Interview with Gunnar Karl Gislason
Recently, my colleague Fran and I spent a few days in Iceland. No, not the Peter Andre supermarket variety, but Iceland! Actual country of vikings, elves, Bjork...and mouthwatering cuisine, notably of the New Nordic food movement. Currently making waves well beyond its Borgen borders, this philosophy of eating has a number of Nordic movers and shakers, but Chef Gunnar Karl Gislason from Dill restaurant in Reykjavik has foraged his way to the heart of his nation. Now, with his cookbook 'North: the New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland' available here in the UK, we can get a taste of it too. We were fortunate enough to meet Gunnar at his restaurant Dill, and talk to him about foraging, family and...waffles.
Firstly, we've just come from eating some traditional, and very smelly skata (fermented skate)! We've heard that 'heritage' plays a big part in Icelandic culture. What are your feelings about the notion of 'heritage' and those traditions, especially in relation to food?
I really love it. Especially the skata! Usually it's eaten once a year, always the day before Christmas, and only for lunch. For me, it's very important that we don't lose those traditions, good or bad; it's a tradition and we should definitely hold onto it. One of the most important things for me about the restaurant is those traditions, perhaps not rotten skate wings, but to hold onto the ones that are good and that we can use here at the restaurant.
When we opened five and a half years ago, we were going to focus on Nordic ingredients. But after the bank crisis it got extremely expensive to import things, e.g from Norway and Denmark, almost impossible in fact, so I just started focusing more and more on Icelandic ingredients. And then you have your certain box with your things in it so then I got tired and wanted to go outside the box so I went out to the countryside searching for producers who were making new and exciting things....but what I found actually was the old traditions. And I tried to find ways to use those ingredients.
And methods of cooking also?
Yes definitely, particularly preservations etc. Some of those ingredients were super easy to put on a plate and make dishes out of, and others took a while, but it's a lot of fun. A lot of those producers didn't believe I'd use these things for a fine dining restaurant.
What would you say is the most unusual ingredient you've used?
I would say the hardest ingredient to incorporate and combine into a dish is the dried fish – a guy from the very west of Iceland dries fish there – catfish, it's unbelievably good – and he does it in the traditional way. This guy lightly salts it and dries it for months...something that only can be done during wintertime and the temperature needs to be below zero and at the most windy points. So he's usually drying it for one to two months, depending on wind and humidity. Nowadays producers use dehydrators – there's nothing wrong with that but it's just not the same end product.
In terms of the New Nordic Food movement, how has that progressed and developed post-economic crisis in Iceland?
I'm sure a lot of restaurants here had to really think it over in terms of all those imported ingredients. So that has been really good for Icelandic producers. Unfortunately it's been really good for them to export too - they get a lot of money for exporting - so at the same time as getting some ingredients, I was losing others.
How would you describe the New Nordic food manifesto?
First of all it's a philosophy of what you do ingredients-wise and then it's just about how you're going to do it. For us, it's philosophy and culture but the most important thing is the ingredients and where they come from....and definitely the traditions. Then after we get those ingredients and traditions, I don't really want to manipulate the food too much – I want it to be clean, simple, just cooked nicely, good flavours, the right seasoning and no bullshit!
There's a collective of you, the chefs who are at the heart of the New Nordic movement. Do you influence and work with each other a lot?
Yes definitely. We have a lot of good friends and visit each other, learning from each other. I think the restaurant business has changed a lot since I started out – everybody had those little black books in their pockets which nobody could see and even if you were asking a chef they would sometimes not give you the whole recipe – holding something back. Nowadays everybody's sharing.
Do you try and get out of town where you can to source the ingredients?
During the summertime I usually go and forage for all the stuff we use. Also we harvest our own seawater to make our own salt so usually I'd use that trip to pick more stuff. Then we have some sweet spots in the city where we go to pick a lot of our stuff, some would say that I know my neighbour’s garden pretty well...like, what does he have there? Wait until it gets dark!
So you're constantly developing the cuisine...
Yes...especially in summer we change the menu depending on what we're picking and what we're getting from our farmers. Now I'm really trying to start this project with a greenhouse gardener to grow more varieties in greenhouses.
And are there any ingredients that you have to be careful of, or that are poisonous?
When I was starting the restaurant I spoke to this super nice older lady who knows everything about gardening and wild herbs, so I asked her about it and if there was something that would kill me, because it would be good to know! She said in Iceland literally there's nothing that will kill you – maybe something will give you a bad stomach, but they taste extremely bad she said, so she was guessing we wouldn't be using those ingredients anyway!
When it comes to the whole foraging thing, how do you know it's going to work well in the final dishes?
So for many years now, pretty much everywhere I go, I'm picking stuff and eating it all the time. I remember when I first started to meet my wife, she invited me up to the countryside – her parents have a little summer house in a really beautiful place, in the middle of a birch tree forest. It's a really brilliant, natural place so I was picking this and that, and eating – and she was like, he's really strange – what is wrong with him?! Maybe I'm not feeding him enough or something!
When you were growing up what were your food influences, if any?
I remember moments in the kitchen but I'm not really inspired by that. I grew up in the country, I did a lot of gardening and I really loved that. I was a dishwasher for a while, I couldn't stand school, I found it extremely boring. Then me and my friend heard that his sister knew a man who had gone to these classes in school which were about food, teaching you basic things, both in the restaurant and the kitchen. She told us that it was a lot like working, instead of reading books – so we were like, yeah! We need that! So we went there. And I just really liked it! The teacher there helped me to get a job at the restaurant in the local town – then I started working there as a dishwasher. And I knew if I was really quick I could help doing the salad bar, so I did that – and if I was really quick doing that, I would be able to go on the grill station. A couple of months later I decided this was what I wanted to do so I got a recommendation and went to the finest restaurant in town and kept going there until they gave me a job!
And how long was it before you had your own restaurant – is this your first?
I was only 16 when I started and yes Dill is the first. Now it's five and a half years, nearly six, but then two years ago I met with the owners from Kex and we got together and decided to make it one company. It went really well. Then we opened up the pizzeria next door.
How long has the pizzeria been open?
We were about to relocate Dill restaurant and we'd been going round town trying to find a house for it, then about six months ago we found this. Actually it's a funny story because the house on the corner – a big beautiful concrete house – is the second oldest concrete house in Reykjavik. People used to live in the big house but this (Dill) used to be a barn for hay and animals – and we really wanted to kind of keep it like that – because we like that story!
Where does the name 'Dill' come from?
When I opened up the restaurant I had a co-owner who went the other direction a couple of years ago. He started calling it Dill restaurant on all our documents – I asked him why and he said he had to call it something - 'because you are using so much dill' – so I just picked up on that. We were getting close to the open day and had a meeting to brainstorm for a name. We thought it would be great idea to have a couple of bottles of wine, some beer and brainstorm – I came with a long list and so did he – I looked at his and he did the same – we crossed off ones we didn't like, then discussed, this is good this is good..but not as good as Dill.. everyone can say it and understand it.
Where do you go to eat, when you go out? Have you got any favourite spots in Reykjavik?
That's a good one! I mostly eat out in our restaurants and not only because I get it for a good price but because I just really like it, it's good food! I also really enjoy going to a coffee house called Mokka – it's been there forever and they serve some amazing waffles! (read our feature on Reykjavik to read more about Mokka)
So...any guilty pleasures other than a cheeky waffle?!
Well.. mainly the waffles at Mokka – I'm really trying to stop it as they're probably not good for me! And now it's so close by – I'll be here working and be like yeah, I'll have a nice cup of coffee too – they’re really huge. And really good!
Do you go to London much?
I've only been to London once. I hate London! Ah only joking! I used to live in Denmark and have lot of friends in those areas in the Nordic countries so I go a lot there and I go a lot to the States. I don't know anybody in London – it's huge - but it's got a lot of good restaurants. There's an Icelandic guy who has a restaurant in London too, with one star, called Texture.
And finally – your fabulous cookbook 'North: the New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland' - did you enjoy the process of developing it?
Oh yes – I mean we literally drove a circle round Iceland meeting all my producers, it was great. For me, it was always a dream to make that book and I always wanted to have one third foot here (at Dill) but most importantly it would be the producers and interviews with them, talking about how and why they are doing it and then a lot of landscape pictures. So it's more than a cookbook I think.
Jemma Watts and Fran Tehan interviewed Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason at Dill restaurant, Reyjkavik in November 2014.