How a Trip to the Gas Station Changed This Chef’s Career

How a Trip to the Gas Station Changed This Chef’s Career

Niklas Ekstedt swapped his celebrity chef life to live on a remote Swedish island in a house with no electricity—until a 15 minute drive to fill up the tank inspired him to start cooking again.
September 12, 2016, 5:22pm

After a sweltering Tube ride on one of the hottest days of the year, stepping into the kitchen with Swedish chef Niklas Ekstedt feels like the embodiment of "Out of the frying pan and into the fire."

I meet the head chef and owner of eponymous Stockholm restaurant Ekstedt as he visits London for a week-long takeover of Carousel in Marylebone. And he's brought his trademark flame-only cooking style with him.

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Niklas Ekstedt (right) in the Carousel kitchen with head chef Ollie Templeton. All photos by the author.

"I have five different fires in the kitchen with five different extractions. It looks like the most simple design in the whole world but it's super complicated," explains Ekstedt as he moves around the Carousel kitchen, gathering different ingredients for the dishes he's about to show me.

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"It's not like your Basque grill or American barbecue. This is just a pan, a fire, smoke, and then you're cooking," he continues. "Usually we'll use juniper wood, apple wood, and hay to give the food added flavour."

Over the fire and on the menu today are two dishes: a hay-flamed scallop and seared roe deer heart in a flatbread with lingonberries and pickled chanterelles.

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Flatbread on the grill.

As if the dishes didn't sound complex enough already, Ekstedt tells me that working with such a specific kitchen setup can make things even harder.

"What's frustrating is that I can't really apply it to somewhere else easily. Here at Carousel, for example, they only have one fire," he says. "So, we'll add in elements of the flavours and techniques used in Stockholm during the mise en place, like infusing cream with birch wood for the ice cream."

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Ollie Templeton, head chef at Carousel who joins us in the kitchen, looks relieved that Ekstedt won't be lighting more fires in here.

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The seared roe deer heart dish.

As the flatbread is tossed onto the grill, Ekstedt explains that his style of cooking harks back to traditional Swedish techniques.

"In the olden days in Sweden, you used to heat your house and at the same time, cook," he says. "The open fire kitchen at Ekstedt is more about what people did before electricity."

Ekstedt adds that the idea for basing a restaurant on this tradition came more from experience than anything else.

"I was only 22 when I opened my first restaurant. René Redzepi was my head chef and we made this new modern style of cooking that no one had really seen down in southern Sweden before," he says. "It suddenly got really popular and I kind of became a celebrity chef in Sweden overnight, appearing regularly on TV and bringing out a couple of cookbook. But I was really young and wasn't ready for it. So I kind of quit."

As Ekstedt throws the chopped deer heart into a searing pan, over the sound of sizzling offal, he tells me that moving to a house on an island outside Stockholm inspired him to get back to basics.

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The burnt hay.

"It was a very simple house which didn't have any electricity, so I just started cooking with cast iron over the stove," he says. "I was using juniper wood and birch wood and everything else that was out there."

Ekstedt laughs when I ask what made him decide to get back in a restaurant kitchen.

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"Friends that I'd had round for parties all said as a joke that I should make a restaurant out of it," he explains. "On a car journey to get some fuel for the car, it just suddenly made sense."

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Setting fire to the hay and scallop.

I don't mention that the most revelatory I've got at a petrol station is realising just how much Haribo I can mainline between motorway junctions.

"I remember it so clearly," muses Ekstedt. "I was thinking that Scandinavian cooking doesn't have to be New Nordic food. It can also be a technique. I ended up running out of fuel on my way back to the house because I forgot to fill up the car and had just got a newspaper and a coffee."

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As Tomos, another chef over from Ekstedt, prepares the hay-flamed scallop, I quickly realise that this dish does exactly what it says on the tin. Hay is set on fire and burnt by sticking it underneath a lit gas ring. It's then transferred to a bowl, has a seared scallop added, and the whole thing is blowtorched. I try to imagine the chefs doing this during in the small kitchen during a busy service—and also what's it's like back in Stockholm with five fires roaring.

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Cutting into the hay-flamed scallop.

"We don't actually have any injuries," says Ekstedt, noting my surprise. "We don't have electricity. The oven is a wood oven so you use tools. You use gloves and we don't have a deep fryer or hot oil around."

Hmm, I guess.

Taking my eye off the blowtorch (which is now uncomfortably close to me), I ask if Ekstedt uses any fancy wood for his kitchen.

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"We just use birch."

I await the spiel about how the embers delicately flavour the food.

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The finished dish of hay-flamed scallop.

"Because it's cheap! We go through so much so if we'd used a noble tree like oak, it'd cost us a fortune and it wouldn't be sustainable."

Fair point.

As the clock ticks towards the start of service, I wish Ekstedt good luck cooking in the rising London heat and muggy humidity.

He laughs: "Don't worry, I'm used to it."