In more than 15 years of covering the culinary scene in Europe and southeast Asia, I’ve had the privilege of dining at dozens of singular restaurants, from Copenhagen to Sydney. I have covered all the trends, from molecular cuisine to zero-waste vegan kitchens; I’ve road‑tripped with celebrity chef José Andrés through the north of Spain, and pilgrimaged to remote Buddhist temples in Korea with David Chang to taste vegetarian temple food so flavourful that he quite literally begged the nuns for their ancient recipes.
Many of those meals were, of course, memorable, but the one that still stands out sharpest in my mind is without stars (the Michelin kind anyway), without tablecloths, without a conventional professional kitchen – in fact, without walls. Called Vuurtoreneiland (the Lighthouse Island), the restaurant is located on a tiny windswept islet in the middle of the IJsselmeer, in the Netherlands. Although it’s a fairly well-kept secret nationally, all of its 50 to 60 seats regularly sell out two months in advance in just minutes.
The meal begins before you even arrive. Guests are collected at a dock a short drive from Amsterdam’s central station in an elegant 1920s ferryboat, and served an aperitivo with a perfectly curated picnic box of handmade charcuterie, fresh bread, seasonal crudités and homemade butter. About an hour later they are delivered to a ship-sized fragment of land populated by some sheep, an obscured 19th-century bunker and a small lighthouse. A path meandering between grassy knolls leads to a dramatic open-sided tent-shaped structure made of wood and glass.
To be served a five-course meal here – some of it foraged from the island itself and cooked over open fires – while watching the sun set over the IJsselmeer, when an hour before the cacophony of a large city rang loud, is both exceptional and exceptionally disorientating. Somehow everything, from the taste of the food to the landscape, is cast into sharper relief by the transient nature of the experience.
For a few years now, chefs like René Redzepi of the world-famous Noma and Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken, in remote Sweden, have inspired others to hunt and gather outstanding seasonal ingredients from nature. Now, however, there are chefs taking it a step further and moving their cooking off the grid entirely. It’s a small but growing culinary movement; call it wild dining. It embraces the best of being in nature – fresh air, stunning landscapes and potent solitude – and enhances it with world-class cuisine.
My first meal on Vuurtoreneiland was in 2013, the summer it opened; founder Brian Boswijk and his team were still experimenting with their model. Four years later I went again, and both infrastructure and food had vastly improved. They still cook everything over fire, but their techniques have evolved: from charring certain ingredients directly on hot coals to subtly smoking them with hay, for instance. And having created a dramatic atmospheric indoor space in the old bunker, they are now open in winter too. In 2017, they also enlisted a new chef, Thijs Steur, whose training includes stints in stellar Dutch restaurants Lastage and Le Hollandais. “Francis Mallmann is a huge inspiration for us,” says Boswijk, citing the Argentinian chef of outsized talent and character who is famous for cooking over fire. “And of course, Redzepi and his passion for foraging and traditional preserving techniques.”
Perhaps no episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table captured the imagination of young aspiring cooks more than the one that featured Mallmann grilling over flames in the depths of Patagonia with the focus and passion of Paul Gauguin painting en plein air on Tahiti. Mallmann – who in his 20s trained and worked at some of the best restaurants in France, then brought modern French cuisine back to Argentina – became the first non-European to be awarded the Grand Prix de l’Art de la Cuisine. But despite the accolades, at the age of 40 he felt restless and unsatisfied. “I realised that I didn’t have my own culinary voice,” says Mallmann, now in his 60s. “I was emulating the incredible cooking culture of France, and it gave me so much, but it wasn’t me.” He slowly started to pick up the tools and techniques of the Argentinian gauchos and embraced the “gestures of fire and the tastes it created, and brought some of those ashes into my restaurant,” he poetically recalls.
In 2009 – just as the molecular gastronomy movement, innovated by the legendary Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, was peaking – Mallmann published his book Seven Fires. “It was the complete opposite of what was happening,” he smiles now. “But I think it was a voice that slowly captured some people and became another way of being in the fine-dining arena.”
“I didn’t invent it,” he hastens to add. “Like the return to foraging, cooking with fire has to do with a fascination with the collective human memory and the communal.” Several times a year, Mallmann hosts culinary trips to his secluded private Patagonian island drifting in faraway Lago La Plata, where guests learn how to cook over fire – and more importantly, according to Mallmann, to disconnect from modern civilisation. “The first day I just make everyone sit around the fire and watch it from initial spark to ash,” he says.
One recent afternoon, under the cool shade of pine and birch trees in Skåne County, southern Sweden, I gazed, similarly transfixed, at flames dancing in a modern fire pit: a massive metal cauldron that could have been soldered by Donald Judd. Forager Camilla Jönsson placed several trout fillets, caught in a lake just steps away, on the lip of the pit – called a Feuerring, she explained, and crafted by an artist in Switzerland. Jönsson, who founded Robusta Äventyr, a company that curates outdoor experiences in this part of Sweden, said that as of this spring, this lovely wooded spot near her farm is one of more than a dozen sites, in natural landscapes throughout the country, across which the tourism board recently launched an innovative project called The Edible Country. Four of Sweden’s most famous Michelin-starred chefs – among them Niklas Ekstedt and Titti Qvarnström – were recruited to come up with site-specific multicourse menus with ingredients that guests could forage for and then prepare, using custom grills, and eat at custom-built tables. Guests can go it alone or book extras like a local chef or a foraging guide.
If Sweden, and Scandinavia in general, are at the forefront of the wild-dining scene, Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken is its pioneer, one of the first to lure urbanites to tables in remote wildernesses. More recently there has been Stedsans in the Woods, an open-air kitchen-restaurant on 17 acres on a forested lakeshore, conceived and built over the course of several years by the Danish couple Mette Helbæk and Flemming Hansen. In Skåne alone, I discovered a surprising diversity of open-air culinary experiences, from a down-to-earth bespoke experience called Soppverket, where a couple cooks soup and bread for you over fire, to cocktails and dessert in the beautiful landscaped gardens of the two-Michelin-star chef Daniel Berlin. One of the most cultish restaurants in the region is Hörte Brygga, a beach shack hidden in a tiny fishing port with both indoor and outdoor kitchens, co-owned by Martin Sjöstrand, a Magnus Nilsson prodigy.
The UK is also fertile wild-dining ground, though here the phenomenon tends to take more the form of secret pop-up suppers in the style of the long-table dinners and “tribal banquets” one finds at summer festivals such as Wilderness, The Good Life Experience and Lost Village. In Scotland, the exclusive event planner and stylist Amanda Farnese Heath has launched The Mad March Hare, alfresco culinary experiences that are like something out of a children’s book. Mark Andrews, founder of Fire + Wild, has been foraging for most of his life; around two years ago he slowly began to organise open-air meals for small groups in and around East Sussex and Kent, and now one of his most popular nomadic dinners is a Mushroom Forage + Feast. “We take guests on a guided walk with a mycologist and a truffle dog, and end up cooking with the mushrooms we foraged, complete with wine pairings,” Andrews tells me. The self-taught chef assumed his clients would be, as he describes it, “east London hipsters and kids in their 20s and 30s – but I’d say 90 per cent of my guests are older, more sophisticated city folk, the opposite of what I expected.”
From Skåne I drove on to Wanås, a white, step-gabled, 15th-century castle surrounded by about 9,000 acres of forest and fields that is the site of one of northern Europe’s largest organic dairy farms, and also of a world-renowned sculpture park. In the ’80s, Marika Wachtmeister, a lawyer who married into an aristocratic Swedish family, moved with her husband Carl-Gustaf and their children into his family castle. Soon after, she began to invite her favourite artists to exhibit works in and on the estate. Although most of those first site-specific installations were shown in the castle’s English-style parkland, things officially went off-piste in the early ’90s, when artist Gloria Friedmann pushed to exhibit her piece Stigma – a massive curved concrete wall painted red – deep in the forest next to an ancient oak tree. Today, there are dozens of site-specific works hidden in the natural landscape, from Marina Abramovic’s The Hunt Chair for Animal Spirits, a ladder-like chair of metal lined with antlers, to Jenny Holzer’s Wanås Wall, her truisms carved very small in individual stones.
When the next generation of Wachtmeisters – Baltzar and his wife Kristina, an architect – took over the estate in 2014, they added a restaurant and a hotel within two separate historic stone farm buildings. For the Wachtmeisters and their current chefs, Henrik Eriksson and Lina Ahlin, a young couple who have worked at some of the most renowned restaurants in Stockholm, the obvious next step was to host bespoke feasts in the forest, among all the dramatic installations.
But then, “everything we do at Wanås is site-specific,” says Kristina, pouring wine into a crystal goblet for me. We’re sitting at a monumental wooden table positioned in a clearing dappled with golden-green light, with a privileged view of Old Sow Between Trees, a 7m-high semi-abstract head of a wild boar made from discarded logs and branches by the South African artist Hannelie Coetzee. It seems to peer at us, almost alive, from between two oaks. “It’s what the art is all about, but also the food. Each thing we are eating today is cultivated, hunted or harvested on these grounds, and then curated into an experience that can only happen right here, right now.”
Everything about that “now” was surreal. It was hard to know where to focus – on the massive sculpture that morphed in the changing light like an optical illusion; on the sublimely laid table, laden with bouquets of magenta potato blossoms in sleek teardrop-shaped metallic vases, centuries-old porcelain plates on silver chargers taken from the castle and a silver tray loaded with a cornucopia of vegetables just harvested from the estate’s gardens. Or on the food itself: flavourful dry-aged beef tartare from the farm’s cows, served on a bed of cheese made at its dairy; smoked almonds, fresh yellow beans and a variety of heirloom tomatoes. Sitting with us at the table was Anna Broms, one of Stockholm’s most beloved restaurateurs; her husband Henrik Bauer (Marika’s brother); and the writer Malin Elmlid. We spoke about African artists and Swedish restaurants; about the craft involved in baking good sourdough bread; and about the upcoming hunts at Wanås (the estate organises driven game shoots of wild boar, duck, pheasant, elk and red, fallow and roe deer from late August to the end of January).
Occasionally, a few art-park visitors would wander by on a small, worn dirt path and look at us, sitting at that elaborate feast; some clearly wondered if we constituted some sort of performance installation. And this restaurant without walls and without boundaries was indeed an art of sorts. As the sun sat on the horizon and the shadows reached across the forest floor, we ended the four-course meal with coffee in delicate porcelain cups and homemade cake dressed in raspberries and generous lashings of whipped cream, served on ancient pewter saucers. Soon, the sky would be gleaming with the only kind of stars that matter here.
This story was originally posted on October 23 2019.