Madeleine T.: This is Grapevine’s annual best of, top of the pops issue. Now, I am not one for superlatives. I continually come back to Dill. Dill is on the top of my list. There is nothing that compares to it in Iceland. I rather inactively choose not to take part in this, as I do not believe in this gold star dunce cap reward system. I find that really boring. Dill does reign king of haute cuisine in Iceland. For our readers that have not had the pleasure of dining here, can you talk about the mission and spirit of Dill?
Gunnar Karl Gíslason: We opened up two years ago. Then, the whole thing was about this Nordic Kitchen. We were going to open this Nordic restaurant, and of course we did. Both me and Óli [Dill Sommelier and co-founder Ólafur Örn Ólafsson] had worked at Vox before, so it was logical to come here and open up a restaurant in the Nordic House. It was probably the perfect way to move on.
We had our things at Vox, but we wanted to take it further. I wanted a smaller location so the whole thing would be more personal. When Nordic House director Max Dager offered me the location, I really could not say no. First of all, the house, location and the view are unbelievable. We had some investors who were coming into this project with us. Then came the crisis, and the investors dropped out, so it was only Óli and I left. We were thinking that maybe it was too much for the two of us to handle, but we could not say no. We had to find a new strategy.
When we opened, we noticed that because of the crisis, the prices on all of the imported ingredients from the other Nordic countries started to go up, not only a little bit, but a lot. So our Nordic restaurant is thus probably more Icelandic than Nordic. We basically try to find ingredients in Iceland, and if we cannot find them here, then we look to the other Nordic countries. It is much more Icelandic than it was in the beginning, and it is much more Icelandic than the things we were doing at Vox.
In addition, I think in these two years since we started here, I have started to focus more on the traditions: the traditions of making the food. I am looking at the producers and I try to find producers that are making things in the really old tradition. For example, we only buy fish from one guy in Hauganes, and this guy makes a beautiful bacalao. He is the third generation in Hauganes, using the same methods. It’s a one-year process. Some places have started to actually inject the cod with salt; which of course is not the same. So we have chosen to use his products. The same with harðfiskur, which is dried outside, as opposed to using an oven.
WHERE IS THE FRESH FISH IN ICELAND?
MT: Maybe that wouldn’t be such a problem, injecting salt into the bacalao, if that was strictly our export bacalao. The problem would be in Portugal, and maybe then they would re-establish their fish salting tradition.
It is so difficult for us to find fresh ingredients here in Reykjavík, especially fresh fish and seafood. I find this absurd. I have lived in several cities around the world, and have always had easier access to fresh seafood than in the capital city one of the world’s largest fish exporters. Everything is packed and shipped off for export. It is becoming slightly easier to find, especially if you own a car, but you still have to hunt.
GG: It is getting easier now, especially for restaurants. I learned to cook at a restaurant in Akureyri, and it was impossible to get fresh fish, this was a long time ago, you more or less had to buy it frozen. Now the situation is much better. Here we get everything fresh, everyday.
MT: With the abundance of geothermal energy that we have in here in Iceland, we have the ability to produce most of our agricultural needs and become once again a nation with a self-sustainable food supply. With greenhouses using fresh Icelandic water, and leaving almost zero carbon footprint from field to fork, we have the ability to produce the cleanest and tastiest fruits and vegetables while eliminating costly, tasteless imports. Do you champion this idea? I think obviously you do.
THE GREENHOUSE EFFECT
MT: I think it a great idea to subsidise our Icelandic farmers and encourage local greenhouses rather than import everything from Holland or America. Perhaps if we offered cheap energy deals like we do with heavy industry, and subsidised greenhouse construction we could stimulate local economy while enjoying the benefits of fresh produce for a change. What can be the first steps we can take to facilitate this?
GG: One farmer could arrange a deal with four restaurants and produce a lot of things for them, he could even sell the rest at Bónus. It shouldn’t be a big risk for him if the restaurant pays the bill. It is the same thing with mostly everything in Iceland. If one person starts making something, and it goes very well for him, everybody has to do the same, instead of thinking that ok, this is really nice then I should do something else, but do it with the same passion, love and respect for the ingredients, and then I will sell the same amount as him.
MT: So this sheep mentality has probably been the pitfall of something like this. We now have greenhouses filled with a surplus of cucumbers and tomatoes instead of one person focused on producing seven varieties of basil or heirloom tomatoes.
GG: You could have so many varieties. It is really boring. I don’t understand it.
MT: I see you have a garden out back, can you speak a bit about your garden and what you are growing.
GG: We have six different types of dill. Then we have a good variety of herbs. I think dill is the only herb that we put down at the beginning of summer. The rest of them just come again, like the arctic thyme, chervil, angelica, etc… What do you call those herbs that come up again and again?
MT: Perennial. I see you have a small greenhouse as well, do you grow vegetables in there?
GG: We are starting to, along with apples as well. We produced three apples last year.
MT: Congratulations. That is already an achievement, as it isn’t easy finding a breed that withstands our harsh climate and short growing season. Do you want to expand your gardening efforts here?
GG: Not here. It would be fun to have more vegetables and larger herb garden. We don’t have the space, and it already almost takes a gardener to take care of it. If we would expand it, and hire a gardener, we could do it somewhere outside of Reykjavík. But not this summer at least.
MT: That is a great long-term plan. There are a few restaurants that come to mind, some of my favourites that actually have a garden on location. You pass by the seasonal vegetables on approach to the entrance, and have an idea of what to expect inside.
GG: That is nice.
THE ARTISTIC PROCESS
MT: Can you tell us about your creative process?
GG: When I do the menus, I like to be alone with a blank piece of paper in the library here. Then it is just write and write and write.
MT: The menu is seasonal.
GG: Definitely, that is why we change so often. There are always new things coming in the garden, or a friend with a goose he caught. That is the good thing with a small menu. We just change the menu and print in-house.
MT: If you consider cooking an art, is there a particular movement or artist that you can identify with?
GG: I have thought a lot about this, cooking and art. I think cooking is art. It is quite hard to compare it to painting. I can understand this comparison to cooking and jazz and painting as well, when you begin with a base and build on top of that. Eggert Pétursson makes very beautiful paintings, and I can very much relate to them.
MT: His paintings are quite organic. My experience with the cuisine at Dill has been a bit along the lines of post modernism, deconstructionist really, in the way that you interpret Nordic cuisine. Is this your intention?
When I say deconstructionist, I am thinking of Dill taking Icelandic cuisine back to the basic raw ingredients, and reworking them individually in new ways.
GG: Do you mean instead of blending celery, carrots and parsnip?
MT: Exactly. Instead of blending the usual suspects with a kitchen wand, you tend to explore each ingredient individually.
GG: Yes, definitely.
MT: Some may cite Ferran Adria of El Bulli or Noma of Copenhagen as influences. Do they inspire you?
GG: Noma definitely. René is a good friend. But, I have never been to El Bulli. I have one of his books. I really like to listen to him talk about food. He once ended an interview by saying: “At the end of the day, we are doing the food I love.” I think that is what we are doing here. Some years ago, I just stopped cooking for others, and started making the things I really like.
MT: That is why his menu changes daily. He has contributed a lot to modern cooking, but that is a great thing to walk away with. Cook what you enjoy cooking. Many have borrowed other elements from Ferran, as he is responsible for developing this progressive cuisine that challenges the meaning of food and dining with molecular gastronomy and the kitchen as laboratory. This style has rapidly become a ubiquitous part of modern cooking. Foams are turning up everywhere, like the balsamic glaze of the nineties drizzled all over a dish. This abuse risks the style becoming little more than whimsical. When you are creating a new dish, does flavour and texture precede presentation?
GG: Definitely. That is really important. We are only two in the kitchen at Dill. I start with the basics. I never make things on the plate where the taste and texture is second. There are a lot of restaurants that misunderstood the whole thing with foams. They taste like nothing. If you are going to do it, make sure it tastes like something, or just don’t put it on the plate.
MT: In your opinion, what is the most exciting or innovative thing happening in kitchens across the world?
GG: Slow food, slash Nordic manifesto. The whole thing is about using the things that you have around you, instead of importing what is far away. A lot of the restaurants have their own gardens. This is something I feel very strong about. People are really waking up and starting to think locally.
MT: This leads right back to what we spoke about earlier about growing locally and not relying on Europe or America to feed us.
GG: It is unbelievable. We have Icelandic customers that come and eat seven courses. Everything that they get on the plate is Icelandic more or less, yet they talk about how new and exotic everything was.
MT: And they do not realise that this is in their back yard. We have a chance to have one of the cleanest and healthiest cuisines on earth. What advice do you have for the home cook or the inspired young chef?
GG: Go out in your back yard, see what you have, and just use it.
MT: When I go on a hike, I am constantly grazing like a sheep and wondering how this tastes, and would it make a nice tea.
GG: We are actually starting to make our own tea.
MT: What else can we expect from Dill in the coming year? You mentioned a larger garden.
GG: Yes a larger garden with vegetables and a lot of varieties. We just want to continue doing what we are doing and avoid all big changes.