Niklas Ekstedt: 'Kindness and human touch will always be more important than harsh and hard management - that needs to be history'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Niklas Ekstedt's restaurant at The Great Scotland Yard Hotel, 'ekstedt at the yard,' has only been open for four weeks, but he and his team have already made their mark on the capital's culinary scene.

The Michelin-starred Swedish chef has had his heart set on a restaurant in London for a long time - and so far, his experience has lived up to expectations. 

"I really like being in England," he said in an interview with The Staff Canteen.  "It's very much a vanity project for me because I've always wanted to be part of the London food scene and I've always enjoyed being here as well - skateboarding and enjoying the city a lot." 

The opportunity arose by chance, as the hotel was looking for a pop-up to fill the space once occupied by Robin Gill, but when the chef suggested he set up a permanent site, it was happy to proceed. 

All in all, despite what the chef calls "speedbumps," (i.e. Brexit, Covid et al.), he said, "the pleasure of having a restaurant up and running is almost greater when there's a little bit of difficulty." 

'I wouldn't say it's the brother, it's more like the cousin'

In terms of the food, Ekstedt at the Yard is comparable - but by no means identical - to what's on offer at the chef's flagship. 

"You can't move one thing to another location. It shouldn't be like a McDonald's or a Burger King."

"We're doing a lot of things that are very similar to the what we do in Stockholm," that is, refined food cooked solely over fire, "but of course I don't want it to be a copy. I want this restaurant to be the London restaurant, to have its own identity and to grow and evolve into what it is."

"We've moved into this space and made the restaurant with the techniques and the heritage that it has, but tried to give it its own character. So I wouldn't say it's the brother, it's more like the cousin."

One obvious difference is the use of British produce, which Niklas has been delighted to discover in all of its diversity. 

"I didn't think we were going to get such good produce everyday," he said.

"What I really like in England and that I really praise is the British vegetable and the whole supply chain when it comes to greens.

"Cabbage, carrots, celeriac, onions, leeks, all that are really really nice; also some of the foraged stuff I get from Scotland like mushrooms and wild things are amazing and the seafood from Cornwall is great. Overall, I'm really positively overwhelmed by the great products of England." 

a Level playing field

Off to a great start, Niklas said the kitchen team is "really strong," and not only that but "everyone loves what we're doing and really enjoy themselves a lot, which is really nice."

The structure of the team is such that there is no towering pecking order, nor is there a deep divide between the kitchen and the front of house team. 

"We break pyramids and work as one," he explained. 

The teams rotate between the front to back of house, and are able to fill in for one another, excluding the sommelier. 

"The cooks are supposed to know how to work as waiters and the waiters are supposed to know how to help out on the pass."

Meanwhile, Niklas' restaurant in Stockholm is in safe hands, as head chef Florencia Abella, who has been with him for four years, very much runs the show.

"I think she's really happy that I've left," he chuckled.

"Sometimes it's good to leave a restaurant and I think a lot of chefs like me - we're restless and we always want to change stuff and go into little details. Sometimes it's good to leave it and let it set a little bit and really get some air under its wings." 

England versus Sweden's response to Covid and the effect on the hospitality industry

Despite the Swedish and British governments' different approaches to dealing with the pandemic, the chef believes that the disrupting effect of the virus on the hospitality industry has been similar in both countries, especially when it comes to the staffing issues it has brought to the surface.

"I can see challenges that you can compare," he said, and "the main thing that we will be facing going into the future will be that we need to make hospitality a nice working environment and set a tone for the future.

Namely, he said, "we have to make it possible for women to choose the profession. One of the problems and the reasons why we're lacking staff is that we've been so male dominated in a sense that we've overlooked 50 percent of the workforce." 

"It's no wonder that we're lacking staff when we haven't integrated women or other countries and food cultures into ours. Now we're all complaining that there's no staff to be found - well, it's actually our own fault.

"Looking into the future, we need to make the hospitality industry and the food industry sustainable, not only in the products that we buy and the food that we cook but also for the workers and the people in our industry.

To do that, he continued, "we need to change a lot of things: perspectives, culturally, we really need to do that together; to forget how it used to be and think about how it's supposed to be.

That having been said, the UK still has a way to go when it comes to progressive work practices and values. 

"But it's going to get there," he said. 

"It hasn't been like that, but it's going to be like that because it's the only way to move forward. Kindness and human touch will always be more important than harsh and hard management - that needs to be history." 

And while Niklas agrees with the argument of needing to raise prices in order to improve working conditions, he said, "it's also very much a government initiative to help out, to make sure that everyone has benefits and the rights to good paternity leave and sick leave and everything like that.

"If you have that security net, you can lean on that and it's going to be easier to have a workforce and have people working for you that feel comfortable with their jobs."

"At the moment, nobody is talking to each other and everyone is blaming each other, so I think it would be better if we could join hands and do something to enhance and increase the benefit of the worker." 

'I always tell the team that we should be second best'

All in all, not only is Niklas braced to deal with any difficulties that might arise, but he and his team have many things to be positive about.

"When you open a restaurant, your main purpose is to get the restaurant up and running, comfortable, really safe and thriving. I think that we're getting very close to that," he said.

"The one thing I'm really looking forward to is going into the restaurant without having to work hard on a station or a specific thing, but just to look at it and enjoy it; feeling and hearing the buzz in the restaurant.

"And then of course having Christmas with my family, enjoying a couple of days off and knowing that we did it - we opened a restaurant in London in this difficult time; that we actually have a sustainable and fresh restaurant." 

The inevitable question of accolades - or, in other words, recognition for his team's efforts - aren't at the forefront of his mind as of yet. 

"At the moment, I haven't put too much thought into that. The one thing that I've been focusing on has been getting the team up and running."

"I think if you have a set structure and you feel comfortable with that, you can start working for targets like a Michelin star or a good review or something like that. But if you don't have the basics, a 'spine' in your restaurant, it's really difficult."

"In Sweden, I always tell the team that we should be second best. You don't have to be the best because that's just challenging - and everyone likes the second best restaurants the most."

"Whether you go to San Sebastian or Paris, you don't want to eat at the most famous restaurant, the top restaurant. Even if you get a table there and you want dinner there, you're always looking for the second best. The underdog. So that's what I always try to do."

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 6th October 2021

Niklas Ekstedt: 'Kindness and human touch will always be more important than harsh and hard management - that needs to be history'