Chef Christopher Haatuft and Lysverket: Forging Innovative Culinary Trends in Norway
The fine dining establishment is one of the few in the world that resides inside a major art museum. That alone is fairly unusual, but the culinary creations, presentation, and environment of this restaurant is what really warrants a closer look.
First, the name: Lysverket. If what Robert Frost once said, "Poetry is what gets lost in the translation," is true, then this is a great example. Lys means light and verket means building — as it was a building that was the source of city electricity in Bergen. So quite literally, it means building of light. Taking a few poetic leaps, it could indeed infer a restaurant whose culinary creations create hints of new taste awareness, of light and delight when eating.
The restaurant itself has a minimalist interior design plan — with uncomplicated décor, seating and lights. The simplicity allows customers to focus on and savor the exceptional food and taste combinations of its Executive Chef, Christopher Haatuft. Though new to Bergen — opening in June of this year — Lysverket has already received exceptional reviews in the local and national press.
We came to Lysverket last month, on the final evening of a great press trip, a time when we were already filled with many days of great memories and exceptional food. While superior food was to be expected, there was something about this restaurant that launched our dining experience to a completely different level. I asked the name of the Chef and was told it was Christopher Haatuft, who had apprenticed at Per Se and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York — two multi-awarded restaurants, with the latter being an important voice in the farm-to-table and slow food movements in America.
The food we had at Lysverket (the taste, texture, and color combinations) made us all realize that we were in a restaurant whose fame was just beginning. I recently interviewed Christopher Haatuft and discovered some new things about his background and interests, and how he sees Lysverket evolving.
JustLuxe: When did you first start to cook? Was it out of interest or necessity?
Christopher Haatuft: I moved in with some friends at 17 and it was nothing more than an excuse to have parties and pretend to be adults. We cooked for each other all the time and had our staple dishes that we liked to do. My mom is from Tennessee, so I made chili and other stuff she taught me.
Through mutual friends I met the great, and sadly late, Ingvar Rasmussen. He had a concept he called Kokkofonen, which loosely means "The Chef Hotline." He would come to people's homes and cook them dinner, in exchange for being part of the dinner party. He invited me to join him and assist him in the cooking. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of all things food and introduced me to the concept of great cooking. He was then asked to find a writer for a big newspaper and suggested I write food articles for them. So at the ripe age of 21, I was given a blank canvas over two pages every Saturday to write about food and present recipes. This led me to being invited to open a cafe/bar as the chef and co-owner. After a couple of years it tanked and I realized that I needed a formal cooking education. At 23 I started apprenticing.
JL: When did you first really become interested in culinary arts, and where were you educated?
CH: My education was through the standard Norwegian apprenticeship program. I apprenticed at three different restaurants here in Bergen for a period of a little over two years, but finished at Alinea in Chicago.
JL: Who were your mentors, and what did you learn from them about food creation, great food presentation and plating, and taste associations?
CH: As far as actual people who have taught me about food, Ingvar left the strongest impression. He showed me the appreciation of the simple, small ingredients and showed me that you could use your imagination when creating dishes.
Also, Hanne Frosta from Hanne på Høyden here in Bergen introduced me to the slow food idea, and then later the local food movement. She has been a champion of small-scale producers in a country that could easily be swallowed by giant supermarket chains.
Bergen did not have a lot of great restaurants at the time, so my inspiration came from reading the magazine, Art Culinaire. I remember an issue that featured Chef Grant Achatz and Chef Wylie Dufresne in the U.S. I was following the opening of Alinea in Chicago, immediately emailed Achatz and got a stage (a culinary apprenticeship taken on by a chef-in-training). Seeing how that place was operated, even only for a brief period, changed my level of ambition and showed me that simple things done perfectly amounts to something bigger than its parts. This experience directly led me to Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Per Se.
CH: When it comes to the food itself, I use my experience from working and traveling in Paris, New York and Tokyo to approach the spectacular local seafood we have here in Norway. I don't pretend to reinvent anything, but I would like to be able to show people that the food we get from right outside our doors is world class. We know lobsters are good, but do the people here know that Per Se gets the same lobsters flown in from Scotland once a week because they are the best in the world? They can have any product they want, but choose to use the same food we have much easier access to.
We also work with marine biologists to try to use species that are currently not commercialized. We have had workshops where we basically try to eat everything we can find along the shore and we are amazed by the variety of beautiful Norwegian seafood. Most of it is never harvested and is just there, within arms reach.
JL: I am curious about if and how you are educating your customers on the creation of an adventurous taste palate. What unique ingredients, spices and tastes introduced at Lysverket have become popular?
CH: We use the Amuse Bouche as a vessel for introducing new and maybe unusual ingredients. We have had great success with sea snail (Kongesnegler), something that is common but not usually eaten. If you present it well, however, they will try it. Just don't let them down with something that doesn't taste good!
JL: What surprised me so much and consistently about the Norwegian food on our trip, is how exceptional the food was, and especially at Lysverket. I would appreciate your ideas about how you have seen the evolution of Norwegian food over the years, from what you grew up with to what it is now.
CH: The restaurants have definitely gone from being influenced by great restaurants in Spain and France to looking to Copenhagen. Noma, in Copenhagen, is considered one of the greatest restaurants in the world. Its Executive Chef does a lot of foraging. It has given Norwegian cooks an incentive to look to their own back yard for ingredients and inspiration. There's an appreciation of things Nordic now that wasn't as prevalent ten years ago, but the danger is that it's all consuming. I have a hard time accepting it as the only truth. I love that we now have all this beautiful food we can get from around Bergen, that wasn't there before, but I don't like the attitude that if you use lemongrass in a broth, then you are old fashioned and politically incorrect. Why does one thing cancel out the other?
JL: Is Lysverket your first restaurant? If so, when did it open, and what does the name mean, in general?
CH: I had a terrible restaurant 10 years ago (though we had a killer burger...), so I consider this my first restaurant. It opened June 10 and I co-own it with my co-chef Dag Stian Knudsen, bartenders Stein Berge Berntsen and Joar Nicolaysen, and Datarock founder Fredrik Saroea.
The name comes from the building itself. It used to house the electrical authority in Bergen and people would come here to pay their bill. "Lys" means light and "verket" refers to a plant (as in power plant), so kind of "where the light is made." The building is known by everyone as Lysverket and we thought it was a fitting name for the restaurant.
JL: I interviewed Joel Robuchon last month, and when I asked him how long he could stay away from the kitchen, he said he had a difficult time being an executive chef and a restaurateur. He knew he had to sell the restaurant brand, but what he loved to do was get in the kitchen and cook. I wonder if you feel the same way — that you can't stay away from the kitchen very long.
CH: I get nervous when I'm not there. We have a super strong team (right now there are four former Per Se guys in the kitchen), but there is just so much to pay attention to. I started a restaurant to have my own place to cook, so I don't have a goal of not being in the kitchen. It's what I love doing and the only thing I'm somewhat good at. In time, I would love to open other places, but it would be so I can cook and serve stuff that might not fit the format of Lysverket.
JL: What are your favorite signature dishes that you create at Lysverket? Why are they your favorites?
CH: We have just opened, so it's premature to start talking about signature dishes yet. I can say that I love working with scallops that fight you when you open them, and aged salt cod. I also love the surprise of seeing how beautiful common fish is when its super fresh.
JL: Are there any dishes that you have created for the Lysverket customers that are reminiscent of earlier times in your life?
CH: We pull out classics we have used at other restaurants, flavor combinations and serving styles that are familiar, but I guess that doesn't count. The summer fruits always bring me back to being a kid and stealing rhubarb and strawberries from my neighbors, but it's more the flavors. Salted lamb shoulder in a bar snack reminds me of Lapskaus, a childhood dinner staple, and smoked mackerel Rillettes tastes like the mackerel I had in my lunch box sandwich (but better).
JL: I have asked this of other chefs, and I must ask you; what is your favorite, most essential kitchen utensil, something you really need in the kitchen as you prepare food or teach others to prepare food?
CH: My big, heavy basting spoon. It's the one I used to baste all the meat with at Per Se and it's the perfect shape, weight and size. Also, the small rubber spatulas that we used at Per Se, I liked those also.
JL: If you had one last meal on earth, what would it consist of and who would you share it with?
CH: My mom, brother, dad and wife. It should be a feast of the best from my childhood, prepared by my mother.
JL: What are your favorite taste combinations, textures, and colors for your food presentations?
CH: Scallop and dashi, lobster and vanilla, cod and beurre noisette.