At Biskopsudden, there’s stood an empty lot since 2009, when the restaurant Lisa På Udden burned down. That vacant lot on Djurgården was eventually picked up by the award-winning chef Tommy Myllymäki from Katrineholm. The result is Myllymäki’s biggest project to date, a 600-square-metre building with gigantic windows providing a view over the water. Aira, as the restaurant has been named, opens its doors on March 20.
At first glance, the tavern at Ulriksdal, closed for renovation, looks empty. The door is locked and there are no visible signs of life inside. But the distant sounds of Ray Charles’ I’ve Got A Woman makes me curiously walk around the building where I through a window see a woman in an apron with her hands full of crops, who points me where to go. I walk through a large metal door at the side of the building, and I’m met by a flurry of activity. Things are chopped, whipped and tasted while people laugh in the busy kitchen. Feeling out of place, I tiptoe further inside the kitchen into the core of the tavern. There sit about 20 people, with their eyes pointed at Tommy Myllymäki, who stands at the end of the table dressed in a knitted white sweater. He lifts his gaze and acknowledges my arrival with a smile and direct me towards the glass pavilion for a coffee while he rounds off his planning meeting with the people involved in the opening of Aira.
After a little while he picks me up in the pavilion, now in full chef attire and with coffee in hand, whereupon we leave the tumultuous area behind to relocate upstairs in a calmer setting. While we walk the stairs he tells me they still cannot move into the newly erected Aira building out on Blockhusudden. Not until Monday next week. Only five short days before the first test panel of guests will come for a visit. To have a chance to get the kitchen staff in order and make all the dishes, they have taken up residence here temporarily, at the closed Ulriksdal’s Värdshus. All of the chefs and staff that I have met or seen here in the house are part of the team for Aira. We sit down with a view out over the garden to talk things through.
Your first restaurant at Julitta Wärdshus opened in 2007, how many restaurants have you been involved in opening since then?
It’s actually not that many. I have done a couple of projects in Jönköping that we opened in pretty short order. I was both young and naïve back then, so with hindsight I could have done things differently. But I don’t have any regrets because I have learnt a lot on the way. When I look in the rear view mirror I realise that one of the things I have learned is that you need to make something be able to stand on its own legs before you even begin to think about moving on to the next thing.
How are you able to do so many things during such a short space of time?
I don’t really know if I do so many things but I have lots of good people around me who make sure that my thoughts and ideas are put to practice. That has been key. Plus I’m not afraid to dig in and work a lot myself. I have always done that, perhaps too much. Now I’m trying to calm down because I need to prioritise other things in life too.
Do you still go running every morning?
In the beginning running was a way of getting back into shape. I’m not going to shy away from the fact that it was hell in the beginning but I knew that if I persisted it would eventually became a habit. And since the habit kicked in I have felt so much better and I have gotten to know a lot of new friends who enrich my everyday life. When I meet my running mates we can talk food and restaurants, but we can also talk about completely different things too. I’m just part of the group, as a runner, not as a chef, and that can be refreshing.
Do you feel it’s important to have a social circle outside of the restaurant business?
I really think so! With my childhood friends for example I have a long history of course. What each individual has made into a career is of lesser importance because you share a history that is based on something much stronger. When we socialise I’m not a famous person or a successful chef, I’m just Tommy. If you’re a face that’s in the media and people become your friend on that basis, the relationship becomes very superficial.
Do you have the time to take a weekend off or a holiday?
The fact is that when I sold the restaurants in Jönköping in 2015 the idea was to open up here at Ulriksdals Värdshus, but we quickly realised that it would drag on so it became a year where I took it pretty easy. In the beginning it was hard but after a while I realised that I was becoming a better person, both towards myself and towards the people around me, through resting somewhat instead of going full tilt all the time. That was helpful insight to me. It sounds like a cliché but balance is a very important factor in your well-being, both physically and mentally. Today we talk about poor mental health in a different way. Before you just went full speed ahead, some were fine doing that, some weren’t. Especially within the restaurant trade. Somewhere it’s important insight to know how to also have the time to enjoy life.
What do you prefer doing when you’re not working?
I’d most rather do nothing. When the mind finds peace and you are fishing without getting any fish but still think it’s nice, that’s a good feeling. Even if I’m not a keen fisher, I still think it’s delightful to do such things. Undemanding things that really just mean you become one with nature. Where it doesn’t take a lot of gadgets to do what you want and instead just revert back to the simplest of things. That’s where I find my peace. I’m most relaxed when life is at its simplest. We have a place in Finland by the village where my mother comes from, the way you wash yourself up there is in a wooden-fired sauna where you cook the water you pour over your neck, whereupon you cool yourself off in the lake so as to not continue sweating. Life up there is so simple. You might look at yourself in the mirror on the first day, but then you stop caring how you look. It’s irrelevant. You only question whether you’re going fishing or just staying home and doing nothing. I have stayed at luxury hotels and resorts all over the world, but to me that’s nothing in comparison.
The chef of the year, Bocuse d’Or and loads more awards and prizes. Are you a winner that aims for the biggest prizes or are you just a very good chef?
Awards have followed as a result of through single-mindedness and a good portion of sacrifices in terms of time. In almost every aspect of what I have done I’m a product of hard work. I need to struggle for a few hours before something works out. But I might have some talent when it comes to some fundamental aspects of cooking and a passion for it, which enables me to reach a certain level. Whether you call it a devoted interest, talent or ability, it’s needed to reach the winner’s stand in food competitions. It could have something to do with a very aesthetically-driven side or, like for me, a strong taste-driven side that is complimented by other things. Dedication and devotion in the shape of many, many hours of work, and never giving up, has proved fruitful in the end. It hasn’t been the easiest of paths but still, you are out there looking for something you haven’t done before. It demands discipline and sacrifice just like any pro level sport. When you reach for a level above the average achievement, you need to put a lot of other things to the side.
There is an ever-growing list of TV chefs. Netflix release an abundance of food shows and in Sweden there’s Matkanalen (The Food Channel). Why do you think the interest in food has grown so much today?
Partly because the information and enlightenment around food has made more people curious. I would liken it to those home carpentry shows that grew so popular a couple of years ago and all of a sudden everyone was at it at home. And then I think that food is a big issue in society, unfortunately it’s also a question of social class. If you look at the US good food is often very expensive while bad food is cheap, which of course leads to poorer people eating unhealthy food and food of lesser quality since it’s cheaper. In Sweden I think the interest in food has become larger due to its big share of attention it gets from our media. Before you bought clothing, a car or a TV to show off your social status. Today that’s not as relevant, instead it’s reflected in what food you cook at home or what restaurants you visit. It’s a bit like taste in music and genre affiliation. Food can reflect your identity today in a very different way than it has before. Through that I think food interest has grown. Today all various food cultures are represented in Sweden, if you go out dining in Stockholm you can find almost everything and through these food cultures the kitchens get very inspired. I think that’s great!
For how long did you and the founder of restaurant group Svenska Brasserier, PG Nilsson, walk around with an idea to open something together before you got around to it?
PG and I got to know each other in 2011 when I was doing a guest appearance at Sturehof after I won the silver medal in Bocuse D’Or. Then he asked if I wanted to work within Svenska Brasserier as a sounding board for new menus and concepts for the group’s restaurants. We were in New York on a trip together and discussed the idea of what the concept should be. And then when I competed in Bocuse for the second time in 2014 the thoughts about doing something began to shoot up for real. Together we began to look for a good location when this lot at Blockhusudden appeared. It was, literally, a chance to really build something from the ground up!
What’s your thinking around the menu at Aira?
The idea is to never stop tinkering with the menu. To summarise in short, the menu has its starting point in the various seasons, with international flavouring or techniques that can be inspired by any place in the whole world. The main raw produce will always be seasonal, say if it’s springtime, then the asparagus season is in full flow. It doesn’t mean that the asparagus must be served with Nordic accompaniments. We could grill it and make an Asian sauce for flavouring instead. In the autumn there will be Swedish venison when we follow the hunting season, but that doesn’t mean that the meat only can be served with cream stewed chanterelles. We are not calling Aira the world’s most sustainable restaurant, but we want to stick to common sense, use the whole of the produce and understand just why we use certain produce. We are knowledgeable about the products we use and don’t just close our eyes and point towards what goes onto our plates. We don’t wish to make it into a self-sustaining household with only Nordic produce, which would force us to pickle, preserve, cure and freeze everything every summer. We certainly do to a certain extent to enrich the flavours during the wintertime, but we don’t want to solely keep to that thinking, as it would be constraining in a way.
As you have mentioned yourself, Aira will the best restaurant in the world. How are you going to reach that goal?
It was actually PG that said that, and at the same time he said it I asked what he meant. This thing with ‘the best restaurant in the world’ is so subjective; it’s all down to occasion. Sometimes the little neighbourhood restaurant in a Roman alley you just happen to stumble upon is the best restaurant in the world, there and then. You just cannot say what restaurant is the best in the world, on the other hand when you have been to Aira I want you to feel that you want to come back and that there’s more to experience. That’s why we have both a tasting menu and an a la carte menu so the guests can come and either try the whole menu or just choose a new dish. Just like I sit here in Sweden contemplating where in the world I want to go to eat, in a few years I want someone in for example New York to sit and contemplate going to Stockholm to eat at Aira because it seems exciting. It won’t be like that from the very beginning but we work towards a goal of becoming a destination, and I think we can reach that goal. That’s the most important thing according to me, in that case I would be super satisfied.
What are you most worried about here before opening Aira?
I’m the most worried that I won’t be happy with the choices we have made in the form of interior design, vases, cutlery and plates. The food is always changeable. If we have something that I’m not happy with we can just change it until tomorrow or we just scrap it off the menu, you can always do that. The same thing goes for our choices of wines, we can just change it. As for the interiors… it’s one thing if there is a table and a vase to have as a starting point, and to style from there. But we have begun with a plot of land, we have sketches of a house and of furniture but we have never set the table in our new building yet, even today. We’ll first do that on Monday and then things will begin to fall into place. To realise then that I’m unhappy with my choices I have made is what I’m most worried about. Decisions on hard assets are absolute in a way that decisions on food aren’t.
Aira is the biggest passion project to date in your career, right? Have you thought about gearing down after you have opened the doors or is it full steam ahead?
It absolutely is! And there won’t be any more projects now like this. I have put up a three-year plan in my head for how I want us to develop. I can’t see longer than three years ahead at this stage. I have a clear vision and if we move in that direction we’ll be on our way. Projects of this magnitude take so long to do and there are so many people involved in Aira now so I feel that the least I can do is to give it 100 percent dedication. As I said, if we have people who in three years decide to visit Sweden or Stockholm because they’re attracted to eat at Aira, we have at least reached my target.