With equal parts of birch and passion,
we keep the flames constantly alive
Niklas Ekstedt's story
I grew up in Järpen, a little village in Jämtland, northern Sweden. Like most young people, my attitude to where I came from was to turn my back on it. When I trained as a chef, we had it drilled into us that the Nordic region was not the place to look for good ingredients. I fell in love with Italian olive oil and French poulet de Bresse. When I opened my first restaurant at the age of 21, the focus was on ultratrendy molecular gastronomy, serving dishes such as asparagus cloud and deep-fried rice paper. It couldn’t have been further removed from the rustic slow cooking of the Jämtland forests. But one day I felt the urge to return to my roots. What was I going to do? I was 33 and lost. In the eyes of the media and the public I was the lightweight TV chef from “Niklas mat”. Time to do something big. It was now or never… How could I put my own personal stamp on New Nordic Cuisine?
I roamed the land around our summer cottage on Ingarö in the Stockholm archipelago, musing like some melancholic character in a black & white Ingmar Bergman film. I could spend long periods standing stock still, staring at the birches. It was only later that I realised I hadn’t been able to see the wood for the trees. Quite literally! I was supposed to have set up a barbecue that summer, but that never happened. Instead I chopped down some of the birches I’d been staring at so I had some firewood. Then I built a fire pit, like I’d done with my parents in the mountains as a kid. The fire became the family’s kitchen that summer and was kept going almost all the time.
I mostly cooked on a grill, but one day I couldn’t wait for the embers, so I pushed a cast iron pan into the flames.
The fire hissed and crackled around the pan. What power, and what flavour! Finally, I felt I was onto something. The idea of a new kind of fine-dining restaurant began to take shape in my mind, a place where everything was cooked over a fire, just like in days of old. My biggest headache: was it practically possible?
Back in town, I took my first head chef Gustav Otterberg to the National Library of Sweden, where we devoured cookbooks from the 18th century. To our delight, we found some fantastic instruction manuals for Swedish cooking before the advent of electricity. I decided that my new restaurant “Ekstedt” on Humlegårdsgatan would be a homage to that time, but also to my childhood and my Jämtland heritage.
Ekstedt opened in November 2011 in central Stockholm, with a fire pit, a wood fired oven and a wood stove. Plenty of people said I’d made things too difficult for myself. But since then I’ve continued to make things more and more challenging for myself and my team. Because that’s what makes us better. And now we also have the stone-age equivalent of a microwave oven, a smoker and extra fires burning. We continue to explore age-old techniques and to learn more about a lost art of cooking.