Swedish chef Tareq Taylor on going back to basics

It took a road trip 10 years ago to open Swedish chef Tareq Taylor's eyes to the lush produce in his home country.

He recalls going to San Sebastian, Spain, and being told by chef Juan Mari Arzak of the three-Michelin-starred Arzak restaurant how lucky he is to be living in the Scandinavian country.

Taylor, 45, says: "I wanted to see if what he said was true. So when I got back from San Sebastian, I took my car and drove from farm to farm and beach to beach. I found the most amazing produce and it made me feel like I've been blind this whole time.

"I've been a chef since I was 16, but it just means I create the menu by calling my suppliers. But my suppliers aren't part of nature, they aren't picking seasonal wild herbs or looking at wild geese."

So when he was approached for ideas for a new television show four years ago, he suggested showcasing local farmers and their culture, as well as the very trendy Nordic cuisine, which features seasonal produce and covers food from countries such as Finland, Norway, and Sweden.

The result was Tareq Taylor's Nordic Cookery, which runs on the Asian Food Channel (StarHub TV Channel 435) this week from Monday to Friday at midnight.

The chef was in town last week for the first time and he visited Tiong Bahru Market, and also feasted on sambal stingray and chilli crab.

He regaled SundayLife! with stories from his travels working on the show, which included a visit to the Faroe Islands, which are part of Denmark, for "incredible seafood" such as langoustines, sea urchins and mussels.

He says: "At the Faroe Islands, they started serving local lamb at a restaurant only two years ago, and last year was the first time they served local seafood. They don't have a lot of food so you don't analyse food. When it's on the table, you shut up and you eat, because you don't know when you are going to eat next."

On another trip to Jokkmokk - in the province of Lapland, Sweden - he cooked with the women and hunted with the men.

Speaking in awe of his experiences, he says: "Even though we are living in a highly developed country, where we speak about organic produce, we don't realise that to some people, this is just nature, with no labels and no governing organisations."

On his travels, he has eaten everything from puffin, which he says "tastes like fish" because of its diet, to snake's heart in Vietnam, but wrinkles his nose in disgust when he describes eating salted fermented herring in Sweden.

"I ate it with hard bread, chopped raw onions and sour cream. It has a wonderful flavour, but the stench - it's like someone died in the room," he says in mock horror.

Born to a Palestinian father and half-English, half-Swedish mother, he fell in love with cooking when his grandfather gave him a knife and apron at age 10.

He worked at various pizzerias and restaurants from age 16 and opened his first restaurant, Restaurant Trappaner, in his hometown of Malmo in 2000.

He sold the business in 2008 after his partner left.

"As soon as the fine-dining label came on, it attracted a different crowd. There were too many pretentious people who thought they were so much better than everyone else," he says.

"They can't eat normal food and drink normal wine without analysing it. For f***'s sake, relax and enjoy the company and good food. I got sick of the gourmet industry with too many stuck-up chefs. I got sick of people sitting with notepads and cameras. I'm more about the warmth around the table where you can bring the family."

Now, he runs the Slottstradgardens Kafe (Castle Garden Cafe) in the Royal Park in Malmo. The seasonal restaurant, which has a garden the size of a football field, opens only from April to September.

By the end of this month, Taylor, who is also a cookbook author, will open a food studio-cumrestaurant called The Cookery, which opens one day a week for 20 diners to "come to my house".

Diners will be able to interact with him in the kitchen and even help to cook and plate the food. It is open for classes and private functions for the rest of the week.

He says: "At the previous restaurant, we were into technically advanced food - all the foams and gels. Now, when the food lands in front of you, you don't wonder what it is, you wonder how it was cooked.

"There is a shift away from fine dining. People like to eat around the same table and have sharing platters. Next time, tables will have herbs for diners to pluck and season food themselves. They will get more involved in the process of flavouring food."

With the spotlight on new Nordic cuisine, he also notes a newfound pride in local produce that was "not there 15 years ago".

He says: "Ten years ago, organic milk was always on the shelf. Now it's out of stock. So there is demand for more organic milk producers as well as small producers to get their products on the shelf.

"Organic produce is no longer a class issue, in which people think only the rich can afford it. With more competition, prices go down."

Taylor is married to a 45-year-old teacher and they have an 11-year-old daughter, Ellen, who is now a contestant on the second season of reality cooking competition Junior MasterChef Sweden.

He says with pride: "I wasn't too keen because I wasn't sure how she would deal with her food being judged critically. But so far, she's fine. I can tell her recipes over the phone and when I get home, the dish is ready."

At home, he also has his own vegetable garden and grows everything from potatoes to pumpkin as well as a variety of raspberries. There is also an outdoor kitchen with a wood-fired oven.

He says: "Ten years ago, a restaurant growing its own vegetables was unheard of. Now, many people want to get soil under their fingers, watch their seeds grow and say, 'It's my baby'."


Tareq Taylor's Nordic Cookery runs on the Asian Food Channel (StarHub TV Channel 435) this week from Monday to Friday at midnight.

This article was first published on Oct 19, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.