Chef Niklas Ekstedt is charming, unpretentious, and driven, and he’s the kind of guy who just seems to be good at just about anything, whether on the slopes, being the mastermind behind his TV shows, or connecting with other chefs. Even the legendary baking ReBelle Mary Berry had a flirt with him in an episode of her latest show, that saucy minx! Although an injury dashed his dreams of becoming a pro snowboarder early on, you can’t argue that it wasn’t to the benefit of the culinary world!
Before opening his own restaurants, Chef Niklas had worked around the world, from Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago to El Bulli to the now-closed Pierre André in Copenhagen. In fact, this last place is where he met Chef René Redzepi, the chef and co-owner of famed 2-Michelin star Noma.
Rather than plaster his name across chains of restaurants and losing the real touch and reason behind having the actual restaurant, Chef Niklas keeps focused by not branching out too much. The chef’s mind is constantly spinning and whirling a million miles an hour around his love of food (he has authored six cookbooks to date) and genius ideas for his TV shows. On American PBS, there’s New Scandinavian Cooking which he finished filming last year, and he’s currently shooting a new show that has been described as a “super glossy food series”. (Read our Q&A below to find out a bit more!)
Despite this, Chef Niklas is humble. As he tried to explain the new concept of his show, he modestly said that he needed to improve on his pitch. (He does not!)
He is also of the “sharing is caring” mindset. The night I went to chat with him at his restaurant before settling in for a memorable meal, he was off to go visit and support his buddies over at Agrikultur. Before he dashed off, though, he exchanged a hearty hug with another one of his guests that evening – Chef Atsushi Tanaka of Restaurant A.T in Paris. You can tell within minutes that Chef Niklas Ekstedt is one hell of a fabulous and well-respected guy!
I also had the pleasure of meeting his equally fabulous wife Katarina, a former pro snowboarder (like attracts like, right?!) and conversation flowed easily. We were soon talking about their love for summers in Bologne and Katarina’s publishing house, which ended with Pra’s brain ticking about how to get this inspiring couple over for a work/play visit in Dubai or Oman!
Without further ado, here’s our interview with this snowboarder-turned-cooking-sensation.
(And if you want to read about Ekstedt the restaurant, hop over to our article here.)
You opened Ekstedt after being inspired by the idea of cooking on fire and going back to a more rustic style of cooking rooted in Nordic culture. How has the response to this wood fire-only concept changed (if at all) since you first opened in 2011?
Yes, it has a bit of a dramatic change. In the first few months of opening the restaurant, people thought we were a regular grill but I wanted it to be known for a more Nordic style. At first, this was a bit of a struggle but it has been great since, especially since gaining my Michelin star.
How has the Stockholm dining scene changed for you over the years? Are locals eating differently? What about international diners?
Scandinavia has been through a dramatic transformation. Ten years ago you either had French or Italian but now there is so much. There is now a dining out experience, whereas before it was more home cooked.
We heard that you predominantly use birch wood in your restaurant. Do you use other types of wood or materials to add different flavours/smokiness to your dishes?
We mostly use Birchwood but sometimes we use fruit trees like apple and cherry to flavour the smoke when we cook fish. We also use Juniper wood.
What have been some of the most difficult foods or dishes to cook over fire? Anything that just didn’t work? Conversely, have you had any “happy accidents” that led to great dishes?
The most difficult ingredients to cook over fire are fish and seafood. They require a deft hand and you do not want to overcook these ingredients. It is not so easy to manage when the restaurant is full, and the food must move quickly from the kitchen to the table. However, I love to cook seafood, that’s my favorite on the fire.
You’ve worked in several different countries and with many different chefs and cuisines. Are there any particular experiences that have continued to strongly influence the way you cook and look at food today?
Most inspiration and where I am looking at are more home cooking techniques or how people are using the old style of cooking techniques. The international experiences are more an inspiration on their philosophy and business-wise.
Where do you gain inspiration when creating your menus?
The season and what is available at the time. We are inspired by what people are picking, or pulling out the sea or growing themselves. We combine these products with what goes with the cooking techniques. We try to do old dishes made contemporary.
Please talk about your signature dish?
Oysters cooked with hot beef fat, served with smoked apple. It represents a technique that we have been working on for a long time.
Has there ever been a dish that you were really enthusiastic about but wasn’t very well-received by guests?
It happens all the time; every week. I get very excited but the guests don’t necessarily like it.
Visual presentation is as important as taste. What do you keep in mind when deciding how to plate each dish?
Plating isn’t the most important for me. Aesthetically the dishes tend to look good. The blackened celeriac looks really burnt but then they taste it, it is almost more pleasing and surprising.
In your eyes, what does the Ekstedt brand stand for—what’s the USP?
No gas and no electricity.
What qualities do you look for in your staff?
I like to work with nice people. I spend a lot of time at work so I need to work with friendly and optimistic people.
What’s the best meal you’ve had in the world (apart from yours)?
I cannot choose one meal. The best experience I have had was with my son in San Sebastian. He was eight years old at the time and I realized he had an appetite for food so it was fulfilling for me.
What are some of your favourite Stockholm (or Swedish) restaurants?
There are so many favourites that I go to all the time. However, Babette, a very small restaurant, is probably my favourite.
On your days off, where might we find you and what are you likely to be doing?
Skateboarding or skiing with my kids.
What’s your cooking style at home? Do you grill and play with new ideas for the restaurant or…?
I cook for my kids and always encourage them to at least try new ingredients.
One word to describe you as a leader
One word to describe your restaurant
Any plans, new developments, etc., that we should keep an eye out for?
I am working on a new TV series called “Four Hands Menu” where I meet chefs that inspire me. They meet and cook together, but without me.
Humlegårdsgatan 17, 114 46 Stockholm