Charcoal-baked langoustine and scallop served with nettles, ramson and pickled winter apples. Quail from Södermanland in black garlic and leek ash with Jerusalem artichoke, preserved wild mushrooms and jus of roasted chicken skin and mustard seed. A cloud of sudachi fruit, cloudberry sorbet, miso crumbs and deep-fried rice paper.
This superlative menu is not for Ordinary Joes and Mediocre Marys. To taste this, you’d have had to come loaded with extraordinary brilliance or monumental might. Or both. You have to be one of the 1,350 seated in the Blue Hall of Stockholm’s City Hall. The date: December 10. The occasion: Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, 2016.
The Nobel Prize Ceremony is held in Stockholm’s City Hall (Photo credit: Werner Nystrand/Folio/imagebank.sweden.se)
Feeding 1,350 people at one of the world’s most anticipated dinners - the Nobel Banquet - is a chore any chef would garnish his dreams with. Swedish Chef John Sayan Isaksson did just that. He was the hand that fed the brilliant and the mighty at the Nobel Banquet of 2015 and 2016.
He earned the toque for the Banquet. Born in Thailand and adopted by a Swedish couple when barely three months old, Chef Isaksson has been voted chef of the chefs in Sweden; his restaurant Shibumi Izakaya was awarded a ‘Bib gourmand’ by the guide Michelin 2017 and his 9-seater restaurant Imouto was awarded 1 Michelin Star the same year. He was part of the Swedish Culinary team that won the 2002 culinary World Cup in Luxembourg and 2004 Culinary Olympics in Erfurt (Germany).
Chef John Sayan Isaksson, the Swedish chef who helmed the prestigious Nobel Banquet in 2015 and 2016.
Over a phone call, Chef Isaksson reminisces about the 2016 Nobel Banquet for which he personally composed the edible branches of the starter - charcoal-baked langoustine and scallop served with nettles, ramson and pickled winter apples. That explains his confession about being a lover of trees. Making 1,350 edible branches is sure no fave errand for a non-tree lover!
At the age of 12, Chef Isaksson knew his calling, he wanted to be a chef. He finished culinary school in 1992 and got his first work as a cook in Cafe Artist (Gävle). In 1996, he moved to Stockholm and then worked at various restaurants. Currently working as a freelancer with culinary consulting and pop-ups, he wants “to create a contemporary gastronomy that is both local and global and in fine tune with nature”.
The traditional Swedish Semla is a cardamom-spiced wheat bun which has its top cut off, and filled with a mix of milk and almond paste, topped with whipped cream (Photo credit: Lola Akinmade Åkerström/imagebank.sweden.se)
“Food is exciting to me because it is always evolving”, says Chef Isaksson whose restaurant Esperanto (which downed shutters recently) was tagged the No. 1 restaurant in the Nordic countries. “The next level in food evolution is people not only shopping local but literally growing food in their backyard. The backyard kitchen is the next step,” believes Chef Isaksson.
In 1901, the first Nobel Banquet, held in the Hall of Mirrors of the Grand Hôtel, had 113 guests. During the first decades, ‘consommés’ or clear soups were common starters and tables were arranged in a horseshoe. Today, 65 long tables are arranged in the Blue Hall in exact positions using 470 meters of tablecloth; 30 people wearing white gloves begin the time-consuming task of laying out 6,730 pieces of porcelain, 5,384 glasses and 9,422 pieces of cutlery.
A file photograph of the Nobel Banquet (Photo credit: © Nobel Media AB 2015. Photo: Alexander Mahmoud)
Those 65 long tables were Chef Isaksson’s big woe. To get the dishes warm, tidy, and looking elegant. With a team of 40 cooks, he started prepping a week before the banquet. ‘Trialing and ensuring it all went as planned was the most difficult task,” he remembers what he calls the Nobel D-days.
As December 10 approaches, I stand corrected about the fancy menu fit only for the ones with extraordinary brilliance or monumental might. Actually, in Stockholm’s Stadshuskällaren restaurant, one can enjoy all of the Nobel menus from the past, the only place in the world to do so. Any menu from 1901 to the present - the 1901 Filet de bœuf à limpériale; Poularde Massenet and Chaufroix de cailles Lucullus Salade in 1913, the year Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel; Tortue clair en tasse in 1930 when Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman brought home the laurel for physics; sandwiches of 1947. Or, the ones that Chef John Sayan Isaksson rustled in 2015 and 2016.
Opened in 1922, Stadshuskällaren is the only restaurant in the world where one can enjoy all of the Nobel menus from the past served on Nobel porcelain (Photo credits: Fredrik Larsson/imagebank.sweden.se)
You see, in Stockholm, even an Ordinary Joe can get Nobel-fed!
Good to know: The Nobel Prize Ceremony and Nobel Banquet will be held in Stockholm on December 10. Preeti Verma Lal is a Goa-based freelance writer/photographer.