Before he became a world-renowned Michelin-starred chef, Björn Frantzén was a professional footballer in his native Sweden; and right now he’s comparing those two things.
‘They’re not so dissimilar as you might think,’ the one-time AIK player is saying. ‘In both, there are high expectations, it’s competitive, you need to work hard to be the best, and you want to be part of a great team. You probably sweat more in the kitchen than on the pitch, though.’
He thinks for a moment.
‘But watching someone enjoy your food is actually about the closest feeling I’ve come outside of football to scoring a goal. It’s that same high, the same thrill.’
Björn is cooking up new records at Dubai’s Enigma restaurant in Palazzo Versace hotel.
It is a culinary feeling this 39-year-old has been getting used to for some time now – and which, this summer, he hopes to achieve here in Dubai too. For three months from the end of April, he will take over the kitchens at Enigma restaurant at Palazzo Versace hotel in the Culture Village. More of which shortly.
For now, there’s no doubt Björn’s reputation precedes him.
His own eponymous restaurant in Stockholm is widely considered one of the finest fine dining houses on the planet. It has two Michelin stars and was named 12th on the annual World’s Best 50 Restaurants countdown in 2013. The same year, Swedish food critics voted him the country’s best chef.
Among his most ardent fans is the country’s king Carl XVI Gustaf. ‘He told me it was the best food he’d ever tasted,’ says the father-of-two. ‘But I don’t know, though. Does he say that to everyone?’
It was a long – and sometimes painful – road from professional footballer to feeder of royalty, as it turns out.
Björn was just 15 when he signed professional terms with AIK – arguably Sweden’s third-biggest club – and everyone expected he would go on to a glittering future. ‘But I had a heart problem, just something I was born with,’ he says matter-of-factly today.
‘I had surgery but it didn’t work out as hoped so… yeah. I don’t like to talk about it so much. I couldn’t carry on playing. I had no choice. It was a blow, of course. It was what I’d dreamed of doing since I was seven or eight so it hurt.’
So did what came next. At the time, Sweden was still a country with national conscription. Björn was ordered to join the army for a year. He became, naturally given what was to follow, a military cook.
‘Some people ask is that where I first learned how to be a chef?’ he says. ‘Not really. You don’t learn so much when you’re cooking out in the middle of a forest at -30°C. The only thing you learn is how cold that is. You’re concentrating on survival more than on pushing gastronomic boundaries, you know?’
Nevertheless, after his year of service was done he managed to get a job at Edsbacka Krog, a (now closed) Stockholm restaurant that was arguably Sweden’s finest at the time. Björn, who had attended culinary college part time while playing football, spent 12 months there before moving on to London’s famous Chez Nico followed by the equally highbrow Pied à Terre in the same city, and eventually on to L’Arpège in Paris. How was working in three of Europe’s most legendary restaurants?
‘Painful,’ he says. ‘It’s hard work and long hours. You don’t do anything but work and sleep. You take a lot of abuse from people above you because the standards are so high and the pressure so great. I was living in terrible accommodation because I couldn’t afford anything else. I was working in these incredible kitchens but getting back to my digs in the middle of the night and living on Snickers and cans of cola. It was pretty bad.’
Why did he put up with it?
‘To learn,’ he says. ‘I wanted to be with the best.’
He always dreamed of opening his own restaurant (‘all chefs do, whatever they say’) and finally did so, back home in Stockholm, in 2008. Frantzén/Lindeberg was a collaboration with friend Daniel Lindeberg and it earned its first Michelin star within a year.
Although his partner left, amicably, in 2013 and the 20-cover house became simply Frantzén, it has continued to thrive in an ever-growing Nordic dining scene.
Björn has amassed many fans with Frantzén, including Sweden’s king Carl XVI Gustaf, and a more enthusiastic fan who cried over his meal.
Foodies travel from across the world to enjoy its 14 course, Dh1,200 set menu. The waiting list can reach six months. Of particular note is the signature dish, a creation called satio tempestas, which contains more than 40 different seasonal vegetables at any one time. And, although it’s now slipped to number 31 on the aforementioned World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, that’s still a pretty phenomenal effort for a place that’s been open the best part of a decade.
‘I think Nordic food is becoming more recognised and that’s a good thing. It’s pretty unique. What you have in Scandinavia is four very defined, strong seasons, very different; and that means you have different ingredients that are fresh depending on the time of the year, so it’s ever-changing.’
He says that seeing someone cry with joy at one of his dishes has been his own personal finest moment as a chef.
‘I am a very creative person,’ he says. ‘That’s why I became a chef in the first place. I like that you can make something that gives pleasure to people. So when you see you have had such a strong reaction on someone, this is very special. This makes all the hard work worthwhile.’
He’s still working hard too. He’s achieved plenty already but he wants more. He’s ambitious. In Stockholm he has opened four more places to complement Frantzén. They are more relaxed affairs, more affordable, gastropubs and casual venues. He is also currently working on a diabetes cookbook with wife Sara after their youngest daughter, Lieah, 5, was diagnosed with the condition.
But these next three months in Dubai will be the first time he has run a restaurant overseas. He will take over at Enigma from April 20. It is part of the venue’s Untold Story series where a new international chef is flown in every quarter to create a new menu.
‘It’s really exciting for me,’ says Björn, who had never been to the UAE previously. ‘Dubai is such a surreal, crazy place. And there are 6,000 Scandinavians here so the restaurant should be right at home.’
His concept will be called Journey of a Nordic Chef and the hotel claims it is set to be an ‘interactive experience’. Presumably, no one told them that, strictly speaking, all food is an interactive experience.
‘Dubai has a great food scene at the moment,’ says Björn as our interview starts to wrap up. ‘I’m looking forward to being part of that for a few months.’