‘The smaller the framework, the more creative you have to be’
Michelin Star chef Jacob Holmström on discovering his passion for the culinary arts, wandering the streets of Paris for work, and why he likes to text his truffle picker.
Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.
You often hear that someone was ‘born to do something’ and this probably applies more to Swedish chef Jacob Holmström than most. Born the same year his father opened a restaurant in the southwest of Sweden, Jacob was a fixture in the kitchen from practically the moment he could walk.
It’s surprising, then, when Jacob - today the co-founder of two Michelin Star restaurant Gastrologik - says he didn’t truly fall in love with cooking until he finished culinary school and moved away from his hometown.
“That’s when I discovered a real passion for the culinary arts. Sometimes it’s the case that you can’t see the woods for the trees. When I moved away and started working for other chefs as just one of the team, not the son of the head chef, that broadened my perspective a lot.”
Following a spell at an up-and-coming restaurant in Gothenburg - where he met his Gastrologik co-founder Anton Bjuhr - and a couple of years in Oslo, Jacob pursued his dream of working in Paris. He quickly found somewhere to stay, a room in a shared apartment with a French painter, although realised soon after that landing a job might not be quite as straightforward.
“It’s very hard to find a job if you are from Sweden and don’t speak French! I wandered the streets of Paris for three months. Then I stumbled upon a small two Michelin Star restaurant where Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson was working. He helped me get a job as a commis chef, making €360 a month. My rent was probably €500 a month so I had to call my dad every month to ask for some charity!”
This would prove to be a seminal time for Jacob, working in the small kitchen alongside a tight team of talented chefs. His plan had been to learn about French cooking but the restaurant served fusion cuisine created with locally-sourced ingredients. It wasn’t what he had in mind but turned out to have a defining influence on his own culinary credo.
“I ended up at a restaurant that didn’t really cook French food. It was very open to influences from all over the world, executed with beautiful French ingredients. That inspired me a lot, that you can take a technique and travel the world with it - but you should source the ingredients where you are.”
Two weeks after the restaurant received its third Michelin Star in 2007, Jacob moved to Stockholm to be nearer to his now-wife. He scored a job working with renowned Swedish chef Mathias Dahlgren and four years later joined forces with Anton to open their lauded restaurant Gastrologik. The pair resolved to work only with Swedish produce sourced from small local suppliers - a decision not without its challenges due to Sweden’s cold climate, but one that would prove central to their particular brand of creativity.
“We created a very tight framework of what we are allowed to use. The smaller this framework is, the more creative you have to be. For example, if we don’t allow ourselves to use vanilla or lemons because we only use Swedish ingredients, we either need to find a substitute or we need to do something completely different. This actually means you create a more unique and fun experience.”
Creativity is at the core of what they do, Jacob says, but you can’t summon it out of thin air. It relies very much on the active pursuit of inspiration, modesty about the limits of their own expertise, and an openness to new knowledge. Jacob and Anton feed their creativity by maintaining a close relationship with their producers, spending time with the farmers, working alongside them and finding out as much as possible about the produce. As the restaurant has evolved, they’ve narrowed their framework even further and now only buy from producers who they can easily converse with.
“If I order Swedish truffles, I don’t want to just fire off an email to a retailer. I want to be able to speak to or at least send a text to the guy who is picking for us. I want to ask things like: Is this a good time? Is it a good temperature? Are they a good size? A lot of knowledge you don’t get sitting behind a computer, and we’re becoming a little better at this every year since we opened.”
The limitations accompanying Jacob and Anton’s decision to work strictly with local produce are part of what has shaped their success. But relying on producers who are often at the whim of nature comes with its own set of challenges. The duo keeps detailed charts of when certain produce is in season, but things don’t always go according to plan. When they don’t, they order in what they can and turn to their trusty record of past tests to devise a new dish on the fly. To avoid disappointed customers and to enable them to chop and change at a moment’s notice, Gastrologik’s menu is a carte blanche with nothing but the word ‘menu’ in one corner and the price in another.
“When we opened, there were no restaurants doing a carte blanche menu. We had a long discussion about how to communicate to this guest. How do you get people to spend a decent amount of money on something when they don’t know what it is? Actually a lot of guests appreciate not having to make decisions. They can just sit back and let us take care of them.”
It’s plain to see that the symbiotic relationship between Jacob and Anton is the secret sauce in the success of their joint venture. They’re like siblings, Jacob says, constantly collaborating, sometimes disagreeing, but always working together to achieve their shared vision.
“We’re like two computers working on the same task. We can divide the work and we’re always working towards the same goal. The longer we’ve done this, the more effective we’ve got at it. Now it’s a real strength. It’s about completing each other, rather than competing with each other.”
Words by Sophie Miskiw. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.