Emiliana Torrini and Chef Antto Melasniemi (formerly of HIM) made us dinner
A relentlessly cheerful Icelandic pop musician and a brooding Finnish wunderkind of the Nordic food scene (and former keyboardist for goth rock band HIM) traverse Iceland to source ingredients for an intimate banquet in a nondescript apartment to promote a music festival in London.
The festival is called JaJaJa, a pan-Nordic music festival featuring the best and the brightest of the Nordic music scene, held November 13-15 in London’s Mile End. The festival will culminate in a Nordic food feast sprung from the loins of chef Antto Melasniemi and singer Emilíana Torrini, a feast conceived on an Icelandic road trip and given a trial run in an apartment in Grandi. For that trial run, we were there.
Dish 1: Fried Wolffish Cheeks
A Reykjavík photographer had graciously leased his Grandi digs for this odd event: a tastefully gothic apartment with an unbelievable view, looking a little like the showroom of an upscale Scandi furniture store. Antiques and curios line blackened walls and Norwegian kelp laced over the dinner table like bubble wrap. Outside, the grill was flaring up menacingly, trying to look tough in the face of the gale ripping through the balcony from the North Atlantic.
Emilíana Torrini greeted us with a crowberry, lemon and prosecco apéritif from her arsenal of 64° Reykjavík Distillery liqueurs. She is the daughter of an Italian restaurateur operating out of Iceland and is, herself, an enthusiastic epicure. As well, she’s an engaging storyteller and impossibly warm, whether it’s on the topic of restaurant farting or tour bus mania. Oh yes, and she’s also a critically and commercially successful songwriter who co-wrote a Kylie Minogue hit and sang the main theme for ‘Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’.
Behind the counter, Chef Antto is frying up cod cheeks with chive hollandaise. Antto is a large man, and he would have to be, since he seems to be filled with every Finnish stereotype I could think of. Stern of face, sparing of words, hung of overs, cholic of melans, and brandishing a sharp knife (the archetypical Finn is essentially an Icelander with a knife).
Dish 2: Lambface and pickled red cabbage in flapjacks
As Antto’s hangover receded, from behind the tummia pilviä emerged a wry charm and playful intellect. Unsurprisingly, as Antto has masterminded some truly bizarre dining projects. Such as the Solar Kitchen project, a pop-up restaurant travelling from green fields to car parks while relying entirely on solar energy, and “The Trojan Bar,” a wooden box which folds out into a fully equipped, transportable bar.
“With Solar Kitchen,” Antto tells me, “the idea was to build a restaurant completely controlled by nature. Usually it’s chefs trying to control all the elements and playing God. I liked the risk of not knowing if I would be able to serve hot food. I am a bit chaotic by nature. I like to leave it up to nature. Maybe also because I’m a bit lazy. It’s freeing, you just go with the flow. It’s almost like a religion.”
Dish 3: Langoustine with fennel and sautéed rye bread
On the topic of his “Hel Yes” pop up restaurant events, held in a church in Stockholm, Antto says: “It was very performative, it was an experimental social gathering more than a restaurant. I know it sounds a bit iffy, but it was good. No mercy of just observing.”
The transience seems to appeal to him and I wonder if it has something to do with his musical past. “I used to play with the band HIM and it was fun for a while. It was a way of avoiding responsibility, and I think I was more interested in the side-effect of being on stage. I wasn’t interested enough in the musical side. Then I got to cooking school, which was good because there I could continue partying and having fun. But once I got out and started to make money cooking, I found I’m actually quite interested in all this stuff.”
“I went to work in Paris, London, Amsterdam. In London I worked at a place which was a hellhole. A huge place, with mice and cockroaches running around and if you left your knife to go to the toilet someone would steal it. Very old, very cruel atmosphere. It was like a haunted pirate ship.”
Emilíana chimes in, “I can’t stand kitchens like that. I was in a really fancy hotel in Wales, really pregnant, and all I could hear was the chef going all: ‘You fucking what!? This is my name on the door!’ I was worried he would die of a heart attack. And all the posh people were trying to quietly ignore it but because I was so pregnant I let out a massive fart in the middle of the room. And then I launched into a crazy laughing fit.”
Dish 4: Grilled lamb hearts with a potato-and-sardines gratin
It’s understandable, being a chef is no easy job, all fourteen-hour shifts in windowless rooms. A bit like being a musician, I suggest to Emilíana. “Yes, but we get breaks in between. However, when you tour for a long time you create your own laws, your own world. You are like a country onto yourself. And everyone goes mad at some point. You end up completely dysfunctional and disconnected, even if you are wearing a smile on your face.”
Antto feels similarly disconnected with the new Nordic movement in most ways. Antto seems to aim for something less pretentious and decidedly less transformative of ingredients.
Emilíana seems to share this approach. “There’s so much demand on people now. They want you be making food made from comet dust, or Kate Moss sweat ice cream.” Antto: “I would actually love to do a dish from Kate Moss’s sweat.”
Dish 5: A licorice Crème brûlée
Antto is not obsessed with sourcing the rarest of rare ingredients or using his skills to make them unrecognizable, but he is certainly inventive and enamored with the marriage of food and design.
I suggest to Antto there is an element of synesthesia in his approach. “For me, it’s very natural to think of taste as music. I often think of sharp flavours as high notes and middle notes as sweet. You can compose it like that in your mind.”
“In my case, I always blend images with sound. When I’m recording I have to record until it conforms to the image that I’ve built in my mind, the music has to layer over the image like a film,” Emilíana adds.
And with that we get to the final course. One of the more pleasantly strange things I’ve tried this year. It is a taste-bud bewildering dulse cream pudding, not overly sweet or flavourful, just this lingering, savoury, oceany, ashy dulse flavour in the creamy depths.
With a few deft touches, Antto and Emilíana have put a clever twist on all the regional mainstays they had gathered—and you too can be a part of that if you join the JaJaJa festivities in London.
Read the full menu and learn more about JaJaJa at their website.
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