Chris Ying, Lucky Peach Editor-in-Chief
I’m sitting alone, naked—not for the first time on this trip—in the hottest sauna I’ve ever been in. Through the squat, square window, I can make out a snow-plowed pathway leading to the auburn building next door. It’s dark outside but not quite 6 p.m. A cook in his chef whites is crouched on the pathway, lighting a stack of wood in a pit dug out from the snow. When the fire takes, he moves on to the next stack of wood a few feet away. Eventually, the entire path is lit by flickering firelight, and the scene takes on a distinctly tribal vibe.
He must be freezing his balls off, I think, before settling back into the wooden bench and plucking another slice of cured sausage from the plate next to me. I’ve got a few minutes before dinner—enough time to burn the cold out of my bones, shower, change and then wander next door. It’s all been prescribed by my host, the chef Magnus Nilsson. I’m not one to challenge doctor’s orders.
Fäviken is unlike any restaurant I’ve ever visited. It’s an hour by plane from Stockholm, followed by a winding one-hour taxi ride through the countryside. There’s a lake nearby, I think. There hasn’t been a moment that I’ve really known where I am exactly, since arriving in Sweden from San Francisco three days ago. But what everyone notes—and part of the allure of the place—is that Fäviken feels even further away from the world than it is.
The journey is part of the experience of eating at Fäviken. Magnus will tell you that he considers himself fortunate to have the clientele he has because he knows for certain that they all want to eat here—they’ve gone out of their way to do so. There are no accidental visitors at Fäviken.
I arrived in the morning and took a walk around the property with Magnus as he performed his daily rounds. It’s December in Sweden, and the snowdrift continues endlessly into the horizon. It’s achingly beautiful. Fäviken resides in an old hunting lodge that’s been converted—but only somewhat—into a restaurant. It’s a chef’s dream, really, with more space than anyone could know what to do with.The place only serves 14 people per night but has a separate building that houses an aging room where Magnus holds beef and ducks for months on end. Fäviken subscribes to a kind of hyperlocalism, only cooking with ingredients that are available in the immediate vicinity, no matter the season. That means, at the moment, meat comes from the aging room and vegetables come from a root cellar dug out of the hillside. (In the never-quite-full winter daylight, the entrance to the root cellar is lit by lantern, and has an irresistible Middle-Earth charm.)
Magnus shows me a few projects he’s working on, and our conversation is casual and meandering. He’s affable and witty, and it feels nice to catch up. But later in the afternoon, just before dinner service, Magnus takes his leave and steps into the kitchen. Of the chefs I know, Magnus makes the most dramatic change in demeanor from outside to inside the kitchen. He doesn’t mess around at work. All around him, the standard tools of the trade are present and accounted for—knives, pans, fire—but there’s also a stopwatch. And hand signals. The 12 or so courses that comprise dinner at Fäviken (plus numerous amuse-bouches and after-dinner treats) are all timed and executed with consummate efficiency. If a dish is not coming together as planned—on this particular evening, an enormous lobster the staff planned to serve turned out to be filled with watery, mushy flesh—the kitchen scraps it and moves on to the next course without the slightest hiccup.
Upstairs in the dining room, the meal is a spectacle. It’s as much an elaborate work of theater as it is a meal, and the choreography is structured accordingly. With each course, Magnus comes up the stairs with a pair of cooks bearing trays of plates. He claps his hands twice to get the room’s attention, explains the current dish as it’s being distributed, and then disappears back downstairs. At one point, he comes up the stairs with a bone saw and bisects a cow femur set on a stump in the middle of the room, then mixes the marrow within with raw beef heart. He stops by our table once or twice for a quick check-in, but mostly he’s all business. There’s no time for dillydallying.
As a former cook and a current consumer of too many restaurant meals, I’m ecstatic and befuddled. The food is beyond delicious—at once primal and modern. It’s one of those rare occurrences when I think, damn, maybe cooking really can be art.
Moreover, every dish and gesture feels real and necessary. I say it’s theater, but I don’t mean that it’s staged. There’s nothing gratuitous. Back in San Francisco, I’ve been working on the “Apocalypse” issue of the magazine I edit. It’s the reason I’m visiting Magnus now. I’ve come here to talk to a chef who lives and works more or less off the grid about what life will be like when there is no grid. My staff and I have imagined the end of the world and assigned a bunch of silly tie-in articles.
Fäviken feels so honest and thrilling, it makes me embarrassed. At home, I sit at my computer, reading and writing about ingesting things. I consider how many restaurants are serving foraged food now and quiver thinking about what the next food trend will be. But here in the middle of Sweden, removed from all the noise, I find a place immersed in itself. And for a moment, I am swallowed up by it.