Magnus Nilsson

Book cover


This makes me think, maybe I should start a blog of socialist cookbook reviews? :)

I hadn’t heard of Faviken before I was given this book, but apparently it’s one of the top restaurants in the world. It’s in a rural area of Sweden, about 7-8 hours drive from Stockholm. This book is written by the chef, Magnus Nilsson. It is to some extent a cookbook in the sense of a book with recipes, but it is more a vehicle for MN to convey his chefly philosophy (as well as, perhaps needless to say, to build and polish an image). I usually don’t like cookbooks with big colorful pictures (which this has), but I usually do like cookbooks with lots of non-recipe prose (which this also has), so there were positives and negatives for me going into the book.

In a certain way, MN’s food philosophy is appealing, though largely no different from the general high-end food trend of the last few decades: cooking with local, seasonal ingredients; knowing your suppliers; respecting local historical foodways. Alice Waters was doing this 45 years ago.

Here’s the thing, though: Faviken is unequivocally a restaurant for the 1%, and the author’s message reinforces this. The prix-fixe menu cost is 3000 SEK (about $300) and tack on another $150 if you want wine (which by the way, is of course not local). He may be cooking local, but he is not feeding locals in this rural area. MN spends a lot of time in the book talking about how timing differences of seconds can make or break the quality of a dish, and how only the very highest quality of ingredients will do. The whole thing paints what for me is kind of a grim picture of courtiers fussing over the tiniest details to please the royal court. To make matters worse, the whole local/seasonal philosophy thing is belied by the fact that the vast majority of diners at Faviken are going to be making at least a multiple-hour trip to get there from the city, and probably mostly making a trip to Sweden itself. I don’t doubt for a minute that the author believes strongly and genuinely in the principles he espouses, but it represents to me a kind of fetishization where all of the social value associated with local, seasonal eating is set aside (or worse, used as decoration) in favor of the purely individualistic value of the fact that it is also the approach that can potentially provide the highest quality ingredients.

One might make similar criticisms of someone like Alice Waters, since after all Chez Panisse is also a high-end restaurant. I’m not the biggest AW fan, but I think there’s a world of difference between CP and Faviken. First of all, you can get a prix-fixe dinner at CP for $75, or $33 at the cafe–within reach for almost anyone for a special occasion. (Or $25 for the late-night special!) Second, it’s in Berkeley, which means it is accessible to the huge number of people in the Bay Area, not requiring a special pilgrimage. And if you read AW’s cookbooks, they are totally realistic guides for a home cook–she exerts a lot of effort making her approach accessible, not highlighting the extreme levels of precision required.

I also have to mention the gender norms at play here. It’s not coincidental that the example I chose, Alice Waters, is a female chef. Faviken is a prime example of the valorization of a certain type of male-associated chefery, associated with terms such as “uncompromising vision”, that rips food and cooking from its social context–a context that is primarily maintained and reproduced by female home cooks. For example, one of the introductions (by someone else) relays jokingly the writer’s observations of how, even though Nilsson is a genius in the kitchen, he’s kind of a space cadet around the home, including accidentally letting his toddler child wander off and get into some potentially-toxic substance. Oh, those wacky chef geniuses!

In closing, I will answer the unspoken question you have been wondering: what is the ideal socialist cookbook? It is An Everlasting Meal, by Tamar Adler. Go read it.

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars