Serving ‘a taste of the surroundings’ with Chef Lena Flaten

Lena Flaten, the creative force behind lauded rural restaurant Flammans Skafferi, serves conversation-sparking food that encapsulates rural Sweden.

Word by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.

A homey warmth compels guests to slip off their shoes when they step through the door at Flammans Skafferi. The act itself is not unusual - Swedes almost always remove their shoes when entering a home - but this common courtesy doesn’t typically extend to restaurants.

“I tell them they can keep their shoes on,” says Flamman’s owner and head chef Lena Flaten. “But they feel as though they are coming to my place for dinner. It’s nice that they feel at home, so I bought slippers for them to borrow. Recently someone said that Flamman is the only restaurant in the world where you can enjoy fine dining in long johns!”

Tucked away in Storlien, a remote village in Jämtland just two kilometres from the Swedish-Norwegian border, Flammans Skafferi is not your run-of-the-mill ski resort restaurant. Housed in a near-century-old timber cabin - that in previous incarnations has been a cafe, disco, and kindergarten - the ethos is simple: to democratise good food and inspire people to use what’s around them.

“I want to show people that you can use what you have around you. In Swedish we say ‘smak av en plats’ which means ‘a taste of the surroundings’. If I had been at the coast, I would be using fish and seafood and so on. But now, when in the mountains, we are using what we have here. If I don’t have it here, we probably won’t use it.”

‘People who create things give me energy’

With its closeness to the Gulf Stream and round-the-clock summer sun, Jämtland is a fertile region that lends itself well to agriculture. Flush with local producers and abundant with wild ingredients, it has a vibrant culinary ecosystem and a long tradition of sustainable gastronomy.

Lena was familiar with the area when, in 2003, she purchased Flamman (which in English means ‘the flame’ - a name harking back to the building’s disco days, when a small gas fire would be lit at the start of the night and put out when it was time to go home). Raised on a farm in nearby Norway and having worked most seasons in the mountains since 1989, she was already well acquainted with the resort and the needs of its clientele. Drawing on that insight, she set out to please them — to serve hearty food for every taste that would fuel an afternoon of skiing. The diners were satisfied but, after 13 years of working in this way, Lena’s own appetite was not. She craved more meaningful work and planned to sell the restaurant and establish an off-grid, sustainable food studio with space for 12 artisan creatives.

Paramount to Lena was that she found someone who would love Flamman as she had, but the right buyer never came along. Reluctant to sell to just anyone, she changed tack, resolving instead to repurpose what was already hers. She renovated the restaurant into an open-plan kitchen with a large central sharing table with seats for 16 guests and another smaller table for eight.

The culinary direction shifted too from focusing on what the guests expected to see on a menu in a ski destination to what Lena felt most passionate about - local produce and ingredients, carefully sourced and respectfully prepared. She tagged ‘Skafferi’ (or ‘pantry’) onto the restaurant’s name, signaling the new emphasis on traditional Swedish preservation techniques such as pickling, fermenting, and salting.

With this return to her proverbial roots, it wasn’t too long before Lena felt she had found what she had been missing.

“After a while, I saw that when I started running it how I wanted it to be, it was much better. You grow every day, and you discover how to do things in different ways. I’m not the kind of person who can do the same thing every day, I don’t get inspired by that. I need to develop new things, and to work with different people. Not just chefs - people who create things give me energy.”

Relationship food

It’s no great surprise that Lena found her way back to this style of working. Both her parents are farmers and when she was growing up the “self-sufficient” family would often prepare their food from scratch. Knowing the provenance of your ingredients connects you to them, says Lena, and incentivises you to treat them with greater respect.

“For me, using what you have around you in nature is the natural way to cook. Every day, we take care of everything. For example, when we pick meadowsweet to make lemonade, we will also dry the flowers and turn them into a powder to add to other food and so on. There’s no waste.”

It all sounds deceptively simple, and this isn’t belied by the food on the plate. To start with, it’s always both local and seasonal; depending on the time of year you could be served anything from char or trout to reindeer, moose, or even snow grouse. The accouterments are sourced or foraged in the local region, and hand-picked from Lena’s meticulously-kept pantry. The result is an unfussy meal that quietly encapsulates its environs.

What you don’t see is the years spent building close relationships with the right producers, or the months of prep work that goes into a single dollop of jam or sprinkling of dried herbs. Each ingredient tells a story, which Lena is always ready to share with guests. The food fuels conversation, she says, with diners asking questions about how it’s prepared and where each element comes from.

“People start off a little quiet but when we start the serving, the food gets them talking. They get interested and ask how it’s prepared or about the different herbs or ingredients. I’ll take the jars down from the shelves and show them what we’ve used and tell them more about it, which connects them to the food on the plate in front of them.”

Lena calls this connection to what you’re eating “relationship food”, and it’s the subject of an upcoming book she is currently working on with chef and professional forager Niki Sjölund. She describes herself as “like a messenger” who uses food to convey the hard work and skill of the producers. This intimate knowledge uniquely positions her to know how to elevate the produce and intuitively combine the flavours of the region.

“I can feel the flavours in my mouth so I can mentally put together dishes. Because I know the story of the food and I know when I cooked it and preserved it and so on. It’s about knowing your food like a good friend, you know how it’s going to react if you say something. So by knowing your product, you can better cook with it.”

Some might call it fate that Lena never found the right buyer to take over Flamman. Since reimagining the concept, the restaurant has become the region’s best-kept secret. For her part, Lena feels content knowing that working in this way is both good for the environment and raises awareness of local sourcing. It’s hard work, she says, but more than worth the pay-off, and wouldn’t have been possible without an equally committed team.

“To make this happen you need a good team to work with, and I have a great team here. This work is nothing you can do on your own.”

Word by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.