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Magnus Nilsson: ‘It’s not enough to be creative. You still have to be able to write.’

Nilsson will launch his latest book, “Fäviken: 4015 Days, Beginning to End,” on Saturday (Nov. 7) at 11 a.m. during a special online talk presented by the American Swedish Institute.

Magnus Nilsson
Magnus Nilsson: "I actually really enjoy writing. That’s the basis of it. I know that perhaps most chefs of my background, when they put out cookbooks, someone else writes them. But for me, the majority of the pleasure has come from writing books myself."
Photo by Cameron Wittig

Magnus Nilsson made his name as a chef. In 2008, he took over a very small restaurant on a very large and remote hunting estate in Järpen, Sweden, just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Everything prepared and served at Fäviken was made from local ingredients.

By 2012, Fäviken was ranked among the world’s 50 best restaurants. In 2016, it was awarded two Michelin stars. Nilsson was featured in the PBS series “Mind of a Chef” and the Netflix series “Chef’s Table.”

At its start in 2008, Fäviken seated 12 people; at its end in 2019, 24. It closed for 20 weeks each year. When reservations for a season opened, they sold out in minutes. Diners traveled there from Stockholm by plane (one hour) or train (four hours) and spent the night.

Nilsson is also the author of five books, all published by Phaidon. He describes the first, “Fäviken,” as “about the restaurant that barely existed” and the last, “Fäviken: 4015 Days Start to Finish,” as “about the restaurant that doesn’t exist anymore.” The first was published in 2012, the last just this month.

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In between are two door-stopper cookbooks, “The Nordic Cookbook” (2015) and “The Nordic Baking Book” (2018), both massive research projects, and a volume of his own photography, “Nordic: A Photographic Essay of Landscapes, Food and People” (2016).

“Fäviken: 4015 Days” will have its U.S. launch tomorrow (Saturday, Nov. 7) at the American Swedish Institute. Nilsson has been here twice before, in 2016 with the cookbook and his photography book, which the ASI celebrated with an exhibition, and in 2018 with the baking book. Because COVID, tomorrow’s visit will be virtual. He hopes to return in person in 2021 or 2022.

Five books are many and a launch is a milestone. In honor of both, this interview is with Magnus Nilsson the author. As always, the conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: Why do you write?

Magnus Nilsson: I actually really enjoy writing. That’s the basis of it. I know that perhaps most chefs of my background, when they put out cookbooks, someone else writes them. But for me, the majority of the pleasure has come from writing books myself.

I always knew that I could write, but I never did it for fun. The first time I found pleasure in writing was when I wrote the first book about Fäviken. That was the first time I sat down and wrote a lot and thought about something that I really wanted to tell a story about. It was very nice.

MP: Your first language is Swedish. Have you always written in English?

MN: In Sweden, you start learning English already in first grade, and you take it all through high school. So that’s always been there. I moved to France quite early [to work in restaurants in Paris]. So I’ve always existed in this bubble where many different languages are spoken. I’m pretty used to it.

In Sweden, culture is never dubbed. If you go to the cinema, there will be subtitles, but the soundtrack will never be dubbed. I think that makes it easier for Scandinavians in general to learn English.

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[My] first book was supposed to be like most cookbooks, written by someone else. Emilia [Terragni], my publisher, asked me if I didn’t want to try to write it myself. She asked if I could write a little sample introduction. And I did, and they really liked it. They encouraged me to continue writing the rest of the book.

Seeing how appreciated that was, first by the professional people at the publishing house, of course, but then also by so many people who read the book, was very encouraging. I guess that made me feel confident writing in English in a different way.

MP: What was it like to be edited?

MN: It was a difficult experience to be edited the first time, when someone’s, like, poking around in your stuff. And the first time I was edited, it was a British editor that was very British in their language. That didn’t work with me. It was a painful experience. But shortly after that, I wrote an article about the Faroe Islands for a magazine and the editor was Nathan [Thornburgh], who also edited the new book. Through him, I found how enjoyable it is to be edited by someone who’s really, really good.

The restaurant Fäviken in late summer with hay drying in the wind on a traditional hay fence.
Photo by Erik Olsson
The restaurant Fäviken in late summer with hay drying in the wind on a traditional hay fence.
You can read [my] books and they’re perfectly correct in terms of language and so on, but you can also feel that they’re written by a non-native English speaker. And to me, it’s very important that they don’t edit out all of the expressions that might be particularly Swedish or have to do with my own personal language. There’s no point in pretending that you’re something you’re not, as long as people understand it and find it enjoyable to read.

MP: Did you write as a child?

MN: Well, halfheartedly, I wrote some journals, but I never stuck to it, which I regret today. One of my few regrets in my life is that I’ve never journaled for real. I wrote in school and the way people do, but not much more than that.

I’ve always read a lot. I come from a family where everyone reads a lot. There’s always been plenty of books around. I think that’s also the basis for my love of writing, all of the reading that took place. That still takes place. I’m actually into a phase right now where I don’t read very much since the last half-year or so. It comes and goes.

MP: What have you read most recently?

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MN: Lately, I’ve been reading mostly authors writing books about growing apples. [Note: Magnus and his wife, Tove, bought an old apple orchard in Oct. 2018.] There is one American author named Michael Phillips. He’s written a couple of books on orcharding that are really fantastic.

I read “Call of the Reed Warbler” by an Australian author named Charles Massy. It’s about agriculture and his work in agriculture in Australia, which is also very, very interesting. It’s a really nice read.

Those are the last books I’ve really enjoyed.

MP: You probably know that the University of Minnesota is big into apples.

MN: Absolutely! I think I read almost every paper that they have on their open servers.

MP: In “The Nordic Cookbook,” you included an essay and a photograph about pilot whale hunting in the Faroe Islands. Both caused controversy. Can you comment on that?

MN: That was actually a great matter of debate. Even talking about stuff like that alienates a lot of people. But you don’t have an unlimited license to interpret truth.

When you’re setting out to make a documentary book, you can definitely decide to not take certain things into the book. But when something is such a big part of the culture of a population, to not describe it would be too personally biased.

A Fäviken signature dish: scallop (skalet ur elden), cooked over burning juniper branches.
Photo by Erik Olsson
A Fäviken signature dish: scallop (skalet ur elden), cooked over burning juniper branches.
It [came] to the point where I decided that if I can’t put this in, with photos and all, there won’t be any book. Most people understood fully well, when they read the text, that this is not me taking a stand for or against whale hunting as such. This is me describing something that’s happening. Whether we like it or not, it’s happening. We should be aware of it and understand what it is rather than be entirely controlled by our emotions.

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I sometimes use the example that to not write about this in a book like that would be like having a big news magazine and not reporting about a war because you don’t like when people kill each other. You can’t choose to not report on things when you’re saying that you’re being documentary.

MP: What is something you’ve learned from your editors?

MN: I have learned to try to keep my texts much shorter.

MP: Do you overwrite?

MN: Oh, massively! Have you seen the letter Roald Dahl wrote many years ago as a reply to a young man that sent him an essay? The one where he explains about “beastly adjectives”? There’s a lot to that. My texts are usually only half as long as the original ones by the time I get them to the editor. When they [come back], they’re half as long again.

If there is something I don’t want to cut, I don’t cut it. One of the joys of working with a really good editor is that nine out of 10 times, you can feel as a writer that they made the text better or stronger. But I also learned to stand up for when I believe that things need to be a specific way.

MP: You draw a line between creativity and craft. Do you consider writing a craft? Or is it a creative act? Or a little bit of both?

MN: I think it’s a bit of both. Most crafts have some amount of creativity attached to them. But most crafts can also exist almost entirely without creativity, while it is very, very difficult to make anything with creativity without good mastery of the craft. The one is more dependent on the other than the other way around.

You don’t have to be particularly creative to write good texts from a technical standpoint, or texts that people want to read, or that tell a good story. If you’re a bit creative, you can add much more to it. But it’s not enough to be creative. You still have to be able to write. I think the same goes for cooking as well.

MP: How did you connect with Phaidon, your publisher?

MN: I met Emilia [Terragni] at an event in Finland [in 2010]. She had the first print copy of René Redzepi’s “Noma” book [“Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine”] with her there, and everyone was very excited. I connected with her and we remained in contact. After maybe half a year, she reached out to me and asked if I thought it was a good moment to perhaps write a book about Fäviken.

MP: How long did it take to write?

MN: A year. I write really quickly when I write, but there’s a great deal of procrastination happening before I write. None of the books have taken a full year to actually write. But the process of getting there has taken that time.

MP: You were running a restaurant and you had a young family. When did you have time to write?

MN: I was usually sitting in the evenings, when service was winding down in Fäviken. I was writing there. I took mornings after dropping off the kids before going to work. I usually wrote a couple of hours in the morning when I was working on the Nordic cookbooks, because they took much longer. They were much more busy work, where you have to process a lot of data and write recipes.

MP: You took all the photographs for the cookbooks. But you had a photographer at Fäviken almost from the start. How did that happen?

MN: Eric Olsson came [to Fäviken] as part of the team that wrote one of the very early articles for the SAS [Scandinavian Airlines] in-flight magazine Scanorama. Very, very early he came there, and I just liked him a lot. He’s a very nice person, was easy to work with and takes beautiful photos. He also really understood what Fäviken was about. I think he found it personally fascinating. So he was willing to come there several times a year from Stockholm.

MP: That’s a lot. Did you feed him?

MN: [Laughs] We took good care of him. He came five to six times every year over 10 years. In return, we made sure that for every article written about us, they used his photos and bought them.

It was a good mutual relationship. We had someone in house we really trusted, me and the team, someone we liked to take the photos rather than having a new photographer every time there was something. At the same time, we had access to very good photography for our needs. [Eric] built this massive library of photos from Fäviken that was very handy, especially for the second book.

MP: In 2010, you wrote in the introduction to your first book, “Fäviken is going to be one of the world’s great restaurants, at least if I can help it.” What was it like to write that?

MN: I didn’t even think twice about that. Which probably says a lot about the inner workings of a … I must have been 26 when I wrote that.

You know, that was probably very naïve, but also not untrue. That was probably the way I saw it. And it is also the way that it turned out. Obviously, you should have a great deal of respect that things might not happen the way you want. And you definitely shouldn’t be arrogant about things like that. But I also think that it’s important to say what your intentions are and be honest about that. For Fäviken, that was one of the goals.

MP: In 2020, you wrote in the introduction to your new book, “Fäviken closed, don’t go there for dinner, because there is none to be had.” What was it like to write that?

MN: It felt good. Especially now, through this whole pandemic, and everything else that’s going on. I always knew that it was a privilege to choose when you got to close your restaurant. It feels even more special now.

MP: Fäviken closed in December 2019. Do you feel like you dodged a bullet?

MN: Yes. It’s not like you can say, when there is a global pandemic happening and you’re closed, that “Ah, I was gonna close anyway.” So it was very fortunate that we timed it the way we did.

It was a very successful restaurant, it was full every single day, and we had a very good partnership with someone who was very financially strong. So there was security there to be had. But it would have been wrong to use that security, when we already knew that we were going to close eventually. We were already winding down.

And I think that’s, like, the key thing. If it would have happened differently, we would have had to close, and the choice would have been made for me. It wouldn’t have been the end of the world for me, but it would have been less satisfying than how it happened.

MP: Do you have any more books planned?

MN: Nope, not at the moment. I’m sure there will be something more in the future. There are no more Nordic books planned. That feels done to me. There were discussions about making more.

I’m not going to write anything new for a little while. And then we’ll see. I’m sure that I will feel like writing again. Hopefully, someone will want to publish it.

***

Fäviken served its final 30-course tasting meal on Dec. 14, 2019. On Jan. 14, 2020, Magnus Nilsson was named the first director of the new MAD Academy, which aims to transform the hospitality and food industry. On July 7, 2020, he was appointed to the jury for the Food Planet Prize, funded by the Curt Bergfors Foundation in Stockholm. Two $1 million prizes will support sustainable food solutions.

And let’s not forget the apple orchard, Axelstorp, in the Skåne, Sweden’s southernmost region. “The last apple was picked one month ago,” Nilsson said, “and now it’s dormant. So there’s not very much going on there.”

Nilsson will launch his latest book, “Fäviken: 4015 Days, Beginning to End,” on Saturday (Nov. 7) at 11 a.m. during a special online talk presented by the American Swedish Institute. Lee Svitak Dean, food journalist and former Star Tribune Taste Editor, will moderate. FMI and registration here. Options range from talk-only ($20/15 members) to talk plus all five of Nilsson’s books ($250).