Artist Carsten Höller likes to confuse us. From May 3 also in its own restaurant. He calls it culinary ‘brutalism’. We tasted in Stockholm.
A total of 35 rare songbirds: this is the first thing you notice when you enter Carsten Höller in Stockholm. The Brussels-born artist keeps them in cages set up all over his apartment. So you constantly hear the sound of fluttering wings, as if you are in a scene from Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’. And the whistle, of course, indefinitely. On a counter stands a bowl full of small, angry twisting worms.
We can reassure you: We are not in Höller’s new restaurant, which will open its doors on 3 May. As the restaurant kitchen is not yet completely finished, we meet the artist-restaurateur for a tasting lunch in Höller’s apartment in central Stockholm, in a historic building opposite Johanneskirken. Packed with art and books, the apartment did not even have a kitchen when Höller moved in, but now it has an impressive stainless steel cooking station. Chef Stefan Eriksson from Brutalisten – because that’s what the new restaurant will be called – and his team are already preparing many small dishes that are briefly on fire. Eriksson is a former ‘chef of the year’ in Sweden, who subsequently founded a food laboratory that allows chefs to collaborate with creatives from other sectors.
Who is Carsten Holler?
- Born 1961 in Brussels.
- Lives and works in Stockholm.
- Raised in Belgium with German parents working for the European Commission.
- Studied agricultural science at the University of Kiel, Germany.
- Obtained a PhD degree with a study of how insects communicate with odors.
- Worked as a scientist and also started artistic multidisciplinary works in the early 1990s.
- Made headlines with an installation with live pigs, ‘A House for Pigs and People’, on Documenta X in 1997.
- His most famous works are the Upside-Down Mushroom Room at the Fondazione Prada in Milan in 2000 and at Moca in Los Angeles in 2005. Or its slides, such as the ‘Vitra Slide Tower’ on the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany.
- Represented Sweden at the Venice Biennale with Miriam Bäckström in 2005.
- Often works with public participation.
One ingredient per plate
Höller did not look far for the restaurant name: ‘Brutalisten’ refers to the ‘brutalist’ kitchen manifesto, which the artist wrote one beautiful morning in 2018. That manifesto consists of ten strict rules. One of them reads: ‘Raw or quickly heated food is ideal.’ Another principle in this brutalist kitchen: ‘decorative elements on the plate are forbidden’.
While Höller’s culinary experiment has nothing to do with brutalist architecture, the artist says he finds inspiration in its straightforward, austere approach. Such as: each dish may consist of only one ingredient. For purity, that’s what it’s all about here.
‘Ultra-orthodox brutalism is a raw oyster because you do nothing about it and you do not add anything to it.’
In other words, combining ingredients is out of the question. So for a dish with chicken, chef Eriksson will only use… chicken, but also everything from that chicken: meat, feathers, eggs, bones. And no, the eggs do not necessarily come from the chicken simmering in the pan. Call it a gray area, or one of the many arbitrary exceptions that Höller makes.
You can also add salt and water, yes. Höller circumvents these ‘violations’ of the purity rule by using a sliding classification scale in his menu. “Semi-brutalism allows for a minimum of ingredients, but no spices,” he says. ‘Like pasta with pikeperch or risotto of gooseberries. Ultra-Orthodox brutalism is a raw oyster because you do not do anything about it and you do not add anything to it. ‘
On the menu at Brutalister, the dishes are classified according to these rules. Not to be dogmatic, but rather to showcase every single ingredient.
Carsten Höller was once called ‘Willy Wonka of Contemporary Art’. He is best known for installations that take the viewer on adventures, such as the twisted slides in Tate Modern in 2006. Or the room with inverted mushrooms, with which he created a furore in 2000 at the Fondazione Prada in Milan.
Höller likes to provoke and play with ideas. In his art. And from next week also in his restaurant. His bottom line is that we all start as breastfeedingers because we are fed breast milk. And he gets excited when he looks at all the possibilities, whether it’s brutalistic drinks based on apples, mushrooms or fish he comes up with (a kind of ‘cola meets colatura’, Italian fish sauce with anchovy extract).
“Even at Noma, they can not help but throw a flower on the plate. And not just flowers. Sometimes even … music. You see a lot these days. ‘
The idea for the brutalist kitchen stems largely from Höller’s own way of cooking. He is an avid gourmet, avoiding recipes and buying only impeccable products, which he simply cooks. The Swedish habit of spreading mayonnaise on food makes him confused. By the way, you better not let him toot about garnish. At a restaurant, Höller inevitably grumbles: ‘It annoys me that chefs throw too many things together, as if that’s the essence of cooking. While it just lifts the taste of the ingredients. ‘
Does it not matter to him that the end result tastes delicious? ‘It often does not taste as good as it would if the chef mastered himself a little better’, Höller counters immediately. ‘Even at Noma, which was again named the world’s best restaurant last year, they can not help but throw a flower on the plate. And not just flowers. Sometimes even … music. You see everything these days. While you also want to keep quiet sometimes, do not you? ‘
Less is more
Our tasting session at Brutalisten consists of six dishes. We start with a bowl of mussels from Bohuslän, a place in western Sweden. Soft, lightly smoked, sober and without the classic garlic and cream. This is followed by a plate of broccoli with various parts of the vegetables fermented, steamed, grilled or sprinkled with roasted broccoli seeds. “I’m sure some will say this tastes pretty broccoli-like,” says Höller, who seamlessly describes the interplay between sweet, grassy and bitter.
Then it’s time for boiled and partially grilled lobster, so strong and concentrated that I feel like a spoonful of mayonnaise to counteract the taste. We only know what Höller thinks about this. So no mayonnaise.
A dish of chestnut mushrooms, whose mushrooms are steamed, smoked, fermented or stored raw, is reminiscent of a strong mushroom soup with cream. The guinea fowl with grilled heart and breast, confit legs with the claw still attached, and a mousse of eggs, liver, meat and skins: this dish serves everything you could ask for from deliciously cooked poultry.
But it is the cod that blows us away: some of the fish is grilled, some of it poached, and the sauce is made from the head of Norwegian skrei, a variety known for its powerful taste. So intensely salty that we get dizzy, and even get emotionally charged with every bite.
Smokes like heretics
The location of the restaurant will also make us dizzy, Höller predicts. For instead of a delicious, concretely brutalistic space, he chose a warmly decorated place with 24 envelopes and ten eateries in the bar area. On the menu in terms of decor: pink neon signs, art by the American neon artist Dan Flavin and the Congolese painter Moke, as well as a ceiling painting by the artist Ana Benaroya, which Höller describes as ‘big naked women who drink and smoke like heretics’.
Is not Benaroya’s work at odds with the brutalist concept? ‘The ceiling painting emphasizes fun’, says Höller. “This has to be a place where people come to have fun.”
Brutalists opens on May 3, Government Gatan 71, Stockholm. Reservations can be made via brutalisten.com