From the Land of the Midnight Sun: Part Two

Continued from “Part One”

Chef Gunnar Karl Gislason, Dill Restaurant

Chatting with chef Gunnar Karl Gislason at his restaurant, Dill, at about 2am in Reykjavik, June 2012

I don’t watch Martha Stewart regularly (she, in fact, makes me feel like an underachieving loser after too much viewing), but my mom does. We both think she has brilliant, if not always practical or realistic, ideas and like watching the frequently competitive interaction between her and her guests. Well, wouldn’t you know it, Martha devoted an entire show to Iceland just a month or so before our trip! I watched the recorded episode, courtesy of my mother, twice. I even took notes.

And it was because of Martha that I learned about chef Gunnar Karl Gislason of Dill Restaurant in Reykjavik. (Thank you, Martha.)

After seeing Gislason lead the mogul of homemaking through a preparation of an incredibly complicated, obscure little appetizer of hardfiskur (dried Icelandic catfish) with creamy butter, sea-salted hazelnuts and dill oil – I knew we had to dine at his restaurant. When we did, the experience was not only one of the high points of our vacation, but also of our culinary lives to date.

After finishing the astounding meal and finding ourselves still in the dining room, chatting casually with the chef, glass of red wine in his hand, at two o’clock in the morning – I asked him if he’d be interviewed for this blog. He graciously agreed.

Gislason grew up in Akureyri, a countryside town in northern Iceland. He lived with his parents and two siblings, on a plot of land that was also home to a dog, a cat and a handful of horses, until he was 21 – at which point he moved out to attend cooking school and, eventually, become a chef of extraordinary capability and expression, ever connected to his roots.

And by “roots,” I mean root vegetables.

His family grew them, along with a wide variety of lettuces, herbs and other vegetables, in their ample gardens when Gislason was a child, and he still loves them today. His mother cooked, without help from her children, the chef confesses with a laugh, traditional Icelandic dishes – including his favorite, Icelandic meat soup, which he describes as “pretty much boiled lamb and vegetables.”

Gunnar Karl Gislason

An adorable young Gunnar Karl Gislason, long before he became a chef, at about age five. Photo courtesy Gunnar Karl Gislason

My favorite story of Gislason’s occurred one Christmas, when he was about six, he remembers, and his mother was preparing the customary boiled grouse for the holiday dinner.

“It has a really, really strong smell that comes [from the boiling],” he explained. So like any young, assertive lad, he requested an alternative – and a specific one at that. I asked what his mother made for him instead.

“I can’t tell you,” the impressive chef shared with me, giggling a bit. At first I’m not sure if he doesn’t remember or is simply too embarrassed to divulge. I prod a bit.

“So, you don’t remember or it’s a secret?”

“No, no, no,” he assures me he remembers, now laughing. “Ah…she made hot dogs for me and the dog.”

Pylsa! Hot dogs for Christmas dinner, how brilliant. What a quick path to a kid’s heart. Gislason explains that the family pup always got a special treat of hot dogs at the holidays, and one year, with the stench of the boiling grouse putrid in the tender nostrils of a cunning six-year-old, the future chef saw a way out. If the dog can have hot dogs, why can’t we?

He and his sister got their way that year.

Now, with four children of his own, ranging from age 14 to just a year old, chef Gislason happily prepares the same formerly dreaded holiday meal of his youth. “I actually cook the grouse!”

Shocked, I ask, “The smell doesn’t bother you now?”

“No, I love it.” But he prepares it slightly differently, mostly by roasting it and boiling only the trimmings and carcass for a sauce – and the fowl comes straight from the field by way of a trade with his hunter friend. “I always buy goose for the restaurant from him, so he gives me grouse when he gets it. It’s a win-win situation.”

Pondering holiday dishes and their evocative scents, I think back to the most arresting dish I ate from this very chef during my dinner at Dill: caramelized whey with buttermilk and horseradish. Paired with Birkir (pronounced beer-keer) – a phenomenal birch-infused schnapps – and beer. Weirdest dish ever. I wanted seconds.

However did he come up with such a combination, I ask?

“Usually [with any dish], it’s just something that somehow comes up. I have no explanation of it,” he chuckles. “My sous chef was making dulce de leche, and I remembered that we had a whole lot of whey in our cooler. So I just asked him if he had tried to do this with the whey, and he had not. So we just tried it – and really liked it. The rest just came so well.”

“But the horseradish!” I am indignant. “How would you think horseradish would be right with that?”

“Well, we didn’t know it,” again, laughing. “We just tried it.” A previous dish, he describes, involved a foamy buttermilk topped with a bit of horseradish and frozen with liquid nitrogen. “We remembered that taste, and we were pretty sure that it would go with the caramelized whey.”

Laura at Dill Restaurant, opening bite

Opening bite at Dill Restaurant (me in the background): delicate root vegetable crisps, dangling elegantly from a birch branch, awaited us upon being seated for dinner.

It absolutely did. Like a palate-cleansing pre-dessert from Bizarro World. This dish was representative of the blend of whimsy and tradition evident throughout Gunnar Karl Gislason’s menu that June night, and from what I’ve learned, defines the chef’s style. Demonstrating a reverence for his upbringing and his country through ingredients, Gislason takes those products and upends them in the most exciting and surprising ways. For a man who creates such complicated dishes, Gunnar’s journey to chefhood is rather simple.

“It’s not a very beautiful story,” he chuckles, recounting his beginnings in the industry as a teenager. “The problem was that I was not very good at being in school.” When he and his best friend heard that you could take cooking lessons instead of doing math, they were in.

And his career gradually blossomed, taking him eventually to Denmark where he worked at Copenhagen’s Restaurant Saison under renowned chef Erwin Lauterbach – who Gislason still describes as a mentor.

“It was really, really, really inspiring,” Gislason enthused about the experience. “How [Lauterbach] thinks about food and how he respected everything that was happening in the kitchen” was something that still moves the Icelandic chef today.

Lauterbach’s vegetable-centric cuisine makes sense as a predominant influence of Gislason’s, with the latter’s dishes of “Forgotten Root Vegetables” and an intermezzo of fresh, raw rhubarb, to be enjoyed in the style of the chef’s love of the ingredient from his own family’s garden as a child.

“I really love when the first rhubarb starts coming up – that’s another childhood memory,” his voice softening. “When we were living with my mother and father in the countryside, they had a lot of rhubarb. And when it started coming up, I would always be out there picking it up, dipping it in a little bit of sugar and eating it.”

Gislason's rhubarb

Gislason’s rhubarb, freshly picked from his own garden just outside Dill Restaurant. Photo courtesy Gunnar Karl Gislason

The rhubarb he serves at the restaurant comes from his own garden just outside. In season – typically starting in May in Iceland (though the chef reminds me of the weather’s unpredictability, saying that sometimes snow will fall the day after the first rhubarb sprouts up in summertime) – he likes to “go out in the evening, pick one up, serve it whole, with the leaves and everything, and a little bit of sugar in a bowl. So people can just take a little bit of the rhubarb, dip it in the sugar and eat it. Like we used to do when we were kids.”

I can hear the nostalgia clearly in his voice as he recounts this memory, and can almost see his family’s grand vegetable garden in the countryside and smell the boiled goose at Christmas. Now, he says, his six-year-old son shows great interest in the kitchen and usually helps by peeling and cutting the vegetables; he even made an apple salad as part of the family’s Christmas meal last year. “Yeah, it was really nice,” chef-dad says. “He was so proud.”

“I think a lot about childhood, how [my family] was making things back then, and how that could be inspiration to new courses,” he shares. His beloved Icelandic meat soup, for instance, is a dish so rustic he wouldn’t think of serving it in the classic way at Dill – but Gislason has done elevated variations of the boiled-lamb-and-veg combo for diners, braising parts of the lamb and serving a couple slices of the filet instead of the “not-so-good pieces” typical to the dish, along with clarified stock served like a consommé.

As I didn’t have the chance to taste Icelandic meat soup while in Iceland, I am grateful to have the chef’s own “recipe” (he swears it’s “not really a recipe – you just take meat and a lot of vegetables and just cook it”) to experience it at home. Gislason describes it as a “rustic, peasant food” – but “really, really delicious.” I trust the man. I’ve had his caramelized whey.

Reykjavik at 2am

On our walk back from Dill Restaurant after Gislason’s incredible meal: Beautiful Reykjavik, showing off its midnight sun, around 2am, June 2012

When I prepare it, I will think of all the sheep I saw roaming the countryside outside of Reykjavik, and the majestic volcanoes connecting the island to the sky and waterfalls at seemingly every turn. I’ll remember my night at Dill and the light over the chef’s lovely vegetable garden outside, adding a honeyed glow to the cityscape on our blissfully buzzed walk back to the hotel that night/morning. And I will taste a bit of Iceland right here in my Oakland kitchen.

Gunnar Karl Gislason’s Kjötsúpa (Icelandic Meat Soup)

  • 1 1/2 liters water
  • 500 grams lamb pieces on the bone, with fat
  • 1/2 medium onion, sliced or coarsely chopped
  • 100 grams white cabbage, head halved and sliced across into thin strips
  • 2 medium carrots, sliced across
  • 50 ml white rice
  • 1/2 small rutabaga
  • Cauliflower to taste, divided into florets
  • Leeks to taste, sliced
  • New potatoes with skin, to taste
Bring the water to boil. Rinse the meat with cold water; dry it. Fry it in a pan over high heat and then drop into the boiling water. Lower temperature to medium. Allow meat to cook for about 5 minutes. Skim and add salt. Cook for about 30 minutes. Add rice and cook over low temperature for about 10 minutes. Add carrots, onion, cabbage, cauliflower, rutabaga, potatoes and leeks (if using). Cook for 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt only. Skim off some of the fat before serving, to your preference (I like to have it all in). Save some soup for the next meal. Kjötsúpa tastes best the day after.

2 thoughts on “From the Land of the Midnight Sun: Part Two

  1. LESB! I love this feature story. I can picture you and B talking to the chef. Nice photographs by B, by the way… I especially loved that the chef preferred to take cooking lessons over math. It’s people like him that inspire me to make math class interesting. You are a brilliant writer and I love reading your blog. Love and miss you very much!

    • Thank you so much for your incredible support, A. Happy you liked the piece – and will pass along your comments on B’s photos. You will inspire countless kids in your career, and if a few slip through the cracks we can only hope they become brilliant chefs like Gunnar!

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