Swedish Chef Takes The Cake, and the Prize

On a brisk, late-winter morning, the warm, hearty scent of rich chicken stock wafts through the open door of a tiny kitchen in a central part of Stockholm known as Kungsholmen - King's Isle.

Three hundred years ago, Swedish royalty used to hunt in the woods that were here. Today its narrow, slightly scruffy streets are home to the city's police headquarters, a few tacky shops, and a restaurant named Bon Lloc, Catalonian for "Good Place."

But no matter. Droves of customers are packing the restaurant every night to pass judgment on the culinary works of Mathias Dahlgren, a young Swede who recently earned the title of world's top chef.

By 8:30 a.m., Mr. Dahlgren's starched white chef's jacket is already stained from the morning's work. Since winning this year's coveted Bocuse d'Or, the French gastronomy prize, in January in Lyon, France, Dahlgren has taken to spending all-nighters at his new, lemon sorbet-colored, 40-seat restaurant - cooking in his kitchen, and occasionally sleeping in his office.

"This is no two-star restaurant," he says. "The neighborhood doesn't have the quality for it. [But] I want this restaurant to have a feeling of a classic restaurant."

Some customers go to Bon Lloc (pronounced "Bon Jacques") expecting Dahlgren to serve up the esoteric, high-brow creations that won him his prestigious award: Steamed and Glazed Norwegian Cod Medallions on a Bed of Fried Cod Liver, Cod Tongues and Pilgrim Muscles, with a side of Lobster and Vegetable Ragu.

Nor will customers find the traditional Swedish fare he grew up on - root vegetables, fish, beef, and lots of potatoes. Rather, Dahlgren creates what he calls "modern European food," cuisine often based on Spanish and Italian dishes: Gaelic Fish with Seafood Risotto; Duck with Citrus Salsa and Potato Chips; and Grilled Sole with Spinach and Lemon Polenta, for example.

Dahlgren's major influence came from the years he spent at a small hotel in Ibiza, Spain, where he soaked up the culture, grew his own herbs, and spent two to three hours a day doing the marketing for the restaurant.

"I've always been interested in Mediterranean food. I've always liked the simpleness and the rich flavors," Dahlgren says. "There the vegetables taste of the sun; the onions are sweet and have a rich flavor."

So how do you win the coveted competition started by celebrated French chef Paul Bocuse, besting 21 other top chefs from as many countries?

For Dahlgren, it meant a relentless drive to perfect his skills and try innovative combinations. It also meant a decade of increasingly ambitious restaurant gigs, including the posh Sergel Plaza Hotel in Stockholm and opening Fredsgatan (named Sweden's restaurant of the year in 1994) with Bocuse d'Or 1995 silver medalist, Melker Andersson.

"There are a lot of chefs who are as good as I am but maybe I am more stubborn," Dahlgren says, assessing his skills. "If I decide to do something, I try hard to do it."

That's accurate, if perhaps an understatement. Dahlgren spent the better part of a year inventing and testing recipes and perfecting them. His assistant in the competition, chef Nicolas Diamantoglou, took to peeling 45 pounds of carrots a day to gain the speed and dexterity needed to keep the two chefs within the five-hour time limit of the competition.

The rules were: Make one meal for 12 out of a leg of ham, another out of some cod. Garnish each dish with three garnishes and use only one oven.

"There was a journalist who heard that Nicolas peeled nearly 45 pounds of carrots [one day] just to train. And she thought that was so crazy. And I said, 'Why is that crazy?' If that means you peel [about 45 pounds] of carrots Sunday night to win and that's the difference between second or third place or winning, that's nothing."

One and a half months before the competition officials changed the fish from cod to skrei, a specific Norwegian cod that lives very far north in the country. Dahlgren opted for his unusual dish, but based it on classic recipes.

"Maybe two or three weeks a year, all the skrei come to northern Norway to spawn. So then [the Norwegians] eat this [fish] with the liver, with the tongue - everything. It's a tradition."

To those who know Dahlgren, it's no surprise that he won the award after which one chef said, "There is no more to win."

Ten years ago, Dahlgren competed with his class from cooking school in a contest in Norway. Before his class won, his teacher hovered over the students until Dahlgren finally told him to sit down and stop worrying.

"He knew exactly what to do. He was very ambitious," recalls Dieter Knobloch, a teacher of Dahlgren's at the Vstra Gymnasiet Restaurang cooking school in Umea, Sweden.

These days, Dahlgren's life is about growing into the very big shoes that accompany the foot-long Bocuse d'Or sculpture of golden forks that is displayed in his restaurant: There are opportunities that come with notoriety. But there is also an endless stream of those ready to sample his cooking.

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