'How can something so simple be so damn mind-blowing?’

Restaurant Frantzén’s executive chef Marcus Jernmark on the subtle but powerful impact of flavour balance and why planning a menu is like writing a script.

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.

It’s easy to cook good food, says Swedish chef Marcus Jernmark. Just toss in some salt, add a knob of butter, lighten with some acidity, and voila! you’ve got a dish that's sure to satisfy the taste buds. While this method of building flavour often produces a tasty outcome, it also likely comes at the expense of the ingredients themselves.

“Often, chefs season a lot, and it’s so delicious,” says Marcus. “But what does it really taste of? You don’t taste the langoustine if you stick a lot of caviar and lemon zest and grated ginger on top of it.”

That style of cooking is not on the menu at three Michelin Star restaurant Frantzén, where Marcus has been the executive chef for the past six years. Rather the intention of each dish of the multi-course meal is to elevate the meticulously sourced ingredients. To mask their unique attributes with unnecessary accouterments would be nothing short of illogical. The team achieves this, explains Marcus, by balancing flavours rather than building them.

“If we don’t balance it right, then it’s wasted money in that sense. What makes us so unique is not that we’re buying really fancy ingredients but that we treat them respectfully so that you experience them in their natural and most desirable state.”

Marcus recognises this isn’t the goal of every restaurant and adds that it doesn’t need to be. Some restaurants exist solely to fill diners up, others intend to provoke. In the case of Frantzén, the team sets out to connect the diner with quality and to take them on a circa 10-course journey without saturating their taste buds.

“If you have this ‘more is more’ mentality, you will be misleading in your message. Too much of everything - too much Maillard or salt or acidity - will overload the taste buds and they will lose momentum. You want to be more subtle, to transport the guests. This progression is vital but also in its singular form when you talk about how to season a particular ingredient.”

‘Mind blowing simplicity’

Marcus didn’t always think this way. Like many young chefs, he’d been taught that seasoning was central to taste and that fine tuning a meal was more about what you add than what you start off with. He began to question this method while exploring a grocery store in New York City some fifteen years ago. Still in his early 20s, he was mystified when he spotted five different types of salmon, each with wildly different price tags. ‘Why would anyone need five different kinds of salmon,’ he recalls asking himself. It was a question that would lay the first piece of a puzzle he is still solving today.

Living in New York City, a culinary capital of the world, gave the younger Marcus the chance to explore a rich world of food. Dining out in the city’s Chinese restaurants, he was surprised to see chefs cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients -- something they didn’t do at the time in the Chinese restaurants in Sweden. Several years later, he developed a taste for Japanese food and more pieces of the puzzle began to materialise.

“I realised then that, in general, Asian food has a lot of taste and a satisfying saltiness, but they rarely use salt. Instead they integrate umami in the dishes, they build the flavours from the ground up which is something we don’t do in Western European cuisine, we’re sprinkling salt and pouring fat on top of things.”

With the puzzle pieces he had gathered starting to build a fuller picture, Marcus finally felt he could answer the salmon mystery that had baffled him several years earlier.

“It was about the quality of the actual ingredients. That’s the brilliance of sushi. A little bit of aging of the fish, a light dab of sweet soy sauce over the vinegared rice. I mean, how can something so simple be so damn mind-blowing?”

Mapping out the meal

In 2015, following six years at Aquavit, New York's premier Nordic restaurant, and a stint at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, Marcus found himself back on Scandinavian soil. He joined the team at Björn Frantzén's eponymous Stockholm eatery where he has since headed up the kitchen as the executive chef and, since 2018, has concurrently acted as culinary director of Zén, Frantzén's sister restaurant in Singapore.

It would be no exaggeration to say Marcus has played an integral role in Frantzén's rise - in part because of his dedication from day one to sourcing and identifying the highest quality products.

Frantzén was such a small restaurant compared to what I was used to. So even though I was involved in operations and working the line, a new world opened up where I went to farmers and fishmongers. We identified everything in person, we inspected all our meat vendors, and inspected where they butcher the meat. We took control over all our sources and over time have created a repertoire of fantastic purveyors and great ingredients.”

Turning these great ingredients into an approximately ten-course menu is no small feat. It’s accomplished by surveying the matrix of ingredients at hand before placing them into pockets of where you want to serve them, explains Marcus. Starting each dish with the main ingredient and working out how to enhance it, the team then supplements the serving before ‘undressing’ it - a term they use to describe purifying the dish by taking away garnishes that don’t “give something back to it".

Then there’s the small matter of smoothly transitioning from the flavours of one plate to the next. Traditionally chefs look at salt, says Marcus, starting with less and elevating salt and acidity throughout the meal. That’s not the M.O. at Frantzén where rather the idea is to design a coherent but thrilling experience that will remain with guests long after the meal has ended. In this way, it’s not dissimilar from scriptwriting, says Marcus.

“I like to be more expressive because it becomes more memorable. Our brains are designed to remember the beginning and end, and anything that interferes with it. It’s the same thing with movies. That’s why there are explosions and drama in the middle, so that it’s entertaining throughout. And that’s how we try to structure the menu.”

He achieves this memorability by dropping unexpected dishes in surprising places while being careful not to disrupt the flow of the meal. This could manifest in a very acidic sorbet midway through the meal, or something sweet or aromatic amid the savoury dishes. As well as pulling out the typical stops - balancing fat and acidity and so on - the team works with heat to raise and lower intensity throughout the meal. It’s a delicate balance maintained by not veering from the overarching vision.

“Just because we’re getting in beautiful Gariguette strawberries tomorrow doesn’t mean I’ll add a dish with the strawberries, black pepper and French olive oil as a pre-dessert," concludes Marcus. "No, we follow our structure and use the menu as a guideline to narrow down. As long as we have that, it's easy for us to follow the flavour palettes and not get lost along the way."

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.