Conversation between Ragnar Egilsson and Ólafur Örn Ólafsson
This summer saw the birth of two food markets. One of them, a fully fledged outdoor market in Fógetagarðurinn where street food and high-end restaurants mingle. The other, an ongoing series of grassroots pop-up markets with a focus on ethnic cuisine. This new rise in food markets called for a sitdown with the representatives of each—a sort of boozy state of the union for the Reykjavík food scene.
RAGNAR: I recently went on a little food excursion outside of Reykjavík. I stopped by Hótel Varmahlíð and they were doing this whole farm-to-table seasonal thing. Have you been?
ÓLAFUR: No, but it’s about time you can get some real grub outside of Reykjavík. It’s a shame they are as few as they are. I was in Seyðisfjörður a few years back and ate at an upscale restaurant with a beautiful view over the harbour where the fishermen were dragging in tons of fresh fish. And the fish of the day on the menu was salted fish. The other fish of the day was farmed salmon that had been shipped in. Hopefully there have been some improvements. I have the same bizarre problem finding a fish monger in fishing villages.
R: Do you feel that things are moving in the right direction?
Ó: Absolutely. You still have to search a bit to find the good places but they’re there—both inside and outside of the capital. I like the proliferation of farms offering Bed & Breakfast on the side. Even if most have some way to go to work out the difference between feeding the family and feeding 200 people.
R: Do you feel it’s the increase in tourism or awareness that is driving these changes?
Ó: I think it’s both. There were always people who wanted good food but the pressure that came with the growth in tourism played a part. This change is also happening worldwide due to the increased emphasis on traceability.
R: Traceability can still be a pain in the ass as we saw with the Findus horsemeat scandal. They had to trace that through a dozen countries before they saw who stuffed Seabiscuit in the grinder.
Ó: True, but I feel that things like the slow food movement have accomplished a lot all over the world. I was in Denmark the other day and it is getting to be genuinely difficult to find a bad meal in Copenhagen. I see things moving in that direction here. Things start with the high-end restaurants and it trickles down. The big places justify food tourism and thereby incentivise the smaller places. People get used to being served good food and start to demand it and it fires people up across the whole spectrum.
The street food revolution
R: People are just more fired up about food it seems. It’s like someone said: “Food is the new rock and roll.” You got the genres and conflict, people shape their identities based on the food they eat and get a kick out of discovering out-of-the-way restaurants the way others get from digging through vinyl crates.
Ó: I took a trip to Berlin with a group of chefs and they went on a rampage, emptying multiple minibars. There’s definitely a hint of the rock star lifestyle with some of them.
R: There are parallels with the Icelandic music scene. It’s not hyper-competitive here and there is a fair amount of collaboration, but still both scenes are producing very driven people.
Ó: There’s friendly competition but we can meet up for a drink and a laugh about it. If someone does well you get a pat on the back, not the back-stabbings you get in some other cities. The idea with the Krás food market was to mix the places where they plate with tweezers and a pinkie finger in the air with the hole-in-a-wall places: Dill, Kol, Gandhi, Ramen Momo and Walk the Plank—all in one spot. And I think a lot of the techniques and tools of the high-end kitchens will trickle down along with the focus on local ingredients.
R: Although the tools and techniques originate in the home and peasant kitchens if you take it all the way back.
Ó: This will be some kind of circulation. For example, we had a period where everyone in Iceland was using powders and foam but it got to be too much and people got fed up. It still has its place, but now, instead of using it for everything, people are just using it when it makes sense. The technique has become part of the tool set and has trickled down the restaurant food chain.
R: Did you catch the interview I did with Esben Holmboe Bang where he claimed that New Nordic cuisine was dead since they had managed to establish Nordic cuisine as a major contender?
Ó: When he was guesting at Dill and got a little tipsy and ended up playing nothing but ‘90s hits during service? Yeah I heard about that. And I think he’s right. Both at Vox, when me and Gunni started out, and later at Dill, we took a Dogme 95 approach to things. We tried to stick to only local ingredients and Gunni is still doing that at Dill for the most part. We made up our own rules and followed them. I think it was René Redzepi at noma who said that we didn’t need to feel ashamed of the ingredients from our region.
R: What you’ve been doing with Krás is an example of mixing up, not just the high-end and the low-end, but also the ethnic and the local.
Ó: I travelled around the country with crew from the BBC recently with Ainsley Harriott aboard. He was doing a show about the street food of the world and they kept asking me about Icelandic street food but I wasn’t sure what to tell them. I’ve been thinking that Iceland’s lack of street food culture could be because our urban community is so young and we haven’t quite figured out urban living. And the lack of multiculturalism is definitely a big part of that. Street food has been around in countries with warmer climates for thousands of years, but it’s not just the weather, because London and New York definitely get damn cold. Icelanders are simply a nation of sustenance farmers and it wasn’t that long ago that street food consisted of a bottle of milk in a wool sock, a slice of flatbread and maybe a flask of Brennivín [caraway-flavoured schnapps]. You and the SUMAR group have a more multicultural focus with your food markets?
R: We’re trying in our amateur way to open up the selection of ethnic dishes in Iceland, but we’re expanding more into events and getting people to teach each other and just giving them a venue to nerd out over food in general.
Ó: It’s a fun idea and a great example of a multicultural society in practice and we’re getting some real ethnic food in Iceland. Real Thai food without compromise, like Ban Thai. We have Balkan food just off of Laugavegur with proper babaganoush [Balkanika, Vitastígur 10] and Hraðlestin [Hverfisgata 64A] for quality Indian street food.
R: Which makes sense. The local ingredients are good but not all the classic dishes are so attractive and I think we’ve benefited from that. Although I have been thinking about substituting sheep-head meat for beef tongue in tacos de lengua.
Ó: There are things you can do. Once in Búðir for Þorri [an annual celebration of Icelandic food heritage and the only time you’ll see most Icelanders eat pickled rams testicles and rotten shark] we used all the typical Þorri ingredients and created a seven-course menu. We gave them strange names and arranged them in weird patterns on the plate. We had some fresh rams’ testicles and made a paté that I think we named ‘Stefnumót á gangstétt’ (“Date on the Sidewalk”).
R: It wasn’t that long ago that Iceland was essentially one big company town and we were in thrall to Danish merchants. That must have informed our consumer behaviour. And places like London had a firmly-entrenched class system which resulted in an underclass left to fend for itself. It gave birth to street food and outdoor produce vendors. That entrepreneurial spirit rose out of necessity.
Ó: Absolutely. Here in Iceland we got the pizzas into the restaurants but they didn‘t break out into the streets until much later. Then we get the burgers and the Hlöllabátur sandwiches. I think that just this year I’ve seen 5-6 new food trucks and street vendors. There are a couple of lamb stew trucks, a lobster truck, and a crab shack. You should check out the crab guy. He just goes out in the morning, picks up crabs from his traps and goes back to his kitchen and cooks it. I wanted to go see him three times this week and it never works because it always just says “gone fishing”. I thought that was really natural and cool.
R: Maybe the reason we didn’t have much of a food truck culture until recently was that the population is so concentrated. We have the car culture but there’s no real need for mobile restaurants when all the nightlife and restaurants are concentrated in a few close hubs.
Ó: I think one of the reasons people like street food is that there you have chefs focusing on doing one thing. And if you do that one thing well, people will come back. The quality of the low-range food is only going to keep on getting better, but I also think there’s room for improvement with the top end of cuisine.
Who Are They?
Ragnar Egilsson is a veteran food writer for The Reykjavík Grapevine. For the past two years he’s spearheaded a grassroots group of foodies called Samtök Um Matseld Annarra Ríkja (SUMAR for short), which started out as a Facebook group with a focus on ethnic cuisine in Iceland. In 2014, it evolved into a breeding ground for pop-up food markets, workshops and other events. Raggi has no formal food training but his winning personality and rippling abs are more than enough.
Ólafur Örn Ólafsson is behind the Krás food market along with Gerður Jónsdóttir. The Krás market ran every weekend of August and is hopefully here to stay. Óli is a waiter and a self-taught sommelier and chef who has become one of the primary food start-up machines in Iceland and a man with his fingers in many pies. He rose to prominence at Vox with Gunnar Karl Gíslason, and the two later went on to start Dill in the middle of a recession. He also served as a founder and advisor for Slippbarinn, Hótel Borg, Múlaberg, and K-Bar (before artistic differences put an end to the partnership).