For Good Food Go North: An Interview With Iceland's Chef Gunnar Karl Gislason

Chef Gislason's Haddock cod consumme

A new generation of Icelandic chefs and consumers are rediscovering the value, and taste, of local food traditions.

North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland

Publisher: Ten Speed
Length: 352 pages
Price: $40.00
Author: Gunnar Karl Gislason and Jody Eddy
Publication date: 2014-10

Gunnar Karl Gislason, owner of Iceland’s acclaimed restaurant Dill, never expected to become a famous chef. At first, he was simply looking for a job.

“I definitely didn’t like school,” he reflects when asked what inspired him to pursue a career in cooking. “So, I thought it was better to go to the kitchen.”

Even that took time, however. His first job at the age of 15 was as a dishwasher at a restaurant in the north of Iceland.

“I was pretty good at doing the dishes, so sometimes when I had extra time they allowed me to help at the salad bar. And if I had more extra time they would let me flip burgers with the guys at the grill. And I really liked it… It was not because of my burning passion for cooking in the beginning, but more because I needed an extra job. But I found out I really loved the atmosphere in the kitchen.”

He loved it so much that he took his resume to what was then the only fine dining restaurant outside the capital of Reykjavik, in the city of Akureyri from which he hails, and pestered them with repeat visits until they hired him.

Since then, his career has also included work in Denmark, home of Scandinavia’s ‘New Nordic Cuisine’ movement, before he returned to Reykjavik to take a job at the fine-dining establishment VOX.

But his dream was to own his own restaurant, so he quit the job at VOX to pursue the next stage of his career.

The problem was, he chose the worst possible time to do it. Iceland’s banks were about to fail, launching the country into an extended financial crisis.

“I went into the boss’ office and gave him the letter that I was quitting, and I think it was the day after that the financial crash hit us,” he recalls, laughing ruefully. “I had lined up some investors for the restaurant and they jumped off the wagon. I was wondering if I should go back and ask for my job back.”

He didn’t, though. He plowed on with his dream despite the fact the country’s economy was collapsing around him. It was a challenging time.

“There was this moment, in our third week or something, when me and my co-owner at the time, we were so scared that we would go bankrupt, we actually didn’t hire any staff. It was only the two of us. We were working from eight in the morning till three in the night. And one day he came by my house at eight in the morning to pick me up and go to work, and we were sitting in the car and nobody was speaking, and we were so tired and my hands were in pain after a couple weeks of heavy work, and we turned on the radio. And the first line was “Just the two of us, we can make it if we try!” We started smiling then, and had a great day.”

“Soon after that we decided to hire people.”

Icelandic solidarity helped them through the early tough period: vendors agreed to supply him even though he couldn’t pay them right away. Their faith in his abilities wasn’t misplaced: today Dill is thriving and Gislason has been described as “the chef who rescued Iceland”.

“At the end of the day, it’s the food on the plate and the wine in the glasses,” he declares stoically, summing up the experience.

With the restaurant receiving critical acclaim, he shifted focus to the next challenge. He’d had the idea of writing a book for some time. Then he met his co-author Jody Eddy (full disclosure: she's the one who called him 'the chef who rescued Iceland' in an earlier article she wrote about him). Eddy is a professionally trained chef who transitioned into the editing and publishing industry. After serving as the executive editor of Art Culinaire magazine, she now works as a freelance writer. Her work has been featured in a range of publications from Wall Street Journal to Food & Wine, and in 2012 she published her first cookbook: Come In, We’re Closed: An Invitation to Staff Meals at the World’s Best Restaurants. That project brought her together with Gislason, and then, he says, “We sat down and had a couple of drinks, and somewhere between those beer glasses we decided to do this.”

Chef Gislason's Angelica mustard

North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland

If there was ever a cookbook that would make you get on a plane to visit a different country, North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland is it.

It’s more than just a recipe book, although there’s plenty of those: tea-poached skate, rutabaga puree, licorice lava cakes, angelica mustard, rye beer chips with chive skyr (which is a type of yogurt-like Icelandic cheese), and more -- there's no shortage of mouth-watering dishes. But it also functions as a travelogue, offering gorgeously photographed vistas from all corners of Iceland, along with tips and advice for visitors. Just as much, it’s a folkloric exploration of the country’s foodways, featuring interviews with the various fishers, smokers, bakers, and other food workers from all over the country whose toil provides the ingredients with which Gislason then works.

The fascinating interviews offer an insight not just into the production of Iceland’s food, but into the lives and experiences of its people and communities. From seabird collectors to barley farmers; mushroom foragers to goat farmers to salt makers and more, Gislason and Eddy share the pages with a host of characters the ensemble of which offers a useful reminder of the range of people and industries that go into producing the food that we eat.

On top of the ethnographic and travel delights, there’s a range of helpful tips and explanations: how best to use a pressure cooker, for instance; or the benefits of smoking your fish, lamb or cheese in hay. Can’t find any hay in your condo? Don’t worry. Gislason observes that while transposing recipes from one region to another can produce delicious meals, there will always be variations resulting from these differences. For instance, using American milk instead of Icelandic milk (which is sweeter), or calf liver instead of reindeer liver.

And then there are the ways in which Iceland’s unique geography contributes to its equally unique foodways. Take rugbraud, for example, ‘geyser bread’, bread baked in a traditional style over outdoor geothermal vents (Iceland is home to 30 active volcano systems). Gislason and Eddy also offer interesting historical notes: the history of pork in Iceland, or the background of its beer traditions (beer vinegar—an in-depth explanation and recipe for which is provided—forms a staple flavouring in many of Dill’s dishes). And just what is the deal with that fermented shark?

All told, the project took about three years to complete, says Gislason. But the opportunity to showcase the people and places that contribute to Iceland’s food industry was one of the things that made him enthusiastic for the project.

“I wanted to interview and find the people that are embracing the old traditions. So many of them are fading away. I really wanted to embrace that.”

It’s those traditional methods that Gislason concentrated on when developing Dill’s particular style.

“Of course we have to really think over how we can make something for a fine dining restaurant out of something so rustic and old school…but it’s definitely paid off.”

One of the unexpected benefits of the financial crisis, he reflects, is the fact that it forced people to look closer to home for their daily needs, rather than relying on imports from abroad.

“Because of the financial crisis, everything imported got really expensive. So people had to stop importing stuff. I think it was good for the country to have to look around us and use the things we had.”

It still amuses him how the old ways seem new to those who are not familiar with them.

“It’s funny to have Icelanders come in (to the restaurant) and then when they’re leaving, they thank me and talk about how the food was very interesting, all these new flavours, these new things. And we’re thinking, we’ve only used the flavours that were always here! People are not used to eating our traditional bread, or the winter-dried catfish. Or they’re not used to eating pickled angelica. But it’s been around us a long time.”

Chef Gislason’s Beets almonds honey

Making the Old Ways New Again

One of the things he’s pleased with is the excitement that’s now being generated by the growing popularity of older food traditions. “Not even just here in Iceland, but other places as well. (It’s important) to open people’s eyes for those old traditions. Wherever you come from, Iceland or Germany or the States, think about it and hold on to the traditions.”

This was one of the key messages Gislason and Eddy hoped to convey with their book. As they write in the introduction: “If the next generation continues to eschew these traditional food craft jobs in favor of urban living, there may be nothing left to document in a decade or two. To combat this trend, this book is intended not only to remind Icelanders of their fascinating past but also to provide them with a road map for how to integrate tradition into their modern lives. And it is a powerful source of inspiration for others seeking to preserve the legacies established by generations of cooks, producers, and farmers in their corner of the world.”

When we spoke, Gislason expressed hope about the revival of interest in traditional foods. There’s been a dramatic shift, he says, in how people value their culture’s food traditions. It’s a change he’s noticed since those early days as a dishwasher in the north.

“The changes are crazy. Back in the days when I was studying, I quite often brought herbs and stuff from my father’s garden. My father had a lot of great but strange stuff in his garden. I would bring it to work and they would make fun of me and ask if my father was a witch or something. But now, you’re nobody if you don’t go foraging!”

Relying on foods that can be foraged and gathered lends a certain excitement and anticipation to the yearly cycles, he says. When asked whether there’s a particular food or ingredient that he prefers working with, he says there’s not because he’s always looking forward to the foods that the next season will bring. “You’re always waiting for something. You’re always waiting for the next season to come. It wouldn’t be the same if you could get everything year-round. There’d be nothing to be excited for.”

Gislason isn’t sure where the future will lead, but he’s certainly enjoying the present. “I don’t really have a five-year plan. The only plan I have is to continue doing whatever it is that I’m doing, and try and keep on doing it well. And hope that the guests and the customers will continue.”

All images courtesy of Ten Speed press.


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