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Icelandic chef Victoria Eliasdóttir on comfort food and her sweet tooth

 

What are your childhood memories of food? “My father was a cook so I grew up with food. When I was one-and-a-half years old, we moved to Iceland from Denmark. In Copenhagen he cooked in nice restaurants, but in Iceland he wanted to pursue his career as an artist because he used to paint, draw and take photos. It’s quite funny because my brother [Olafur Eliasson] is an artist and I’m a chef.

My father was a chef on a fishing boat, so there was a lot of fish in the house and I didn’t like it; I have more of a sweet tooth. I didn’t like the way the fish was cooked. I was a picky child. I remember having guests or family gatherings for Sunday dinner and he would make a rack of lamb and oven-baked creamy potatoes, red-wine sauce, old-fashioned home-made food. I really loved that.”

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How did you get into cooking? “I had the idea of doing pastry, but I can’t wake up early; I go to bed late. I didn’t think about being a cook until later when a friend suggested I go to chef school since I talk obsessively about food. After a trip to South America in 2007, I came back and decided to try cooking. I was 20 at the time. My mentality is, if I know I’m not going to be good at something, I won’t do it. So when I went to culinary school I was determined to get the best grade because I’m super cocky that way. But I realised I didn’t know much about cooking as my dad only taught me some basics. My focus went into learning how to do things well and fast.

I place too much attention on perfection, so it takes too long. But now, seven years later, I’m getting better. And I did finish top of my class, thank God! After graduation I worked in a small summer hotel in the countryside in Iceland, a beautiful place by a lake that had nice trout, tomatoes and cucumbers. I was head chef and worked 90 days straight. It was so much work, because you had to order all the food, decide the menu and cook everything with two other girls. The number of guests ranged from 20 to 120. It wasn’t the most complex cooking but I would never do it again.”

What was it like working at Chez Panisse in California? “Alice Waters is one of the most famous women in this business. I didn’t know much about the restaurant, but I figured if she has had it for over 40 years then she must know what she’s doing. It was an amazing experience. What I really appreciated was they had such a different attitude and vibe in the kitchen.

Everyone is on the same level; friendly, human. Everything was treated with respect. When we had raspberries, each one was examined and sorted: this one goes into ice cream, this one goes on the ice cream. For me the kitchen is noisy and stressful. I missed the nasty jokes – that’s who I am.”

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How did you end up in Berlin? “In 2013, my brother was renovating his studio in Berlin and I helped him design the kitchen, where two chefs cook for the 100 people who work there. They cook mostly vegetarian food, which is what I mostly eat when I’m not working – well, that and candy. In February 2015, I opened Dóttir. I was so surprised it got a lot of attention. It was only supposed to be this little project to get some experience.

I fell in love with the space, a run-down house that has been empty for 37 years because no one could buy it because it’s on an expensive street in Berlin, until this millionaire bought it who is a friend of my investor. It’s called Dóttir because, in Iceland, you take your father’s first name, Elias, and then ‘dóttir’ is daughter, so I’m Eliasdóttir, and his son ‘Eliasson’.”

How would you describe the food at Dóttir? On the Dóttir menu We take childhood memories of food and recreate them in our own style. We want to have the comforting feeling of food, beautiful, tasty and light. You feel well afterwards, in your mind and in your body. It’s definitely not a diet thing – we use cream, milk and butter. But it’s the clean taste of the ingredients that we try to hold on to and people appreciate. We don’t use any dried spices or pepper. We use salt and vinegar, and we cheat with lemon and lemon zest.

It’s very pure and more about the cooking method, than adding tastes to it, getting the most out of it of what you have. We like to salt bake and smoke dishes like smoked buttermilk. We use sous vide not because I like to use plastic bags in food, but because it’s consistent, especially for fish: you brine it and cook it, the flavours inside are nice. We have a sunchoke stew, slowly cooked for a very long time with butter, bay leaves, thyme leaves and garlic. It gets super rich, of course, and super tasty.”

What do you like to eat when you’re not cooking? “I’m a big cheese person, mostly hard cheese. I eat way too many sweets – black liquorice is my weakness. I grew up with it. I use it a lot in my dishes, like raw liquorice powder. In the past year I have lived more in my restaurant than at home.

When I have time, I like to go out into nature and go camping. When my girlfriend and I spend the day together we ride to a lake in Berlin and hang out with a bottle of wine. I’m a big fan of breakfast: poached or scrambled eggs with maple syrup with avocado and bacon. And pancakes. And coffee.”