Back to Basics

The beauty of cooking fresh fish over an open fire

I’m from Anglesey, a small island off the north of Wales. Generally, when you’re young, you start working in little restaurants and bars on the seafront, so I’ve been exposed to fresh fish and shellfish from a really young age. You don’t really think there’s a future in it, so go off to study. When I was at Cardiff University, studying politics and history, I was also cooking part-time in a French restaurant called Le Gallois. Around that time I realised that’s what I really wanted to do, so I threw myself into cooking as much as I could.

I moved to London and worked at the River Café, and then at Noma. I always felt that I wanted to cook over fire. I had a summer residency at Climpson’s Arch in London Fields, and we cooked over these big amazing fires; there were ever-changing menus. I really went for it; I wanted to hone that skill. When you’re cooking from an archway in Hackney there aren’t so many financial pressures, so it’s a really fantastic opportunity to try different things, just seeing the interaction between the fire and the fresh ingredients.

Then I worked at Kitty Fisher’s in Mayfair. It was really quite successful, but it threw me in at the deep end. What I really wanted was to go back to east London, and in order to do that I had to open my own restaurant. Brat feels like a middle ground between the archway and a restaurant like Kitty Fisher’s – it’s reminiscent of an English pub and an old Georgian building. It has a lot of texture and character to it. The energy and creativity is very exciting in this part of London; I feel very connected to this area.

With fire, it’s a primitive approach. You’re in more contact with the produce because you do very little to it. One of the farmers I source from, Calixta Killander, is very inspiring. She’s looking back; using old traditional methods. To be forward-thinking you have to look backwards; you have to look at the old ways of farming that were lost after the war. I take a similar approach with my cooking, looking at very old methods.

In Getaria, in the Basque Country, the cage is their preferred method to cook fish. The cages hang outside people’s houses – it’s an amazing sight. I’ve really drawn from their way of cooking. What I learnt is, buy well and don’t ruin it. It sounds simple but it’s really hard to do. Their cooking method is very different – they do this slow grilling method on a low heat; it’s a slow roasting and delicate way of grilling, rather than a ‘macho’ way. It’s a gentle method.

At Brat, I want it to feel like a Basque restaurant, so I thought one of the ways to achieve this would be to apply their principles – they get their friends to make the fish cages… to make their grills, their chairs. So, I decided, if I apply this method, the restaurant’s character would build up naturally. One of my good friends in Somerset works with metal, so I asked him to make the cage. It took six months of back and forth, because of the smallest details; they have to be correct – if the cage is too big, the fish falls out, or too small and they don’t get enough char. It was worth the effort.

We often go back to the Basque Country; we chat with fishermen and try new dishes – it refreshes everyone’s focus. It also gives you confidence that it’s OK to serve a plate of tomatoes. In London people are constantly telling you that you have to reinvent the wheel, and you forget the reality of food.

It’s rewarding to know that when you get a concept in your head and work at it, people then really enjoy it. We’re lucky that people in London are very open now; they’re into weird cuts of fish, or eat whole fish on the bone. This wouldn’t have happened 10 or 15 years ago. We’ve come a long way – people enjoy sharing plates and getting stuck in.

As told to Sonia Zhuravlyova

Photography William Bunce

Creative direction and styling Paulina Piipponen

This article is taken from issue 26. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here

Questions of Taste: Niklas Ekstedt

The Swedish chef instrumental in the development of Nordic Cuisine talks about tradition, fire and his inaugural food festival on the island of Fjäderholmarna 

Some 1.8 million years ago, cooking with fire propelled us forward in the evolutionary chain. The dramatic increase in energy and brain size gave habilines – the missing link between primates and humans – the physical benefits of a smaller gut, teeth, and considerably less hair that we enjoy today. According to Charles Darwin, our mastery of fire was our greatest discovery – bar language – to date. Niklas Ekstedt, the Swedish chef instrumental in the development of Nordic Cuisine, agrees: “You can create minor miracles with fire, smoke, ashes and soot.” Ekstedt’s flagship restaurant in central Stockholm exclusively uses wood burning as the only source of heat in the kitchen. This return to humble, primitive roots was in part a homage to traditional Swedish cooking before electricity arrived on the scene, as well as a restlessness from the fact few new national dishes had been invented post 1950. It was only after roaming the land around Ingarö in the Stockholm archipelago one summer, staring at the surrounding birches, that Ekstedt knew how he could make his mark. He chopped some down, built a fire pit, and thrust a cast iron pan into the flames. Seven years later, you can taste the fruits of this simple action at his eponymous restaurant; charcoal cooked cream, lumpfish roe and ramson, juniper smoked turbot, leafy greens and lovage and hay-flamed beef, jerusalem artichoke and kohlrabi.

On the last weekend of August, Ekstedt will be bringing this back-to-basics craft – alongside the practices of influential Swedish and international chefs – to spectators at the inaugural Foodstock on Stockholm’s island of Fjäderholmarna. With 11 Michelin stars between them, the chefs and assembled artisans will be showcasing everything from foraging to how to make axes, with Istanbul’s Mehmet Gürs, Stockholm’s Daniel Berlin and Zeina Mourtada, and Tomos Parry of London’s Brat making an appearance. In addition to communal meals and workshops over the two-days, Ekstedt will partner with Parry for a ‘Four Hands Menu’, collaborating on a menu using locally sourced produce for a 300 strong banquet. The festival, he explains, “is intended to inspire and instruct, bringing together everything from total rawness to the most refined and detailed cooking, presented in its own, beautiful way.”

We caught up with Ekstedt to discuss the festival, Sweden’s heritage, and of course, fire.

Why do you cook with fire?

It’s how we’ve cooked food historically, and still do to this day. A fire is always relevant, it gives us heat, comfort and of course, a unique and natural flavour for ingredients cooked over it.   

How would you personally define ‘Nordic Cuisine’? 

Nordic Cuisine is based on specific way in which we farm and forage. It includes traditional techniques such as pickling and smoking, most importantly, it is rooted in craft.

What did you learn at your internships at el Bulli and The Fat Duck (and numerous other Michelin-star restaurants)? 

Many things! But most importantly, that it is an ongoing and very much an every-day process to run a kitchen. It also requires an open mind for curiosity and knowledge – this helps us to continue to grow and evolve.

Why is important for chefs to forage? 

It is something I learnt as a kid, with my family. Picking berries and mushrooms. Being in the woods keeps us close to nature, makes you feel a part of it.

What is one of your favourite traditional Swedish dishes? 

Meatballs or really fresh butter fried herring are definite favourites. Both served with creamy mashed potato, and of course, lingonberries.

Why did you set up Foodstock?  

Our idea for Foodstock was to open the kitchen for the spectators and show them the process from raw produce to what finally ends up on the plate. We also wanted to focus on traditional techniques and look at how they have developed both from a Nordic and international perspective – hence why we have balanced the invitees between Swedish and International names.

Can you explain the concept behind the ‘Four Hands Menu’?

This is something which grew from me and my chef friends when we were hanging out on holiday. It usually ends up with us sourcing some seasonal ingredients and cooking together. At the end of the day, it’s just great fun and so inspiring!

If you could have any chef (living or dead) cook at the next Foodstock, who would it be & why? 

Sushi master Jiro Ono at Sukiyabashi from Tokyo would be an honor, same as Victor Arguinzoniz. So passionate about their food and unique cooking techniques.  And I always been a fan of Alice Waters, so that would be cool as well.