get reservations to Kontrast, a Michelin starred restaurant led by chef Mikael Svensson. The semi-industrial setting seemed perfect for experimentation and innovative cuisine. New Scandinavian in essence and origin, chef Svensson’s dished defy definition and are in constant evolution.
The core tenet at Kontrast is to mind the ingredients. Mikael grew in the countryside in Skåne, surrounded by small farms and traditional food. Devoted to only the best he can find, the furious Norwegian seasonality makes his menu an ever-changing exploration into the flavours of Scandinavia, menus changing weekly, sometimes even daily.
After the din of the evening’s service, chef Svensson and I sat for some quiet conversation, where I tried to extract the essence of his craft and his insights into Oslo.
ARTFUL BY NECESSITY
What is the most important thing about cooking that people most often miss?
It has to be the ingredients. I spend a lot of time looking for the right suppliers, to get the right flavours. I also follow seasonality. Right now, I am focusing on mushrooms, game and lamb.
Sometimes people miss the connection between the flavour and where the food comes from.
In my cooking, I use butter with higher salt and acidity than what you could get from dairy companies. That small detail adds a completely new dimension to my food. If my eggs come from a small, local organic farm where the hens eat real food and free range, those eggs already taste better and make my cooking better.
There’s also something about the “chef personality”. Sometimes, it’s hard to be yourself on the plate rather than pleasing the chef in you. You have to be daring to put your creativity into a dish. I like to challenge the guest, put the off-guard, and give them something they definitely don’t expect! Like my bone marrow ice-cream.
The ice-cream was amazing. How did you do that?
You polish the bones and then mix the ice cream, and put it back into the bones. We then poach rhubarb and raspberry granita on top. It looks like roasted marrow with fish eggs on top. On your palate, you get a sweet ice cream but with fat, Umami, saltiness and the freshness of the berries. It has been quite successful!
What defines your food, what sets you apart?
As you can probably tell from my restaurant’s name, I like contrast: sweet and sour; hot and cold; taste and colours. My food has to awaken something in your palate.
How does your craft differ from that of other countries, and even between that of other Norwegian regions?
Norwegian cuisine springs from necessity. A lot of our cooking is based on preserves because there are long stretches when you can’t get any food. We have come to embrace that tradition in our cooking. For example, dishes with potatoes and sour cream paired with smoked, dry fish. We take that, but then we crisp it up!
GETTING A BIT PERSONAL
If you had a few words to say from the heart to all the people in the world, and everyone were listening, what would they be and why? It doesn’t necessarily have to be your words, it could be a quote or something you were told that determines how you live your life.
People need to realise where things come from. People don’t see the effect of their choices. Small things that have big consequences can be easily avoided in everyday life, we just need to pay attention to the details. When buying anything, ask yourself where it comes from, how it is been produced. A lot of people are horrified by how pigs are treated in industrialised farms but then they fail to make the connection between the pig and the pork they buy in the store.
The path to success is often paved with failure. Do you have any such negative experience that taught you something crucial, or catapulted you to your current success?
I loved to play ice hockey and I wanted to be a pro player! I failed at that. My parents did not want me to become a cook but I managed to fail at “proper” education.
HUNGRY FOR MORE? DISCOVER THE WORLD THROUGH ITS FLAVOURS
Sometimes, I have a clear idea of how I want the dish but when I try to cook it, it doesn’t work. I become obsessed and work on it tirelessly… and then sometimes, after all the time and effort, it still doesn’t work, or it becomes something completely different… and it doesn’t make the menu.
If you were to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?
Work hard, focus, be humble.
What investment of time, money or energy has given you the greatest returns?
Opening Kontrast, owning a restaurant that is 100% mine. I started by renting a breakfast room in a hotel. The hotel service did breakfast in the mornings and I took over to serve dinner in the evenings. 14 months like that! I saved the profits from a year to get a loan from the bank since I didn’t have any collateral.
What book or books would you give a young person as a rite-of-passage gift?
Melker Andersson, the Swedish celebrity chef, published a cookbook sometime around the mid-90s. I borrowed that book from a cousin who was a chef. I thought the book so avant-garde… I loved it!
What is it that you like most about your city?
The contrast, if you forgive me the wordplay, of being a quiet town and close to nature while at the same time being a capital where exciting things happen.
What does the visitor often miss?
They spend too much time down by the waterfront.
Where’s the best place for getting off the tourist track?
There are lots of small parks around town, so you don’t even need to leave the city. There’s a place further up the river where they built a two-level pool that even has a waterfall. It’s great because the pool sits on the river, so you swim in the river stream! Nydalen is the name.
Other than Kontrast, what are other good places to eat?
Depends what mood I am in. I like to go to places that don’t have Nordic ingredients. Tranen is a great place for pizza. My friend [Chef Atil Mar Yngvason] just opened a new restaurant, Katla. It used local ingredients but they cook them with Latin-American and Asian techniques.
What about drinks?
Bettola is a great venue. It’s technically an Italian cocktail bar but with Scandinavian furniture from the 60s. It’s bewildering!