Michael Björklund: ‘Being a chef is crazy work’

Åland is a special place. Chef Michael Björklund tells The Local how he incorporates its uniqueness into his cooking – and what more Nordic chefs need to do to put their food on the global map.

Michael Björklund: 'Being a chef is crazy work'
Photo: Smakbyn

While the Åland Islands are an autonomous part of Finland, the 29,000 residents of the Baltic Sea archipelago speak Swedish. Throughout its history the islands have been handed over between Finland, Sweden – and even Russia – time and time again.

But while identity may be a complicated issue in Åland, food is not.

Even as a child growing up in the Åland Islands, Michael Björklund always knew exactly where his food came from.

“When you live on a small island you live right there with the animals, the fish, and everything. You know exactly how you’re going to raise an animal, kill it, and how you’re going to prepare it and then eat it.”

And that connection to nature and the environment is a pretty good foundation if you want to become a chef.

“You learn the basics and every step along the way,” Björklund explains. “And my parents also had a food background, so I’ve been working in the kitchen my whole life.”

He catered his first dinner, for 65 people, when he was just 11 years old. And today Björklund is one of the most famous chefs in the Nordics.

“I learned the art of smoking food in Finland, and I learned the Swedish way of cooking in Gothenburg, where I worked with several star chefs,” Björklund recalls. “And then I worked for a while with fine-dining, but I didn’t like it. I like good food with real ingredients for nice people who come into the restaurant just to have fun. And that’s what we do best in the Nordics.”

'It's not like a regular restaurant'

In 2002, Björklund moved with his family back to Åland – “it’s the best place you can be as a kid” – and four years ago he opened Smakbyn, ‘Taste Village’.

“We started thinking about how to do something special on Åland. It’s a very small island, and we know all the producers – they’re our friends,” Björklund says.

That close connection from producer to plate is the foundation of Smakbyn.

Read more Tales from the Top of the World

“It’s not like a regular restaurant; it’s more like a small village,” Björklund explains. “You can come learn where the meat and fish comes from and how it’s prepared. You can speak with the chefs and then sit down and eat very nice things from right here on Åland.”

That means plenty of fish, lamb, pork, and vegetables. The key, he says, is to keep it simple.

“Our menu is very basic, but we use the best ingredients,” Björklund says. “Our perch fish is the best we can get, and we fry it with butter, perhaps with the great asparagus we have here on Åland. And we have our fresh home-grown nypotatis, and butter from the local dairy here on Åland, made just like in the olden days. You can taste the difference.”

It’s the classic Nordic way of thinking and cooking – using local products whenever possible, following the seasons and enhancing sustainability. But of course that means the winter menu can be a bit of a challenge.

“In the winter we don’t have much to work with. We have carrots and turnips but not fresh herbs or things like that,” Björklund says. “But we use what we can get. The Baltic herring is wonderful in January, for instance.”

'I don't like tossing food'

And Björklund’s respect for natural resources and sustaining the environment extends beyond fruits and veggies on his restaurant’s plates. He’s rethinking what types of fish can be eaten and enjoyed anywhere.

“There are a lot of Baltic fish that we don’t really eat here, like bream and sculpin,” Björklund explains. “The fishermen just throw them away. But I don’t like tossing food.”

Rather than wasting the undesired daily catch, Björklund and his fisherman friends are turning to other cultures to find those who do appreciate it.

“We’ve realized that customers from Poland, Romania, and Latvia tend to like that kind of fish. So maybe it’s possible to still make good food from it, sell it, and export it as something nice,” Björklund muses. “It’s a project I’m working on now; it’s not so big yet, but we’re trying.”

But even as the chef embarks on his own new culinary endeavors, he worries about the future of the Nordic kitchen.

'What we do, we do very well'

“Nordic food is special in its simplicity, and Nordic chefs are incredibly skilled,” he says. “They can do anything. But many culinary schools are closing down. They’re not getting enough applicants. It’s a bit of a problem.”

Part of the issue is that young aspiring chefs are thrown into stressful restaurant environments before they’re ready, he says.

“Some start culinary school when they’re very young, and it’s a three-year commitment. That’s a long time for a young person,” he says. “And then they see behind the scenes at a restaurant, and people are screaming and running around, and they say, ‘Oh, shit, this is crazy.’ They get scared.”

And Björklund admits that to succeed in the business you do have to be a little bit… different.

“It’s crazy work,” he states.

“But it’s rewarding. Especially here on Åland. When you come here, you can really taste Åland. We might be small, and we can’t do everything – but what we do, we do very well.”

Click here to discover more Nordic stories

This article was produced by The Local Client Studio and sponsored by the Nordic Council of Ministers. 

All photos: Smakbyn



Nordic chef sets up world’s northernmost Michelin restaurant in Greenland

You can only get there by boat or helicopter, but Michelin-starred chef Poul Andrias Ziska hopes his restaurant in remote Greenland, far above the Arctic Circle, is worth the journey.

Nordic chef sets up world's northernmost Michelin restaurant in Greenland

The 30-year-old chef relocated his restaurant KOKS from the Faroe Islands in mid-June, leaving behind his relatively accessible address for Ilimanaq, a
hamlet of 50 inhabitants hidden behind icebergs on the 69th parallel north.

Housed in a narrow black wooden house, one of the oldest in Greenland, the restaurant can only accommodate about 20 people per service, and experiments with local produce, including whale and seaweed, with fresh produce almost impossible to find in the harsh climate.

“We try to focus on as much Greenlandic products as possible, so everything from Greenland halibut to snow crabs to musk ox to Ptarmigan, different herbs and different berries,” the tousled-haired, bearded chef tells AFP.

Double-Michelin-starred Faroese chef of KOKS restaurant Poul Andrias Ziska is photographed outside the restaurant housed in the Poul Egedes House in Ilimanaq, Greenland on 28th June 2022

Double-Michelin-starred Faroese chef of KOKS restaurant Poul Andrias Ziska is photographed outside the restaurant housed in the Poul Egedes House in Ilimanaq, Greenland on 28th June 2022. Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

The young chef previously ran KOKS at home in the remote Faroe Islands, where he won his first star in 2017, his second in 2019, and the title of the
world’s most isolated Michelin restaurant. 

He plans to return there for a permanent installation, but explains he had always wanted to stretch his gastronomical legs in another territory in the
far north, like Iceland, Greenland or even Svalbard.

He finally chose Ilimanaq, located an hour’s boat trip from Ilulissat, the third-largest town in Greenland and famous for its huge glacier.

Greenland, the world’s largest island, is an autonomous Danish dependent territory.

Local products

“We just found it more suitable, more fun to do something completely different before we move back in our permanent restaurant,” he tells AFP from
his kitchen, set up in a trailer outside the house with the dining area.

With 20 courses, the extensive tasting menu will delight the taste buds for some 2,100 kroner ($280), excluding wine and drinks.

“The menu is exquisite and sends you to the far north and back,” Devid Gualandris, a charmed visitor, tells AFP.

“From the whale bites to the wines, from the freshly caught fish and shellfish to the curated desserts, everything is bursting with flavour.”

While whale meat is a staple food in Greenland and Ziska’s native Faroe Islands, whaling is banned in most of the world and activists have called for
an end to the practice.

A KOKS chef prepares food at the kitchen of the restaurant housed in the Poul Egedes House in Ilimanaq, Greenland, on 28th June 2022.

A KOKS chef prepares food at the kitchen of the restaurant housed in the Poul Egedes House in Ilimanaq, Greenland, on 28th June 2022. Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

An unlikely locale for a gourmet restaurant, Ilimanaq — Greenlandic for “place of hope” — is home to a small community living in picturesque wooden
houses, next to hiking trails and more fittingly a luxury hotel, making it an ideal stopover for wealthy tourists seeking to explore new frontiers.

For Ziska, the customers in Greenland are different.

“There are a lot of people for which the number one priority is to visit Greenland and then they come to our restaurant,” he says.

“In the Faroe Islands we had mainly people interested in coming and eating at our restaurant and then obviously also visiting the Faroe Islands,” the
chef explains.

In addition to the adventurers who have already been lured by the Arctic landscape, the Greenlandic Tourist Board hopes the restaurant will also help
attract gourmet travellers.   

People get seated in a restaurant overlooking Disko Bay in Ilulissat, western Greenland, on 30th June, 2022.

People get seated in a restaurant overlooking Disko Bay in Ilulissat, western Greenland, on 30th June, 2022. Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

“The unique combination of high-level gastronomy, the inherent sustainability of the North Atlantic cuisine and the characteristic nature and resources of the Disko Bay, speaks to all our senses,” Visit Greenland’s director, Hjortur Smarason, said when announcing the arrival of KOKS.

Accommodation at the Ilimanaq Lodge, the current home of the KOKS restaurant in Ilimanaq, Greenland, where guests can watch whales and floating icebergs in the Disko Bay. Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

A long-overlooked destination, Greenland — an Arctic island territory nine times the size of the UK — welcomed more than 100,000 tourists in 2019, nearly double its population, before Covid cut the momentum.

Smarason said the presence of KOKS “is exactly what we strive for in our effort to reach a certain distinguished kind of guests”.  The restaurant is open between the 12th June and 8th September, 2022 and 2023.