Sandeep Patwal
Gunnar Karl Gíslason foraging for angelica in the bird sanctuary surrounding his restaurant.
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The Chef Who Rescued Iceland

Jody Eddy - January/February 2014

Through a combination of economic calamity and his own indigenous-foods ethos, the Icelandic chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason is helping local producers gain a foothold with countrymen long dependent on grass-is-always-greener ingredients from abroad.

What kind of food do you prepare in your restaurant when your country has just suffered a cataclysmic economic collapse? How do you adjust to an empty kitchen walk-in, once flush in luxury items like foie gras, caviar, and prosciutto? Is it realistic to believe that your restaurant can survive when your nation’s three largest banks have just imploded, leaving its citizens reeling from one of the worst financial disasters on record?

These are the questions Iceland’s chefs had to ask themselves in 2008 as the nation’s economy, once considered a model of integrity, crumbled and they were left penniless, along with the majority of their countrymen. Payrolls disintegrated into pallid versions of their once-robust selves, forcing massive layoffs of locals and immigrants alike. Citizens from Denmark, Russia, and Poland, who once flocked to a nation glimmering with financial possibility, fled back to their homelands with empty pockets and dashed dreams.

But it was nothing compared to the disillusionment Icelanders themselves experienced as they attempted to come to terms with a shattered economy and the nagging fear that the world they once knew was on the verge of disappearing forever into a vortex of ineptitude and greed. Dozens of restaurants shuttered as a final solution for chefs struggling to cover their mounting debts. For those who managed to keep their doors open, empty pantry shelves stood as a nagging reminder of boom years gone bust.

It was not an ideal time to open a high-end restaurant; but there was no alternative for Gunnar Karl Gíslason, who had just left his post as executive chef of Vox, one of Reykjavik’s most celebrated restaurants. During his tenure there, he introduced the principles of New Nordic cooking to a nation not ready to embrace values codified in The Manifesto for the New Nordic Kitchen—the document that Claus Meyer, René Redzepi, and other preeminent Nordic cooks signed in 2004 as a means of illustrating their commitment to sustainable, locally sourced cuisine (see “Northern Lights,” July/August 2008).

Declaring a commitment to local ingredients, traditional cooking methods, and seasonal menus might not seem groundbreaking today, but in the Nordic lands at the time, it was revolutionary. The region’s restaurant kitchens had long been bastions of extravagant imports deemed more worthy of consumption than regional products. If there were a choice to be made between local rapeseed oil or olive oil, Italy was the victor. Asian rice trumped grains like spelt or barley; prosciutto edged out smoked lamb nearly every time.

While the citizens of other Nordic nations embraced the manifesto the moment it was signed, Icelanders were reluctant to adopt a doctrine declaring that the integrity of the ingredients right outside their door was worthy of celebration. Gíslason’s early efforts were viewed with suspicion by a nation that had relied heavily upon imports since its settlement by Norse Vikings in the ninth century.

Iceland’s economic collapse forced its population to reconsider its own bounty—but not before a struggle. For Gíslason, who was on the brink of opening Dill Restaurant, his first venture, when the economy collapsed, the battle included more than convincing Icelanders to eat locally sourced ingredients. The catastrophe not only extorted the faith its nation’s citizens had in their government, but every single one of Dill’s investors, too. They pulled their money out of the project faster than anyone could assess exactly why the country’s financial system imploded, leaving Gíslason penniless mere days before the grand opening.

The most logical thing for him to do was find safe harbor in an already established restaurant kitchen owned by someone else. For a chef who has always defied culinary convention in a nation that thrived on it, this was not an option. Instead, Gíslason used his own credit cards that, he says, “burned red by the time I was through with them.” Dill’s doors opened as scheduled, with an anemic staff and an exhausted owner who slept on the couch in his office for a few hours each night before returning to run an empty restaurant that locals couldn’t afford and the few tourists curious enough to explore a nation in ruin didn’t know existed.

There wasn’t a minute in his life not consumed by crushing stress. But chefs thrive on panic-induced adrenaline rushes, and Gíslason was no different. Disregarding advice to give up on his dream, he forged ahead with his plans, relying on his own stalwart spirit, the emotional support of family and friends, and the one other thing he knew would save him—his producers.

If there were ever a time to convince Icelanders to eschew expensive imports for their nation’s own culinary virtues, it was now, and Gíslason adopted this ethos like no other chef in Iceland ever had before. He put the principles of the New Nordic kitchen in motion in Iceland by making phone calls to local producers in every corner of the nation. The commitment to locality that began in fits and starts at Vox, was now embraced wholeheartedly by a chef who had no alternative, even if he were inclined to seek one.

Icelandic ingredients like arctic thyme, bacalao, angelica, lamb, sorrel, pine, hay, a dried wolffish called hardfiskur, birch leaves, and skyr lined the shelves of Gíslason’s walk-in. He also reached out to a barley farmer in the eastern Icelandic village of Vallanes named Eymundur Magnússon and to Simon Sturluson, a blue mussel and seaweed harvester in the western town of Stykkisholmur on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

The call from Gíslason surprised Sturluson, who says, “There wasn’t a single chef in Iceland using blue mussels at the time. Gunnar was the first one to see their virtue.” He explains that, even though the crystalline waters of western Iceland are rich in plump briny-sweet blue mussels, there has never been a tradition of using them. “Icelanders stick to the old ways, and that never included blue mussels. Gunnar wanted to change all that.”

Initially, the change was painfully slow. Sturlson says, “At first I was only harvesting mussels for Gunnar. Sometimes he would place an order for 10 kilos [22 pounds] of mussels, and on that day I harvested only 10 kilos, since it was the only order I had. But chefs in Iceland look to Gunnar for guidance, and eventually they were all interested in my blue mussels.”

Now, five years later, it’s hard to find a restaurant menu in Reykjavik not offering Sturlson’s mussels. The harvester, who has a ready smile and deep-set wrinkles hard-won from a life at sea, says, “Only tourists ate them at first. Locals thought it was strange to eat blue mussels. Eventually they started to, but even today, they only eat them at restaurants. They never prepare them at home because there is no tradition in doing this.” Because there was no history to turn to for guidance, the learning curve for harvesting blue mussels was long and steep for Sturlson. “It was difficult at first, but eventually we figured it out. Today, I’m proud to say that we’re the only company in Iceland with a long-term full-time commitment to Icelandic blue mussels.”

And the commitment has paid off. Sturlson now employs four people, harvesting over 30 tons of mussels for chefs and retail stores in every corner of Iceland. He says his biggest challenge is no longer convincing people to eat mussels but to prevent clownishly patterned Harlequin Ducks from consuming them too. “Last year, they ate nearly four tons of mussels from my lines,” he says, as he steers his white and red fishing boat past a tiny island with dizzying cliffs that he owns. He looks discouraged for a fleeting moment before he says, “It’s a problem, but as long as we keep our waters clean and take care of our environment, there will be enough to go around.”

Sturlson points out the 17 sheep he raises for meat on his little island before stopping the throttle at one of his mussel lines. With a long wooden pole, he retrieves a line covered in seaweed, another product he sells both locally and abroad. “Noma buys our dulse; so does Nero in Spain. I like thinking about our Icelandic seaweed being served in restaurant kitchens around the world.” But when asked if he would ever want a reservation at one of the celebrated restaurants he supplies, he quickly responds, his cool blue eyes gleaming in the bright summer sun, “Not a chance. My freezer is always well stocked. There’s nothing better than Icelandic ingredients, so it would make no sense for me to not eat at home.” He adds, “Gunnar has helped the Icelandic people take pride in their own ingredients.” He jimmies open a chilled blue mussel retrieved from a tube net on the line and says before popping it into his mouth, “I’ll always be grateful to him for that. He’s very special to us.”

On the opposite side of Iceland, Eymundur Magnússon shares Sturlson’s commitment to local ingredients. A dairy farmer–turned–pioneering barley farmer, Magnússon has created an agricultural nirvana on his 366 hectare (904 acre) corner of eastern Iceland. He runs his company Módir Jörd [Mother Earth] with his wife, Eyglo Ólafsdóttir, the woman who founded the Slow Food movement in Iceland. Together, they have virtually single-handedly convinced Icelanders to once again consume barley, a traditional product that was abandoned centuries ago in favor of foreign imports like rice and wheat.

Magnússon says, “There’s a lot more interest in it since the crisis, because it’s a less expensive alternative to imports. Because of our cold climate, our barley grows slowly, which intensifies its flavor. It has taken a lot of convincing, but the Icelandic people are finally realizing that not only is their own barley better for them than almost any other grain, it’s more delicious, too.”

The farmer has been touting Icelandic barley’s virtues since the founding of his organic farm at Vallanes in 1985, but it took a disaster to finally convince natives to eat it. “The economic crisis increased interest in our barley, since it was a cheaper alternative to expensive imports. At first, people ate it out of necessity, but now, even as things are improving, they have a love for it, and most tell me they will never return to anything else. It’s a staple in their kitchens now, and that it so gratifying for me.”

There is one other factor contributing to barley’s astronomic rise in popularity throughout Iceland. “Gunnar was one of the first chefs to express an interest in our barley. He has served it at Dill since day one, and I discovered that if a respected chef does something, the rest of the country will follow.”

Not only has Magnússon returned the tradition of barley to his nation, he has also given Icelanders trees. Exactly one million of them. “When I started farming here in the east, other farmers said to me, ‘Why are you farming there? The air is so thin, you will never succeed.’ I wanted to prove them wrong, and over the past few decades I have planted over one million trees, primarily birch, on my land. Today the air is oxygen rich and our barley loves it.” So do the dozens of farm volunteers who flock to Vallanes to work on the farm and learn from Magnússon and his wife not only farming skills but the keys to living well.”

Magnússon has bright red hair and a full beard that cannot conceal the sparkle in his eyes when he discusses what makes him tick. “You have to feed not only your body but your spirit, too. My farm has enabled me to nurture my soul.” The philosopher/farmer pauses for a few moments to look at the vast green paradise he has created in the foothills of craggy, snowcapped mountains. “Chefs like Gunnar have helped me realize my vision by letting me know that my dream is their dream, too.” And just what is his dream? “I want the people of Iceland to take pride in what is around them, to see the beauty in their own nation, and not feel like they have to look to other places to sustain their bodies and nurture their spirits.”

Back at Dill in Reykjavik, which is situated on a bird sanctuary just outside the city proper, Gíslason is prepping mise en place for the evening’s service. The contemplative, soft-spoken chef continues to work as hard as he did during the debilitating months following the crisis. The only difference is that today his kitchen is not only filled with Icelandic products but an abiding optimism, too. His high-stakes gamble has paid off in countless ways in the years since opening Dill.

Today, the restaurant is one of Reykjavik’s most beloved. And although Gíslason still feels frustrated by Icelanders’ reluctance to fully embrace native ingredients, he does see a change. “Back in the day, when an Icelander saw blue mussels, seaweed, or barley on my menu, it was met with a look of disdain. I can’t remember the last time I saw that expression. Now they’re ready to embrace who they are from a culinary perspective.

The producers are our true heroes, and without them, Dill would not be the success it is today. I owe everything to them.”

With Gunnar Gíslason, Jody Eddy has co-authored North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland, to be released in September.