Blue cheese. For many, it’s a love it or hate it type of food. I happen to be a fan and have it stocked in my fridge on a regular basis, but nothing quite prepared me for the one I had at Restaurant Kontrast. “It is a combination that I have had in different variations since the first opening of Kontrast,” says Mikael Svensson, chef and owner of the Michelin-starred modern Scandinavian restaurant in Oslo’s Vulkan neighbourhood.
“I think blue cheese by itself can be very over-powering, but by freezing and grinding it, it becomes milder and more balanced for my taste. Then I wanted the nutty element, so we added the sunflower seeds. And to add some sweetness, I had been playing around with different syrups before finally landing on the birch sap that adds just the right amount of sweetness and bitterness to the dish.”
The exceptional cheese course was just one of many dishes we enjoyed from the evening’s tasting menu. Other highlights included scallops from the coast of Bergen with frozen sour cream from Røros; grilled cusk topped with pickled mushrooms and a vinaigrette and porridge made from old sourdough bread; and the most delicious dessert with an Ekeberg pear with woodruff, frozen foam pineappleweed, yoghurt, and a drizzle of warm salted caramel sauce.
With Norway now looking to ease up on some aspects of the lockdown, I chat with Svensson about his food philosophy, why he wants to continue to promote Nordic cuisine, and really, just to reminisce about one of the best meals I have had in a long time.
When did you first decide you wanted to be a chef?
I didn’t decide to become a chef until very late. I was set on playing ice hockey for a long time. But I liked the internships I did in a kitchen and thought at first that it could be a good complement to being an ice hockey player.
What is your favourite childhood dish and why?
My favourite dish was pan-fried herring with potato puree, brown butter, and lingonberry jam. Just something about that is special to me until today.
You’ve been living and working outside of your native Sweden for quite a number of years. Though still not too far away, why have you decided to settle down in Oslo?
The reason I ended up in Oslo is more about opportunity and taking the chances that were given to me. And after having spent most of my professional life in Norway rather in Sweden, it made more sense to open my own business here than go back home and start over.
What is one of the misconceptions about Nordic cuisine that you would like to change?
That it is harsh, strict, and full of weird forest leaves. These days Nordic cuisine is very varied—whether it’s about focusing strictly on local produce or those having a foundation in the Scandinavian region but seasoning the food with inspiration from all over the world.
When I dined at Kontrast, I noticed a number of young chefs from different countries working in your kitchen and taking turns serving us. What is your philosophy around talent development?
I look for team players, and it is also always a team decision when it comes to who we hire in the kitchen. Since we all work so closely together, we need to have a good time together. But the result always comes first. Everybody needs to produce the quality and results we are looking for, but I try to get everyone to understand that we get there together or we go down together. It is not a one-man show—if one section is behind everyone is behind.
What was it like working in Michelin-star restaurants and then getting your own star for the first time?
Very different experiences. Working in a kitchen for someone else is tough in one way; you always have to learn and cook the way the chef does it—learn to do the same, copy and repeat. But you get feedback right away if you do it right or wrong. There is always someone to guide you. But I was always proud when I was working in a Michelin-star restaurant, and just being part of it all.
But to get one on your own is special. You have to be the one with all the answers, guide the cooks, and just trust your own judgment. The day I got the star is something I always will remember. It was that special feeling of accomplishment.
What is your favourite dish on the menu right now?
That always changes from my mood and day-to-day—that is also why I change the menu around. I need to feel the dishes; sometimes the dish is still good and everyone likes it, but I feel it’s run its course and get tired of it, and feel we need to change. That still doesn’t mean I can’t bring it back later on after it had its ”rest” and the season is right again.
What type of experience do you hope to create for your guests when they dine with you?
I just want people to have a great time. Relax and enjoy themselves, hopefully get to taste something new and get an understanding of all the wonderful ingredients we have in this part of the world.
Which up-and-coming local chef are you most excited about?
I would say Jimmy Øien at his restaurant Rest. I still haven’t been there, but they are getting great reviews and he is a great guy.
When not at your restaurant, where can we find you dining and having a drink?
Dining at Le Benjamin or a drink at Bettola.
Address: Maridalsveien 15a, 0175 Oslo, Norway
Phone: 47 21 60 01 01