Inside the Insular, Independent World of Nordic Restaurant Kitchens

Andreas Liebe Delsett's Dispatches From the Back of the House

“Always prepare your section before you start. Keep everything clean and tidy at all times. Put a damp cloth under the cutting board to keep it steady. Think fast, work methodically and don’t cut corners. Every single portion must be the same, and it must be perfect. Say ‘behind’ when walking behind someone, and ‘hot’ when handing over hot trays or pans. And never hold a knife in front of you while walking.”

Tore sets a palm against the countertop, leaning forward slightly and looking at me in the way that only he can. This isn’t the first time he has taught someone how to act in a restaurant kitchen. He’s been a chef for thirty-five years. That’s longer than I have been alive, and is above the average age at which chefs in Norway quit the profession.

“I had two sisters who both dropped out of sixth form college, so I was my mother’s last hope. After just a single day at sixth form, I realized it wasn’t for me. When I got home and told my mother that I was going to train to become a chef instead, she started to cry. ‘Are you going to spend your entire life in a cellar, cooking food?’ she asked. I said yes.”

I say nothing. In front of me is a box of prawns. The shells and heads have already been removed and put in a pot on the stove to make shellfish stock.

“They have to be deveined,” says Tore.

“Okay, this I can do,” I say, thinking that I’ve at least seen how to do it on TV. I make a start. With a small, sharp knife, I make a cut along the back of a prawn, and carefully pull out the vein. I manage to devein four prawns before Tore comes over to me.

“Have you heard of Henry Ford? He didn’t invent the motor car, you know—he invented the assembly line. First, you make a cut in all the prawns. Then you take out the veins. Like this.”

From where I’m standing and fiddling around with the prawns, I can see the rectangular kitchen in its entirety. I’ve been here before. What’s special about this kitchen in the combined catering and events premises Tore runs with two other chefs in Vika in the west of Oslo, is that it also functions as an entrance for guests. That’s why I’ve been here before—but then, it all felt completely different. I was a guest, who was most graciously being permitted a glimpse of an unfamiliar world.

Even among the new generation, these chefs are generally men—whether Esben Holmboe Bang at Maaemo or René Redzepi at Noma.

For years, I’ve sat out in the restaurant, casting longing glances towards the open kitchen where you can observe the chefs at work. When I was a little boy back home in Bodø, a small town in Northern Norway, we sometimes went to the pastel-colored “Mama Rosa” imitation restaurant Da Carlo, which later expanded out into the glass-covered pedestrian street in the town centre. There, I could sit on a bar stool with my chin on the counter and watch the pizza chefs throwing perfect, round pizza bases before covering them with toppings from row upon row of square tubs.

One of my earliest and most vivid memories of watching TV is from when Bent Stiansen visited Ingrid Espelid Hovig, right after having become Norway’s first world champion of culinary arts. He pickled a mackerel. This is still etched in my memory as a sublime moment. The beautiful fish. The skill involved. The combinations of ingredients I had never seen before (where I come from, mackerel is regarded as an inedible fish, or bait at best), and so could only imagine how they tasted (fresh ginger in the brine).

Tore was the first real chef I got to know. I met him for the first time at a bar in Bodø, where I was working for a music festival. He had just completed a catering job, but had missed his flight back to Oslo. Instead of checking into a hotel, he spent the money the room would have cost him sitting in the bar and buying drinks for anyone who fancied a chat. Up until that point, I had only ever read about chefs like him—those who worked in the cool places, in the early days of the culinary revolution that has descended on our part of the world in recent decades.

Tore was already trendy in the 90s. He worked at Palace Grill when it was newly opened, serving desserts in dog bowls and delighting the bourgeoisie, and introducing Fernet-Branca to Norway. When he opened Bollywood Dancing at Solli plass, they mixed a crate of the Italian bitter into the cement that was used to make the floor.

Tore may be good at drinking, but he’s also good at running a restaurant. After many years as a cook and chef, in addition to experience within events and catering, he has finally moved into the role of restauranteur—someone who starts, owns and runs restaurants. In this way, he has also gradually moved through the cultural strata of Norway’s capital. He has opened a restaurant at Det Norske Teatret, and one at Litteraturhuset. This is where we have mostly encountered each other up until now, because as an employee of Litteraturhuset I have visited the restaurant repeatedly—although only as a guest. Now I’m suddenly on the other side of the counter, my smart shirt swapped for a chef’s jacket and apron. In just over an hour, a party of diners will walk through the doors and be served a restaurant-quality meal—and it is Tore and I who are going to prepare it.

*

Around 20,000 people currently work as cooks in Norway. The profession is often said to be a male-dominated one, and it is, but only just—a little over 40 per cent of cooks are women. Perhaps this perception is due to the fact that relatively more men work in the private sector, i.e. restaurants, while female chefs dominate in the public sector, i.e. institutional kitchens, cafeterias and the like. But the women who work in institutional kitchens and in cafeterias are not the first people we think of when we think of the profession. In recent decades, the classic myth of the chef has taken up ever greater status in popular culture. This has happened through a significant sociological process, in which disparate elements have mutually strengthened each other: celebrity chefs, culinary competitions, TV programs, cookbooks and food columns, Michelin star ratings and nominations of the world’s best restaurants—and not least an enormous amount of discourse about food and cooking on blogs and in social media. And the mystical superstar chef—almost always a man.

This has always been the image of our best chefs: an eccentric and demanding male genius with a mystical aura and mythical position, directly descended from the great French masters Careme and Escoffier, via the Troisgros and Bocuse brothers to Ducasse, Passard, Adria, White, Ramsay, Blumenthal—or to a legendary chef and eventual media phenomenon like Norway’s own Eyvind Hellstrøm. Even among the new generation, which is attempting to build a new social and environmental paradigm and a softer profile, these chefs are generally men—whether Esben Holmboe Bang at Maaemo or René Redzepi at Noma.

There is a peculiar duality to the profession: cultural hero and icon on the one side, and low-paid shift worker on the other.

I have to admit that these superstar chefs have fascinated me, too. I started going to restaurants long before I could afford it—I grabbed every opportunity to dine out that I could. I still do. There are so many fantastic aspects to visiting a restaurant. I love the history, the middle-class rituals—and the ways in which these are eschewed. I love the classic kitchens—and all the new ones. I love the theatre of it, the telling of the stories; how the restaurant experience is about so much more than eating one’s fill. I love trying things I’ve never heard of, and discovering new combinations of flavors. I love the impossible choices offered by the menu—or the wonderful feeling of surrender when I give up all control, go for the recommended set menu, and leave everything in the hands of the chef. I have always revered the chefs. Since long before chefs and cooking became as hip as they are today, I’ve dreamed about getting to know them, about being able to hang out in the kitchen with them.

But at the same time, all the choices I’ve made in my life have pointed towards anywhere but the kitchen. I’ve specialized in general studies, studied human geography, been an activist, and worked with art, literature and public debate. I have done all these things because I enjoy them, but also because the restaurant world has, in practice, always seemed both hard and precarious to me. For those working as cooks and chefs in Norway today, the reality is rarely as glamorous as pop culture’s discussions of its culinary heroes would suggest. The average chef’s salary is around 31,000 kroner per month—30 percent less than the average monthly salary in Norway today. The chef’s profession is a demanding one, involving significant physical labour and challenging working hours with a lot of work in the evenings and on weekends and public holidays.

Chefs therefore also have significantly shorter life expectancies than those who work in other professions—a chef can expect to live a life that is around ten years shorter than that of a priest or architect born in the same year. Nor do most chefs work in the glamorous world of gourmet culture, celebrities and exclusive produce. The profession also comprises all those who work in institutional kitchens and in cafeterias on oil platforms and ships and in hospitals, and at hotels and in fast food restaurants. Very few work with the kind of fine dining offered by Tore and his closest colleagues. There is a peculiar duality to the profession: cultural hero and icon on the one side, and low-paid shift worker on the other.

I have never dared to approach this duality myself. But a concrete way in has now presented itself through Tore, which on paper seems neither risky nor particularly trying. I had never imagined that it might be a possibility—it was mostly just a cheeky shot in the dark on my part. One day, Tore asked me if I could help him with the text of a cookbook he had been asked to create. I said yes—but that in order to do so I would have to spend a little time in the kitchen with him. I meant this mostly as a joke, an attempt at arrogance. But Tore simply said yes, just like that, as if there were no system nor barriers to overcome; no requirements for someone to gain admission to his world. His answer gave me a start—I wasn’t prepared for the fact that it might become a reality. And at the same time, I felt like an idiot. That it might turn out to be so easy! Why hadn’t I asked before? But now that I’m here, fiddling around with these prawns, it no longer feels like such a good idea. I pick out the prawn poop, casting stolen glances at the real chefs. I’ve borrowed some chef’s whites, but in all other respects I’m still a guest. What must the real chefs think of me?

There are two of them in addition to Tore, and they don’t seem to care very much about me or what I’m doing here. When Tore introduced me to them, they smiled wryly and took my hand. One of them is a short, skinny guy with thick black hair that sticks straight up, like that of a lucky troll. I think he said his name was Kjell-Robin, and I think Tore has told me about him—about how he worked at a restaurant with two Michelin stars. The other chef is two metres tall, unshaven and with closely cropped hair. When I arrived, he was standing outside, smoking a Prince Red cigarette—the extra-long type. He only had to say that his name was Carsten and I immediately understood from his accent that he was Danish. Neither he nor Kjell-Robin seemed to have any problem with Tore’s explanation that I was going to join them in the kitchen and do a bit of work today. He said nothing about the fact that I’m not a chef. Although I’m sure there can be no doubt about that, based on my manner of working.

Not that Carsten seems to have any problem with this, either, as he’s standing there browning duck breasts. And nor does Kjell-Robin, who is now carrying a stack of crates and other equipment to a van outside. He’s heading out to an event, on a catering assignment. Tore is stirring the contents of the huge pot containing all the heads and shells of the prawns. It sputters, the sweet smell of caramelized shellfish rising from it. He pours in some liquid—water and wine and a can of stock. The contents of the pan are soon boiling hard, the prawn heads swirling up. Tore dips two fingers into the liquid to taste it—the boiling temperature doesn’t seem to bother him in the slightest. What does bother him, however, is the fact that we’re a little behind schedule. Everything has to be ready before the guests arrive—they’ll walk in through the kitchen, after all. Tore asks me to go get a box of mangetout and two boxes of fennel from the cold storage. This is beginning to look less and less like the cooking course I’d imagined—and I’m starting to feel increasingly out of my depth.

“Make sure you remove all the strings from the mangetout, and that they’re all the same size,” Tore says as he shows me how to cut the vegetables.

“I’ll do my best!” I say, as Tore returns to his station.

“As my old head chef would have said: in most cases, your best isn’t good enough!”

For a few hours, I wasn’t the nerd on the outside—I was a chef, one of them.

Even though Tore introduced me to Fordism just a few minutes ago, I spend so long faffing around with the mangetout strings that he eventually has to take over to make sure we’ll be ready before the party of diners arrives. Suddenly, the guests enter the kitchen. We chat with them while we work—I’m far better at this than Carsten, who goes to get a bit of washing up done while the guests lean over the pots on the stove, glasses of champagne in their hands. But Tore is once again far better than me, even when it comes to making small talk. I divide the prawns into bowls, squeeze mayonnaise onto them from a piping bag, and arrange the mangetout and peas atop the prawns. Then Tore comes and pours the boiling hot bisque into the bowls. The guests eat the soup standing in the kitchen. As they eat, Tore gives them a presentation about how to poach halibut, which will be the evening’s main course.

At the same time, I stand there and enjoy how great it feels to see people eating something I convince myself I’ve almost prepared alone. But it’s also nerve-wracking. Will they like it? Did I get the vein out of every prawn? Nobody complains. Do they know how close we were to not being ready on time? As they’re about to go take their seats, one of the guests comes up to me and asks how we made the soup. He thinks I’m a chef! I start to explain, describing what I saw Tore doing with the stock. The man listens, interested at first, but then his gaze starts to wander, and he takes a few steps in the direction of the door that leads to the dining room. “Thank you very much,” he says apologetically and goes to join the other guests, leaving me standing in the doorway.

*

The paradoxical split between expert and subordinate, server and host, is in some ways as old as the cook’s profession itself. Cooks have long been regarded as occupying a position somewhere towards the bottom of the social ladder, while simultaneously being a trusted employee in the homes of the rich. There is something about food—that which we will eat, which will become part of our body—we don’t let just anyone prepare it. Cooks were at the mercy of their lords—but lords were also dependent on their cooks. Throughout history, there seem to have been a number of examples of chefs in the service of noblemen and the rich being permitted to marry their employer’s daughter—this is continually highlighted in works about the history of cooking, as if it remains a secret fantasy of those interested in the culinary arts.

Today, the chef lives a double life to an ever-greater extent, with one foot planted firmly in the trivial and often boring work of the kitchen, and the other in a world of exclusive produce and exalted gourmet culture. The roles a chef has to manage are now even more complex than they used to be. Today, a chef must not only be able to cook food, but also to present it, speak to guests, run cooking courses, match food with wine, and act as both an expert in the field and an educator on its many subjects.

“All hands on deck,” says Tore. We’re about to serve hot dishes, and the only thing that matters now is to get the plates out to the guests before the food gets cold. While we—that is, Tore—sets pieces of poached halibut on the plates, I understand that it isn’t just me who is being tested this evening. The huge Dane with the big and seemingly clumsy hands is now plating up piping hot beets with impressive precision as he tells me that he only arrived in Oslo earlier today. He came from Spain, where he was working at a restaurant I fail to catch the name of. One day, he felt he was done with working there, and for reasons that remain unclear, decided that Oslo would be the next stop on his journey. He bought a one-way ticket to Oslo to attend a job interview with Tore. He obviously got the job, because Tore is now in the process of organizing an apartment for him, too—all during the course of a single day, and all while we’re still making food for the guests.

The party of guests who have ended up being a trial job for both of us have just been served their main course. I ask Carsten whether I can join him for a cigarette. He says yes before he realizes that this will involve me bumming one from him. Reluctantly, he offers me one of his long cigarettes while muttering something about how Norwegian VAT seems to be designed to limit people’s access to all the good things in life. Then he suddenly interrupts himself to ask me what I’m doing there.

“You’re writing a cookbook?” Carsten says with great enthusiasm before adding, in his lilting Danish: “Then you have to write about the egg, man!”

I hesitate for a moment before answering—of course, the book project was mostly just an excuse to get into the kitchen, and so I’m not sure what to say. Carsten thinks my hesitation is down to the fact that I have something against eggs.

“Yeah, but think about it, man—what an amazing structure it is! An egg isn’t just an egg. The outermost layer is the shell, and then you might think the white is next, but it isn’t. First there’s a kind of film—a membrane, if you will. And the white isn’t just one thing—it has several components. And the yolk. The yolk! It’s fastened to the top and bottom of the shell with a string, so it stays in the middle and doesn’t get damaged by knocks. There are so many things you can do with an egg,” Carsten points out, and starts to list them: “As well as the obvious things, like omelettes, scrambled eggs, and fried, poached and boiled eggs, there are souffles and meringues—including the Swiss, Italian and English kinds.” He continues to talk about cold emulsions, hot emulsions and eggs as a leavening agent. Eggs can be pickled, salted, cured and dried, and are good with delicious, exclusive ingredients like truffles and caviar. In Iceland, they pack eggs in ash and store them for many years. And of course without eggs there would be no mayonnaise, ice cream, bearnaise or hollandaise sauce, and no cakes or souffles.

This discourse on eggs continues as we go back into the kitchen. Tore is standing beside the stove, looking less pleased than previously because we’ve been outside for so long. But as soon as he hears that we’re talking about the egg, his mood immediately brightens.

“Ah yes, the egg! It’s the most beautiful thing in the world,” he says, letting go of his whisk for a moment and gazing off into some imagined distance somewhere beyond the dirty dishes. But it lasts for no more than a couple of seconds, and then his focus returns to what he’s supposed to be doing—whisking the sauce for dessert.

“Do you know how long a boiled egg can be kept in the fridge if you change the water it’s in every day?” Tore asks, perhaps in an attempt to save himself from a topic that was becoming a little too emotional for him. “A year. That’s why I cook 360 eggs once in January, so I don’t have to boil one every morning.”

Tore asks me to go get one of the open bottles of white wine from the fridge and whisk it with egg yolks and sugar. He’s making a sabayon, and he’s doing it in a way that goes against everything I’ve ever read about how eggs should be handled when it comes to heat. I thought you had to use a bain-marie, but Tore is making the sauce in a saucepan, straight on the induction plate. The result is a sabayon that’s lighter and creamier than any I’ve ever seen before. This is exactly the kind of tip that made me want to sneak into a restaurant kitchen to steal secrets from the chefs.

“It isn’t that hard—you just have to know when to take it off the heat,” says Tore, spooning the egg custard over poached pears. “And then you have to know when to stop whipping, and after that you have to be very careful with it,” he adds. Carsten is forming perfect balls of chocolate ice cream, which he places beside the pears and sabayon.

“Pears Belle Helene and sabayon might be a bit old school, but damn, it’s good!” says Carsten as we carry the desserts out to the guests.

As soon as the desserts have gone out, Carsten starts to wash down the kitchen while Tore sweet talks the guests and gives the waiter a few last instructions about how to close up when the guests leave.

“Now we can go get a beer to celebrate the fact that Carsten’s got himself a job,” says Tore, sending us off to the changing room.

On the tram on my way home, I realize that the three beers I drank with Tore and Carsten went down more quickly than I’m used to. I also smell of food—even though I’ve changed back into my civilian clothes. But this doesn’t really matter, because I’m sitting here thinking about eggs. My very first day in a restaurant kitchen, and I meet someone who might just turn out to be my egg soulmate! Just before I left, Tore said that I’d passed my trial period, too. Which means that I can now try my hand in a real restaurant. I have a couple of weeks’ holiday left, and Tore will soon be opening a new restaurant called Stock in Bjørvika. This is where I’ll be able to try working—as soon as they open and have things more or less up and running.

I think about how I must have looked there in the kitchen in my chef’s whites. Of course the other chefs knew that I’m no real chef, but I really did manage to convince some of the guests. None of the books I’ve read about working in restaurant kitchens prepared me for the pressure I would feel, standing there waiting for the guests to arrive—nor for the relief that the food made it out to the table, and that the guests actually liked it. For a few hours, I wasn’t the nerd on the outside—I was a chef, one of them. Or at least that’s how it felt. For just a few hours. Not even the world’s most inept prawn shelling could put a dampener on that feeling.

*

When I arrived at work this morning, I didn’t even notice that the steam kettle was on. Kjell-Robin tells me that it’s actually been on since yesterday. He sets a 60-liter pot on top of the drain in front of the kettle and hooks a sieve onto its lip, adjusting the empty pot’s position. Then he straightens up and flips up the large handle that opens the steam kettle’s lid. So much steam rises and spreads throughout the kitchen that I finally understand why the lid is hinged to the kettle’s frame and can be operated using a long steel arm—tremendous pressure must be generated beneath it. If the kettle had an ordinary lid, the steam that poured out would have scalded Kjell-Robin’s entire arm.

Kjell-Robin pushes a button on the control panel and the steam kettle starts to tilt. Out of it tips beef bones, thick bunches of parsley stems, half-charred onions, leeks, mushrooms and garlic. All of this is captured by the sieve, and clear, golden-brown stock cascades down into the pot. I find a spoon so I can taste it. What only yesterday was a crate of cheap bones, vegetable cuttings and a few wrinkly mushrooms has been transformed into a substance that doesn’t just taste good—it tastes meatier than the meat itself. It’s as if the water that was poured into the kettle yesterday morning has been blessed by the spirit of the meat.

As I stand there in my spiritual reverie, tasting the stock and smacking my lips, Kjell-Robin tilts the kettle even further and kicks each of its legs, one by one, so that the last of the stock in the bottom of the kettle comes out. He’s done this thousands of times before, and so doesn’t seem particularly moved by what’s happening. Nor is he especially impressed by the taste of the stock—even though that which he’s just poured out of the steam kettle is more intensely flavored and concentrated than anything I’ve ever managed to achieve at home.

“Help me get this up on the stove,” Kjell-Robin says, pointing at one of the pot’s handles while he grabs the other. He explains that the stock now needs to be reduced further for a few hours, and then we might be able to call it a good stock.

How many times have I walked past the steam kettle without giving it a second thought? For me, the shiny steel cylinder-shaped construction at the very end of the row of cooking appliances has been nothing more than the corner you have to round on your way out of the kitchen. It’s just standing there, boiling, I’ve thought as I’ve passed it, countless times. Of course, the first time I entered the kitchen I noticed the appliance straightaway, because it’s so large and industrial. The steam kettle has a capacity of eighty liters and comes up to a grown man’s waist. In other words, the kettle’s capacity is twice that of all the pots and pans in my kitchen at home combined. When I told Stian how impressed I was at its size, he only said that Stock’s kettle isn’t an especially large one. In institutional kitchens it isn’t uncommon to have steam kettles with a 350-liter capacity.

All the stories of the cut-throat working environment, the hierarchy, the screaming and shouting and clamor that come out of these kinds of restaurants: are they true?

A huge pot, then—but not one worthy of any particular attention, in Stian’s view. Perhaps that was why I hadn’t thought any more about it? Maybe another reason is that I associated it with industrial and institutional kitchens, and so it didn’t seem very exciting. Nor is the steam kettle very technically advanced. It has integrated heating elements in the bottom and sides, its own water supply through a tap on its side and a control panel with one switch and two buttons. The switch controls the heat; the buttons are for tilting the kettle when emptying it. Other than this, there isn’t very much to say about it—or so I had thought. Add to this the fact that the steam kettle generally looks after itself and doesn’t demand much attention during then day, and you have the gadget I’ve given the least thought to during the time I’ve been at Stock—until now.

As I help Kjell-Robin to lift the 60 kilos of potential stock, I realize that this is where I want to be now—here, on the prep shift, with Kjell-Robin and the pots of stock. I’m starting to get tired of the lunch service, for one thing. More and more often, like now, I sneak away from the lunch service and down to the production kitchen, to see whether anyone is doing anything exciting. And often someone is—regardless of whether it’s Kjell-Robin, Stian, Ruben or Maciek on prep. They make stock and fillet fish, prepare shellfish and make creams, sauces and purees.

All the fundamental components of the menu are created on the prep shift. While standing there at lunch, I’ve been thinking about how much I learned during that first period, when Carsten, Lasse, Stian and Matthias were here. If I can work prep now—after all I’ve learned working with Sebastian at lunch—just think how many more advanced things I’d be able to do then! I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but it’s the steam kettle that makes me realize that I have to ask Stian whether I can be moved off lunch for a while. To think I had overlooked the steam kettle until now! I know that what happens inside the kettle isn’t magic—but then, what is it?

As soon as Stian gets to work I go and ask him whether I can work with production a little more, instead of working the lunch shift with Sebastian. Stian has nothing against this, as long as I make myself useful, and so that’s how I’m enlisted as a member of the prep shift.

*

In his usual style, Kjell-Robin is already hard at work when I arrive at the agreed time. When he came in, there was a list waiting for him on top of the ordinary MEP lists, made by Stian. Today, his tasks will include preparing Hardanger brown trout, chicken stock, beef stock, coarse spinach, celeriac puree and slices, Jerusalem artichokes prepared in several different ways, apples, venison, mussels, filleted fish, tarragon oil, some desert components including ganache and microwave sponge—and crispbreads.

In other words, if you were to ask him, Kjell-Robin would tell you that today isn’t an especially demanding day. He’s decided to start with some of the vegetable-based items requiring heat. Celery is simmering on the stove, and vacuum-sealed bags containing Jerusalem artichokes are steaming away in the oven. He’s also taken two boxes of chicken legs from the freezer, which have to be defrosted before he can use them to make stock. But we don’t need to wait around. We can make a start on the fish, for example.

Because the time at which the fish deliveries turn up often varies, and the fish almost always arrives later than the main delivery, it pays to leave gutting the fish until later in the day. But it’s also advantageous to do this before all the other chefs get to work and start occupying the countertops and sinks. With a clean worktop and plenty of space, all the fish can be gutted at once—provided that they have all been delivered. This also prevents you from having to wash down the worktops multiple times. Even when they’re not on prep, it usually falls to Kjell-Robin or Stian to prepare the fish and shellfish—because they’re the best at it. And because fish—and especially shellfish—are so expensive that the decisions and knowledge of the person in charge of the ingredients for the day can be the deciding factor in whether the restaurant makes a profit or a loss. Stian once set two work experience students the task of cleaning the scallops, after having cleaned one himself in order to show them how. When he tells me about the incident he admits his error in judgement—one that lost the restaurant almost a thousand kroner.

Today the fish came early, before anyone else had arrived at work, and it actually looks as if all the fish has now been delivered. Kjell-Robin sets up his station at the counter that contains a large sink. He sets a damp tea towel under the cutting board to prevent it from slipping, and then finds the knives he needs: one with a narrow, flexible blade, the fillet knife, and a large, serrated broad-bladed knife, which is called a pastry knife but is often used for tasks other than making pastry. Kjell-Robin also needs tweezers and a fish scraper today, since the bones need to be removed from the mountain trout and the rose fish has to be scraped. But he leaves the rose fish until last, because the job of scraping it results in scales getting everywhere.

Kjell-Robin opens the crate and discovers that the supplier hasn’t delivered trout, but Arctic char. He stands there for a few seconds, wondering whether he should call and complain, and request a new delivery. There might be enough time, but there’s also a good chance that the supplier will just say that this is all he managed to get hold of. Kjell-Robin decides that there’s no point wasting time on it. It’ll be fine to use the Arctic char instead of the trout for the intended purpose. Besides, we’ll be able to tell the guests—with absolute honesty—that we’ve used the freshest fish available. And it might even be possible to argue a bit of a discount from the supplier later on.

Kjell-Robin seems to be in a good mood this morning. He’s told me that he likes to work alone, without any cooks or trainees that he needs to act as sous-chef for by being all strict and authoritative. True, I’m now working with him, but I’m not a real chef—and I think he likes the attention. It’s also clear that he likes working at a fast pace, and having plenty to keep him busy.

“I just don’t understand how anyone manages to sit on their ass all day at work,” he says as he sets a char on the cutting board. He says he’s the same, even when he’s not working. At home he makes sausages, cured meats and cheese, and brews beer, in addition to looking after the two young children he has with his partner, who is a sous-chef at another restaurant in Oslo. As the parents of two young kids who also have the pressures of evening shifts and management responsibilities to contend with, Kjell-Robin says that they’ll have to figure out how to cope as they go along once they come to the end of their parental leave. Something tells me that more work and less sleep will end up being part of the solution.

The techniques involved in filleting mountain trout and Arctic char are very similar, and although they’re smaller than most species of cod, the principle is the same: ling, pollock, haddock, hake and saithe all have one fillet on each side. The method is therefore to follow the backbone from the head and down, from behind the ear bone. When filleting all fish, the key is to let the knife do the work and follow the bone in long, careful strokes.

“Think before you cut,” Kjell-Robin reminds me. It seems a strange expression, coming from someone who has handled so much fish that he appears to prepare it without thinking at all. Fifteen whole Arctic char are quickly transformed into thirty fillets. What remains on the counter looks like what’s left when Tom (as in Tom and Jerry) lowers a fish into his mouth by the tail and pulls it out again: between the head and tail is a perfectly clean backbone—only, not for the last fish, which I have tried to fillet. My attempt looks more like a drunk driver has skidded across the fish, leaving deep tire tracks of meat along the spine. Kjell-Robin takes over again. The next step is even more difficult—despite Kjell-Robin’s constant assertions that it isn’t, not really. All in all, he seems to find it hard to understand why I’m so keen to observe this routine task so closely.

Unlike fillets of cod, fillets of Arctic char and trout have to be deboned. Down the centre of the fillet is a row of bones—they’re similar to those of salmon, only much smaller, but still large enough that they have to be removed. And they should be removed quickly, to ensure that the fish doesn’t decline in quality—sensitive to temperature as it is. And besides, you never have much time anyway, and how fun is it to stand there half bent over the counter, picking out bones, while the clock is ticking? As if it isn’t already stressful enough, the flesh of the char is extremely delicate and quickly turns to mush if you do little more than touch it.

Kjell-Robin explains all this to me, and I say that I feel stressed just thinking about how long it’s going to take. Kjell-Robin laughs as he sets four fillets on the cutting board and prepares to remove the bones, a total of 31 from each fillet. That’s a total of 930 bones from 30 fillets. I take my time. My left thumb follows the underside of the fillet as my index finger passes over the bones, making them stick up a little. The tweezers in my right hand follow along behind the left, picking out one bone at a time. Kjell-Robin completes an entire fillet before wiping away all the bones that have gathered on his tweezers on a piece of kitchen paper beside his cutting board. In fifteen minutes, he’s done. That’s 900 seconds to remove 930 bones—less than a second per bone on average, including the time it takes to move sets of four fillets to and from the board.

“Ideally, I’d have done it a bit quicker,” says Kjell-Robin. He puts the char in the fridge before wiping down the counter and cutting board and getting ready to prepare the rose fish. The scales spray everywhere as he scrapes them from the orange fish, and he shows me the spine at the bottom of the belly. This is something to watch out for should you ever get close to a live rose fish.

“If that spine pricks you, you have twelve hours to get yourself to a hospital. And if you can’t get to a hospital, you have only one option: the eye of the rosefish. It acts as an anti-venom.” Kjell-Robin tells me that he was once pricked by the spine of a rose fish while out fishing with his father. He didn’t even feel it, but luckily his father noticed the blue-black stripe which, after around an hour, had already made its way well up his forearm. There was only one thing for it—to squeeze fluid from the rose fish’s eye onto his arm and get straight to hospital.

When all the rose fish have been scraped free of skin and the heads have been removed, the fillets can be cut away. Kjell-Robin’s knife follows the backbone down along the fish, but he only inserts it just deep enough to lift the bone that stretches from the backbone down into the belly. When he gets to where the belly ends, it takes him one stroke to loosen the entire piece out towards the tail, and then the only thing left is to carefully loosen the uppermost piece from the belly bone. Kjell-Robin makes it look so easy. The fillet doesn’t look as if it’s been cut at all. It looks as if he’s simply detached the membranes that separate muscle from bone—and in a sense, that’s what he’s done. As I stand there, looking at the perfect rose fish fillets on the shiny metal cutting board, it’s easy to see that there’s only one way to acquire the kind of skill that Kjell-Robin possesses. It doesn’t matter how much you might read about or study pictures of how it’s done—you have to practice. Hold the knife in your hand, touch the fish, do it several times, make mistakes, learn from your mistakes, and do it again.

Researchers have calculated that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve the level of skill required to become one of the world’s best professional athletes or classical musicians. In the book Wise Hands, about the silent, experience-based knowledge of craftsmanship, Danish bricklayer Mattias Tesfaye points out that this corresponds to the time it takes to become a fully qualified craftsperson: two years of study followed by two years of practical, on-the-job training. Kjell-Robin probably has somewhere around these 10,000 hours of experience working with fish alone. He and his brother went fishing in Lofoten for the first time when Kjell-Robin was eight and his brother six-and-a-half. He wipes rose fish scales from his hair and eyebrows as he tells me about the time they caught so much fish that his father set him and his brother to work filleting it all on board so that they wouldn’t sink. With the fish heads and entrails cast into the sea, they just managed to make it to shore.

Kjell-Robin has been gutting fish since he was nine years old. At eleven, he got his first part-time job at a fish processing centre, where he worked until he left to train to be a cook at the age of 17. Then there’s all the fish he’s had to prepare, first as a trainee, and then during the seven years he’s worked as a chef—two of which he spent in a two-star restaurant in London where he worked 18-hour shifts, six days a week. This is something I’ve been wanting to ask him about for a long time—all the stories of the cut-throat working environment, the hierarchy, the screaming and shouting and clamor that come out of these kinds of restaurants: are they true? But Kjell-Robin doesn’t want to talk about that now. He wants to talk about zander.

The last fish that needs to be prepared today is long and thin, without the arched shape typical of most fish, and with a characteristic mouth reminiscent of pike. It’s also a freshwater fish—not that this seems to bother Kjell-Robin. He tells me that the zander has a bone structure known as “Y-bone”—its spine divides into smaller branches twice, which means that you get four fillets on each side, instead of one.

“It’s not a problem in and of itself, but it’s a really shitty job,” says Kjell-Robin. “Especially when you have to prepare eighty kilos in a day, like I used to do at Pied à Terre.” He mentions the restaurant in London I so want to hear about by name—but even at this I’m unable to steer the conversation in that direction, because Kjell-Robin is now enthusiastically demonstrating how to fillet the zander.

“Many people refuse to use this fish because of the bones, but it’s a good edible fish with a really great flavor,” he says in a confusing dialect of unclear north-Norwegian origins. Early on, I’d thought the strong variations in his dialect were the result of his nomadic life as a chef, and while this has probably had an effect, I think it’s more to do with his north-Swedish ancestry. As Kjell-Robin talks to me, I realize that an assumption I made a long time ago—that he has dyslexia—is wrong. The strange things he writes on the boxes in the fridge are not down to incorrect spelling: “fänkål” is of course the Swedish word for “fennikel”—fennel—and “sås” is “saus”—sauce.

Kjell-Robin cuts a little piece of meat from behind the zander’s ear bone and slices it in two, so we can both have a taste. We eat it raw, standing there at the countertop. The flavor is mild and aromatic, but most striking is the texture—so firm, yet still tender. Kjell-Robin continues to cut the fish, the fillets coming away in long strips. Only the bones remain, which I can now see have a clear y-shape.

In Wise Hands, Mattias Tesfaye writes that the central library of the knowledge of hands is more than big enough to rival the written knowledge acquired by the head over thousands of years. In Kjell-Robin’s case, this is of course about much more than his skills in handling fish. But for me, the preparation of fish—in a much broader sense than the filleting alone—is one of the library of hands’ most wonderful sections.

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silence of the chefs

From Silence of the Chefs by Andreas Liebe Delsett. Used with the permission of Northern Stories. Copyright © 2019 by Andreas Liebe Delsett. Translation © Alison McCullough.

Andreas Liebe Delsett
Andreas Liebe Delsett
Andreas Liebe Delsett is the Artistic Director at Litteraturhuset in Oslo, Norway, and the author of Silence of the Chefs. Delsett is the founder of an art small press called Feil forlag, editor a cooking book on cod and the former leader of The Red Party in Oslo. After doing an apprenticeship at Restaurant Stock in Oslo, Delsett completed an informal apprenticeship test as a chef.





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