There were two reasons why I asked to meet Mathias Dahlgren. One, I had just gobbled my way through an exquisite—and highly creative—meal at his namesake restaurant in Stockholm. And two, perhaps the bigger reason, I had never met a Michelin-starred chef in my life, and this guy was running not one but two restaurants with the coveted recognition—the two-starred Matsalen (dining room in Swedish) which serves tasting menus, and the one-starred Matbaren (food bar), its more casual sister restaurant next door, where I had just finished feasting.
Call me star-struck—or Michelin star-struck, in this case—but I was pleased when he ambled by our table and agreed to meet me the next day, just hours before my plane took off.
Dahlgren may be a serial star gatherer—even his earlier venture, the Bon Lloc, which he ran with his wife for 10 years, won a Michelin star—but there is nothing starry about the man himself. He somehow manages to be high-flying and down-to-earth in the same breath. Perhaps this combo of “up there” and “rooted”—of excellence and humility, of haute cuisine and easy informality, of pushing new frontiers and staying close to nature—not only defines the man, but also his restaurants, his food, and his philosophy.
I ask him which are his favourite dishes from the Matbaren menu—a brown paper printout which doubles up as a table mat—and he strokes his chin and puts a star (what else) against Summer Meadow Soup and Fried Swedish Chanterelles. Lucky for us, we had ordered those last night. The Summer Meadow Soup is a modern, lighter take on the traditional Ängamat—a soup Swedish grandmas favoured—utterly delicious, a combo of summer vegetables with a creamy concoction poured on at the table.
The chanterelle dish was yum too, but what caught my eye was the “egg 63ºC” that accompanied it, steamed for 55 minutes. Why 63 degrees Celsius? Turns out boiling a perfect egg is one of the hardest cooking tasks because the white coagulates at 45 degrees Celsius while the yolk sets at 85 degrees Celsius—and while I digest this egg mathematics, he averages the temperatures to 62.5 degrees Celsius, which gets rounded to 63 degrees Celsius as the steam oven doesn’t have decimal settings. Darn.
If you have always wanted to eat your dessert first, then it is perfectly possible to do so here without raising any brows. Mimicking a bar, where you order a drink at a time, the Matbaren asks you to order one dish at a time—and it can be the Baked Wild Chocolate from Bolivia, if your sweet tooth kicks in as soon as you sit down—and when you have eaten that, you order another, and another. The menu isn’t segmented by the usual “Starters”, “Mains”, “Desserts”, but by “From Our Country”, “Other Countries”, “Plant World”, “Pastry”, and “Dairy and Cold Cuts”. Dahlgren designs his dishes around the 7-minute rule—anything you pick on the menu, whether it is the Langoustine From Bohuslän (on Sweden’s west coast, where the best fish are) or the Steamed Beef Bun—it can be cooked and served within 7 minutes.
Dahlgren isn’t bound by rules, no, unbounded creativity is more his thing. “I hate recipes,” he tells me, and as I try to absorb this idea of a chef with strong feelings against recipes, it strikes me this is a man who is at the top of his game, at the point when Picasso, for example, abandoned normal recipe-bound portraits, and started painting noses below mouths, and ears between the eyes. He believes instead in following a process, and being “absolutely present” in the process. For him, ingredients are individuals—“there is no lamb in the world who is the same, no apple who is the same”. “Creativity for me comes when I meet the ingredients, when I meet an onion or chicken,” he is on a roll now, “and being very open to them, thinking what can be done with this.”
This intense respect for ingredients is at the heart of his “ natural cuisine” philosophy. The way he orders ingredients isn’t a one-way process, rather he is in close dialogue with small-scale producers, and if one of them says he has 5kg of a particular mushroom, then Dahlgren thinks about how to transform them into a dish. The result is a menu that is flexible. For example, the lemon sole has been changed to arctic char today, and fresh mangoes from Pakistan have been replaced with Israeli mangoes, but “I like the Pakistan ones better”. And then he darts off into the kitchen, and I run after him, to show me a new ingredient—“lichen”—which I look at with befuddlement, until he explains that it is like a mushroom (which doesn’t use energy from photosynthesis) and also like an algae (which has chlorophyll), and lichen lives by both methods. I look on with more befuddlement, wishing I hadn’t slept through high-school botany.
He has been offering a themed tasting menu featuring lichens, mushrooms and truffles, since September at the Matsalen. Lichens haven’t been eaten a lot in Sweden. It is a new ingredient even for Dahlgren, a painting-the-ear-between-the-eyes moment, I suppose, and he is working with four-five lichens (apparently there are 2,000 varieties lurking in the forests) that are “really, really good”.
Unfortunately, I have a plane to catch, and will not get to try the lichens or the famed tasting menus of the Matsalen, not unless I catch a plane back. As a parting question I ask what his “comfort food” is. Surprisingly, he goes into a comparison of classic Swedish food “which is very cooked”—mushy, I am reading between the lines—and Indian food. What he loves about Indian food is the contrast between “very cooked” combined with “something not cooked at all”. I bring on my befuddled look, and he explains it is the “amazing mouth feel” of eating “a lamb curry cooked for hours, with raw cucumber and yogurt, or raw onions, cilantro, lime juice”.
As for his comfort food, it is Swedish lamb stew. If he is sick in bed, this multi-Michelin-starred chef yearns for the stew his mom made.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.