Daniel Berlin: The only masterchef in the village
The latest culinary rising star cooks in rural Sweden using only produce from his own hamlet – which makes his alchemical ways with food even more astonishing, says Samuel Muston.
There aren't many restaurants where the chef, a winner of the San Pellegrino Cooking Cup, drives you back to your hotel when you've finished his 12-course tasting menu. Or where the sommelier invites you back in the morning for a tour of the village. Or where everyone who works there – seven people: the sommelier, head waitress, waitress, sous chef, two kitchen hands and the chef himself – all live in the few rooms above the 14-cover restaurant.
But then they do things differently here, up north in Sweden. For Daniel Berlin, the chef tipped as the natural heir to Rene Redzepi and the man behind the wheel of the mini-bus ferrying me back to Logi Gamlegard hotel, it's nothing out of the ordinary. "I drive most people back – we like our guests to stay there," the 30-year-old says with a shrug, as if it was something they teach you to do on the first day of catering college.
It's the same shrug I'd seen a couple of months before from Redzepi, the Nordic world's most famous chef, as he went from table to table at the Noma pop-up at Claridges, ladling broth on to surprised diners' plates. It was modest – and it was surprising.
Maybe it is the humility of brilliance, of knowing you are doing something differently, something better than everyone else. Because one thing is certain – the culinary muse has settled in the Nordic countries. It deserted France and Spain some few years ago. Now it lives in a colder place, where the earth is less bountiful and foraging is a way of life, rather than an affectation.
Just look at Restaurant magazine's 50 Best Restaurants list and it's plain to see. Between Denmark and Sweden, two countries with a cumulative population of 15 million, there are five entries, 10 per cent of the list. There is Mathias Dahlgren (at No 41) and Frantzen/Lindeberg (20) in Stockholm; Faviken (34) in Jarpen and Geranium (49) in Copenhagen. Redzepi's Noma, with its pressed chicken skin and live-served shrimp, has defended the top spot for three years with the ease of an aristocrat.
Today, though, I have crossed the bridge from Noma and Copenhagen, travelled through the Swedish city of Malmo and up into the unfolding countryside of Sweden. I am standing beneath the wet denim skies of Skane in September, picking herbs with Berlin in his kitchen garden and being distracted by a large spider scurrying up his chef's whites.
He's not distracted though. It's 6pm, an hour before service, and he is bent double, pursuing field sorrel in the grass with the concentration of a big-game hunter. He looks at home in these fields, though his background is urban. "I went to school in the city and didn't perform very well, so the only thing I could do was join a chef's school," he says. "And initially I just coasted, playing hockey and drinking."
A year in, a teacher took him aside. "They said, 'you have to choose whether you want to be good at this – and put everything else aside'," he says. So that's what he did. By his mid-20s, he was head chef at the Turning Torso in Malmo, with 17 chefs under him and 30 waiters. Then one day he decided it was too much. "I felt it was all too big. There was no heart – I was barely cooking. We were just too disconnected from the food: some of my young chefs wouldn't even have known how a potato grows. So I quit."
With the help of his parents, who left their jobs at E.ON to work as his head waitress and sommelier, he got a bank loan and opened up here in Skane in a yellow house. It is bleak, desolate and beautiful, only enclosed by the sky; Ingmar Bergman would have adored it.
Three years in and you can see the intimacy he feels towards his land as he combs it for herbs. In summer, when the soil is freer with its largesse, he gets 80 per cent of his ingredients from his own three acres. The remainder come from within three miles. It is a point of philosophy for him, but as much as that it is an intellectual challenge. "This is the way to develop – to impose limits on myself, limits on what I can get. I want to be creative, sure, but more importantly creative here. I don't send out for lobster and caviar. I want diners to feel the slide of the seasons in this village here."
Two hours later, in the grey-painted pine dining room, I can see that on the plate. Consider a dinner that begins with green beans damming an egg poached in brown butter and moves on to steak tartare with delicately smoked beetroot and a speckling of marrow. Cabbage – puréed, shaved, and turned into an oil – accompanies a smoked pigeon breast; the red breast bloody against the pale vegetable. Dessert is iced goat cream with jam and blackberries.
A surprise comes half-way through the four-hour meal when a celeriac, whole, blackened, cricket-ball-sized, is brought to the table, its skin gently smouldering. Berlin slices it, scooping out its flesh and laying it on a bowl of sago pudding before drizzling a vasterbotten sauce on top. The celeriac takes on a meaty form when treated in this manner: the sauce silky, the whole dish dense with the flavour of earth. It is a rare alchemy that can do that to a vegetable as unprepossessing as celeriac. And an even rarer talent that sees a use in the blackened skin – he puts it in his sourdough.
But alchemy is what it is all about here. Writing about the parade of dishes I feel I am doing them a disservice, it being difficult to convey with a limited number of words how he changes everyday ingredients, stuff you could get from your local supermarket, into things of deep imagination.
Sure, as Berlin says, he gets the best ingredients. But those ingredients aren't caviar or smoked salmon, as you might find in the Michelin-starred restaurants of Paris or London, they are cabbage and potato, mushroom and onion.
Another diner, a university lecturer from Copenhagen, says: "You read the menu before you eat and you think, 'I could do that – I could get those ingredients'. And then the dishes come and they blow you away, you see his talent. And it's all the more impressive because there are no headline ingredients."
As I finish the elderberry sorbet, the final dish, and head out to my chef taxi I feel quite sad. Usually, after a tasting menu of this size you only feel one thing: bloody full. But no, I feel sad that it's over; like when you get to the last few pages of a book you love. The food has been variously avant-garde, rustic, theatrical, all those things – and never anything but fun. I ask him in the car who he cooks for. "For myself," he says. "If people don't like the restaurant, maybe it is not a place for them." With cooking like that and attitude, too, you can bet it can't be long before Berlin is on that 50 Best Restaurants list.
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