Join the navy, see the world, as the saying goes. In the case of acclaimed Swedish chef Paul Svensson, who’s now spearheading the sustainability and reuse food movements, being assigned kitchen duty in the Swedish Navy opened a door to a world he hadn’t even known existed.
In some other dimension – maybe in a galaxy far, far away – there may be a diligent hydropower engineer who goes by the name of Paul Svensson. That’s the version of Paul Svensson who didn’t fall in love with cooking when he was doing his military service.
And if you subscribe to the multiverse theory, then you’ll also be interested in learning that in yet another universe, Paul Svensson is an Olympic gymnast.
One thing we know for certain, though – there’s a Paul Svensson who’s currently a bestselling culinary author, TV personality, and celebrated head chef at the top floor restaurant housed inside Fotografiska, the Museum of Photography, which sits in Stockholm’s harbor in a stately Art Nouveau building dating back to 1906.
He has a boyish face, gorgeous hair, the posture of an athlete (due to his early interest in a gymnastics career), and a moustache and beard that bring to mind the Three Musketeers as he darts among the tables and crew members at the museum’s restaurant. He greets everyone by their first name – even this reporter, whom he’s never met before. He’s wearing a black shirt, black apron, black pants and sturdy black boots – all of which make his blue-banded sports watch stand out.
We’ll get back to his boots shortly.
At the age of 44, Svensson is at the top of his game. The Fotografiska restaurant was named the Museum Restaurant of the World, at the Leading Culture Destinations Awards ceremony a few months ago, and last year he won the Innovator of the Year award at Sweden’s Restaurant Gala for his advances in sustainability in the kitchen.
Paul Svensson’s kitchen today is the go-to spot for Sweden’s young culinary
talent. Contrast that with 25 years ago when Svensson was a hungry (figuratively and often literally) young man who wanted to get into the game – one game or another. After graduating from high school in his hometown, Helsingborg, he planned to study engineering at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm. But first he completed his military service. He joined the Navy, where he was assigned kitchen duties; and, well, that gave him a taste of the gastronomic world.
As Svensson puts it: “I loved the creativity and the feedback. You see results almost immediately. Maybe it also appealed to the engineer in me. I’ve always wanted to know how things work, and it’s a very satisfying feel- ing when you put all the pieces in place in the kitchen.”
“The reward is immediate,” he continues, “so you get hooked on it. It’s thrilling to see somebody else – a diner – become so happy with dishes I’ve made.”
Since his Navy stint, Svensson’s life has never been the same.
He never did begin his engineering studies. Instead, he chose to become a chef.
“My parents probably didn’t like the move very much; they wanted me to have a solid education – something they didn’t have. But they didn’t want to stop me, either,” he says.
And then he adds, “They knew I had made up my mind.”
Svensson’s parents probably also had no idea if their son was good at cooking. After all, he hadn’t been the kind of kid who spends his waking hours with Grandma in the kitchen, which is the fairytale version of the story. If anything, he never paid any attention to cook- ing. That fascination hadn’t even dawned on him before the Navy.
And it was probably a good thing that Mr. and Mrs. Svensson couldn’t evaluate their son’s talent, their son says with a grin, since there wasn’t much of it.
“I was such a bad cook that I didn’t get any work after the Navy. I knew I wanted to become a chef, but I also understood that my abilities were very limited.”
He decided to move to England to start his official cooking career – as an apprentice.
And thanks to his athletic background as an aspiring gymnast, if there’s one thing Svensson was good at, even then, it was putting up with monotonous stuff – the rinsing and repeating. (His mother had made him choose between gymnastics and getting better grades at school. He chose better grades.) Starting out on the lowest rung of a long ladder in a foreign country, working long hours doing menial tasks, such as chopping vegetables, before graduating to fetching stuff for the chefs – was challenging, but it was the route Svensson chose.
“I just stuck it out. Doing push-ups and handstands hadn’t been that much fun, either, but I had learned the value of practice. On one occasion, I was given a crate of potatoes to peel. Twenty kilos, about a thousand potatoes. Took me six hours. When I was done, they gave me a second 20kg crate. The lesson? Don’t think, just do it, as fast as possible,” he says.
Then he learned to cook. He wanted to be the best in the world, and he wanted to work at the finest restaurants. Nothing was going to stop him.
After working for Christian Sandefeldt and the legendary Marco Pierre White in London, Svensson returned to Sweden and spent eight years at Stockholm’s Michelin-starred Bon Lloc, finishing fifth in the Bocuse d’Or competition. He wrote four cookbooks, worked at F12, another top Stockholm restaurant, and picked up skills wherever he went.
“At around 2006, I knew who I was and what I believed in, and I had the confidence that I needed,” he says.
This is where we get back to those sturdy black boots Svensson wears. They’re his favorite pair, so it’s only natural that he would take them to a shoemaker for repairs rather than simply buying new ones. But that philosophy of not wasting things, trying to reuse and re- cycle has also become the thing that sets Svensson apart.
Not only does the Fotografiska restaurant have a well-known reputation for sustainability, but in 2018 Svensson masterminded the creation of the ReTaste, a much-discussed pop-up restaurant whose dishes were made from grocery store leftovers.
“I owe that attitude to my partner,” he says with a laugh. “She’s the kind of person who saves wrapping paper – which I used to think was just silly. But she’s not silly, she’s very cool.”
“Now I think it’s fascinating to take things back to the recycling center and imagine what will become of them,” he adds.
That’s the engineer in him again.
He is determined to take Fotografiska to the top of the gastronomical world, while also transitioning it to a no-waste restaurant. Already, the delicious pasta you eat there may have been made using leftover bread from the day before. But there’s still some a ways, according to Svensson.
“We still use too much paper and plastic at the restaurant, but as far as food ingredients are concerned, not much goes to waste. Whatever we can’t reuse goes into the compost bin in the basement, while just outside we also tend a small garden,” he says.
That’s the vegetable and herb garden. It’s currently in a testing phase, but if things go as Svensson envisions them, Fotografiska’s restaurant will rely more and more on its own large-scale gardening resources.
“We’re not doing it for financial reasons, by the way – we believe it also gives us a better product gastronomically. Vegetables produced right here will simply have more flavor. And of course, we’ll only use what we need,” he says.
“Food should always be freshly prepared, but these days I see leftovers as a resource, not things to throw away,” he adds.
Svensson’s reuse attitude cuts through everything at the restaurant. Flower vases on the tables are made of wine bottle necks. The tables themselves are made of industrial board.
“Anything can become anything” is the way he puts it.
And that right there is what drives him. His kitchen has become a coveted spot that new cooking talents want to join. His Fotografiska keeps gaining in fame, and while the ReTaste pop-up closed its doors this past winter, the idea behind it remains alive. To Svensson, ReTaste was never just a restaurant, it was, and is, a movement – one that he’d love to export beyond Sweden’s borders.
He plans his work about a year ahead, leaving room for unexpected twists and turns, and for recharging his batteries. But he’s also set his sights about five years into the future as he defines and refines his vision.
When the cross-country skiing bug bit Svensson, he went down the rabbit hole head-first, chasing snow in the Stockholm region, and when the snow departed he hit the road on roller skis. Now he wants to improve his skills at waxing the skis.
In short: Svensson doesn’t do anything by halves. Well, there’s one exception – his garage.
“I know that organizing everything there will become a huge project, and I don’t even want to begin it unless I can do it properly. But that’s my sore spot.”
Then he’s off to check the pasta, talk to his kitchen team and get ready for dinner prep in the kitchen. He’s got the late shift.
“I love to cook,” he says, and smiles.
Lives: In the Stockholm archipelago
Family: Wife Camilla, three children
Career: Informal education at Christian Sandefeldt’s and Marco Pierre White’s kitchens in London, almost a decade at award-winning Bon Lloc in Stockholm, last four years as head chef, then almost three years as head chef at F12 in Stockholm. Finished fifth in Bocuse d’Or in 2003. Author of four cookbooks. Currently head chef at the Museum of Photography, voted Best Museum Restaurant in the World in 2017.
All eco, no ego
Looking for an ecological restaurant in Stockholm? These are the places Paul Svensson would send you to.
For friends of fine dining, Paul Svensson recommends Volt in Östermalm. Volt serves food made of ingredients from eco- logically responsible suppliers, including their wines that come from small vineyards. The natural way.
Kommendörsgatan 16 restaurangvolt.se
KALF & HANSEN
1 Is it Nordic? Is it ecological? Is it fast food? Yes! Yes! Yes! Kalf and Hansen use locally pro- duced ingredients as much as possible and whatever can’t be produced in Sweden, they im- port from environmentally- responsible producers. Want Swedish meatballs (or veggie frikadeller)? They don’t get much more Swedish than this. Rörstrandsgatan 3
Many say it’s the best bakery in Sweden and put their money where their mouths are as they commit to standing in line in the mornings for their daily bread. Swedenborgsgatan 4B instagram.com/bageripetrus
If it’s coffee you want, drop in at Drop Coffee. They’ve made it their mission to drip the best coffee you can imagine. Co- owner Joanna Alm has finished in the top five in the World Coffee Roasting Champion- ships three times in the past four years.
Wollmar Yxkullsgatan 10
ROSENDAHLS TRÄDGÅRD OCH CAFÉ
In the middle of the Rosendahl garden in the Djurgården park, you’ll find a café and some peace of mind. Their own gar- deners pick up ingredients from their biodynamically grown gar- den, and, if you take a cab home, you can be sure it’ll be an electric car.
As the name suggests, Reggev has built its operation around hummus and with 13 years in the business, they are the masters of their craft. “Their plant-based menu is also rea- sonably priced,” Svensson says. Ringvägen 145
2 Svensson’s old boss, 1997 Bocuse d’Or winner Mathias Dahlgren, is out to create the next generation of cuisine, based on plants. Oh, the restau- rant itself is at the Grand Hotel, which adds a nice touch.
S. Blasieholmshamnen 6 mdghs.se/en/rutabaga
Originally published in the May 2019 issue of Scandinavian Traveler