Taking The Vegetarian Journey of a Nordic Chef at Enigma
We’ve been intrigued by Enigma at the Palazzo Versace Hotel since its opening at the beginning of this year. Every 3 months, a different star chef is brought in to shape the concept and the menu of the restaurant. As of this month 2 Michelin starred Swedish master chef Björn Frantzén has been taking diners through the “Journey of a Nordic Chef.” I got a chance to preview the vegetarian tasting menu there last week, and was lucky enough to fit in some one-on-one time with the chef beforehand!
Chef Frantzén has had an interesting culinary journey, so it’s appropriate that his theme for Enigma would reflect that. He was a cook in the Swedish military and a professional footballer. So how exactly did he go on to become a world-renowned chef?
“Becoming a chef was never really a dream,” he says. “My dream was to keep on playing football, but it was more of a backup plan – I ended my football career at 20 due to a heart problem that I was born with. It came to a point where fixing the problem would have been risky, so at that point it was an easy choice for me.” It proved to be the right choice, as the artful chef has earned 2 Michelin stars and his restaurant (called, simply, Frantzén) is currently ranked No. 31 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Chef Frantzén is also the proud owner of two gardens in Stockholm (one for the summer and one for the winter), which is a bit of a unique thing to do in the Northern part of the world. His ingredients inspire his cooking, and sourcing his own produce allows the restaurant to be 100% self-sufficient.
Although his native Sweden is best known for its seafood, as is the case with all Scandinavian countries, Chef Frantzén is quite adept at vegetarian cooking. As his restaurant found itself on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list yet again this year, where his standout dish was listed as Satio Tempestas (a vegetarian dish consisting of 40 Vegetables from Garden). It’s hardly surprising, as that’s one of the oldest dishes at the restaurant, and is considered a signature dish. In fact, Chef Frantzén has always made sure to include a good spread of vegetarian dishes on his menu, ever since the opening of the restaurant in 2008.
Much of Chef Frantzén’s love for vegetarian cooking was developed five years before that, when he was working at L’Arpége in Paris under culinary legend and master of vegetables, Alain Passard. “All chefs that have ever worked for him have green fingers, so it has always been a big part of my menus and my cooking ever since then,” he says, when discussing his time there.
While working with vegetables is a regular routine for him, he’s happy to see that more chefs have started embracing the idea over the years. “I think there are a lot of chefs nowadays that are doing vegetable based menus,” according to him. ”And when I talk to my colleagues all over the world I believe they are of the same understanding. Mother Earth is not doing very well and people are more aware now – and it’s time to react.”
While we’re on the subject of protecting the planet, I ask Chef Frantzén about his thoughts on minimizing food wastage. He tells us that being able to source his own ingredients, many of which are quite expensive, forces us to keep waste to a minimum. “At the end of the day we are running a company. I am responsible for hundreds of people who are going to get a paycheck and go and pay their bills and feed their kids. So to be able to keep that going we need to control our food cost, and that comes down to waste. It’s something we talk about and work with every day – it’s part of a chef’s life.”
Our conversation eventually turns to Enigma and if the concept ties into that of his own restaurant. According to Chef Frantzén, there is at least one dish from every year of the restaurant’s existence, so the entire meal essentially tells his culinary story, hence the name “The Journey of a Nordic Chef.”
As a lot of Chef Frantzén’s dishes rely on freshly picked seasonal ingredients, it won’t be possible to recreate something like the Satio Tempestas. At present, most of his produce is being imported, with very little local sourcing. However, Chef Frantzén informs us that he plans to open a restaurant in Dubai toward the end of the year, which is definitely something to look forward to.
My appetite is thoroughly whetted by now, so I’m glad to get my culinary journey underway. We begin with a selection of canapés, of which a Carrot Macaron filled with corn, truffle cream and dried apple is a definite highlight.
Deep fried white moss with mushroom, burnt hay and almond cream is an interesting take on sushi, but getting two variations on the same dish is a bit of a disappointment. However, a triple dose of asparagus picks things back up. White German asparagus, served as an asparagus and cabbage puree with asparagus sauce drizzled on top, shows the versatility of the vegetable.
Chef Frantzén expected that to be one of my favorite dishes of the evening, but it gets edged out by an amazing onion soup that happens to be a favorite of his as well as the rest of my table (yes, it is served to the meat eaters as well)! Roasted onion cream, roasted almond milk and a topping of whipped cream perfumed with Swedish liquorice add several potent layers of flavor. It’s served alongside traditional Swedish “knackerbrod” (crackers) made out of wholemeal rye flour and a creamy homemade butter, which the waiter reveals as a mixture of whipped butter, sour cream and herbs. The chef claims that people don’t usually miss bread during his meals, but I have to admit that I kind of do.
Asparagus shows up at the table again, this time baked in butter foam. It’s balanced out by several other flavor dimensions, including toasted pistachios, saffron curry cream and edible flowers. As it’s currently asparagus season, it’s not too surprising to see it highlighted so prominently, but I would have preferred to see some other ingredients get showcased instead for added variety.
Cabbage root, for example, is not a commonly used ingredient, and I’m intrigued to find it sitting neatly in the center of a plate, wreathed by seasonal greens. The root has been braised for two days, tenderizing it and infusing it with flavor. The addition of an earthy and pungent mushroom broth makes it even better, and though it could also use some bread for dipping, I just drink it like soup because it’s so good.
The journey takes an unexpected left turn when we’re confronted with a fresh green apple sorbet (made at the table) that’s not one of Chef Frantzén’s dishes. Perhaps it was designed as a vegan alternative, but it’s a bit odd nonetheless. More oddness ensues thanks to sticky beetroot with berries, vinegar and liquorice mousse. It’s an unusual flavor combination and my palate isn’t used to the idea of beetroot as a dessert; I also find the liquorice to be a bit overpowering.
Chef Frantzén’s take on the chocolate sphere is much more suitable for me, though it is unusual to see such a dish at a high-end restaurant. Smoked ice cream and tar syrup, a mixture made using pine extract, create a potent, smoky flavor combination. Our meal eventually comes full circle with another macaroon, this time with cloudberry and thyme, ending the way we began.
It’s been an interesting journey through Chef Frantzén’s culinary life, and while I did find there to be a few bumps along the way in my humble vegetarian opinion, the ride was still worthwhile. I am certainly very curious to unravel Enigma’s next big experience in a few months.Sumati Menda
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