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SOE Kitchen: Ólafur Elíasson and Victoria Elíasdóttir Fuse Dining With Art

SOE Kitchen: Ólafur Elíasson and Victoria Elíasdóttir Fuse Dining With Art

RX Beckett
Words by
Photos by
Ari Magg & Timothée Lambrecq

Published August 10, 2018

Soft grey light pours in through the high rectangular windows of The Marshall House from the overcast eastern sky. The house is waking up, yawning in oxygen, as a small team of workers buzz around. In the corner, siblings Ólafur Elíasson and Victoria Elíasdóttir confer over their schedule for the busy day ahead. Ólafur is a world renown artist and visionary, famous for his large scale projects and installations, whose most recognisable work in Iceland to both locals and travellers alike sits right across the harbour from us—the facade and light display of Harpa. Victoria is a chef, food activist, and a rising name in Berlin gastronomy via her former restaurant Dóttir. Together, they will be launching SOE Kitchen 101, a three-month long food and art project in this former fish meal factory, and current home to Ólafur’s Reykjavík studio, two other art galleries, and the critically acclaimed Marshall Restaurant + Bar.

“We’ve prepared everything well so I’m just sort of checking it out,” says Ólafur, as he settles into a mossy green armless chaise. “It looks like it’s going really well. Sometimes it’s better that I don’t show up.” While he seems to be in hands-off mode, Victoria, twenty years his junior, is in the action, preparing to taste wine pairings after we speak. “We’ve gone to visit a few farms to see what is happening, and thankfully I’m going on another farm trip,” she says. “Now that it’s getting closer to reality, it’s getting to a point where I need to know what I can get.”

Sought after experience

Their upcoming residency is a takeover of The Marshall Restaurant + Bar from its head chef, Leifur Kolbeinsson, and a carry-over from SOE Kitchen, the staff dining experience at Ólafur’s main studio in Berlin, where Victoria has been head chef since 2016. The communal, vegetarian meals for Ólafur’s team of 120 employees are prepared four days a week by a permanent kitchen team of five women and several interns, using produce from the Apfeltraum biodynamic farming collective outside of Berlin. These studio lunches have bloomed to include international guest chefs, gastronomical workshops, field trips and performances, transcending from a staff canteen to a talked about and sought after dining experience.

“If we were going to work with the values of what art was about, it should also include what we would eat and how we would live.”

“When we started the studio we were ten, twenty people and we took turns making the food each day,” says Ólafur. “When we were stressed we would essentially just buy frozen pizzas. Eventually I realised that lunch actually was an important part of the day and instead of taking turns, which would interrupt the work, I had a cook coming in, which made the food a lot better, it made it cheaper, and it helped my team stick to their work. We started working with a Japanese cook called Asako Iwama and she was very inspiring as she was also very involved with food politics. In a way, that started the idea that if we were going to work with the values of what art was about, it should also include what we would eat and how we would live.”

How you do what you do

As Ólafur’s projects began to increase in scope, including “The Weather Project” at the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern, the “Moving Water” New York City waterfalls, “Your Rainbow Panorama” on the ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, and “Ice watch” in the Copenhagen city centre, his team steadily increased to upwards of 80 people, mostly working in separate spaces and in different capacities.

“The lunch in the studio, most importantly, serves the very basic function of driving a team together that is otherwise working in different departments,” Ólafur explains. “It’s an occasion to more fundamentally understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. On an average day, it’s more about how you do what you do and the more pragmatic things. But in the kitchen you get a sense of the people who you’re not necessarily in contact with normally, even though they are working on the same project, simply because architecturally the studio’s in spaces. That’s why we stick to this idea of a very fixed time, a very fixed space, and everybody’s there together.”

From Laugarvatn to Berkeley

While Ólafur’s studio kitchen ethos began to germinate alongside his already thriving artistic output, Victoria’s education was leading her along a similar path. “I did my chef training in Iceland at the Seafood Cellar and I really wanted to graduate from that particular restaurant,” she passionately explains, recalling an unforgettable filet of lamb she ate in the now closed restaurant when she was sixteen. “I was lucky enough to go through three ownerships in four years, which was wonderful, because I was able to just stay put and have three different types of cuisine come to me.” After she completed her training, she developed the Héraðsskólinn Hostel restaurant in Laugarvatn, and spent a few months working at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. At this point she was ready to make a big move.

“The fact that my father successfully and consistently made amazing food with almost nothing made me appreciate basic ingredients and foods.”

“Ólafur had been trying to get me over to Berlin for years and I just didn’t feel like it made sense for me, until I had a sense of purpose there,” she says. Once she arrived, she met a restaurateur who helped her open Dóttir, a restaurant that sparked a sensation throughout the city.

“I remember a dinner where she served freshly cooked cod, white cabbage with sesame seeds, a little fennel, and boats of lemon,” recalls Ólafur, descending into an impassioned whisper. “It was so minimal and it was all white. The cod was so al dente that it was almost a little transparent in the centre! The Berliners just went totally nuts. It really became the talk of the town.”

New-school kitchen

When Dóttir had to close due to renovations on the building, Victoria was swept into the SOE Kitchen and became integral in restructuring and revamping their entire flow. “I was lucky to convince her to come in and she brought up the quality and also professionalised not just the cooking but the way we order food and how we plan everything,” says Ólafur. “So, thanks to her, the kitchen just jumped to that next level of actually being a professionally run kitchen.”

“It came to a time when they were renovating the kitchen and changing the concept and upgrading it a bit,” Victoria continues. “They had to make changes because the company was growing and it needed some streamlining. I had more of the pragmatic skills and that’s where I—along with the kitchen and architecture teams at the studio—designed the new kitchen.”

They expanded the kitchen to three times its original size and replaced the stoves and ovens with restaurant capacity appliances, among other things. Once ready, Victoria was able to begin working closely with the goods from the farming collective to set her flavour stamp on the kitchen’s output, as well as experiment alongside other professionals.

“I would say it’s good food that is honestly made,” she says quite matter of factly. “I don’t use any dried herbs or any added flavours except for something very natural, like lemon zest is a big flavour for me, or vinegar, or tea. I use a lot of fresh herbs. At the SOE Kitchen, we also do really nice Indian dishes, for example, that a friend of ours came and taught.”

A magical person

The menu at the SOE Kitchen 101 will include a rotation of thirty of Ólafur and Victoria’s favourite lunch dishes, as well as adding seafood options, such as grilled filets and seafood soup. The dinner will include three and five course set menus, à la carte options, and wine pairings. There will also be brunch on weekends, featuring a Bloody Mary menu. “You will not find a bigger Bloody Mary fan than me!” says Victoria.

“My father was this magical person who was an artist. He was able to create a whole meal out of two potatoes and a bit of butter.”

The addition of seafood was a given for the siblings, not only because it’s Victoria’s speciality—and because Ólafur’s Reykjavík studio is in a former fishing house in the historic harbour—but also because their father, Elías Hjörleifsson, worked for many years on a fishing vessel. He was both a cook and an artist on board the ship.

“It’s funny, you know, because having a father who is a cook either drives you very close to the kitchen, or not close at all, because then you never actually cook yourself,” Ólafur says. “So I was, unlike my sister, never really into food. It’s also fair to say that I grew up to a large extent with my mother, so my father was this magical person who was an artist. He was able to create a whole meal out of two potatoes and a bit of butter. It’s also no secret that we didn’t have a lot, especially when I was younger. We were living under very limited terms, so the fact that my father successfully and consistently made amazing food with almost nothing made me appreciate basic ingredients and foods. I understood from him that if you just have a few good carrots and a little bit of herbs you can actually make amazing stuff.”

Ocean drawings

“I originally did everything I could to not go in the direction of becoming a chef,” Victoria adds, “because my father was a chef, and everything I knew about kitchens sounded super exciting. But I got the point that it wasn’t really good for you.”

However, a love of food took hold of her subconscious at a young age. “I grew up with what I was taught was good food, but when you’re a kid you don’t necessarily value great fresh fish, or fresh vegetables yet. I grew up being sent to school with rye bread with pickled beets and liver pate, and I got comments from my peers. But I loved it so I kept on bringing it and I kept on eating it in the bathroom sometimes because I wasn’t ready to have a dry white bread sandwich.”

“There’s a democratising aspect in the wellbeing of people once they understand more why they are working toward a specific goal.”

Their father’s approach to art during his tenure as a cook at sea also made a lasting impression on Ólafur. “He and I would sometimes work on drawings together where he would hang a pen over a piece of paper, in the kitchen or eating area of the boat, and as [the boat] rocked, the pen would make a drawing,” he muses. “We called them ocean drawings, and they were essentially just recordings of the surface of the sea.”

“When he was an artist, he would have a small studio in his cabin,” he continues, “and he would have small exhibitions in the corridor, where he would hang his artwork on the fishing tour. These would just be pastel drawings or drawing experiments and he would just tape it with tape onto the wall and he would have a little reception on the boat. So art and food were closely related for him.”

Food and art

Food and art have remained closely related in the family through the siblings’ highly sensory memories, carrying on their late father’s legacy under his figurative presence. “His ship just left here yesterday evening, which was so nice,” enthuses Victoria. “I love it when it’s here. I used to play hide and seek there when I was tiny. I feel like he’s watching, like, ‘Hm, ja, alles gut.’ It couldn’t be more perfect.”

“Being children, we would drive around in the Icelandic landscape and my father and his friend Gunnar Örn, another Icelandic artist, would take their sketching papers and paint,” Ólafur recalls. “Victoria and I would just tag along and play, typically building small dams in the creek. It was a lovely way to spend the summer. And the highlight of the day was, of course, the lunchbox. Being a cook, he would always even have salt and pepper. Everything was just so perfect.”

Earth salt

With these beautiful associations of perfection with both food and art, it is no wonder that the siblings have each honed their crafts to highly lauded degrees of success and praise, yet their humble beginnings keep them as grounded as the salt of the earth. This modest approach also seems to have been a key subconscious motivator in Ólafur’s SOE Kitchen.

“There’s a democratising aspect in the wellbeing of people once they understand more why they are working toward a specific goal,” he says. “I think it drives respect of the work and of the other teams, so you don’t think only of your team. I find this very important and having to do with the values that I believe in with regards to building a social, sustainable environment in the workplace. The role of the food in that is incredibly crucial.”

The role of the food in the residency at The Marshall House will take precedence, with having established relationships with local farmers and greenhouses to provide entirely Icelandic fresh produce to the project. But the supply chain took some work.

“There is a lot of produce farming happening here, a lot more than before anyway, and it is reachable but you do have to work for it,” Victoria laments. “It’s a lot of extra work to do it like this, but this is why I’m doing it. I’m trying to show that this is possible. We can run a restaurant with only fresh Icelandic products, and that there is more to vegetarian food than raw carrots and hummus.”

A sensual approach

Icelandic nature also figures strongly into the atmosphere of the eating space, in which guests will eat at long, communal, family style tables. Geometric polyhydric lamps, inspired by Ólafur’s late friend and employee Einar Thorsteinn, shaded with colours found in nature hang from the ceiling, catching the light and brightening or darkening depending on the outside shadows. A lush dark seafoam green curtain hangs beneath the stairs, delineating the restaurant from the lounge and what will also become a stage and DJ booth for the artistic programming. Even one of Ólafur’s old sofas—that coincidentally picks up some naturalistic colours—adorns an area intended for parents to chill out with their young kids, or hang around and have a coffee and knit.

“Very often we make the mistake of thinking that we are free, which I think is an illusion… it is interesting to bring about alternative models to expose the fact that cultural constructs guide us through our lives.”

The artistic programming of the lunches and dinners is still being shaped and formed, under the collaborative management of Christina Werner, co-director of Ólafur’s Institute for Spatial Experiments. The programming will include significant involvement from institutions such as the Iceland Academy of the Arts, Gallery i8, and Mengi, as well as individual friends and collaborators in Icelandic culture. There will also be the inclusion of gastronomical workshops and field trips, similar to the ones at SOE Kitchen but adapted to a local context, highlighting the uniqueness of the environment.

“When you come into a space which has been closed for a while, you can smell this used to be a fish factory. Isn’t that nice?” Ólafur says, sweetly describing a smell walk he took his daughter and her friend on the previous day. “We think of buildings as being only structure but they are also other ephemeral things, besides light, temperature, air, quality of the air, but smell and the quality of the sound and all these things. So when we do a project like this, we try to take this more sensual approach.”

Social consciousness

While Victoria’s demeanour is indeed much more pragmatic, she too approaches the project beyond the sense of taste and the skill of wise planning. “I think what we have in common is how nature reflects in the food and in his art pieces as well,” she says about her brother. “If you look at this lamp by this window you can see all these very colours that you see in the Icelandic nature. I am so obsessed with the natural colours in food, and I think that’s something that balances really well between us.”

Conversely, Ólafur’s appreciation of his sister brings out his pragmatic points. “One of the great assets is that she keeps me on the ground and makes sure that I don’t think I’m good at everything,” he smiles. “She’s a lot better than me in a lot of things. Other people that I work with, they are sometimes afraid to tell me what they think, so when I ask them they just say what pleases me, which is not necessarily always the truth. But the great thing with my sister is that she is so not going let me, an old, grey-bearded, white guy, tell her what to do. She’s an amazing feminist and has brought in a lot of social consciousness into my ecosystem. I’ve learned so much from her.”

Unplanned opportunities

As this living, breathing, experimental and ephemeral feast of sensations launches, they hope for good things and to be able to share a little slice of their world from abroad back within the context of their childhood land. While translating the SOE Kitchen from Berlin to Reykjavík has come with many challenges to brother, sister and their various teams, it boils down to no small degree of acceptance and restraint.

“I’ve always been interested in the social implications of how we are being shaped by society, how our senses are being shaped, and through our senses, also our ability to make a choice and to be progressive is being shaped,” says Ólafur. “Very often we make the mistake of thinking that we are free, which I think is an illusion. In that sense it is interesting to bring about alternative models to expose the fact that cultural constructs guide us through our lives. So I think we have a degree of freedom as we illuminate ourselves by becoming critical and progressive. The hospitality is about an unplanned opportunity to dine and operate with people that we don’t know.”

SOE Kitchen 101 opens on Saturday, August 11th at 12:00 in The Marshall House, Grandi. For reservations visit marshallrestaurant.is


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