An Icelandic Chef is Lost & Found
Victoria Elíasdóttir comes home to the country where she grew up, rediscovering the raw natural beauty of its vast landscapes and the powerful flavors that connect her to this extraordinary place.
I am following chef Victoria Elíasdóttir along a narrow path of black dirt within a vast landscape of craggy basaltic hills veiled by a carpet of emerald-green wild grasses. We are lost, searching for the remote Hveradalur hot springs, but it’s so beautiful here no one cares.
A call to her half brother, the renowned artist Olafur Eliasson, sorts things out, and 10 minutes later we are looking at our destination from above: a narrow, sinuous valley of black rocky slopes dropping into electric green fields. Clouds of steam billow up from a narrow stream that cuts through its center.
Despite our difficulty locating the springs, when we arrive there are a few dozen people floating contentedly in the slow-flowing water. In a way, it’s the lack of clear signs and organized tourism that appeals to most visitors to Iceland. Getting lost is the point. Eating well is a bonus.
For the next 72 hours the young chef and (indirectly) her artist brother guide me through Iceland’s transcendent landscapes and emerging food scene. The raw natural beauty of their homeland has been a huge influence on both siblings. Olafur says his work has strong connections to Iceland’s extremes of light: the endless darkness in the winters, the midnight sun in the summers. These are the inspirations for unforgettable pieces like his "sun" installation at London’s Tate Modern.
As for his sister, Nordic vistas and childhood memories inspire her cooking. At Dóttir, Victoria’s new restaurant in Berlin, the visually striking four-course menu changes weekly but always starts with homemade bread and a bowl of brown butter. The main course might be a thin slice of Baltic cod alongside slow-cooked beef cheek in a sweet malt reduction. Desserts—fennel ice cream with lemon curd and caramelized sunflower seeds, or Icelandic whey cream with licorice meringues and blackberry sorbet—are simple in presentation but unexpectedly complex in flavor.
"Although it’s technically demanding, it seems very straightforward," Olafur says about his sister’s cooking. He points out that though there is nothing on Dóttir’s menu to announce it, the food is very sustainable and eco-friendly, relying on line—caught fish from nearby lakes and the Baltic Sea. (Unsurprisingly, Victoria did a stint at Chez Panisse before she came to Berlin in 2014.) "This cooking is proof that you can do world-class cuisine with a strong sense of ethics around it," Olafur says.
In addition to overseeing Dóttir, Victoria also pitches in at her brother’s massive Berlin atelier, which he outfitted with a professional kitchen and rooftop garden. Every afternoon a chef serves the staff of 90 a slow-cooked, usually vegetarian lunch. Phaidon is publishing a highly designed cookbook of the studio’s favorite recipes, called Studio Olafur Eliasson: The Kitchen. The siblings are now working on a second cookbook together. It would please their late father, who was both an artist and a chef on a fishing boat. "He took what he could out of the ocean and made the most of it," Olafur says.
Victoria begins our tour of the capital with a strong double latte at Reykjavík Roasters. The small, light-filled café with a working coffee bean roaster in the middle of the room is a new discovery for her; it wasn’t there when she went to culinary school in the city a decade ago. On this return trip she wants to introduce me to some of the people she cooked with and to meet the new generation of chefs she’s been hearing about.
But first, we explore downtown, a grid of narrow streets lined with cafés, tourist shops selling sweaters and T-shirts, and colorful houses with corrugated metal roofs. Around the corner from Reykjavík Roasters is the monumental Hallgrímskirkja, a modernist church that is a massive arrow of concrete.
One of the young Icelandic chefs that Victoria has heard a lot about is Gísli Matthías Audunsson. The 27-year-old, a veteran of Reykjavík’s famed Dill restaurant, lives in both the Westman Islands and Reykjavík, where he recently opened a place called Matur og Drykkur. It’s near the harbor, in the same building as the Saga Icelandic history museum. A pub-like restaurant with 18 tables, Matur og Drykkur is named after a cookbook of traditional Icelandic recipes, first published in 1947.
"It's interesting that Audunsson is showing respect for the local cuisine and proving that it’s worth digging into," Victoria says. "I find it amazing how creative people here have to be. Icelandic winters are long and there aren’t many things to cook with. Maybe some potatoes and flour and pickled vegetables and fish."
At Matur og Drykkur, those seasonal restrictions have bred an obsession with the small details. The cooks make the most of their ingredients, often using them in recipes inspired by the old cookbook. Gísli and his team transform his grandmother’s fish soup into a halibut soup with whey, dried fruits, mussels and dill oil.
We walk along the industrial harbor to the stunning Harpa concert hall, an iceberg of a building built of glass and steel. The dramatic, hive-like facade was designed by Victoria's brother. He turns light into another element of the design, reflecting the sun’s rays like a kaleidoscope onto the floors and walls. On the fourth floor is a sleek restaurant and cocktail bar, Kolabrautin, which serves Nordic-style Italian dishes from the young chef Georg Arnar Halldórsson. (He adds the ubiquitous whey to a sauce for oven-roast cod and bottarga.) "I would love to come back and do a dinner here one day," says Victoria. I couldn't help but think how perfect it would be if she had a restaurant in the middle of her brother's iceberg of glass.
That night we meet a few of her chef friends at the gastropub Sæmundur í Sparifötunum. It’s in the Kex Hostel, which is like a cozy Nordic version of an Ace Hotel. Kex means cookie; the property is in a former cookie factory. There’s a large, buzzing bar in the middle of the room, an open kitchen and a few musicians playing in the lounge. It would feel like the world’s coolest college dorm if it wasn’t for the crowd of young families and older couples at the tables. A team of tattooed chefs plate next-level bar food: slow-cooked chicken thighs with local barley and cabbage, and monkfish carpaccio served with fermented pears.
Victoria’s mentor, Steinn Óskar Sigurdsson, is with us. During cooking school, Victoria worked for him for three years at Sjávarkjallarinn (Seafood Cellar), the city’s most ambitious restaurant at the time; he’s been named Iceland’s chef of the year. He looks over at Victoria sitting at the bar and says proudly, "She was one of three girls out of 38 people in her class. She is real talent. We hope she comes back to Iceland one day."
Only three of the 15 Westman Islands are visible as we board a ferry at a small port on the mainland, about a two-hour drive from Reykjavík. Some 30 minutes later, we’re cruising by sharp, twisted slate-hued cliffs that shoot straight up from the dark sea, like a Game of Thrones setting. Seabirds fly around us. An opening appears and we pull into a small harbor. We had traveled all this way to meet chef Gísli Matthías Audunsson.
Audunsson, who is from the Westman Islands, returned a few years ago to open Slippurinn in a former fishing-equipment storage building. When we arrive, he’s prepping in his long rectangular kitchen but leads us to a small car. "No matter how busy we are, I always go out and forage and then come back ready to rock the night," he says as we drive away from his restaurant. About 15 minutes later, we pull into a cove of black sand surrounded by dunes.
"This is one of my favorite places," Audunsson explains as he gets down on his knees and begins harvesting plants. "I find a lot of wild oyster leaves and arctic thyme here." Victoria joins in. One of her goals on this trip is to leave with a suitcase filled with arctic thyme, which grows wild on sandy and gravelly soil, and gives off a heady scent of lavender. "I love it in almost everything, from meat dishes to dessert," she says. "I used to pick it with my dad, and we'd dry it and make tea." She also uses it in a marinade for leg of lamb, mixing it with garlic and honey to make a crust on the meat as it roasts.
Audunsson mentions the Nordic movement inspired by chefs like Copenhagen’s René Redzepi and says he’s excited to see what the new generation of Icelandic chefs will contribute. He wants the country’s ambitious restaurants to be more accessible. "I'd like it to be normal to see mashed potatoes with smoked buttermilk and langoustines with seaweed and oyster leaves," he says, referring to dishes he serves. "Why aren’t we all using seaweed, sorrel, rhubarb? Rhubarb grows wild all over the island. Seaweed and oyster leaves we just pick up at the beach."
Back at Slippurinn, we sit at a long, worn wood table and eat a feast of small dishes: tender sole flavored with pickled elderflower capers, and langoustines with the just-picked oyster leaves. "I love how the taste of oyster leaves transports you to the ocean," says Victoria.
Another chef friend of Victoria’s is working for a Westman Islands travel outfitter called Ribsafari, which offers boat trips. At the harbor, we suit up in massive waterproof jumpsuits and climb into a powerful bright-yellow inflatable boat. The horsepower is so major, and the boat speeds up so quickly, it feels like we are flying over the water. We cruise by rock formations that look like monumental sculptures; one is shaped like an elephant’s head. We slow down at the yawning mouth of a volcanic cave. Inside, light reflects off the water onto the black stone walls and soaring ceiling, giving the place the feel of a church. A table is laid with glasses of white wine and plates of cured lamb. It's the world's most beautiful dining room.
Victoria is reminded of road trips with her parents and sometimes with her brother. They’d pack picnics with rich egg salad and seeded bread. Later, recalling those trips, Olafur says, "When you’re out in this amazing landscape, a piece of bread with butter and wild arctic thyme can be an unbelievable treasure. That's what Victoria is trying to do with her cooking: to bring a little magic into everyday life."