Jessie Sommarström

About the importance of shaping the path within sustainability

Words by Madalena Vilar. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.

Jessie Sommarström, Urban Deli’s creative leader, didn’t take the easy road to the top. Her 20 years of experience tell a story of strong will and most of all, passion for her craft. That started early on.

As a child, Jessie and her siblings ate mostly vegetarian food cooked at home by their mother. It was only when Jessie became a little older and started eating at her friends’ homes that she realized how limited her food world had been up until then. She was around fourteen at the time and about to choose what she wanted to study in high school, and the possibility of finding new tastes and expressing herself through food was extremely appealing. The first turn on her road to top chef came when she decided, advised by her mother, to choose something other than cooking. Jessie was born and raised in Sweden and, at the time, the Swedish school system didn’t give a high school diploma to cooking students, which could limit Jessie’s choices if she wanted to study in university.

But have you tried stopping an ice cream from melting in a warm summer day? Well, that’s how it was for Jessie. After not choosing cooking, the pull to the pots and pans only became stronger and right after high school, Jessie took a job as a dishwasher. In her role, she was able to be near the kitchen and observe. On some lucky days, once her own work was done, she was allowed to help out. That eventually turned into cooking and, lacking a formal education like most of her peers had, Jessie had to work twice as hard and show that she was worth her position, every day she spent in the kitchen. Jessie is aware that that pressure came mostly from within herself but she still felt extremely driven by it.

That’s something that truly shines through during our whole conversation with the creative leader, Jessie competes with no one but herself and that’s where her confidence comes from.

Lonely Kitchen Days

Having risen from the bottom of the food chain is extremely valuable for someone in a top position. The chef knows exactly how important everyone in the restaurant is. She knows that the machinery is dependent on every little clog and should one fail, everything collapses.

About being a woman in the kitchen, Jessie can see the two sides of the coin. On one hand, being frequently the only woman in the kitchen meant often working around rough language and a heavy climate. The fact that it’s a physically demanding job, made their colleagues wonder if Jessie, a petite woman, was capable of it.

“It’s not that all men are rough and hard, I think environments with mainly men just create a certain ambience that isn’t always pleasant”.

On the other hand, Jessie recognizes that it did force her to work harder in order to prove herself, which ultimately made her a better chef.

“It’s better nowadays and it was important then but sometimes it was a bit too tough, if I’m allowed to say it”, Jessie confesses. “It’s so important to be clear about what we want this field to be. To refuse strongly how it’s been until now because it’s not sustainable for anyone. A balanced team makes for a much better environment for everyone to work in.”

Women are still very underrepresented in the kitchen, especially in the warm section, and that’s where the power of representation comes in. Jessie’s humbleness makes it hard for her to see herself as a role model but just being visible as a top chef leading the way, makes wonders for the generation that will follow.

The making of a Creative Leader

Her career has taken her everywhere from small to michelin-starred restaurants and now to creative leader in one of Stockholm’s most known food enterprises. Right before making the move to Urban Deli, Jessie was working at the one star restaurant Esperanto, in Östermalm, one of the richest neighbourhoods in Stockholm. Being married to a chef meant that the work/family balance was twice as hard, so Jessie and her husband decided together that it would be right for everyone if she left the crazy hours and stress that comes with doing service regularly.

“Not working service gave me more time to dig deeper into other areas of the food world”, Jessie tells us “As a head chef you spend a lot of time educating your team, making sure they have the best tools available to them. I can now use that time to educate myself instead. That has allowed me to grow considerably as a cook.”

As a creative leader, Sommarström’s work is both hands-on and administrative. She’s the connection between the restaurants, the stores and the markets and answers for the leading people in each location. As well as being a part of the brains behind their dinner packages, assortment in stores and the menus.

It’s become about much more than just the cooking process. The focus is wider and Jessie spends a lot more time thinking and exploring the produce and systems that surround and make the food business.

“That’s what’s exciting about this field, it’s so wide! You can always learn something, there’s always room for improvement.”

The Food of the Future

Although the word sustainability is nowadays overused, Jessie doesn’t shake its weight off of her shoulders. One third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted. Adding that up with the global transportation of various products, the restaurant business has an enormous impact on the climate.

Jessie's response is learning, as eagerly and as much as possible.

“The more you learn, the harder it is not to take responsibility for what you serve”, Jessie explains “Food sustainability is evolving at a very rapid pace. It’s not only about restaurant owners and how they manage their food anymore. It’s a shared responsibility between everyone in the chain. Nowadays you need a lot of knowledge to make a sustainable choice. The suppliers must make it easy to choose sustainable products and everyone from the farmers to the chefs must take a step forward.”

Two days a week, Jessie can be found in Torsåker, a village north of Stockholm, where she works with the Axfoundation. The Axfoundation is an organization that focuses on sustainability. They currently work in three different programs: circular economy, sustainable production and consumption and the food of the future. The latter being the program where Jessie Sommarström is currently an active member, along with eight other women with different research roles.

“It’s such a great environment. It allows me to grow exponentially more. I have access to research and knowledge that I would never have had as a single chef in a restaurant.”

Their incredible work together started with Swedish Farmed Mince, a soya-free alternative to ground meat, made from legumes. A product rapidly taken up by Urban Deli, which replaced all meat in both lasagne and bolognese with Swedish Farmed Mince.

Urban Deli is in between. It is big enough that it still has to respond to the consumer’s wishes, which means having certain products available year round as opposed to seasonally. On the other hand, being smaller than a big chain gives it the possibility for quick changes, meaning a thriving environment for small producers and innovative ideas. It’s the perfect size to influence consumers’ habits in a way a single restaurant can’t.”

Their second project focused on the bream. The bream is a white, nutrient-rich fish, not currently used for human consumption because of its many bones. It is usually caught along with other edible species and thrown back into the water. Although the accidental fishing of other species is lower and lower, it could be even lower if it was possible to use every fish caught in the nets.

In an attempt to fix this problem, the Axfoundation connected their partners to find a solution. By using a machine that works almost as a centrifuge, the fish meat was separated from the bones, allowing the bream to be consumed as fish mince in schools and hospitals.

The goal is not only making the whole fishing process more efficient and sustainable but also allowing a more balanced ecosystem by taking different species of fish. This project can be scaled up, making use of the different species of bycatch in different regions of the globe.

The latest project the gang is working on has been named 5 Tons of Fish on the Stand and it’s based on the concept of circularity. Instead of feeding animals with food appropriate for human consumption, this project aims to use products like peels and bread that would otherwise be thrown out, to create insects. Those insects are in turn used to feed farmed trout. The project is not only about using food waste and reducing the amount of food produced to feed our own food but also about creating farmed animals in similar conditions as they have in the wild.

The Dish: A full circle Rainbow

For the dish Jessie cooked for us, the chef chose to use the circular rainbow trout. For her, it’s not only about it being a great product but also to give visibility to the pilot project, developed to show politicians and people in power that these projects don’t need as much money to actually make a difference.

“It’s very important how our ingredients are produced. There are many talks about the new types of protein, insects being one of them. For me it is much more natural to use a fish that has been fed with insects instead of consuming insects myself.”

The rainbow trout tastes like a wild fish but it’s locally produced, reducing the climate footprint needed to transport it.

Chef Jessie Sommarström starts by lightly curing the fish in salt, which gives it better taste and a firmer texture, to then bake at low temperature with the skin still on. Directly under the skin, there's a fat, flavourful layer that should be kept. Once the fish reaches an inner temperature of 43 degrees, the chef takes it out of the oven, peeling off the skin gracefully.

The trout is served with glazed cabbage pillows, soured turnip, blue mussels, blue mussel sauce and a lovage and parsley cream.

Blue mussels are a climate friendly protein: they don’t require food and they clean the water they are in. In this dish, they are cooked in a pan with onion, oil, butter and white wine until all the shells are open. They are then removed from the pan and the broth is reduced, seasoned and finished with cream and butter.

Cabbage is one of Jessie’s favorite ingredients: it's both cheap, versatile and available year round. Pointed cabbage and kale are glazed in a pan with water, butter, salt, sugar and lemon. The leaves are filled with mussels, shallots, garlic and cabbage stems, which have been sauteed until soft, and folded into pillows. They are braised with fire right before serving. The remaining kale is fried until golden and crispy and salted.

The lovage and parsley paste give a freshness that cuts through the fatty sauce.

“This dish is composed of Swedish and climate friendly ingredients that I truly enjoy working with. It has different textures and is rich in taste. It’s not just climate friendly. It’s a good dish.”

Battling among friends

Jessie taking part in Swedish tv-show Kockarnas Kamp (The Battle of the Chefs - a tv show where known Swedish chefs cook their way through challenges to reach first place) was mostly a case of revenge.

“I had competed in the previous edition of the Chef of the Year and hadn’t won. I just thought to myself “It would be nice to win something sometime” She laughs “So that’s probably why I wanted to participate.”

Not seeing herself as a competitive person, something Jessie’s team laughed about when they first heard her say it, what she really takes from her weeks in the show was the companionship. The participants share rooms and eat all their meals together, the perfect mix for close relationships to form.

“To be able, as an adult, to hang out with seven other people that share your enormous passion for something, was an unbelievable experience.” Jessie remembers “We just talked about food all the time.”

The creative leader feels like people in the restaurant business are much more willing to share than before and that makes everyone grow much faster.

“We all want Sweden to be a good destination for food. Which Sweden already is!”

Words by Madalena Vilar. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.

"The more you learn, the harder it is not to take responsibility for what you serve"