Test Kitchen Brings Victoria Eliasdóttir of Berlin's Hottest Restaurant to Hong Kong
Named by Bloomberg as one of Berlin's best new restaurants, Dóttir has gained critical acclaim since opening in 2015, with its simple and pristine cuisine inspired by the Nordic lands where executive chef Victoria Eliasdóttir was born and raised. Ahead of a Test Kitchen four-day pop-up dinner in Hong Kong, we sit down with chef Victoria to discuss her cooking philosophy, favorite ingredients and how necessity has led to the rise of Nordic cuisine around the world.
How did you get started in cooking? My mom is Swedish and my father is from Denmark, so I grew up with Icelandic and Danish cooking: probably more on the Danish side. I studied in Iceland and started working in this business from age 16, both waitressing and bartending. I kind of just fell in love with the business from there. My father was a chef and I was used to eating good food! In Iceland we have the same kind of learning system like in Denmark where you can just find a restaurant and sign on like a student or intern and I was lucky to get into the restaurant that I really, really liked [Seafood Cellar in Reykjavik]. It was number one in fine dining at the time with a focus on seafood, fish and Icelandic products .
What was the journey like to open Dóttir in Berlin? At the end of 2013 my brother was living in Berlin and trying to get me to come over, but I had no idea what I would do there. I got to know [Dóttir owner] Stefan and he already had a couple of restaurants and was experienced in the business. He said to me, "Let's open a restaurant." I didn’t take him seriously at first, but it all moved pretty quickly from there. I moved out to Berlin, lived at my brother's studio and we got started on the project very quickly. We started renovating in November and opened in February 2015.
Did you have a concept in mind for the start? The only thing I started out with was knowing I wanted to do something with fresh fish. It's quite challenging to find in Berlin, so not a lot of restaurants were focusing on it. You would have to go to a Michelin or expensive high-end restaurant in order to have good fish. Opening this restaurant, I had a super hard time finding chefs who understood Scandinavian cooking and the Nordic aspect of the food that we wanted to do. But then we found [sous chef] Filip Soendergaard and I immediately knew it was going to work out: So we opened just like that, without much of a backup plan. When we first opened we were only doing like 20 covers a night and we had a lot of assistance from friends and other restaurants. It was like a puzzle, but we just fit in what we had and worked from there.
How would you describe your style of cooking and Nordic cuisine? It's not so much a trend as a philosophy of cooking that grew out of a need to use what we have. In the Nordic countries we don’t have a thousand kinds of exotic foods or amazing produce so it's basically: do the best with what you have. In Nordic cuisine we follow a set of rules. It has to be very regional and we'll use a lot of substitutions, such as vinegar for acidity rather than lemons. We don't use any dried spices, so food really just tastes like what it is. You'll see a lot of fish and root vegetables like beet root, parsnip and parsley root. We use ingredients that can survive the harsh weather in the Nordic countries, so a lot of potatoes and heavy vegetables. You'd think cooking with ingredients like potatoes would make a dish super heavy, but it's actually a very light style of cooking.
What can we expect from the Hong Kong pop-up? We're presenting a seven-course menu with a few of our favorite dishes from the restaurant changed up for the event. We want to introduce this style of cooking to Hong Kong diners and get them to maybe see a vegetable or fish in a new light, give them something to think about. One of my favorite ingredients we're bringing with us is the whey that's used in the dessert. It's a sweet caramelized Norwegian cheese that's popular in Iceland. It's all about creating comforting food. We don't try to put some ants on a stone and call it Nordic cuisine. What we do is try to make really good, tasty food that looks beautiful on the plate. We don’t want to over-complicate it at all, we just want to cook great food that makes people feel good and want to come back.