If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know that I was at the ICEHOTEL in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden last year, where I met with Chef Richard Näslin. I've been intending to write about our chat ever since, but somehow I let a whole year slip away without doing it. You might also remember when I wrote that Richard reminded me of Matt Damon, and I'm finally posting the pictures to prove it.
See? Wasn't it worth the wait?
While I was twiddling my thumbs, the rooms that I walked through and slept in last year softened into slush and melted away; the ground was leveled, and blocks of ice from the Torne River were dragged to the site. A different group of artists arrived with hammers and picks and saws and created a new temple of ice filled with freshly imagined shapes and three-dimensional structures.
Daydreaming about what it might look like this year, I checked in with Richard via email to make sure that he was still at the ICEHOTEL and doing well - he is, and fabulously happy, it seems. The restaurant is packed, he reports, and they've built out a brand new kitchen and dining room.
But now - at long last - let's rewind to 2007. The night before I met with Richard, I had dinner at his restaurant, located across the street from the temporary ICEHOTEL. The restaurant is a permanent structure, warm and cozy, with a huge entryway full of parkas, coats and boots that people shrug off when they come inside from the -30°C air.
While the snow fell outside the dining room that night, we began the meal with a piece of arctic char alongside a quenelle of smoked arctic char ice cream in a pool of beetroot sorbet. The ice cream was creamy and smoky, enlivened by the salt-flecked fish and perfectly balanced by the tangy-sweet beetroot. Next came a terrine of foie gras with smoked reindeer, accented with gently dried grapes and drizzled with a honey-grape juice reduction. Served with lightly toasted brioche, it was a knockout.
But I might have been most in love with the reindeer joint that arrived on a simple white plate with a single morel mushroom to one side and a judicious drizzle of wild game gravy. An ice glass filled with bright red cranberries cooked in port wine was delivered alongside. Tender and rich and wild, the dish was like nothing I had ever eaten.
I was thrilled to find that the menu didn't have a single piece of lettuce on it; not one watery tomato; nary an option for pasta with cheese. I loved that it was so distinctly, vividly different, and very much at place in its surroundings.
Needless to say, by the time I met Richard the next day, I was over-the-moon impressed.
The sign outside the entrance to the ICEHOTEL Restaurant
I just have to ask this right at the beginning. How old are you?
(At which I felt at surge of admiration, because his food is absolutely masterful, and also a bit of annoyance and/or envy, because I wish I had been this talented at 23.)
23. Wow. Did you grow up here in Jukkasjärvi?
I grew up on a working pig farm in the south of Sweden. My family also grew wheat and grain. Eventually my parents had to sell the farm because everyone was starting to purchase livestock from large farms in Germany and beyond.
How long have you been cooking?
For a very long time. When I was 14, I got a job in a tiny village restaurant, washing the plates. Eventually I started to do things in the kitchen. I was fortunate to intern at places like Royal Hospital Road with Gordon Ramsay and at The Savoy Grill in London. I was the sous chef here at the ICEHOTEL for 2 years before taking this position.
Tell me about your approach to creating a new dish on your menu.
I like to build each dish around one main taste. I'm inspired by nature; I step outside, and see the reindeer walking along the road, and I want to respect these animals. I don't like to take something too far from its original form; I want to enhance the flavors of the main ingredient, to bring out its essential essence. I don't want to complicate things.
Arctic char with smoked Arctic char ice cream & beetroot sorbet, in a dish made from Torne River ice
San Francisco chefs are very focused right now on using
locally-sourced ingredients. What is your philosophy on using local
I'm dedicated to using as many local ingredients as I can. I have several
hunters who come to the back door of the kitchen two or three days a
week with grouse and hare and other small game. I use reindeer from a
nearby farm. The bleak roe I use in several dishes comes from a local
fisherman. I use elk cheese from Swedish elk. I pick the rowanberries just outside the window! (gestures to the side of the building)
Obviously, since it gets so cold here, we can't get many green things for many months of the year, but overall I'm very conscious about using local resources.
What do you use the rowanberries for?
I boil them and make them into a reduction with honey. They aren't sweet or sour - they have a sort of bitter edge to them. It's a very adult taste. One of the desserts I make is a rowanberry ice cream with a pickled apple compote. It's quite good; very unique.
The reindeer I had last night was incredible. I don't know much about reindeer - are they hunted, or farmed, or...?
They roam in herds, and they move from place to place throughout the year. They are managed, in a certain sense, by the Sámi people. The Sámi have been herding the reindeer for hundreds of years. We create agreements with them; it's complicated. The mildest meat comes from the younger animals; the older reindeer have a stronger, gamier taste. I like the ones in between, for a balance of flavor and texture.
You must spend a lot of time in the kitchen.
(grins) I'm here every night. Every night.
Do you ever take a night off?
Honestly, I like to come in and experiment with new ideas on my nights off. But of course sometimes I take some time to myself.
Do you have grand plans for having your own restaurant some day?
I'd like to go back home and create a restaurant that is very Swedish. It would be extremely local - using ingredients only from that small area.
So your menu here isn't strictly Swedish?
It is very Swedish, yes. But since we have people coming from all over the world, we do have to incorporate flavors that appeal to an international palate. There are some traditional Swedish dishes that I would love to serve, but I don't think people would like them. (laughs) They're extremely different than... what most people like to eat.
Can you describe one of these traditional Swedish dishes?
Well... there's a dish I had with friends during the holidays this year. Kind of like a cabbage. (frowns, thinking) I can't describe it exactly; it's very simple, but I grew up eating it for the holidays, and I love it.
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Richard just sent me the most current menus from the restaurant last week. One look at them, and I wished there weren't quite so many flights or hours between San Francisco and Jukkasjärvi! Here's just a sample of what he's serving this year:
- Meadowsweet parfait with almond-fried burbot, cloudberry purée and burbot roe
- Trumpet chanterelle soup with cold-smoked moose topside
- Hare paté, served with rowanberries
- Reindeer filet, sweetbreads and shoulder. Served with almond potato gallete, smoked almond potato purée and game gravy
- Lingonberry twig-smoked ptarmigan with pickled black morels and lingonberries
- Aged blue cheese made from moose milk. Served with angelica syrup.
Once the ice melts in the summertime, Richard says that he's looking forward to taking some time away from the kitchen and driving his 1973 Corvette Stingray all day long. I think he deserves it.
Photos from the current "season" of the Ice Hotel are on the website now: The Ice Hotel Winter 2007-2008. This year's design motif was drawn from a combination of Sami, Japanese, Arabic and Maori references. The rooms are simply breathtaking, just as they were one year ago. Photos can't possibly convey the tremendous impact of being there in person. Standing inside the dimly-lit rooms, breathing in the silence of the ice, is truly a magical experience. My favorites this year are the Crystal Cupola, the Maori and Recycle.
*Note: We paid for all of our own meals and lodging during the 2007 visit.