Tia Strandberg: The Rising Star

How she made a name for herself on the global food scene in two years

Words by Madalena Vilar. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.

At 22 years old, Tia Strandberg is not your average youth. Born and raised in Halmstad (a town in the Swedish south, Halland's region), in a big family with many siblings, food was never a stranger in the house. Nevertheless, Tia doesn’t really associate her childhood with food.

“Nobody in my family really did something with food, nothing that I would say counts. Of course my parents cooked, we were many siblings and we ate together as a family. One of my grandmothers is an excellent cook actually, but that’s something I realized recently. I've no real childhood memories of cooking with someone in my family.”

Although she doesn’t feel like her family influenced her choice, her history tells a different story. As a well-travelled family, Tia’s parents made sure the kids experienced the cultures of the places they visited, through food.

“We wanted to experience the food culture. We ate a lot of Swedish food as well but we we're raised to want to taste everything.”

Faced with the need to make a choice in what to study in high school, Tia was ready to choose an education that would give her many options. But in a twist that would completely change everything, she chose to study culinary arts. Tired of theoretical studies, a program focused on cooking gave Tia the chance to do something more stimulating.

“I started competing pretty early on” Tia explains. “We participated in the High School Swedish Culinary Championships and I thought it was super fun. Competing and interning allowed me to experience the culture of haute cuisine, which until then was hard to experience in Halmstad.”

After interning in Gothenburg and Palma de Mallorca, Tia moved to Stockholm before the summer of 2019, taking the position she still occupies at restaurant Hantverket. The mindset at Hantverket is not about achieving a fine dining status or Michelin stars. Good food is what matters to the team.

Acting as a sponge near mentor Stefan Ekengren, Tia has been learning a very personal way of cooking food.

“Stefan creates most of the recipes. The dishes are very personal at the restaurant, there aren't a lot of places doing dishes the way we do there. And that’s mostly Stefan, he makes it from his own view of food and then obviously everyone gets to taste and gives their opinion. He’s the creator.”

Experience has quickly taken Tia’s role from the apprentice to the teacher, educating the newcomers on how to work the different stations. Agile and fast, the chef thrills under pressure and loves a challenge mid-service.

“I like the service generally! It’s lively and a lot happens, we can have to deal with allergies and then you just have to wing it. I like to create in that context, as a problem solver. To solve problems in a creative way.”

Tia loves to create new dishes and her creativity goes in full bloom at the Swedish Junior National Cooking Team, which she’s been a part of since april 2021.

Youngblood battling for glory

The Swedish Junior National Cooking Team is composed of 11 young chefs, all under 24 years of age and with different paths and experiences in life. Guided by two coaches, the team goes through a constant creative process of creating and perfecting dishes for competitions.

The process is a little different each time. As described by Tia, sometimes it starts with the “packaging”, how you want something to look. Other times it’s more about the taste, and what flavors to incorporate. And sometimes you have a mood board of the flavours and textures you want and you have to figure out where in the dish they are going to pop up.

“I have just started learning how to cook food for competitions and that’s very different from cooking in a restaurant. I don’t feel like I have a lot of experience, but I would say I’m quite good with the tastes and extract a lot of them from the food, something I really learned at Hantverket. "

The team is debuting in November, at the Culinary World Cup 2022 happening in Luxembourg. They expect two days of hard competition and focus. The championship will have two moments: one big service for up to 70 guests, where the focus is on quality and consistency; and one smaller for 12 dinner guests where the fine dining details will be at the focal point. The team will also be judged on speed, very low to zero food waste, and how clean they work during the whole process.

Tia has learned how crucial what goes on inside your mind is for success. Her passion for tension and the adrenaline kick helps when things don’t go as planned.

“You have to know when something is not going well. And be able to stop, collect yourself and make the best out of the situation. Being able to focus on the task at hand and not think about what else after that could go wrong. It’s nerve-wracking and it’s also all in your head.”

The goal is nothing short of gold because in the end, in Tia’s own words, the best part of competing is winning.

“The preparation can be fun but when you’re competing there’s a huge fear of loss and failure. You’ve spent so many hours working towards that goal.”

Two years after the World Cup, the team is taking its chance at the International Exhibition of Culinary Arts 2024. Colloquially known as the Culinary Olympics. Only after that will Tia get a clearer picture of what she wants to do in her career.

“There’s so much I haven’t done. It's a privilege to be at Hantverket, but of course, I want to test other things. I would like to try everything! From a Michelin star restaurant to a countryside restaurant working with local ingredients. Or with whole animals.”

Like a teenager searching to find herself, Tia’s cooking style is in constant evolution. That translates into volatility that Tia doesn’t want to be represented in her own restaurant. This means it will be a couple of years until we see Halland’s Young Chef 2021 put her name behind a space.

You live and you learn

In 2019, Tia and another school colleague got selected to represent their school at a culinary competition in Stockholm. They seized the opportunity for the fun of it. Little did they know that Tia would take home not only first place but also a whole new understanding of the culinary world.

Tia blushes when she talks about the dish she won with at the time.

“I would never cook that dish now, it would be embarrassing. But it’s probably going to be like that all the time. I’ll learn and I’ll feel embarrassed by what I did today at some point in my life”

Nonetheless, the young chef, who generally keeps a positive tone and sees the fun in most, recognizes the importance of that moment in her life and career. Tia chose to upgrade the dish that gave her gold with new techniques she has learned since.

“It’s the same taste profile. And there are a few common elements like broccoli and lemon tapioca” Tia explains. “The magic is in the details and in the finish, I couldn’t do back then.”

Contrasting against the black plate, the dish is a masterpiece in tones of white and green. The fish, zander, is fixated and cooked in plastic film to a cylindrical shape, delicately coated in broccoli leaves. On the side, Bellaverde broccoli, Bellaverde broccoli puree, lemon tapioca, and roasted onion. Following the famous quote popularized by Beyoncé’s song, Tia finishes this loved dish by putting a beautiful golden brown thin potato ring on it.

In a great example of cooking with low food waste, the Bellaverde broccoli is decomposed in its many components and used wholly in different shapes and textures.

This dish becomes an impersonation of Tia’s development. From starting her career at Hantverket and learning to rank taste, to adapting her style to the competitive world.

“When you prepare for a competition there’s a lot to think about. In particular how taste is experienced around the world. In the Nordics we love lingonberry but it doesn’t really please many foreign juries.” Tia says. “It’s central to work locally and still produce a Swedish product. People need to be able to relate to what they’re eating, otherwise, it’s good but it doesn’t persist in the memory.”

Equality in the business

About being a woman in the industry, Tia is careful with her words and realizes the complexity of the question.

"Nowadays it's notable that more women are taking up and given space in areas they used to be restricted from, and not welcomed into. It´s pleasing to see other women in the business. At the same time, the feeling of quota is still present. Never to know if you qualify because of achievements and success, or because of your gender. Women are attractive for the business. But sometimes the feeling is that it´s not for equality. Rather as a sell-out strategy for companies to appear better."

Tia is aware she walks in the footsteps of her earlier colleagues that fought for her to be able to be where she is today. She knows there’s a lot left to be done and she’s a part of it. Representation is the key. Even if it may come with a bittersweet feeling of being represented as the female face of cooking. And not just as a chef like her male counterparts.

“I don’t see it as a restaurant problem. It’s such a big problem in society in general so I can’t say it is hard to be a woman in this field. I would rather say that it´s hard being a woman in all fields. Some may be a bit more and others a bit less.” Tia clarifies. “And it’s not always about numbers, but about that the experience of a man is worth more than the experience of a woman. There’s a need for more women to be present. There’s also a need for us to be seen and valued.”

Tia is done being known as a female chef, she’s a chef. A good one.

Words by Madalena Vilar. Photography by Johan Ståhlberg.

“... I can’t say it's hard to be a woman in this field. I would rather say that it's hard being a woman in all fields. Some may be a bit more and others a bit less.” Tia clarifies,
/ “ And it’s not always about numbers, but about the experience of a man is worth more than the experience of a woman. There’s a need for more women to be present. There’s also a need for us to be seen and valued.”