Stripping back to the essence of things is how Björn Swanson understands gastronomy at Faelt, a recently Michelin star.
Björn Swanson is a cook who is rather conspicuous, not only due to his physical appearance − he looks like an American football player (genes from his father, who served in the US army, where Björn, too, sought a career) − but also because he speaks clearly and concisely and doesn’t beat around the bush. He champions simplification, does not like to be pigeonholed and strips things back. Like at Faelt, his new restaurant.
Swanson opened Faelt (Berlin) last October, at the height of the pandemic and just a month from the second lockdown in Germany. (This pandemic has shown us that the world of gastronomy is full of brave souls who go against the flow: Andy Beynon with Behind, in London, and Iván Domínguez with NADO in Madrid. We're lucky to have them! ) And although everything was a challenge,’ Björn also recognises that it was fun, ‘of course, setting up something new during a global pandemic is something that only happens once in a lifetime − we hope − and to be honest, in hindsight, it was a good decision.’ It was, as the German 2021 edition of the Michelin guide has already awarded Faelt its first star. Only four weeks after opening.
This German cook with American roots was not unfamiliar with the Michelin sparkle. At two former places he earned this esteemed distinction: at the helm of the Relais & Châteaux Gutshaus Stolpe, and at Golvet, a 120-seat restaurant with one of the most amazing bars in Berlin. But Swanson needed a change, and the impact of the pandemic offered him the chance to steer in a different direction and go from Golvet, and his fashionable ideas, to something more personal, ‘to be honest, at first, I started looking for larger places, but then after the first lockdown I changed my mind and from a financial point of view it was the right decision.’ That was how Faelt came about; a restaurant that seats 18 people, with an open kitchen and committed to the essence of things.
Björn Swanson likes to define his cooking as ‘grounded, has roots and is flavoursome.’ A cuisine many would say is in line with the trend towards an ethical and sustainable way of cooking, although this Berlin chef states that he doesn’t like being defined like that, ‘they’re words everyone uses now, it makes them meaningless.’ Swanson has always made it clear that he ‘must work with seasonal produce, ingredients that are local as well as sustainable.’ It’s not a question of being fashionable, ‘it’s common sense,’ says Swanson. He defends his ideas by saying, ‘Why would I buy Kobe beef – of course, without undervaluing its amazing qualities – if I have a similar option of wild boar or venison? Why would I serve goose-neck barnacles when they’re not typical of my region? I’ll use other ingredients instead, ones from my area.’ That’s why at Faelt they serve vegetables from their own vegetable garden, and products that are ethically questionable, such as foie gras or shark’s fin, do not appear in his dishes.
With this philosophy underpinning his gastronomic offering, it’s hardly surprising that for Swanson, ‘ingredients and produce are the most important thing.’ The reason is simple. ‘If you don’t have something, you shouldn’t use it; that’s why I consider I’m obsessed when it comes to quality and produce.’ So, at Faelt, they work with respect for produce but also for the growers and producers because Swanson understands that this is also the way to respect nature and our health, too. Don’t forget that all this food for thought is then transformed in the kitchen into creative and imaginative dishes because, at the end of the day, as Björn Swanson himself says, ‘cooking is a form of expression, it’s freedom, independence.’
At Faelt they uphold this decision and are convinced that it’s a decision that will endure, because, as Swanson puts it – and as this pandemic has made clear − ‘there has to be a change. I hope the entire sector will see the opportunity that this situation is offering us to hit the reset button for good and to start again. To start again with regard to concepts, but also with prices, with the way we manage our teams, with many things. We mustn’t be afraid to do it; diners are ready for these changes and to understand them, now more than ever because they have seen how important the restaurant industry is for society and how life without us is not the same.’ The change has begun.