Mikael Svensson: The Swedish Michelin Chef Who Brought Chefs Dinner to Norway
11 chefs, 10 courses & 11 Michelin stars. That is the recipe for this year’s ‘Mikael & Friends’. Since 2015 each year Mikael has been inviting chefs from top restaurants to join forces for one special night to create a truly unique dinner at his restaurant in Oslo and this year is no exception. We have meet with the Swedish chef to discuss his upcoming chefs dinner ‘Mikael & Friends’ and why he chose to open his restaurant in Norway instead of his home country Sweden.
Opening his own restaurant.
Mikael was born and raised in the south part of Sweden in the countryside among farmers and open landscapes. Starting his career at the age of 16 in Kristianstad Mikael discovered his passion for locally sourced quality products. Since then, Mikael continued his career in Oslo at Le Canard before he went out in Europe working for several restaurants with one, two and three Michelin stars. Among others, the Spanish restaurants Quique Dacosta and Martin Berasategui, until he decided to return to Oslo to participate in the launch of Restaurant Madu and Tjuvholmen Sjømagasin as assistant chef. Finally, in 2013, he felt mature enough to pursue a life long dream of opening his own restaurant, Kontrast, in Oslo.
Kontrast is a modern Scandinavian restaurant focusing on using ingredients that are both local and at the peak of their season. Their main goal is to offer world class, organic and ethically sourced ingredients attracting guests from far and near. Last year Kontrast was awarded their first Michelin star.
You are born and raised in Skåne. Why did you choose to open Kontrast in Oslo?
“Long story short. Just after I finished school in 2002 I got a job at a Michelin-starred restaurant here in Oslo, which was a great opportunity for me; getting to cock and learn at such a high level in a young age. So I moved to Oslo and worked here for almost two years before I moved back to Sweden. When I got back from Spain in 2008 my previous Sous Chef Robert Harewood was starting as a Head Chef at a restaurant here in Oslo and asked me to come along to be his assistant head chef, which seemed like the most intriguing job at the time, so I moved back to Oslo. This lead to another job in Oslo, which lead to another job and so on. Until one day I felt mature enough to open my own restaurant. I had all my contacts here.
I already knew all the suppliers and the Norwegian market. At that point it didn’t make any sense to move back to Sweden and start all over again after spending 5 years here.”
What do you see as the main difference between the Norwegian and Swedish produce?
“It’s both similar and totally different at the same time. I come from Skåne, the south part of Sweden. The season in Skåne is longer. It’s starts 1-2 months earlier and lasts longer as well. When I look at Instagram I see chefs from Denmark or Skåne, who is out picking the first herbs, while I at the same time look out of the window here and see snow and -5 degrees. It affects everything, but again it’s still the same produce, but season is shorter and it’s a harsher climate, but then we have the seafood here, which in my opinion is the best in the world. Getting in touch with right suppliers and fishermen allow us to get fish straight from the sea. It simply doesn’t get better.”
Tell me about the concept of Kontrast?
“We try to be in touch with the season as much as possible. We use what the farms have. We don’t ask for things or make things which is not in season. If one component of a dish is no longer peaking or available from our farmers, we don’t import it. We simply change or adapt the menu. The menu is therefore a living and evolving thing, just like the season is. We don’t have the same dish one the menu for half a year or not even 3 months. Of course we also ferment, preserve and pickle to have ingredients for the winter. We buy only whole animals like ten lambs and half a cow from the slaughter. When they are gone they are gone. That’s the concept. I like to keep things moving. It’s more interesting for both me and the guest.
They come back and see that we have changed something. It’s still the same concept, restaurant and menu, but it’s always something new.”
Why did you choose to name your restaurant Kontrast?
“For me it covers everything. It’s an actual word that comes to me when I think about my food and what I like to do. Kontrast is in the plating and the food; hot to cold, sour to sweet and and crunchy to soft. I like to have texture on the plate. I think Kontrast reflects what I am doing really well.”
Can you shortly describe the main difference of working at a one, two or three Michelin-starred restaurants compared with opening and running your own restaurant?
“You are very narrow minded when working in restaurant. You just see your own section or the kitchen. Everything is about the food. If you have a mean boss, you are more or less just covering your own ass (laughing). It’s a big difference to be a chef compared to be a restaurant owner. I have to look at everything from the entrance door, maintenance, build and maintain a good relationship with our suppliers to fixing salaries. It’s basically everything. You start to see the whole concept of what goes into having a restaurant. You start to understand the guest differently. Not all the guest who comes to the restaurant comes because of the food, some guests are here for the wine list, some for the interior.
We get so many different guests. As a restaurateur you strive to make every guest happy in a different way than as a chef who is more focused on making a great plate. Now it’s about making a great restaurant. Without changing what we are. I want my guests to like Kontrast for what it is and appreciate the experience. You should not be running around changing things just to please guests.”
You received a Michelin star in 2016. Has it somehow changed your restaurant?
“Yes, it has opened up possibilities for us. We’ve got more guests, more international media and press. The clientele has changed in the dining room. Now we have 50% international guests more or less everyday. In the summer it’s maybe 70-80%, when all the Norwegians leaves the city. It has provided us with a more constant guests flow and improved our financial situation, allowing us to hire more staff and hereby provide a better service in both the kitchen and the dining room. It changes a lot.”
What is your Michelin expectations?
“My goal for the restaurant is just to make it better. I want Kontrast to be a better restaurant tomorrow than we are today. We are a better restaurant this week compared to last week. We are a better restaurant this month compared to last month. That’s how we keep working and pushing things forward. Trying to be a little bit better everyday and then see how far we can take it. When it comes to Michelin stars and other lists I can only do what I can do to make us better. If that is enough for one or two or zero stars. That’s not up to me. But of course since I want to be better two stars is the next level.”
You care about sustainability and the environment. How do you minimise food waste and the environmental impact at Kontrast?
“We try to use everything and we try to be creative with the ingredients so we don’t get too much waste. We only buy whole animals from the farmers and use everything, not just buying single cuts of meat. It makes you twist your mind a little bit; How can we use the chicken fat? The same goes for vegetables, instead of just throwing the leftovers out we try to use everything on more time to see how far we can go. We sort our garbage in 11 different categories (hard plastic; soft plastic; paper; cardboard/hard paper; food/organic; metal; glass; porcelain; electrical; batteries; miscellaneous, e.g. if a piece of plastic isn’t clean, this is where it goes) and have a very nice food mill that turns the organic waste into compost material.”
Tell me about the concept of Mikael & Friends. Where did the idea come from?
“I first heard about the concept from Ebbe Vollmer who owns Vollmers in Malmö. They started running it about 5 years ago. A friend of mine, Måns Backlund, was participating and he actually ended up hosting a similar event later that year were he invited me to Göteborg, when he used to work there. I really liked the concept and enjoyed being there, afterwards I therefore thought that I wanted to host one as well, so when we moved Kontrast (Maridalsveien) and had the possibilities to host it, we did it straight away in 2015 which was really fun. It’s fun to gather both known friends and unknown chefs to cook together for one night and get to know new people and see how the different chefs interacts with each other in the kitchen. It’s a lot of work before and after, but it’s a fun night!.”
What is the objective of Mikael & Friends?
“It’s networking. Getting to know new people. You also get some PR since both people in the city and the chefs, who hopefully comes here and has a great time, talks with their friends about it. It’s fun that something like this happens in Oslo and not just in Copenhagen or Stockholm. The purpose is for the participating chefs to get inspired and learn from each other meanwhile creating an unique guest experience. It’s also really great for my staff who get to interact with other chefs and see what they are doing. Everybody sees something new.”
What about the guest experience. What’s in it for the guest?
“Our guests get to test nine different kitchens in one night. This years it’s mostly Scandinavian restaurants, but it varies from Italian dishes (Nina Rydqvist and Måns Backlund are coming from Trattoria La Strega in Gothenburg) to Sushi (Carl Ishizaki are coming from Sushi Sho in Stockholm). Some of the chefs tries to push their own limits. Last year Filip Langhoff from Ask in Helsinki, who previously worked in Norway, wanted to do something with a scallop since he had not used scallops after his return to Finland. All the participating chefs cooks something they don’t normally cook. At Ask in Finland you would never have a scallop, but last year Filip did a course with a scallop. It’s a unique dining experience that is never going to happen again. It’s never going to be the same chef line-up and some of the chefs will never be cooking this specific dish ever again.”
What are the rules?
“There is no rules and no limitations. The participating chefs does whatever the want, as long as it stays within the budget, otherwise they are more than welcome to pay for the ingredients them self, but no one does that. Otherwise each chef are free to create whatever they desire. The only limitations is, that the one who calls a specific ingredient first, get’s to cook with it, so everybody doesn’t end up cooking scallop or oyster. It’s coordinated to get a spread on the menu.”
How do you chose the participating chefs? It’s it a requirement to have a Michelin star?
“No it’s not. This year we have one chef who doesn’t have one. I always invite 5-6 chefs who I know or have meet before and then I always invite some who is new to me, that I don’t actually know or just said hi to briefly. I have invited them because I am curious about their food. To experience something new and expand my network. Pick someone else’s mind for once.”
Can you reveals some of the participating chefs?
“New chefs this year is Sayan Isaksson from Esperanto in Stockholm and Sven Erik Renaa from Re-naa in Stavanger, whom I meet in Kastrup, when we flew in to get the Michelin star. I have been wanting to do things with Sven before before but it never suited. René Mammen from Substans is also coming I meet him in Finland back in June during another chef’s dinner. He seemed like a really nice guy. So I wanted to invite him. Måns have been here before, but this year he is pairing up with Nina from La Strega Trattoria in Gothenburg. So Måns will cook something Italian this year. Returning is Esben from Maaemo, The brothers from Vollmers, Carl from Sushi Sho and Filip from Ask.”