Meet Norwegian Chef - Simon Nilsen
"I don’t want to create something new, I want to evolve the old"
This week Nordique have had a chat to Norwegian Chef Simon Nilsen! Here he shares his inspiration and passion for food, and his journey so far within this exciting and challenging industry.
Tell us more about you and your journey!
Simon: My interest in cooking started when I was 12 years old back home in Bergen, Norway. Back then my mother was a stay at home mom for a while and she always made home cooked proper family meals. When she decided to go back to work, we started to order a box with produce and recipes that came every week to us. I was the first one home after school which lead me to be the one to cook our food. I still remember the first meal I ever made for my family: Poached cod with carrot pure, parsley potato and caramelised onion.
I was never truly interested in food until the moment my family started eating the food I made. I knew it wasn’t perfect or that tasty even, but what gave me the passion was the way the family reacted to a home cooked meal. The joy and the love in their eyes - that gave me so much happiness. The more I cooked, the less I used the recipes we were provided with. Instead I bought cook books and started to do my own dishes.
I cooked until I was 18 years old, then I fell off for a little while. I ended in sort of a creative rut, I had no more inspiration. But luckily that didn’t last very long. I met one of the owners of one of Bergen’s best restaurants - Restaurant 1877. He managed to get a job for me there where I met one of the most impressive chefs I have ever met: Christer Økland.
I was there for four years, learning about the value of cooking with proper produce and understanding what kind of attitude we all should have in the kitchen. He will always be one of my idols because of the way he would teach me something and how we he would react whenever I did something - he was always calm and always showed you why and how you should or should have done it. During my four years there I was a ‘stagiare’ (trainee) at a few places, such as: Maaemo, Geranium, Fera at Claridges, Geist, Kadeau and Marg og Bein. I also launched my own pop-up restaurant in the last two years of my stay at 1877 divided into four sessions.
Tell us more about your success of your previous pop-up project NOMNK?
My first launch of NOMNK was in July 2016 and the last was launched in April 2018. NOMNK stands for “Nytt Og Moderne Norsk Kjøkken” (New and Modern Norwegian Cuisine).
The idea of NOMNK was created when I was in my late teens, when I figured out that I barely knew anything about Norwegian food or cuisine. We have a few dishes that are very iconic but that is it. We don’t really have a special foundation that we can proudly present as Norwegian food/cuisine. At NOMNK we served a tasting menu consisting of between 15-25 dishes. Some are traditional dishes with a modern twist and some are inspirational dishes. Each dish contains only Norwegian produce presented at its best, with its own unique signature.
What I learned most from the experiences from NOMNK would be who I really am in the kitchen. The whole approach to being a chef has been put on display for the whole world. I realised it is my job as ‘head chef’ to teach and show people, not to undermine or demolish their spirit and commitment to my restaurant. We should be the pride and the joy of the restaurant, we should bring out passion and love from those who decide to dedicate a huge time of their life to come and work for us. We should be thanking them and not using them as a tool.
So what I truly learned is the way I want to be, not only as a chef but as a person, a human being just as everybody else. My future goal is to give something to everybody. NOMNK is just not a restaurant but is a massive project and mission. It is a mission to reviving the old and give it a new look, but still remembering who we are. I want to write a book that contains everything that every man, woman and child in Norway can appreciate and consider as a part of themselves. The book will show you everything you need to know, from the history of Norwegian food from the old days and the way of cooking now, to techniques that will help and guide you in the kitchen. That can give you love for food that you can give to the ones you love.
Tell us more about your experience working at the renowned restaurant Maaemo?
At the moment, I am working at Maaemo in Oslo to continue my passion for Norwegian fine dining food. Maaemo is very special to me and it always have been. Esben Holmboe Bang did something that very few have done in Norway. Taking Norwegian dishes and making them into a three Michelin star meal. What makes Esben so special is that he is a Danish chef doing that, where are the Norwegian ones? We have many good Norwegian chefs but there are not doing Norwegian food, a bit of a shame in my view. So when I heard about a Danish chef that wanted to open a fully organic Norwegian restaurant that surprised me, I wondered how that would be. Maaemo succeeded more than anyone else has in Norway, gaining three stars and being recognised as one of the 35 best restaurants in the world. That really tells you something!
What are the main challenges to work with Norwegian produce?
I don’t think there is any challenge to work with Norwegian ingredients. Every chef that states that working with Nordic produce is hard can’t be Nordic. I know that is harsh to say but it is true, isn’t it? I am from Norway not from Spain or Mexico. I truly don’t need lemons or tomatoes to make a delicious dinner at home or a fine dining dish. I grew up on eating Norwegian products, such as carrots, potatoes, swede, fish, meat etc. The list goes on! Of course, eating produce from different countries are always fun and interesting and I love to make food with them but they don’t fit into my Nordic cooking. If they don’t fit in, then why should I bother caring about how I can replicate the flavour or look of it? Norwegian food is Norwegian produce.
What do you love most about Norwegian food?
What I love about Norwegian food is that is made for filling you up, feeding you. But that is the purpose of every nations cuisine? For me Norwegian food is just food, same as with Mexican food is just food for Mexicans, same as for Asian, Danish, British etc. I can’t say that I love Norwegian food more than any other, but it is mine and I take pride in that.
What is the concept of new Nordic food?
I think it’s quite simple – it’s just Nordic food, that’s it! But we have been ‘changing’ it, reacting as the world started to interact with each other. Cultures being mixed has resulted in plants, vegetables and dishes being forgotten. That is all a part of evolution and growth. So, to state that using plants that our ancestors have used for a long time in our cooking is new then everything we do every day is new?
New Nordic food is very fun and open, what we have done last 10 years are exciting but it is coming to an end. There isn’t a lot more to do in my opinion. Combinations, techniques and flavours are being tested every day at world famous restaurants in the Scandinavia. But how much can you actually do with a carrot, a potato? If you look at a lot of really good restaurants, they turn back to the old roots. There is certainly a challenge with that, how can we change, adapt and overcome what our ancestors couldn’t? How can we utilise for example tomatoes in Norway, can we grow this produce and make it part of Norwegian cuisine? That is the new, how we evolve and accept the changes. To bring back the old roots with trying different ways of cooking, and making something new of traditional Norwegian food.
Where do you find you inspiration?
My inspiration comes from everything, every day, every person I meet and talk to. What I have realised is that food is just food. It isn’t the way you cook it that should matter, it is who you are cooking it for! Is it to achieve fame and glory? Or is it to give love and passion to somebody? The base of your cooking should be your inspiration!
Inspiration can be difficult in every profession, and in mine it comes from what I experienced and learned along my journey in food. Especially my memory from the first time I cooked for my family, the expression and the love they showed when they ate food inspires me still at this day. For me that is my main inspiration, and what I strive to achieve with everybody that chooses to dine with me!