From Iceland — Dill Chef Gunnar Karl Makes His Own Salt, Is Inspiring: We Observed

Dill Chef Gunnar Karl Makes His Own Salt, Is Inspiring: We Observed

Published March 25, 2015

Dill Chef Gunnar Karl Makes His Own Salt, Is Inspiring: We Observed
York Underwood
Photo by
York Underwood

Chef Gunnar Gíslason drives nearly an hour out of Reykjavík to a small bay on Hvalfjörður. As he puts on his fishing hip waders, they crinkle and crack in the cold. The snow falls sideways through the air due to the wind from the ocean. Gunnar is setting up plastic containers on the black lava-rock beach. He fills each container–wading into the freezing water to dunk them underwater. Gunnar’s breath is quick and short. The water is cold. The wind is cold. The snow is cold. The containers are heavy. After the last container is filled, he carries them one by one into his old Land Rover Defender. The drive home is cold. The heater doesn’t work. The snow skirts across the highway as Gunnar shivers and listens to The Boss all the way home. Why did he do all this? Hours of freezing labour? Gunnar uses the seawater to make his own salt. If you order the seven-course meal at Dill, Gunnar’s restaurant, you will notice a tiny pile of salt served with your bread and butter service. That’s it. All that for some teaspoons of salt.

‘I really enjoy doing this,’ Gunnar tells me when we reach his restaurant. ‘I usually go alone. I listen to The Boss and go outside and enjoy nature. I like to sit there and listen to the ocean, smell the ocean. In the summer, I forage for things. In the winter, I look at things. I don’t know any other chefs going out and collecting their own seawater. But, then again, I don’t know everything.’

Detail, Focus

Dill is a fine-dining restaurant located at Hverfisgata 12 in 101 Reykjavík. Dill uses techniques from New Nordic Cuisine, with a special emphasis on Icelandic ingredients. The dishes are seasonal, based on available ingredients, which Gunnar also forages, always on the lookout for something new and interesting.

‘I started Dill with my friend a few days before the 2008 crash,’ Gunnar says. ‘The money fell through, and we were considering going back to our old jobs with our tails tucked between our legs. But we decided to try plan B instead. It started out as New Nordic Cuisine, but over the years it has become increasingly focused on Icelandic traditions and ingredients.’

Dill described in a word: detail. Gunnar described in a word: focus. He arrives in the morning and works with the other chefs prepping and chopping vegetables, slicing fish, and getting the fried pig skin ready to be smoked outside with hay and onion peels. Gunnar doesn’t seem to get upset or angry. He always seems present and in the moment–but always breaking into a smile when one of the other chefs fires off a joke. You can tell everyone enjoys working there. They take pride in what they do, and how they do it.

As Gunnar dices onions and peels celeriac, another chef brings in a large silver pot and a ladle. It’s the salt made from the seawater collected in Hvalfjörður. The chef carefully scoops the salt from the pot and places it on a pan lined with cooking paper–spreading the crystals out evenly in the pan.

‘It takes a while to make: it takes hours to go get it and it takes days to slowly reduce it, Gunnar says. ‘It’s not boiling; it’s just steaming. The slower you do it, the better. It starts to crystallize and you take the crystals and put them in a flat pan. If there is still moisture, you put the crystals in the oven.’

Sometimes It Works And Sometimes It’s Shit

Gunnar started making his own salt after observing how artisanal salt company Saltverk made their salts while researching his book, `North’, which focuses on local producers and their methods. Saltverk use a method from the 17th century–capitalizing on the proximity of geysers to the sea in Reykjanes, in the Westfjords. All the salt is made using geothermal energy. Originally, when Iceland was under Danish rule, the production of salt was to sustain the Baccalá (salted cod) export from Iceland.

‘We went to their company and looked at what they were doing. That’s when I realized how easy it was,’ Gunnar says. ‘I still buy salt from them because, if I didn’t, all I would be doing is making salt. The salt we do make is used for our butter and bread service. We make enough to last two or three months.’

DillGunnar5 ‘I really enjoy doing this’, Gunnar tells me when we reach his restaurant. ‘I usually go alone. I listen to The Boss and go outside and enjoy nature. I like to sit there and listen to the ocean, smell the ocean.’

It wasn’t that easy, but that’s Gunnar’s attitude: try it. He takes risks. He’s always looking for better wine, better beer, better ingredients. He likes to joke that sometimes it works and sometimes it’s shit.

‘We found out you need to collect it in the right place,’ Gunnar says. ‘You have to know the currents of the ocean. We collected seawater in the wrong places and it was a disaster. It tasted sandy.’

What Gunnar discovered is that the ocean is not static. It may look like any beach is as good as the other, but you need to find locations where the current is moving towards the shore, not out to sea. The water is clean and pure when it comes from the ocean, but when it’s heading out, it’s bringing with it debris from inland.

Works Of Art

Gunnar has the courage to learn by trial and error.

Dill only does a dinner service, beginning at 19:00. Every part of the seven-course dinner has an intricate and precise technique of preparation. The cod is brined and slowly cooked at a very low temperature. The cod roe is prepared in near boiling water for five minutes–leaving it mousse-like and ready to be lightly fried in browned butter. The pork belly is ready. The potatoes have been placed in pressurized canisters to give them almost surreal creamy and fluffy consistency. The pickled onions are lightly torched to intensify the flavour. The level of detail for each dish would seem almost masochistic to the reluctant home cook–without taking into account the presentation.

Every dish is a work of art. If there were some way to make ingredients sing, it would be the all-around aesthetic experience.

Before long guests start to enter and are seated. A few have called ahead warning that they are going to be late. A group of middle-aged American men laugh in unison while regaling each other with various tales of sexual harassment of young women they had committed in various countries (apparently forgetting that everyone speaks English and can hear them). A newlywed couple, as of that day, moan with every bite and lock eyes while smiling. A young man from Australia takes his first bite and immediately upgrades from the five-course to seven-course meal.

Dill is always full, understandably. If you walk back into the kitchen, you’ll find Gunnar, already on his next project after working all day preparing for dinner service.

‘I’ve just torched hundreds of apples and their cores,’  Gunnar says. ‘I’m going to use everything. I will mix it with a nice beer and just let it ferment. This will be on the menu in three months–if it works.’

Dill restaurant is open 19:00–22:00. Reservations are required.

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