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  • Writer's pictureGunnar Garfors

Middle of Nowhere/Norway: Top Chefs Create Pop-up Kelp Restaurant

Very few people has ever visited Træna. It is simply too remote. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

Seaweed, or kelp, is the new food trend in Norwegian high-end restaurants. A small company headquartered on the remote island of Selvær in Northern Norway is betting that households will follow suit. For inspiration it organized a pop-up kelp restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

“The ocean is full of secret delicacies in plain sight, and seaweed happens to be packed with nutrients, vitamins and good fatty acids. I also love that it grows very fast without the use of pesticides, that harvesting doesn’t hurt the environment and involves no human or animal exploitation,” Zoe Christiansen explained. She is CEO of The Northern Company, with 5-9 employees, depending on the season.

Zoe Christiansen managed to fill the entire school of Selvær with excited locals. There are normally no eateries on the island. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

They handpick five out of the more than hundred types of seaweed on the Norwegian coast. Seaweed sprinkle, sea spaghetti, fermented finger kelp and dried truffle seaweed are among the products that give eateries in cities on the mainland more material for experimentation. The creative innovations have come to life in a tiny food lab, inside an old fish-processing plant on Selvær. Zoe has since spent countless hours in gourmet restaurants around Norway, not only as a guest.

The Northern Company picks all its seaweed by hand, regardless of the weather. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

Fancy some spaghetti seaweed? Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

“In most cases I had to start from scratch, teaching chefs everything about seaweed. They have come to realise how the unique tastes can enhance not only fish and shellfish but also meats, potatoes and rice. I now consider many high-end chefs in Norway my close friends.”

One of them is Vladimir Pak who won the world sushi championship in Tokyo in 2017. He uses a lot of seaweed in Omakase, his Michelin star restaurant in Oslo, and accepted Zoe’s invitation to head a team of celebrity chefs and crew. Mission: To set up a pop-up restaurant in the small defunct school on Selvær.

Population: 55.

Truffle kelp is very versatile. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

The windblown island is situated 45 nautical miles off the shores of Helgeland, spot on the arctic circle. A beautiful mountain range lies on the mainland to the east, while the iconic crown shaped peaks of Sanna are visible in the south. There aren’t many cars here, not surprisingly given the mere 2.5 miles of road. That some people drive at all is primarily due to the omnipresent wind and the manic weather.

There are more sheep than people on Selvær. None of the four-legged creatures were on the menu this time. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

Eight-legged crabs were less lucky. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

Getting to seaweed wonderland did however prove to be anything but a walk in the park. A 75 minute plane ride to Bodø from Oslo should have been followed by a six hour boat ride, but a technical issue kept the boat at bay. The four chefs and their eight assistants had to endure five hours in a cramped minibus before two hours on an express boat, including short stops on five other islands to get to the final destination.

“Such a journey would normally have been exhausting, but the sheer beauty of the wild coast boosted my energy levels. To see the abundance of raw materials all around the islands further inspired me,” Pak said.

Vladimir Pak perfecting some of the dishes in the old school on Selvær. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

To prepare, the team worked literally around the clock for two days in the cramped and anything but modern school kitchen. Chefs from competing restaurants Fangst and Genki helped Pak churn out 15 courses that were served in the gym, where chalk on an original blackboard was used to write “BAR” in big letters, with drinks and prices in stylish letters underneath.

An unlikely venue for a world-class restaurant. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

Håkan Wiik is the head chef at critically acclaimed restaurant Fangst in Oslo. He somehow found time to help set up the pop-up kelp restaurant on Selvær. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

Metal hooks for the volleyball net were still screwed to one of the walls, and ten windows provided a view of the ocean and made sure that the midnight sun minimized the romantic effect of candles. They were centerpieces on every table, placed on rocks picked from a beach 100 meters away. All dishes were put on display on traditional wooden fish boxes and served to guests by the chefs themselves. Almost a necessity, the content of the fine-dining had to be explained. The menu included scallops, flounder, halibut, king crab, whale and reindeer. All dishes, even the dessert, were infused with one form of seaweed or another. Well, except for the seaweed spagetti, which was infused with shrimp stock.

Guests were served no less than 15 courses. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

Locally picked scallops were enhanced by…gold. Of course. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

Local herbs, Munnvold hot sauces named after (wannabe) dictators and wasabi roots from Japan and Britain delivered by The Wasabi Company were also used.

Kristoffer Vold is behind the famous Munnvold hot sauces, sold by select shops around Norway. Justin Bieber once purchased everything he had in stock. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

Chances are you never tried genuine wasabi. Nick Noodle from The Wasabi Company explains about the real deal. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

Originally the plan was to accommodate 25 people, but word of mouth did its job, and the dinner sold out in a couple of days. In the end, a total of 60 locals flocked on foot or by boat from neighbouring islands, and somehow managed to squeeze into the school. Another 60 people were waitlisted.

The lucky guests were in awe. “It is not out of order to describe this as truly epic. We don’t even have any restaurants here, and then all of a sudden we experience world-class fine-dining and incredible service by elite chefs that normally engage with much more fancy guests than us islanders,” Bjørn Smith-Hald grinned. He has high hopes that the sustainable seaweed business can help stop the declining population. The average age of those that live on the island is currently 70, and the community is doing its utmost to attract younger people. More people would help the local shop too. It is open on most days, but only for an hour or two at the time. Selvær is part of the Træna archipelago which is famous for hosting one of the world’s most iconic, and remote, music festivals.

Vladimir Shek in action. He normally heads gourmet hot spot Genki in Oslo. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

The success of a sold-out kelp cantina and happy customers made Zoe glow with pride when addressing the guests after dinner.

“Thank you so much for your enthusiasm. ‘The Tastes of Selvær’ will be a tradition from next year, I hope,” she said, not quite managing to hold back joyful tears from her blue eyes. It sounded like a promise. Capacity certainly needs to be increased. And who knows, perhaps The Tastes of Selvær will take on the much bigger Træna Festival for local event of the year.

Kelp will regardless be on the menu. It remains to be seen which top-notch chefs will be making magic out of it. The four culinary artists of 2019 sure set the bar high through flawless and impeccable cooperation in a modest kitchen.

Thomas Moen completed the team of chefs at The Tastes of Selvær. He has worked at a number of high-end restaurants in Norway. He now runs several food businesses. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

Some came from neighbouring islands on own boats to eat at the pop-up restaurant. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

Seaweed, or kelp, comes in many shapes and sizes. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

Vladimir Pak testing one of the over 100 scallops that was handpicked by diver Tay-young Pak. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

The sea is full of raw material for incredible dishes. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

– Look what I found! Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

Getting to Selvær will take you almost two hours by boat from the mainland. Or close to six hours from Bodø, the nearest city. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

A number of herbs surprisingly grow on windblown Selvær. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

Spaghetti seaweed prepared. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

A calm spot in the midnight sun on the middle of the island. Photo: Haakon Hoseth.

Just before midnight. And why bedrooms have thick curtains. Photo: Gunnar Garfors

Just after midnight. Why anyone goes to bed in summer is still a mystery. Photo: Gunnar Garfors.

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