In Stockholm, Carsten Höller plays with our perception and our senses through spectacular art installations. From next week, he will also offer “brutalist cuisine” dishes in his restaurant. Meet.
Upon entering Carsten Höller’s in Stockholm, one is greeted by the chirping of 35 rare birds, which gives the impression of being in a scene from Hitchcock’s “The Birds”. On a work surface, a bowl full of tiny worms writhe waiting to be fed to the precious birds.
Rest assured: we are not in Höller’s new restaurant, which will open on May 3. As the kitchens weren’t ready yet, we meet the artist-restorer for lunch at his home, in the apartment he occupies in a historic building opposite St. John’s Church, in the center of Stockholm. When he moved there, this beautiful space full of art and books had no kitchen, but today there is an impressive steel cooking unit. When we arrived, chef Stefan Eriksson of Brutalisten (the name of the future restaurant) and his team were already busy preparing small plates which they spent on the grill for a moment.
Who is Carsten Holler?
- Born in 1961 in Brussels.
- Lives and works in Stockholm.
- Grew up in Belgium.
- Studied agricultural sciences at the University of Kiel in Germany.
- Devoted his doctoral thesis to the way insects communicate via odors.
- Worked in the field of science before devoting himself to art in the early 90s.
- Participated in Documenta X (1997) with “A House for Pigs and People”, an installation with live pigs.
- Exhibits “Upside-Down Mushroom Room” at the Fondazione Prada in Milan in 2000 and at Moca in Los Angeles in 2005 and the “Vitra Slide Tower” slides at the Vitra campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany.
- Represented Sweden at the Venice Biennale in collaboration with Miriam Bäckström in 2005.
- Involved the public in the work “Revolving Hotel Room”, at the Guggenheim in New York, in 2008, by inviting them to book a night.
Ten strict rules
The name Brutalisten also refers to the “brutalist cuisine” manifesto that the artist wrote one fine morning in 2018 and which consists of ten strict rules. One of them states that “The ideal is to eat raw or quickly cooked foods” and another that “Decorative elements on the plate are prohibited.” However, this term brutalist is somewhat misleading, because even if the artist claims to find his inspiration in this direct and strict approach, his culinary experience has nothing to do with brutalist architecture.
For example, each dish can only have one ingredient, because the whole is focused on purity. In other words, combining different ingredients is out of the question. For a chicken dish, Eriksson (ex-Chef of the Year in Sweden and founder of a Food Lab allowing chefs to collaborate with creative people from other backgrounds) will therefore only use chicken by cooking absolutely all the animal parts: flesh, feathers, eggs and bones. However, the eggs do not have to come from the bird simmering in the pot – one of the many arbitrary exceptions tolerated by Höller.
The addition of salt and water is also allowed. Höller circumvents these “violations” of the rule by using a progressive classification scale in his menu. “Semi-brutalism allows for minimal ingredients, but no spices,” he explains. “For example, pike-perch pasta or gooseberry risotto. Ultra-orthodox brutalism, on the other hand, will choose, for example, a raw oyster, because you don’t touch it and add nothing to it.”
Thus, on the menu, the dishes will be classified according to these rules to draw attention to each ingredient, rather than out of pure dogmatism.
Carsten Höller has been dubbed the Willy Wonka of contemporary art because his installations take the viewer on an adventure, such as the spiral slides installed at London’s Tate Modern in 2006 or the room adorned with giant upside-down mushrooms at the Fondazione Prada in Milan in 2000.
The artist likes to provoke and juggle with concepts in his work and, soon, in his restaurant. Its principle is as follows: we are all brutalist eaters from birth. The artist is also enthusiastic about all possible variations, whether brutalist drinks made from apples, mushrooms or fish (a kind of “cola meets colatura”, an Italian sauce made from anchovies ).
This idea of brutalist cuisine comes to him largely from his way of cooking. A fervent gourmet, he only uses perfect products that he prepares very simply. The Swedish habit of spreading mayonnaise on food is driving him crazy. It is also advisable not to approach him with the subject of toppings. Höller is very critical: “It annoys me that chefs combine too many things on the same plate, as if that were the essence of cooking, while it annihilates the taste of the ingredients!” Doesn’t the flavor of the final result matter to him? “Often the taste is not as good as it could have been if the chef had more control over himself,” he retorts. “Even at Noma, re-elected Best Restaurant in the World in 2021, they can’t help but put flowers on the plates. And not just flowers! Sometimes it’s even music. Nowadays, we see of everything when we just want to listen to the silence.”
The Brutalisten tasting menu consists of six preparations. We start with mussels from Bohuslän, a region in western Sweden. Sweet, slightly smoky, restrained and without garlic or cream.
Follows a plate of broccoli in different preparations: fermented, steamed, grilled, sprinkled with roasted broccoli seeds. “I’m sure some people will find it to be really, really broccoli,” he says, going on to describe the interplay of sweet, herbal and bitter flavors.
Along comes a poached, grilled langoustine, so powerful and concentrated in flavor that I crave a dollop of mayonnaise to counterbalance the taste, but we know what Höller thinks of it; so, no mayonnaise. The following preparation, steamed, smoked, fermented or raw chestnut mushrooms, evokes a very tasty cream of mushroom soup. The guinea fowl comes in grilled heart and breast, leg confit with its legs, egg mousse, liver, flesh and skin: this dish offers everything you could expect from beautifully cooked poultry.
But it’s the next dish, the Norwegian skrei, a kind of high quality cod, that is the most amazing: part of the fish is grilled, part is poached and the accompanying sauce is prepared with the head. This dish has such an intensely salty flavor that every bite makes you dizzy and overwhelmed with emotion. Höller warns us: the space in which the restaurant will be installed will also make us dizzy. Instead of an austere brutalist concrete space, he chose a warm place to accommodate 24 guests in the dining room and 10 in the bar area. It will be decorated with bright pink neon signs by American artist Dan Flavin, artwork by Congolese painter Moke, and a ceiling mural by artist Ana Benaroya, which Höller describes as “tall naked women who drink and smoke like firefighters”. How does this decor fit into the brutalist concept? “The ceiling fresco is about pleasure,” replies Höller. “Because indeed Brutalisten should be a place where people come to have a good time.”
Brutalisten will open on May 3, reservations via www.brutalisten.com