Jim Löfdahl on Opening Frantzén's Kitchen, and Bringing Nordic Cuisine to Hong Kong
It’s autumn but still 30 degrees, and the chirping of birds is all but drowned out by the racket of a drill meeting concrete. It couldn’t be further from the fairy-tale landscape and encroaching chill of his native Sweden at this time of year, but Jim Löfdahl is unfazed. After all, just a few months ago he was in the scorching Middle East manning the Restaurant Frantzén pop-up at Enigma—a venue that features a different chef and concept every few months—in the Palazzo Versace Dubai.
As the first chef Björn Frantzén and Daniel Lindeberg hired when they opened their seminal Stockholm restaurant Frantzén/Lindeberg in 2008, Jim was ready to pack his bags again and head to Hong Kong to take the lead at the brand’s first permanent international outpost. Backed by Swedish husband-and-wife duo Arne and Helen Lindman—creators of Nosh and the Scandi-chic 11 Upper Station Street in the Tai Ping Shan neighbourhood of Sheung Wan—Frantzén’s Kitchen will open on November 14.
When I meet the Scandinavian chef on a hot October day, I find he has been playing some serious catch-up during his first three weeks in his newly adopted city. As we prowl Sheung Wan in search of a suitable venue for fika, the all-important coffee break that’s something of an institution for all Swedes, he reveals how he’s been calibrating his palate ahead of the project’s launch. “I like this neighbourhood a lot,” says the lanky chef, who would look the part as a member of an indie rock band. “Mrs Pound I’ve been to three times already. You’ve got Mitte, which is great for a drink. And there’s Craftissimo, which has so many beers. No Swedish ones though, only Danish Mikkeller. Maybe I’ll have a word with them,” he laughs.
The original Frantzén is the kind of restaurant where butter is fashioned from homemade clotted cream churned by the chef at the table.
After we settle down with coffee (though, sadly, not the pastries that would make it a proper fika), I ask Jim how the food of Frantzén, as the restaurant has been known since Lindeberg left in 2013 to pursue his dream of opening a bakery, will translate 8,000 kilometres away from home. I remember it well from two years earlier, when I was one of 19 guests at the Gamla Stan establishment served an extraordinary menu of Nordic ingredients. I was astounded by the clarity of flavours arising from items such as a fermented rye soup enriched with veal and chicken stock, and the bracing acidity of frozen sea buckthorn berries. Frantzén is the kind of restaurant where butter is fashioned from homemade clotted cream churned by the chef at the table. For a while, the kitchen made food media headlines by serving a tartar of reindeer topped with crispy onions and shaved reindeer penis.
At Frantzén’s Kitchen, there will be an impressive number of plates for a restaurant that will seat only three dozen punters: 16 “snacks,” 10 “middle” courses (bigger than snacks but smaller than mains), and two desserts and a macaron. Fans of the original Frantzén will be pleased; the restaurant will be dedicated to replicating as closely as possible the original dishes. The year of their original creation will be listed on the menu alongside each description. Poached chicken, oven-baked Jerusalem artichokes, blonde miso, lemon thyme with roasted hazelnut, pain de mie and yellow girolles from the 2014 menu, say, or roasted pork belly, carrot “hot sauce,” pumpkin puree and dried kale with roasted garlic from 2013.
Not that the format will be cut and paste, Jim points out; much like how signature creations are continuously fine-tuned and updated at Frantzén, the Hong Kong dishes will eventually find a life of their own. As an example, he describes wanting to do a salmon sashimi dish that is a riff on a king crab number that in turn is inspired by kräftskiva—the traditional Swedish summer parties where crayfish are cooked by the kilo in a brine of crown dill. “We use dried dill seeds, dill, as well as freshly juiced dill. We get a lot of the herb’s flavours which is very typical in Sweden.”
While Japanese flair and French technique underscore the food at Frantzén, the concept of “the Scandinavian kitchen” has always formed the backbone of the team’s cooking. But there’s always a forward-looking, international perspective, the chef points out.
“Scandinavian food from our grandparents’ generation, for example, is very heavy,” he says. “It’s pork, it’s meatballs, lots of bread and butter—like how the Vikings used to eat. Today, we’re updating it, balancing dishes with acidity and umami. For us, it’s a way of extending our cuisine. Restaurant Frantzen has come a long way since the beginning, when we were trying hard to find our own identity.”
In 2008, the restaurant was forging its way in the Swedish dining scene by presenting molecular gastronomy; a year later, things couldn’t have been more different. “Björn recalled his time working with [the French chef] Alain Passard, who was cooking whole turbot on the bone, scallops in their shells. He thought, Why don’t we go back to the basics?”
"Scandinavian food from our grandparents’ generation, for example, is very heavy. It’s pork, it’s meatballs, lots of bread and butter—like how the Vikings used to eat. Today, we’re updating it, balancing dishes with acidity and umami."—Jim Löfdahl
It was a thrilling time, says Jim, because suddenly the path was obvious. “Around 2010, we picked up our first garden in Sweden. From that time onwards, we started to work with the seasons. We were working hard, sourcing ingredients such as the best scallops from the coldest Norwegian waters.”
The seafood for the Hong Kong outpost will primarily be sourced from Japan, and Jim will insert as many genuine Scandinavian flavour hits as he can—vinegars, liquorice and, not least, berries, which Jim insists are synonymous with Sweden. He lights up as he speaks of lingonberries, cloudberries and blueberries (“one day, I’ll bring over proper Scandinavian blueberries and you can compare them to American ones”).
Growing up in the rural Swedish province of Dalarna, Jim was attuned to the natural bounties of the forest from a young age. “It’s always been inside of me. The forest, the food, the berries. When I found Björn—or rather, when he found me—and I began working at Frantzén, everything changed. I stepped into the kitchen and knew that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”
While Hong Kong may be halfway around the world, we get the feeling that Frantzén’s Kitchen will be a welcome home away from home for Swedes and an exciting take on the best of Nordic cuisine for the rest of us.
Frantzén’s Kitchen, 11 Upper Station Street, Sheung Wan
This story originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Hong Kong Tatler.