"Some light pounding of meat in the morning," Magnus Nilsson waxes poetically while slamming slices of beef with a heavy green pan.
It beats the usual morning macchiato for the brainy chef of Fäviken, Nilsson's acclaimed restaurant hidden away in wintry Jämtland, Sweden, now buried in snow—that is, when you can see it, given the season's short blips of daylight. But he's far from all that at this moment.
"Not crazy thin, right?" Daniel Burns, the chef of Luksus in Brooklyn and the owner of that very pan here at the restaurant, asks.
"Pretty thin," Nilsson says. "Are we breaking your kitchen?"
"I think so," Burns replies.
The slow, methodical bashes continue as Nilsson makes a satisfying crock of sjömansbiff, or sailor's beef stew (see the recipe).
"This is a dish my grandma used to cook. It's very simple but very tasty," Nilsson says. "She had a heavier mallet than us. Her slices were thinner. She had a whole lifetime of pounding."
This humble Swedish casserole curiously layered with slices of beef, onions and waxy potatoes in pilsner and named after the fact that it can all come together in one pot in a ship's narrow alley—"The sailors never eat the fish, right?" Burns jokes—is just one notched square of cardboard in the 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that is Nordic food culture. And that puzzle is what Nilsson has painstakingly pieced together for his encyclopedic new Nordic Cookbook ($50).
It's a far cry from the fancy modernist cooking Nilsson does at number 25 on the World's 50 Best list (and his very restaurant-cheffy Fäviken cookbook back in 2012). "This is your book," Epicurious instructs those looking to dive deeper into Nordic cooking. "[An] epic tome, which somehow manages to include what seems to be the whole of traditional and modern cooking in Finland to Greenland," the New York Times says.
The chefs: Daniel Burns (left) and Magnus Nilsson (right)
"The whole idea about the book is that it's a documentary, not really my opinion. So I tried to keep it that way," Nilsson explains. "It's just about documenting the various food cultures in the food region."
Documenting entailed three years of research, sorting through 11,000 newspaper clippings, email threads and scribbled notes on napkins, and taking nearly 8,000 photos of his finds along the way. Clocking in at more than 700 pages and weighing about five and a half pounds, the landmark tome is dedicated to pulling out the individual threads that make up the rather vague blanket statement of Nordic cooking.
When you think of Nordic food, perhaps you're imagining trout fillets curing above burning sheep's dung, that grand Icelandic tradition of cold-smoking. Or reveling in the Danish state-of-mind hygge that fuels aquavit-soaked nights. Or the many sponge cakes this part of the world seems to relish.
"You can find loads of recipes for herring or gravlax or meatballs. Then you'll find a video of someone in Iceland eating rotten shark and read articles about restaurants like mine, Fäviken, or Noma or something like that," Nilsson says, now seated next to Burns at Tørst, the bar that fronts Luksus, and with six beers before them. "And that's all the information you can get to shape your view on what Nordic food culture is. None of those things is very representative. I think a lot of it is because a lot of Nordic food culture is carried out by people in their homes."
"I remember when I started at Noma in 2006," Burns adds, in between sips of a malty John Courage Russian Imperial Stout and Nørrebro Bryghus barleywine. "It didn't seem in the culture to go out and eat fancy dinners."
"But historically and traditionally, if you went out, it was to celebrate something; it was French," Nilsson counters. "If it wasn't fancy, it was to get drunk and very little in between. The everyday meal was at home. This has really shaped the restaurant culture."
So to put together his compendium of Nordic food culture, that's just what Nilsson did: invite himself into people's homes.
"If you start traveling, especially if you travel on your own and you're really looking to learn something, it's fascinating how open people are to show you their food culture, invite you into their homes and treat you to whatever they like themselves," Nilsson says.
In Greenland, that means dried whale meat and seal blubber-fired stoves, and tiny smoked herring on a special little island off in the Copenhagen straits. As the two chefs swirl and taste through the beers to pair with the beef stew bubbling away in the oven, they swap stories of what they ate in this vast region and ponder over how do the Greenland natives make their whale meat. This is talking shop for the chefs.
"I think this is what we're going to have with the sailor's beef stew," Nilsson announces after a swig of De Dolle Oerbier Special Reserva.
Now after years of crashing couches and testing nearly 400 of the book's recipes at home, you would think Nilsson would be sort of burnt out. Or that the epic exploration has ended.
"It has definitely influenced what we do at Fäviken, not in very obvious ways, like, 'I found this dish, and I put it on the menu,' but it's always there, and it's going to continue," Nilsson says.
"So many ideas churning around," Burns adds.
It's questionable whether you'll find dung-smoked trout or seal-blubber this at Fäviken in the near future, but for now, all that matters is that sjömansbiff, whose intense beefiness is wafting its way from the kitchen to the bar.
"I'm going to check the stew, man," Burns says.
"Sailor's stew!" Nilsson yelps.
"Sailor's stew!" Burns enthuses.