“A growing number of cooks and sommeliers head abroad to enlarge their scope of experiences. Last autumn I hang out in Paris a lot where I got to know a Swedish chef who turned into a good friend. That’s when I got the idea to wrote about Swedes working abroad in different corners of the world – Swedish Abroad.”
David Kjellstenius is head chef at Au Passage in Paris. With his longish curly hair he looks a bit like Marco Pierre White. Slime upper body, dressed in Manchester pants and a sloppy shirt with some patterns on it. A bit late, David rolled down the stairs of his flat in the Oberkampf district. We met up at the restaurant, had a coffee and discussed life in Paris, the food scene, its evolution, and what future has in store.”
DP: Bonjour David, where and what are you up to right now?
Right now my fiancé and I have just settles down in our new apartment in the Eleventh in Paris, it’s 35 m2, which is big for Paris, it’s only a four minute walk from Au Passage where I’ll start as the head chef from on after the Christmas holidays. Very exciting!
DP: Have you always wanted to work with food?
DK: Not really. I’ve always enjoyed eating and was very curious as a child, but I got into this line of work because even though I was not bad in school, I was extremely bored. So when the time came to choose a line of education, cooking felt interesting. The first year was fun but then I got bored again. It wasn’t until the third year doing an internships at Restaurant Gondolen and East in Stockholm when I really started to love the restaurant scene.
DP: Why did you move to Paris in the first place?
DK: I actually didn’t care much about traveling and wanted to start my own restaurant straight away, but I knew I was too inexperienced and needed more inspiration to bring something new to the scene. I had spent a couple of vacations in Nice, and I’m completely in love with the place, so the plan was to move there, alternatively to some legendary restaurant in the countryside. Michel Bras being the first choice. But as it turned out neither Bras or Le Chantecler in Hôtel Negresco replied so I booked a 10-day Airbnb in Nice and flied down with a stack of CVs in my bag. At the airport on the way however I found a job offer at Le Fumoir in Paris on a chefs’ community Facebook group called Kockskallar. I gave them a call and it felt very promising. I ended up simply spending my days in Nice eating/bathing/drinking before taking the train to Paris.
DP: What’s you favorite food memory?
DK: First time I ate at Le Chantecler. It’s a two-starred restaurant in the super classy, southern French style Hôtel Negresco just on the beach in Nice. The colors in the dining room are pink, lime green and gold, which I normally would detest but somehow it was just beautiful. It was the first time I ate food of that caliber and it was really a revelation. Every dish was perfection and unique compared to what I’d tasted before. What struck me most was that the waiters weren’t stuffy at all, they were just fully focused on what they we were doing all the time, almost dramatically. Nothing was more important to them then to open the wine bottle perfectly or making sure there were no crumbs on the table, all the time, with a genuine smile on their face.
I’ve eaten at several two and three-starred restaurants since then like L’Arpege and Maison Troisgros which all have been fantastic but never as good as that first time. Only one other time I’ve felt a similar kind of dedication, that was at Sushi Okuda. It’s a sushi bar connected to the one-star Paris Okuda close to Champs Élysées.
DP: Describe your style of cooking, what inspires you, and what do you feel more is most important for you from a guest’s perspective vs a chef’s perspective?
DK: In cooking I like simplicity and spontaneity. I like going to the market in the morning, spending the day figuring out what to cook and how to combine the things I’ve bought. Then serve them as natural as possible. I consider that as my goal. I want to have my guests feel that what I feel when I see all the pristine veggies at the market.
I’m also very visually driven. I love vibrant colors, monochrome dishes, splashing purées on plates, conceptual themes etc. I dislike consistency. Rather than every plate being the same and “perfect” I prefer every plate to be unique and imperfect. I like to be in the moment while plating. Rethinking everything all the time.
In Paris there’s a farmer called Joël Thiébault. He has a huge biodynamic farm just outside Paris, four days a week he brings his produce to markets around Paris and his vegetables are like nothing I’ve seen before. Not only are they of perfect quality, he has every kind of vegetable possible in that season and plenty of them too, still being reasonably inexpensive. Being organic, local and seasonal is ridiculously easy when you have a supplier like Joël nearby.
DP: Do you have any favorite ingredients at the moment?
DK: My latest source of inspiration is the different varieties of pumpkins from Thiébault. There’s one called citrouille, a small green pumpkin with really intense and smooth buttery flavor. I served it last night with my other favorite, ox heart cooked medium rare, some colorful Swiss chard, hazelnuts and a sauce of pork stock and brown butter.
We use a lot of nose-to-tail meat at Au Passage because the current chef Edward-Delling Williams is English and has worked at S:t John’s for several years. That’s something I will continue doing because ox heart, duck hearts, lamb’s tongue, pig’s head, pig’s blood etc. are all undeniably very tasty and good for the kitchen margins. We also get whole lambs and half pigs from a farm called Ferme de Clavisy just north of Paris, which are of fantastic quality, and then we just put piece by piece on the menu.
DP: I’ve been in Paris many times and I have to say the food markets are far more interesting then in Stockholm or elsewhere in Sweden. Where’s your favorite market and why is it that?
DK: Joël Thiébault’s stand, of course!
Otherwise I think the markets are very basic, same quality as in the supermarket.
DP: So you are taking over the kitchen at Au Passage after Christmas, how does that feel? What do you want to achieve?
DK: It feels awesome! It’s been a long way and I’ve felt ready for some time now. I’m quite the control freak so it’ll feel really good to be in the driver’s seat and organize everything my way.
The first thing on the agenda is the New Year’s dinner. Normally we do sharing plates varying from 6-13 euros (very, very cheap) and a table of two might order 4-6 plates but on New Year we’ll have 50 guests, each eating a 9 course menu for 200 euros! Wine included but still. It’ill be a real challenge but I must say that composing the menu is really fun.
DP: Do you see your Swedish background as a advantages in the French Kitchen?
DK: Definitely, I use a lot of techniques I’ve learnt from working at Restaurant Den Gyldene Freden.
Curing salmon, frying chanterelles perfectly crispy, making the smoothest potato purée, pickling fennel, smoking mayo and smoking in general… some other things too like burnt cabbage and blackened carrots to name a few. The more complicated techniques that are common in Sweden are complimentary to the more simple and natural way I’m going for now. Also, no offense, but the French are terrible at organization. My Swedish sense of structure and efficiency will help me a lot I’m sure
DP: What’s great about Paris, what do you have there that you can’t find anywhere else in the world?
DK: Many of the restaurants are very small and personal, which let’s the chefs become more creative. In Sweden the restaurant are bigger, the owners are more distant and the chefs are more concerned about making money and keeping all the customers happy. From what I’ve heard it’s similar in the US. The chefs in Paris are more confident.
DP: If you can pick your three favorite places and things to eat when you have a day off, what would they be?
DK: I like to go to the so-called néo-bistros but since they are quite pricey I’ll choose the more simple places for my list. I wish I could name three restaurants that served super healthy, vegetable oriented food in a nice atmosphere but unfortunately there are basically no casual restaurants in Paris that have a vegetable focused many. It’s almost like all the fantastic veggies are reserved for restaurants doing tasting menus. Paris does have some great hamburger joints.
1: PNY/Paris New York in Marais. Just a perfect burger. I chose the one with cheese, onion ring and barbeque sauce. Very straightforward and delicious. House made buns and quality meat from France that’s ground on order. Preferably served raw.
2: Sanukiya: A Japanese udon place serving udon noodle soups among other thing. If you’re really hungry a Kamo Udon with Umeboshi and Onsen Tamago will definitely make you satisfied, duck and noodle soup with dried prune and 64 degree egg.
3: Simone Le Resto: A small 20 seat, inconspicuous restaurant in the calm 13th arrondissement where I lived during my first months in Paris. Open kitchen, 25 euro three-course lunch, sharing plates in the evening, not so different from Au Passage, 10 entrées and 2 main courses, always fresh and interesting. It’s probably the restaurant I’ve gone to the most times in Paris but unfortunately they’re brilliant chef left in October and I haven’t been back since, so I can’t guarantee that the quality is the same now.
Last but not least…Will you open your own place some day and return to Sweden?
That’s exactly what I’ll do.
The plan is now to work at Au Passage for something like two years, then after a quick move to Tokyo, then return to Sweden and open Kjellstenius Kök together with my close friend Erik. We’ve been planning this for the last couple of years and we both are determined. Erik will take care of the finances, and my fiancé Emi is also on the team. She is Japanese and has worked as a waitress in two and three starred restaurants in both Japan and France. I feel that the biggest challenge will be to find suppliers. I want to continue working with only biodynamic vegetables and whole, well-treated animals. It’ll probably be hard but I’m sure it’s possible.
By: Palle / Translated: Edith