‘Food is about emotions, that's what I love about it’
Swedish chef Stefan Ekengren on creativity, craftsmanship and becoming a favourite among Stockholm’s culinary it crowd.
Like many young boys, Swedish chef Stefan Ekengren dreamed of becoming a professional footballer. Perhaps prophetically, he didn’t hedge his bets and while pursuing his dream as a teenager continued training at culinary school. When the time came to accept that a football career was off the cards, he quickly transferred his zeal to his second passion and football’s loss became the culinary world’s gain.
From the offset of his career, Stefan resolved to forge his own way. In what some might describe as a move counterintuitive for an ambitious young chef, he chose to work in remote, countryside restaurants rather than pursuing roles in the city alongside critically-acclaimed chefs. The decision would prove pivotal, affording him the freedom to find his niche and hone his style independent of the contemporary culinary climate.
“I’m pretty much self-taught. I’ve always had my thoughts about food and my own philosophy. I can be a bit sensitive, or I was when I was younger, and I had to do it my own way. Otherwise I think I would have quit!”
Outside of the trend-driven Stockholm sphere, Stefan found himself drawn to the hearty fare favored by his forebears. Known in Sweden as Husmanskost, this classical handcrafted Swedish cooking is characteristically unfussy while still demanding care and precision to create. Think meatballs, elk stews, fish, plenty of potatoes, and a healthy dollop of lingonberry sauce -- foods typically high in fat, originally conceived to sustain an afternoon of manual work.
“You really have to work with the food, that’s why I love it. There’s a real element of craftsmanship to it. Some people say you shouldn’t touch traditional food but I have respect for it. Putting your own spin on it is part of the movement of food, but you have to know what makes the dish great and stay true to that.”
A culinary craftsman
This craftsmanship quickly became a cornerstone of Stefan’s profile, hand-in-hand with his modern but reverent treatment of traditional fare. So much so, it resulted in the first of his two books ‘Husman: Alla de klassika rätterna (och några bortglömda)’ (‘Everyday food: All the classic dishes and some forgotten ones’), published in 2016. And so when around five years ago restaurateur Torbjörn Blomqvist planned to open a restaurant named Hantverket (the Swedish word for ‘craftsmanship’), Stefan was the natural choice to head up the kitchen. Unfortunately, the timing wasn’t quite right and Blomqvist had no choice but to open without him. Hantverket didn’t initially strike a chord with Stockholmers and eight months later Blomqvist repeated his offer. This time Stefan was in the position to take it up.
“I went into the restaurant and completely changed the whole thing, the atmosphere, the menu, everything. I had a picture of how it should be from start to finish. I do delegate but I am involved in almost everything, all the small details. I’m not a control freak, I’m just curious!”
The revamp hit all the right notes and it didn’t take long before Hantverket became a favourite among Stockholm’s culinary it crowd -- quite the feat in a city renowned for its smorgasbord of Michelin Star restaurants and up-and-coming eateries.
It’s the rare level of craftsmanship Stefan speculates is behind Hantverket’s popularity, but also the restaurant's laidback atmosphere. The staff are serious about food without being snobby. It’s a spacious restaurant with an intimate feel, serving traditional food with a contemporary touch. There’s what he calls a ‘here and now’ to every dish which makes each dining experience incomparable.
“You can’t eat any of these dishes anywhere else in the world maybe. All the dishes have a clear sender. That’s very important to me, that we are unique in everything we do.”
Limiting himself is the key to his distinctive style of creativity, Stefan says. He believes too many options can have an adverse effect and instead of sparking creativity end up stifling it. Starting always with a simple idea - whether it’s a single raw ingredient or a way to serve a dish - he then embarks on a long period of reflection before finally trialling his opus in the kitchen.
While each dish is the culmination of weeks if not months of careful thought, Stefan doesn’t waste any time before going public with it. Almost as soon as a dish has been tested in the kitchen, it’s added to the menu - sometimes as soon as that very night, which was the case with a herring dish that has since become a popular staple at Hantverket. Soured for five to ten minutes with a dash of lemon juice and a pinch of salt then wrapped in pickled potatoes and topped with sturgeon caviar and smoked mayonnaise, it’s Stefan's signature combination of classic Swedish ingredients with a modern twist.
“I love herring, I think it’s one of the best fish to work with. I love the texture, and I love the part it plays in Swedish culture. I eat it almost raw! The herring is the main role in this dish, not the caviar which is there more for taste. I love to mix a cheap product like herring with exclusive products. Then some smokiness is good with the herring and the caviar.”
When Stefan resolutely chose to take his own path, he probably didn’t imagine it leading him to where he is today. His name has become practically synonymous with craftsmanship and his commitment to reinvigorating traditional cooking has made him one of the trendiest chefs on the scene. All this success wouldn't have been possible if he didn't truly love what he does, and that love is what gives each of his culinary creations such extraordinary flavour.
“I think food is about emotions, that’s what I love about it. A feeling should come through with each dish, it should say something about its creator. That’s tough, though. You need to put a lot of yourself into it.”
Cover photo of the book: Lennart Weibull