Magnus Nilsson's Momentous Moments: The day he understood Fäviken couldn’t have survived Covid

The chef knows his restaurant wouldn’t have beaten the pandemic, but he remains optimistic about post-pandemic eating
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Magnus Nilsson's fur coat. All photographs by Erik Olsson
Magnus Nilsson's fur coat. All photographs by Erik Olsson

Magnus Nilsson’s new book, Fäviken: 4015 Days, Beginning to End, is a very good read. It details a complete list of dishes served at Fäviken in chronological order, and describes not only how a great many of them are cooked, but also how the chef and his brigade developed these remarkable creations.

However, the book goes beyond the usual scope of the average cookbook or chef’s monograph. In this new title, Magnus actually describes how he turned a remote Swedish hunting lodge into one of the world’s most highly praised restaurants, and in the process, developed from a little-known culinary professional into an internationally renowned star chef.

The restaurant in late summer with hay drying in the wind on a traditional hay fence
The restaurant in late summer with hay drying in the wind on a traditional hay fence

In retrospect, one of Nilsson’s wisest business decision appears to be his decision to close Fäviken towards the end of 2019, just as a novel virus, SARS-CoV-2, (the cause of Covid 19) was beginning to circulate in China. Of course, Nilsson’s reasons for quitting his restaurant had nothing to do with the impending pandemic. However, as he finished off his new book during the first lockdown, he couldn’t help but reflect on what may have happened had he stayed in the hospitality business.

“I am writing these words in the midst of the first stages of a worldwide pandemic that most of us didn’t see coming,” Magnus explains, in a passage in the book headed 12 May 2020, “but which to me makes more and more sense as a natural consequence of our collective actions the more I think about it. Before all of this, the economy was still booming and even though people were talking about a recession as something that would surely come, I don’t think anyone thought it was going to happen this way or this dramatically.”

Front-of-house manager Hatim and Magnus in the combined office space and staff dining room, one storey above the guest dining room
Front-of-house manager Hatim and Magnus in the combined office space and staff dining room, one storey above the guest dining room

We can all remember that time, and also perhaps relate to the sentiments that follow. “I am grateful that I am not among those running an experiential restaurant right now, or any other business that relies heavily on all those things that are currently forbidden. But I must say that in all the sadness and all the problems this virus has created around me and everyone else, it has been interesting to observe and understand how fragile even the things I perceived as strong really were. Businesses that seemed solid are crumbling. Leaders, both those who are thought of as such by others, and those who think so of themselves, have largely failed to lead by example, and often resorted to self-pity or complaining instead of action.”

Nevertheless, Nilsson remains a remarkably level-headed commentator in the face of a more gloomy prevailing commentary. “I don’t necessarily believe that the restaurateurs who say that everything is going to be shit are right,” he writes. “It seems like they generally have a vested interest in a situation that is no more, and aren’t seeing things clearly at the moment. That might be understandable and excusable given their personal risk of losing everything they have, but it’s neither accurate nor constructive.

Scallop I skalet ur elden, cooked over burning juniper branches
Scallop I skalet ur elden, cooked over burning juniper branches

“Broad claims that restaurants and the jobs they supply will never come back again don’t make sense to me. I think that those scenarios are more based on an analysis performed by people who have a lot to lose if they shutter the restaurants they own today, rather than an objective forecast on how consumers are going to act a few years down the line. I don’t think that there will be significantly fewer restaurants in the world in the future, and quite honestly, I don’t think that most of them will be all that different from the ones that represent the majority of the current restaurants either. I base this on the fact that people are going to want to eat and have a good time when this is over and beyond. And restaurants, as fragile as they might seem at the moment, have proven throughout history to be very adaptive in a crisis. There will be many who close forever, but an equal amount who reopen or start something new.

“This is probably not that comforting for the restaurants who become casualties. History will tell us about many who just suffered from bad timing and who would perhaps have turned into success stories if all this hadn’t happened. Or those who had just opened and didn’t have cash reserves to push on, those who were stuck in a space that cost too much per month, or those where the main people fell ill and because of that couldn’t manage their business through to the other side.

“Many in the very top end of the international restaurant community won’t make it. The segment where Fäviken operated is especially vulnerable, not because there won’t be enough people in the world who would be willing and capable of paying to eat there, but because a very large percentage of the customer base for these restaurants needs to travel to get to them. It will take a while before that is possible again, and even many of the more well-managed establishments out there will likely run out of money before they can count on dining rooms being filled with faraway guests again.”

Breakfast at Fäviken.
Breakfast at Fäviken.

Which raises an obvious question Nilsson is quite willing to answer. “Fäviken would not have made it through this pandemic,” he states emphatically. “Even in an unlikely scenario where I would have been able to convince my partners Patrik and Ann-Charlotte to support the restaurant financially for perhaps a year or longer with almost no revenue, that would have been the wrong choice. I’m glad that I got to close on my terms and that the decision wasn’t made for me, by Mother Nature or anyone else. At a moment of tremendous global change and challenge like the one we are in now, it is hard to not get absorbed by thoughts of that alone, and it is even harder to write about something other than that.

“But this book is about what I and the team at Fäviken have done for the past eleven years. A project that has been incredibly important to me for so many reasons. I came to the estate very young and inexperienced and was somewhat surprisingly given the opportunity by Patrik and Ann-Charlotte – who in essence opened up part of their home to me, the team, and to our guests – to create an incredible restaurant together. I have had an unbelievable stream of talented people coming and going through its doors to work, dedicated individuals who each imprinted some of their soul on what we did. And all of this happened at a moment when it was possible, and when many felt motivated to travel far for the experience we wanted to give them.

“Fäviken was a kind of restaurant that hadn’t really existed before we started it, and I think it highly unlikely, to be honest, that something like it will exist again. The circumstances and timing around it all were just too special to randomly replicate again. Everything has its allocated time and even though that can seem sad, it is at the same time very exciting. The fact that nothing lasts forever is the motor that drives development everywhere. For everything that goes away, something new comes to take its place, somehow.

“Many have asked me lately if I miss the place. I don’t. Not at all actually. Or at least not running it. But I do miss the social side of it, for example some of the team members that I have known for a long time and that I have become used to meeting face to face every day.  

“This winter [2019-2020] I have also been a bit like a junkie being weaned off a drug. My drug has been the constant validation I have been receiving all of the time for the last few years. It is hard to go from being told every day by multiple people how fantastic you are and how much what you created touched them, and how much it meant to them, and how much they enjoyed it, all the way down to getting exactly the same amount of validation as any normal father of four with an office job currently happening in quarantine does. I hadn’t expected that, but it was real, and I still feel it sometimes, a lingering sadness and an itch inside, as if something is missing.

“People also ask me if I am planning to open a new restaurant. And truth be told, I don’t know. I really did leave Fäviken without a grand plan and, as strange as this seems to some, I would never want to run that place again even if it was great for as long as it lasted. If one day some years from now I wake up in the morning and feel the same burning desire to run a restaurant that I felt for many years at Fäviken, I won’t think twice about it. But if that doesn’t happen, that’s okay too. There are many other things to do in life.”

To truly appreciate how Magnus made Fäviken, and what may lie in store for him in the future, order a copy of  Fäviken: 4015 Days, Beginning to End here.


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