Ask Mathias Dahlgren, the 39-year-old chef-proprietor of Stockholm's Michelin-starred Bon Lloc, when his love of food began, and when he knew he wanted to become a chef, and the answer is simple.
Born in the north of Sweden to a farming family, Dahlgren describes his earliest memory from when he was just three years old. "At that time in northern Sweden," he recalls, "it was a tradition for villages to have a baking house that people could rent; my family would rent it once a month to bake bread.
"It was like a ceremony - the night before, my father and grandfather would light the fire for the oven and my mother and grandmother would make the dough, then at 4am we'd go there at first light to bake. The smell and taste of that bread, fresh from the oven with butter melting on it, was amazing."
He adds: "I grew up surrounded by pigs, cows and sheep but I never felt any passion towards farming. I enjoyed eating and found food interesting, and really wanted to cook."
In typically philosophical fashion, however, Dahlgren muses that being a chef-proprietor and being a farmer are not, in fact, so very different. "If you have a restaurant, you are totally tied to it and have to work all hours, just like being a farmer," he says. "But, personally, I think it's more interesting working with people than with animals."
As a string of accolades have proved throughout Dahlgren's career, he clearly followed the right path. Not only have the accolades been important as a recognition of his skill and dedication, they have also had a significant impact on shaping his fate, he explains.
When he was 21 Dahlgren first got involved with professional competitions, entering one of the few culinary contests in Sweden at that time, the Wild Chef, a challenge to cook poultry and game. "I wrote a recipe and sent it in for the hell of it, and was amazed to qualify for the final, as I'd never competed before," he says. "I was the youngest chef and the only one not working in a top restaurant, but I won. It was incredible."
In fact, Dahlgren had just bought himself a round-the-world air ticket and was on the point of going travelling for a year but, following his triumph, he decided it was probably best to focus on his career - "so it was something of a life-changing moment".
Far more important than this contest, though, was Dahlgren's participation in the prestigious Bocuse d'Or competition a few years later, in 1997. He'd only opened his first solo venture, Bon Lloc, in December 1996, but he closed it for a month in January 1997 to allow him to take part.
"I went off to the Bocuse d'Or exhausted," he says. "I hadn't been sleeping because we'd had all sorts of problems with getting the restaurant open, and it had cost us a fortune to get the necessary sound-proofing done. Still, I gave the competition my best shot and it was fantastic - as I won."
Thanks to this, Dahlgren believes, the success of Bon Lloc and his own fate were sealed. He reopened on 10 February 1997 and was booked solid for months. "I was the first Swede ever to win the Bocuse d'Or, so the media here went nuts about it and gave me loads of coverage," he recalls. "For the restaurant, winning that competition was the equivalent of 20 years' hard graft."
Later that year, Bon Lloc's hit status was further cemented when, on 9 December, it was awarded a Michelin star, an accolade it has held ever since. "Winning the star was a total shock," Dahlgren says. "I wasn't expecting it at all. I had never even contemplated Michelin stars before. All the restaurants in Stockholm with stars had always been very traditional, and we were different. We were serving modern food based on Spanish, French and Italian influences."
Again, the star ensured packed tables, something the 40-seat restaurant, with its tiny kitchen, was ill-equipped to deal with, 60 covers at lunch and 80 at dinner being the norm. "We were serving them from a kitchen only a little bigger than a domestic kitchen and had virtually no storage space," Dahlgren says. "My suppliers were having to make deliveries twice a day and, after lunch, my staff were so tired they were lying on the floor of the restaurant to rest before evening service. It was a nightmare."
Dahlgren's answer was to move the restaurant in 2000 to a much bigger site with 80 seats and two private dining rooms, seating 10 and 20 guests respectively. The move also prompted him to rethink the way his staff worked and to come up with a radical solution, which now ensures that he enjoys very low staff turnover.
The restaurant opens only at dinner, keeping the focus firmly on one service per day, while the 12-strong kitchen brigade are split into two shifts, one team working from 9am till 6pm to prep everything, and the other from 5pm to 1am to do service. Every week, rotas are swapped, so all the chefs get equal turns at day and evening shifts. "It's a system that gives people a life," says Dahlgren.
But isn't closing at lunchtime a bad idea financially? "To be honest," says Dahlgren, "I don't do this for the money, but because I love it, and I want a good product and motivated staff - and this system achieves that."
A couple of years ago, Dahlgren's creative thinking also led him to shake up the menus - he felt constricted by offering a standard la carte menu. "The problem with that is you can't ever take the favourites away," he says, "and that's a very boring way to cook."
So these days at Bon Lloc there are a range of tasting menus: "expression", for instance, featuring Dahlgren's latest creations and experimental cuisine; "gustacin", showcasing simpler dishes based on good produce and established techniques; and "tradicin", featuring the restaurant's signature dishes from the past nine years.
But surely offering a variety of menus, each changing every month or so, leads to a lack of culinary consistency? "Not at all, I think the opposite is true," asserts Dahlgren. "It's difficult to cook well if you're doing the same thing every day. Changing what we're doing all the time keeps us fresh and interested, and allows far more creativity."
Mathias Dahlgren left school aged 16 and went straight to catering college in his home town of UmeÁ¥ for two years. He considers himself fortunate that his first job after leaving college was at the Viktor restaurant in UmeÁ¥, one of the top dozen or so restaurants in Sweden at the time - "and still the best place to eat in the north of the country".
Dahlgren says: "There wasn't a star chef there, but there was a whole team who were proud of their profession and passionate about cooking. I believe that, in a person's career, the most important job is the first one they get after college - if you work with people who drink beer, smoke cigarettes and skive off, that's how you end up. Conversely, if you work with people who love what they do, that rubs off on you in a positive way - and I'm lucky because that's what happened to me."
Dahlgren stayed at Viktor for three years, but during this time he spent a couple of summer stints working at restaurants on Swedish islands (summer-only restaurants in holiday locations being common in Scandinavia). Again, he believes both stints were important in shaping him.
At the first, Hotell Borgholm, he worked under German owner Corine Fransson, whom he says is the "toughest person I've ever known". He adds: "It was the worst six months of my life in one way, because she didn't like me and made my life hell. But I learnt a lot; she was using lots of fresh herbs and vegetables, w hich was really unique in Sweden at that time, and the whole experience was an eye-opener."
The second summer job he did was at a restaurant called Aquarel, and this was important because he worked under Melker Andersson, with whom he later went on to open Fredsgatan 12 in Stockholm. "I'd been recommended to work for Melker because he'd spent four years in the south of France," says Dahlgren. "It was my first exposure to modern French rather than classical French food, so during that four months I learnt an enormous amount."
Following a year's military service and another year working back at Viktor, Dahlgren went to work in Stockholm for a time, after triumphing in Sweden's Wild Chef competition (see main text). But with recession biting and many good restaurants closing, he leapt at the offer of a job in Ibiza and remained on the Spanish island for two years.
Still in contact with his chef friends back in Sweden, the next opportunity to come Dahlgren's way was put to him beside Melker Andersson and involved him going into a three-way partnership to buy a bankrupt restaurant, Laurent Tassel being the third chef involved. "We only had to pay a25,000 for the restaurant because it was bankrupt, but none of us had any money, so we had to borrow it from our parents."
The threesome duly opened Fredsgatan 12 at the beginning of 1994. "It was the first restaurant to open after the recession, and we were serving food from around the world," Dahlgren says. "Melker was into Californian cuisine, Laurent was a French pastry chef, while I'd worked in Spain and loved Mediterranean flavours. It proved amazingly popular, so much so that we were able to pay our parents back in only five months."
After a year-and-a-half, however, it became clear that the three friends were pulling in different directions, so they opted for an amicable split, Andersson keeping Fredsgaten 12 (or F12 as it is known), Tassel opening a pastry shop, and Dahlgren going on to open Bon Lloc - which means "a fine place" in Catalan.
Bon Lloc, Regeringsgatan 111, SE-123 45 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: 00 46 8 660 60 60. Website:www.bonlloc.nu.
Terrine of foie gras, fried leeks, truffle salad, vinaigrette jelly
For the vinaigrette jelly 100g Forum white wine vinegar
4g gelatine, dissolved in a little hot water
70g of Aubocassa (Alberquina) olive oil
Salt and pepper
4 x 30g slices of foie gras terrine
20 slices of leek, fried in olive oil and salted
80g mixed baby greens
1 summer truffle, thinly sliced
1tsp truffle juice
Salt and white pepper
Aubocassa olive oil for garnish
Chives, finely sliced
For the vinaigrette: boil vinegar and sugar. Add the gelatine while liquid is still warm. Cool down and set as a jelly. Blend jelly with olive oil in mixer. Add salt and freshly ground white pepper. Set aside in a cool place. (If necessary, it's possible to mix the jelly over and over again.)
To plate: place a slice of terrine on plate and arrange slices of leek on top (leek should be moderately warm), using a hoop to give them a cylindrical shape. Mix salad leaves, truffle slices and truffle juice in a bowl. Add salt, pepper and a little olive oil.
Arrange salad, vinaigrette jelly, chives, chive flowers and a few crystals of Maldon salt on top. Serve.
Russian salad 2004
Ingredients (Serves four)
60g classic Russian salad, ingredients finely diced
For the topping
12 cubes of fresh tuna fillet, about 5g each, cured in cold 10%-salted water.
4 poached quails' eggs
4 cooked spring carrots, quartered
40 green peas, cooked
4 heaped coffee spoons of caviar
Chives, finely sliced
4 potato crisps, freshly made
10ml lemon juice
40ml olive oil
Spoon the classic Russian salad into the centre of the plate. Top with cured tuna, quails' eggs, carrots, peas, pea-shoots, caviar, chives, chive flowers and potato crisps.
Add Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Mix lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Pour a small spoonful of lemon juice dressing on each plate.
Tiramisu - estilo brazo de gitano
For the sponge 72g egg
2g baking powder
For the coffee syrup 1 part espresso
1 part sugar
1 part Marsala wine
For the mascarpone cream 100g Mascarpone
10g egg yolk
20g icing sugar
Zest of 1/2 lemon, finely chopped
For garnish Cocoa powder
For the sponge, pre-heat oven to 250Â°C. Beat egg and sugar together, sifting in the flour and baking powder. Add water and blend well. Spread thinly over baking sheets. Bake in oven for five minutes. Cool down at room temperature. Remove from baking sheet.
For the coffee syrup, blend warm coffee with sugar so the sugar melts, then add the wine. To make the mascarpone cream, mix all ingredients together.
To plate and serve, brush the cake with the coffee syrup. Spread mascarpone cream over sponge. Powder lightly with cocoa powder. Roll up sponge, then roll this in sugar. Cover tightly in plastic film, slice and serve.
The taste of flowers
140g simple syrup
55g lemon juice
10g dried malva-hibiscus
A mixture of edible flowers (to taste)
Aubocassa (Alberquina) olive oil
Bring water, syrup and lemon juice to boil. Add the malva-hibiscus and let rest for 10 minutes. Drain and put into a deep freeze.
To serve, spoon the "ice" on to a very cold plate. Arrange the flowers and serve immediately with olive oil.