Redefining Scandinavian Cooking
A former Navy Officer who opted for a chef’s life, Paul Berglund has made a name for himself as the executive chef of Minneapolis’ Bachelor Farmer, where he’s cooking trend-setting modernist Nordic cuisine. We talk with Berglund about the resurgence of Scandinavian food, taking risks and note-worthy chefs in the Twin Cities.
AndrewZimmern.com: After spending a few years in the Navy, what made you decide to try working in restaurants?
Paul Berglund: I was at a crossroads and, after imagining myself in all sorts of professions, found that I was staring down at two choices: becoming a park ranger or a cook. I sometimes wonder what life would’ve been like in the Badlands, but am incredibly grateful fate steered me to cooking. I love the sounds, smells, tastes, and personal interactions of the restaurant kitchen.
AZ.com: How did you land a gig at Oliveto in Oakland?
PB: Again, I’d say fate had a lot to do with it. I didn’t hear back from the kitchens of Chez Panisse and the Fifth Floor (in San Francisco) when I reached out to them. Oliveto was in tier #2 on my list. I believe the Navy had a lot to do with getting that job. The military teaches discipline, which comes in handy in the kitchen. Some people get that. I think Paul Canales was one of them. I don’t think wearing a suit hurt, either. Paul liked saying I showed up, Midwestern boy that I was, with a piece of straw in my mouth and a potato sack on my back, but I was actually wearing a suit! You don’t see many suits in line cook interviews, but I didn’t know that then.
AZ.com: The last time a Scandinavian restaurant opened in Minneapolis it famously went under after a short run. What made you take this job? Did you see it as a risky move?
PB: I was daydreaming of two different restaurants when I met Eric and Andrew Dayton. One was Italian, making the most of what I learned at Oliveto. I still very much love Italian food. The other was Nordic, connecting me with my own roots, as well as a significant part of the heritage of our region. I couldn’t believe it when they told me what they had in mind. It really was my (day) dream job.
AZ.com: Describe your style of Scandinavian cooking.
PB: The more time passes, the more our surroundings shape our food at the Bachelor Farmer. We are inspired by the raw resources that make the Northern region of the country unique – the butter (it’s so good!), the pork, and the vegetables. When we opened The Bachelor Farmer in 2011, our food was more closely associated with traditional Nordic cooking. Gravlax and traditional meatballs were our staples. We’re less attached to those traditions these days. Our food shares common flavors with Nordic cooking, both traditional and more modern: the flavors of salt, smoke, pickles, and fermented products. Every once in a while, we make a breakthrough and find something that is truly our own. That’s incredibly rewarding to me.
AZ.com: It wasn’t until the last few years that we started to see chefs embracing modernist Scandinavian cooking. Why do you think there’s been a resurgence of Nordic flavors?
PB: This interest seems to be a result of two harmonious events. Firstly, Rene Redzepi, of Noma in Copenhagen, is one of a small handful of chefs with a truly new, unique voice. A novel cuisine doesn’t come around that often. Secondly, new Nordic cooking, which emphasizes the natural qualities of food and the connection of the raw resources to nature, represents a swing in the pendulum away from highly-manipulated cuisine that is more detached from nature.
AZ.com: Nordic cuisine is hot right now all over the world. What is it about this city that’s so parochial that the Bachelor Farmer is the first Scandinavian restaurant to be embraced by locals?
PB: I’m not sure “parochial” is the way I would describe the Twin Cities. I get where one would say that, but I wouldn’t, necessarily. In fact, I have a sense that the people of the Twin Cities really do appreciate challenging themselves to new experiences and enjoy being challenged by restaurants. The success of Travail in Robbinsdale is a great example of this. I have learned, over the past three years, to be confident in taking more risks, in large part because of the response that we receive from our customers when we do take risks.
AZ.com: You were one of the first restaurants to put toasts on the menu, now it’s become a trend. Where did the concept come from?
PB: The idea for toast on our menu came from Eric Dayton. It was a wonderful idea, one that made so much sense with our cuisine. It’s the most hands-on part of our menu, giving diners a chance to interact with the food and each other.
AZ.com: 5 Twin Cities chefs who are really impressing you these days?
PB: Jamie Malone; Gavin Kaysen, for making a big bet on a small city; Solveig Tofte (even though she’s a baker), for the work she is doing to bring locally-grown grains to the Twin Cities; Jim Christiansen; and JD Fratzke.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
PB: My wife, Kelli, just made a great rhubarb crisp that’s sustaining me for breakfast this week. Homemade kimchi. It’s often a staple of our meals. It is also the main ingredient of something that I swear by (also in my fridge, currently): kimchi dip. That’s kimchi puréed with cream cheese. Nothing fancy about it, but you’ll never stop eating it. Especially if there are wheat thins in the pantry!
About Paul Berglund
Paul Berglund attended the University of Michigan before serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy. He began his cooking career at the acclaimed Oliveto restaurant in Oakland, CA. During his time there, he rose from line cook to chef de cuisine and gained a deep-rooted appreciation for simple and honest cooking. Paul and his wife relocated to Minneapolis in 2010. In 2011, he joined The Bachelor Farmer as executive chef. Paul was a nominee for the 2014 James Beard Awards Best Chef: Midwest.