‘It’s not Nordic cuisine, it’s common sense’

Michelin Starred-chef Fredrik Johnsson talks inspiration, true sustainability, and why baking bread might be his biggest challenge yet.

By Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.

Many chefs dream of a Michelin Star. Fredrik Johnsson isn’t one of them. And it’s not just because he already has one under his belt.

The Swedish chef was one of three co-owners of Volt, a recently-closed restaurant in central Stockholm lauded for its strict emphasis on using local, seasonal produce. In 2015, five years after first opening its doors, Volt received a Michelin Star - confirmation that the team was doing something worthy of the coveted rating. It was a business booster which Fredrik says helped the restaurant to thrive, but it was never part of the plan.

“When we opened Volt, we weren’t aiming for the star. We were fed up with that kind of restaurant and wanted to open something with a more comfortable standard. We wanted the quality of food and service to be high, but we didn’t want it to be stiff. I think some of the creativity failed as well. Before that, we were just trying out things that we thought were good and fun. When we got the star, we always had to ask ‘Is this good enough?’”

Before the accolade, Volt’s clientele was mostly made up of local Swedes. Soon after, a more international crowd, expecting a certain level of service, began to pour in. It had never been the way at Volt to pull out a customer’s chair or take their coat on arrival, and the team had no plans to change. Instead, they continued to focus on the things that mattered most to them.

“We were trying to be an inspiration and make people think about the things we love and that we think are important. When people talk about sustainability, they talk about organic food and food waste. But that’s not all of it. You have to think about the chemicals you use in the restaurant and the personal lives of your staff. You have to be sustainable on all levels.”

Success came swiftly but it didn't come overnight. The seed for Volt was planted in 2010 but Fredrik recalls those early years were spent trying to forge their own identity. He knew that he wanted the dishes to be intense with bold, in-your-face flavours, but first, the team needed to find their creative mojo.

“Often when you learn how to cook, you are learning to cook other people’s food instead of your own. It took us three years to move away from that and create our own DNA.”

Ten years on, how would he describe that DNA? With its minimalist approach and zero-tolerance for using imported produce (“We made it really hardcore, no cheating at all”), Volt became known as one of the big names of New Nordic cuisine. But that's not how Fredrik would label it.

“It’s Nordic but, for me, it’s common sense because you should use what is around you. It’s cheaper and it didn’t travel far so the quality is higher. And it tastes better if it’s grown in the right places where the conditions are right. There’s a really big difference between picking your own strawberries or buying strawberries that were picked far away and travelled a long way to reach the plate. You can really tell the difference, both taste-wise and mentally.”

This passion for local produce is the cornerstone of his creativity. It’s his first pitstop when imagining new dishes and what he believes has shaped him into the chef he is today. He maintains close relationships with producers which helps him to understand the product more intimately and, in turn, feeds his own inspiration.

“I love the whole spectrum. I want all the producers’ knowledge and collaboration is important because they know so much. Then you know more about what you’re serving and you feel special when you cook with it. You can’t turn off creativity - you have to stimulate it. That time with the producers gives me more inspiration than being in the kitchen.”

He works with the flavours, not against them, and explains that his modus operandi is to find the most “un-obvious” way to use an ingredient without interfering with its taste.

“If you’re serving a really tasty cheese but then add too many flavours, you kind of destroy the producer’s work instead of lifting it to a higher level. So we were always really humble to the producers, to use their products in the right way.”

"I love the whole spectrum. I want all the producers’ knowledge and collaboration is important because they know so much."

Volt was enjoying its heyday and so the decision to shut up shop in December 2019 came as a surprise. It was a joint move, says Fredrik, and not one that was taken lightly.

“We asked ourselves ‘Should we keep on doing this and just fade away? Or should we end it while we’re still on top?’ So that was the idea, we ended it while it was still going well and we still found it fun.”

Fredrik has spent much of the last year on something of a sabbatical. He’s keeping his next move close to his chest but one thing he does reveal is that, whatever he does, he wants to be as self-sufficient as possible.

Learning to bake bread from scratch is just one way that he is trying to reach this goal. Since February of this year, he's spent two days a week working in Petrus, an artisanal bakery on Stockholm’s trendy Södermalm island. The plan had been to spend a couple of weeks learning the craft before moving on. However, he soon realised that breadmaking was far from basic - even for a Michelin-Starred chef.

“It’s a craftsmanship that’s underrated. It’s so hard! With all the knowledge that I had, I thought I’d manage to learn in three weeks. I know less now than I did when I started,” he laughs, adding that it’s humbling to be back at the bottom of the food chain.

Fredrik clearly values humility and, despite receiving global acclaim, doesn’t give off a hint of hubris. So much so, that he admits he’s using his career break to do more than just learn new skills. He’s also using it as a time for reflection and asking whether the future may hold something entirely different for him.

“Just now, I’m reflecting on what I have been doing. If it’s what I’m supposed to do and I’m asking myself if it’s what I want to do in the future. It’s nice to do that as well sometimes.”

Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.