Nils Norén: Master Chef and MentorMay 24, 2017
Everything from Nils Norén’s perspective starts from the diner’s seat.
A Swedish chef trained in the French tradition, Norén believes that every decision made in the kitchen has a consequence, but nothing matters if the dining experience doesn’t live up to his guests’ expectations. Because of that, he takes time to ensure every action in a restaurant – from the front of the house to the back of house and back again – comes together to delight everyone who selects that restaurant.
“To me, it’s a conscience decision,” Norén said. “I want to know everything. I didn’t only want to know only one area of the kitchen. From a general perspective, everything you put into the restaurant just matters. If I have enough knowledge, I can better create a full experience and execute it for a guest.”
For the past couple of years, Norén has been working as culinary director for Absolute Culinary by Asil, which provides restaurants food and beverage advisory and support services. Though the parent company is headquartered in Singapore, the chef continues to operate from his base in New York City, where he’s lived since arriving from Sweden in 1995 to join the culinary team at the acclaimed Aquavit restaurant.
Norén has cooked on every continent except Antarctica – but he’s still got his eye on adding that to his resume someday.
“When you step out of your comfort zone, you experience and see new ingredients and different cultures; that’s what I’ve probably learned the most,” said Norén, noting that those hands-on experiences have made him more well-rounded across multiple cuisines.
Everywhere he’s cooked, the Stockholm-born chef has found a way to build on his initial culinary lessons in his hometown Gävle culinary school to bring a touch of his heritage to everything he does. As he notes, “There’s always flavors that you can use, or techniques as well.”
A Touch of Sweden Everywhere
These days, Norén’s work calendar has him hopscotching the globe with projects to develop a beverage program for a hotel in Bali and to create the food and beverage menus for a nine-villa boutique resort in Jamaica. Right there in the Caribbean he finds one of the most beloved ingredients in Swedish baking: allspice, which grows natively in the lush tropical climate.
Thanks to his Swedish roots, Norén immediately knows how to integrate this aromatic spice – known locally there as the Jamaica pepper – into inventive dishes and even cocktails. But he’s still a Swedish chef in the native land of reggae music, which, perhaps oddly, makes him feel even more like home.
Norén talks a little more, revealing that his path to the kitchen didn’t necessarily come from holiday family dinners (though there were many) or from cooking with his grandmother. Instead, as a teen, Norén was certain he’d be a musician, as he spent his days playing guitar and percussion in a reggae band.
“At some point, I realized I wasn’t going to earn a living at this,” he said with a chuckle. “Two weeks later – really – I woke up, said I was going to culinary school, and I never looked back.”
He sees many parallels between the art of music and the art of cooking.
“You’re kind of performing for everyone dining in the restaurant,” Norén said. “When you’re in the restaurant, you get the sense of completeness. You want most of them to leave happy.”
Crossing the Atlantic to Cook in America
Norén almost didn’t decide to settle in New York.
As a reward for his efforts cooking in Sweden at a restaurant owned by the same partners as New York’s Aquavit, Norén was invited for two-week stint at the restaurant, working with another budding young chef by the name of Marcus Samuelsson.
Samuelsson eventually got the nod to head Aquavit, which was still building its name in producing the best Swedish food in America. When he needed to flesh out his culinary team, Samuelsson reached across the Atlantic and invited Norén to bring his knives back to New York.
“He expected to get a nice Swedish ‘No,’” Norén said.
Norén, however, couldn’t turn down the opportunity, which would allow him to expand exponentially, recognizing that Aquavit was pushing the envelope.
“In New York, you could put things on that menu that people would try,” he said, adding that Swedes were more reluctant to spend a lot on dining experiences.
A three-star review by then-critic Ruth Reichl of The New York Times came within months of Norén joining Samuelsson’s young team, leading to a virtual doubling of reservations on the spot.
“We were both new to New York,” Norén said. “We didn’t understand how much it would mean to get that three-star review.”
Even though he had worked in many of the finest restaurants in Stockholm – including the Michelin-starred KB (Konstnärsbaren) – Norén helped Aquavit redefine the modern upscale dining experience: A seven-course tasting course, a small-bites offering of 16 courses, some 16 tastes for a vegetarian menu.
“We did a lot of things that were ahead of the food trends,” he said.
When the Chef Becomes the Teacher
During a trip to London, Norén’s father took him to an Italian restaurant where the teenager enjoyed his entrée of spaghetti carbonara with a few simple ingredients – eggs, cheese, bacon and black paper – melding into comfort on a plate. He started reading Italian cookbooks to find the best spaghetti carbonara recipe. That might have been a hint that he would eventually end up in culinary education.
After spending time in the kitchen and directing operations for Samuelsson’s expanding restaurant empire, the MSG Group, Norén took a job as vice president at the New York-based French Culinary Institute, known today as the International Culinary Center. Not surprisingly, he presided over the Italian and pastry programs.
The school was ramping up, and Norén played an integral role as the number of programs jumped from 11 to more than 80. He also found himself rethinking his cooking, as he discovered how new techniques and technology would transform ingredients in new ways. Yet, he was cautious about not letting the show overtake the food.
“I think [molecular gastronomy] had the attention for all the wrong reasons,” he said. “The technology is good if it makes the food better. For more, if I can come up with a technology to make a steak better or a sandwich better, then that is better. Otherwise, I’m not adding to the diner’s experience.”
His career is peppered with accolades and opportunities, including competing on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” publishing a cookbook – 10 Techniques, 100 Recipes – in Sweden and writing the one-time “Cooking Matters” blog on culinary technology with a former colleague. A decade ago, fellow chefs dubbed him “The chef that should have gotten an award by now, but hasn’t,” according to a Time Out survey.
Norén shakes it off, saying the cooking never has been about him. Instead, he points out former students who went on to be recognized nationally as top young chefs.
“Those are the things that matter for me,” he said, embracing his role as mentor. “That’s better than any award you can get.”