The Heart of This Top Gothenburg Chef Belongs to Sweden

“My heart is here, with the Swedish flavours,” says chef Stefan Karlsson when we visited him in Gothenburg, the West-coast Swedish city that he has both shaped, and been shaped by, in his career as a chef since he first began to cook at the tender age of 13. He is a chef whose interest in the finest of locally-coursed ingredients has long underpinned his gastronomic philosophy, and nowhere is this more evident than at his Swedish restaurant SK Mat & Människor (SK Food & People).

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“It’s important to have good ingredients, because the food can never go bad if you have good ingredients”, he tells us, an ethos inspired in him by the excellent childhood food cooked in abundance for him by his mother and grandmother before he moved North to Gothenburg at 17 years old. Stefan opened his first restaurant in 1999, the Michelin-starred Fond (closed in 2013), and has expanded his growing empire since:

Asian-Swedish fusion restaurant TOSO
Globally influenced brasserie Mr.P
Open-air hangout for drinking and dining, Bar Himmel

All this, without ever losing sight of the Swedish culinary foundations that define his style.

Check out our most recent instalment of What Fascinates Me below, in which Stefan prepares a dish inspired by the traditional flavours of Sweden, but with a modern twist. Traditional Swedish fare, “the kind of food you’d have in the home in the olden times”, was a plateful of “white food”. Stefan riffs on this monochrome platter by salting and slow-cooking the white cod, by invigorating the white sauce with locally-sourced oysters, and by polishing his white root vegetables with an anchovy glaze. The result is a beautifully balanced dish, with the delicate fish offset perfectly by the marine, metallic tang of fresh oyster.

Whet your tastebuds in the video below , and if you’re feeling brave, check out the recipe at the bottom of this article.

The Plus: So are these “white food” ingredients some of your favourite ones to use?
Stefan Karlsson:
This dish has the ingredients I really love, because it’s so Swedish in the flavours. My favourite flavours are of course from Sweden – when I pick my ingredients I do it from just outdoors, so for me it’s natural to use Swedish ingredients and flavours. I’m always going to keep SK, because Swedish flavours are the most important for me. This is the heart of everything.

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White Food

TP: What got you into cooking? Did you always want to be a chef?
SK:
When I was a kid I wanted to be a farmer, because I loved the farmer’s work, with the vegetables, with the cows, with the hens, and everything. But then at 13 years old, I went to a restaurant to make a living, and I loved it. Since then I’ve stayed in the kitchen, and I’ve been working hard seven days a week. I won chef of the year in Sweden, and I have new goals all the time, to keep learning about food.

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TP: So it’s a constant learning process?
SK:
If you want to be the best athlete in the world, you’ve got to train all the time. And I think it’s the same for a chef: you’ve got to train all the time, to travel to see new things, to try new flavours, just to find your own way to cook.

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TP: What wisdom have you picked up along the way that you could share with aspiring chefs?
SK:
My philosophy with food is that if you don’t have good ingredients, you can’t make good food. I’m not so much for techniques and fancy things on the plate; I want everything to be quite clear and simple. Good flavour and good ingredients. That’s the most important thing for me in cooking.

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TP: So what for you (apart from good Swedish ingredients!) makes for a good dish? How do you go about inventing a new one?
SK:
We try to create new dishes all the time, but nothing is new under the sun, and in the end it’s always my type of cooking at the core of the dish.

When I do make a new dish, I want it to be a little bit sweet, a little bit sour, a little bit salty, with a little bit of bitterness: I want to find all these flavours on the same plate together. And then it’s very important to find good consistencies; I want to have it a little bit creamy, and a little bit crispy. So it’s always a mix, finding good consistencies together with the flavours. If you can find everything together in a perfect harmony, then you have a real good dish.

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TP: Could you take us through the philosophy behind SK Food & People?
SK:
that’s my name, Stefan Karlsson. And food and people (Mat & Människor in Swedish), that’s eating and meeting. For us, food is important and our guests are important. when you come to SK Food and People, it’s very important that you feel special, and that you can feel that you’re in a special place on the West coast of Sweden.

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TP: What kind of restaurant flavour did you want SK Food and People to have?
SK:
SK Food and People’s style comes from my childhood. It’s my Grandma’s flavours, my Mum’s flavours, so here in SK everything is Swedish. We try and find ecological products, and we try and find all the ingredients very near to us; we have the fish, the mushrooms from the forest, the root vegetables from the farmers nearby. You can only find these kind of ingredients here in Gothenburg.

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TP: So what about these local ingredients is so distinctive?
SK:
The sea is very important in Gothenburg, because this is the only coast of Sweden where we have salt water, where you can find the lobsters, the langoustines, the oysters… We have the best fish in the world up here in Gothenburg, because the water is so cold. In the wintertime the fish have to fight very hard to survive, and the result is a very special flavour of fish.

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TP: As a chef, tasting food every day, how do you manage to stay fit? Are you conscious to make healthy dishes?
SK:
I can see a trend all over the world towards finding good ways to eat a little bit better. I think, both for the environment and for our health, it’s important to find good ways to use vegetables. Nowadays, we have a lot of vegetarian dishes on the menu. I think a combination of good food and healthy food is something we have to learn how to cook and to eat, because that’s the future.

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TP: Apart from making good quality, healthy food, what’s one thing you really love about being a chef?
SK:
If I’m not in the restaurant, I’m always at home cooking for my family. Because the whole thing for me about being a chef is to make people happy through food. I’m happy if the people who eat my food are happy.

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TP: And what’s a big no-no for you?
SK:
Buying pre-cooked food. I hate pre-cooked, it’s got no use for me in my family.

TP: So you always work towards new goals – what’s your next one?
SK:
My next goal is to find another restaurant, I have a dream to make one that’s a mix of different kind of flavours. My next goal is up here in my head, and I keep it to myself, but it’s to open a new restaurant in a totally different style to what I’m doing today. For me, if I open a restaurant, it’s important for it to be something with personality.

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For you budding Swedish gastrophiles, see Stefan’s mouth-watering recipe below. Send your dinner photos to contact@thepluspaper.com, and smaklig måltid! (Bon appétit!).

Swedish Style “White food” With Cod
Serves 6
Cod

 (1kg back of cod

):
1. Cut the fish into 150g pieces.
2. Bake in the oven at 120 degrees Celsius with 20% steam until inner temperature is 45 degrees Celsius.

Blue Mussel Oyster Sauce:
1kg blue mussels
100g shallots
80g fennel
500ml dry white wine
800ml heavy cream, 40% fat
10 oysters
Salt and white pepper

1. Roughly chop onions and fennel. Fry gently in a pan and add the white wine.
2. Bring to boil and add the mussels, cleaned and sorted. Bring to boil again, then reduce heat and let simmer for 5-10 minutes.
3. Strain the mussels and pour the stock into a new pan. Add the cream and reduce by 1/3.
4. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.

Before Serving:
 Open the oysters and add them to the boiling sauce; mix and pour through a fine strainer. Whisk the mixture into a foam before serving.

Vegetables:
12 firm medium potatoes
6 parsnips
6 Jerusalem artichokes
6 salsifies
100g shallot
dill
100g lightly salted butter
4 Swedish anchovy fillets

1. Peel the potatoes and white vegetables, then chop into bite-sized pieces.
2. Boil in well-salted water until completely tender.
3. Finely chop dill and anchovies.
4. Heat up butter and add anchovies. Add the white vegetables. When it’s hot add the dill and season to taste with salt and white pepper.

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