Daniel Berlin

10th December 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

10th December 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

To make it in time for lunch with Daniel Berlin, we get up at 5am and drive four hours from Gothenburg (the midpoint on our epic Stockholm-to-Malmö road trip) to his restaurant deep in the fertile province of Skåne, in the south of Sweden. It’s not purely out of eagerness that we arrive so early, though the prospect of coming here – to one of the best restaurants in Scandinavia – has been exciting us for months. It’s also because there are two lunches to fit in: after making a dish for this interview, Daniel has to switch into restaurant mode and prepare a 12-course tasting menu for lunchtime service at the restaurant.

Daniel, who is 33, bought this traditional Scanian farmhouse six years ago with the help of his parents, who re-mortgaged their house to fund his ambition. Once business started to pick up, both his parents quit their jobs and joined him at the restaurant: his father Per-Anders is now the head sommelier and his mother Iréne is in charge of the (pleasingly wild) garden. We can see what drew them here: on a sunny July morning, as chickens peck around the paths and chefs hurry about with cases of wine and trays of quail, this place feels like paradise, albeit a busy one.

On the terrace, Daniel pours us cups of coffee and tells us how a kid from a rough city with no interest in food ended up cooking at such a high level. He is funny, good-natured, unassuming, though beneath that lies a hardcore perfectionism – he only uses produce from the immediate area[footnote]Although he sees no sense in restricting himself to traditional Nordic ingredients – he will happily use a peach if it can be grown locally to a high enough standard [/footnote] and has intensely high standards when it comes to sourcing. Afterwards, he takes us on a walk around the kitchens and storerooms, where we see beautifully fresh fish, meat and fruit and rows of pickling jars filled with locally foraged ingredients: trumpet mushrooms, beach cabbage, baby pine cones.

For our lunch, Daniel tells us he’ll be cooking with cauliflower, his current favourite vegetable. As the kitchen in his modest apartment upstairs is very basic (he divides his time between here and Malmö, where his girlfriend Anna is studying), he takes a portable hob out to the garden and prepares lunch by the greenhouse, where Daniel’s father is adjusting the drapes. Cauliflower is not a vegetable that usually gets our hearts racing, but when Daniel caramelises it with redcurrants and fresh herbs from the garden, we end up fighting over the last little morsels.

In an hour, they’ll call us to the terrace for lunch number two, our best meal of the year by a comfortable stretch. In the meantime, we sit out in the garden sipping fresh raspberry juice and soaking up the midday sun. That 5am start was worth it after all.

Continued below...

You’re running this restaurant with your parents. How did that happen?

I was the head chef at a really big restaurant in Malmö. I was quite young, like 26, and the restaurant was too big – it was more about dealing with staff problems than food. So I quit: I said I don’t want to be a chef anymore, this is not for me. But after six months of doing nothing I realised that cooking was the only thing I could do. I didn’t have any money to start my own place but my parents had a house, so they said, “Okay if you find a place we will give the house to the bank so you can buy a restaurant”.

Did they have any experience in the food business?

No. My dad worked for an energy company, my mum was working in a kindergarten. But at the beginning it was only me. I was cooking and serving the food. In the first three weeks just two people came. They came every Friday. I had no money so I worked at a pub in Malmö during lunch, and after lunch service I would drive here and open up the restaurant.

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How long did it take to get busy?

After six months it was quite full. My parents started helping me out during the weekend. And then one day they said, “We’re so tired of our work”, so they just quit. That’s crazy because no one in Sweden changes work when they’re 60. My father started to go to a sommelier school. My mother works in the garden and serves during the evenings. We always say we are really living our dreams because we can do exactly what we want to do. We’re open four days a week, we have one preparation day. This way we can also enjoy the restaurant, not only work in it. My girlfriend is a landscape architect so she helps me out in the garden. It’s not like I’m just lying around of course. I have drive. I want this to be one of the best restaurants in the world. But it’s easier when you have your life here. We love it.

My parents started helping me out during the weekend. And then one day they said, “We’re so tired of our work”, so they just quit. That’s crazy because no one in Sweden changes work when they’re 60

I can see why.

Yes, it’s far away from Stockholm and Malmö. I don’t know what they’re doing over there and I don’t care. The whole idea was that everything I hated in the city restaurant, I wouldn’t do here. We have really good produce all around us and we don’t have to be fake about it.

Where do your customers come from?

We don’t have so many people from this area, most are from Stockholm, and now England and Asia. Every morning I’m like, “Is this true that people travel so far to come here?” [laughs] And you have to appreciate it because it’s a lot of money to travel and eat in a restaurant like this, a lot of money. You have to respect that.

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Was food a big thing for you when you were growing up?

No, not at all. I was never interested in food. My mother, she’s not a good cook. My father was always working in Stockholm so we would have a family dinner at weekends. I went to chef school only because I had grades for that and nothing else.

Give me an example of what you would have eaten at home.

We had kassler. It’s like poached ham, you eat it cold, it’s really bad [laughs]. Of course we had some really nice things too, but I have no childhood memories where I was standing in the kitchen with the smell of fresh bread. We were a working family.

Did you ever go out to restaurants?

I have no particular memory of that, no.

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So when did the enthusiasm kick in?

I think it was in the second year of chef school. I started working at restaurants with people who really cared. Because I was really bad in school and the place I grew up – Landskrona – is quite a rough city, I really loved the fact that in the kitchen everyone is equal. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, old, young: it’s all about how good you are, how interested. I really liked that.
I started to work at a restaurant in Lund called Petri Pumpa with a guy called Thomas Drejing. In Sweden he was the first guy who didn’t freeze anything, who used whole animals and got live fish every morning. He taught me so much. Everything started there. Then I just wanted to see how good I could be.

Bastard is really good. It’s a crazy place – they do a high volume and after 10.30pm it gets a bit wild – but the food is simple and honest.
Daniel on his favourite local restaurants – see Address Book

What’s it like working with your parents?

In the beginning, we were not really good friends to be honest. How to say this… you have a relationship but you don’t spend time together. I was really worried at first, but we talked about it and we really respect each other’s space. Now it has become really nice. At times it was really hard because they felt they couldn’t match my standards. Early on I was like, “Oh you have to put down the plate from the right” but now I’m like, fuck that, that doesn’t matter. I think we are doing a better service now because we have taken away so many rules. They have life experience and they can talk about how we painted the roof or the snails in the garden and that’s more important I think.

It feels more personal.

I think so. If everyone who works here cares about this restaurant, all the guests will. They will see it, they will feel it. My father has become so good and I am so proud. Before this he was so boring, he was sitting at a desk in a big room working with boring old men. I have no memories from him when I was younger, he was always mad, and my mother was just grey, no smile. But now they’re more up-to-date than I am.

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It’s brought their youth back.

Yeah, they’re cool. They have become younger and that’s really odd to see. Maybe it’s because they’re hanging out with younger people.

Can you tell me about your life when you’re off-duty, when work is over?

Work is never over, because I don’t want it to be over. But on Sundays me and Anna are having a day off. And during hunting season in the autumn I close the restaurant one extra day so we can hunt a lot and try to provide the restaurant with everything. And then of course we travel – two weeks ago we went to San Sebastián. I’m not like a travelling chef, I prefer to be here, but I do go away maybe three or four times a year.

On your Sundays off, how do you structure your day? Do you try to get away from food and cooking?

No no, we always eat really well on Sundays. Often I’m in Malmö or at Anna’s parents’ place in the countryside. Good food for me can be like a kebab or a falafel… I don’t cook stuff like this [restaurant food] at home. It can be something really simple… have you heard of falukorv?

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Er, no.

It’s like a fat sausage [laughs] that you just sear and eat with potato mash and lingonberries. It’s really good. Anna likes to try new things at home. I’m not like that. I like to cook what I know.
Often on Sundays we try to visit friends. That’s maybe the saddest thing about this restaurant: you don’t have so many friends. But people know where I am so if they want to visit me they are welcome. I have so many old friends who say “We’re gonna come and visit you at the restaurant”, but no. Maybe two or three have been here. It’s because I’m from Landskrona and my friends would never spend money on a meal.

We cook the celeriac for 8 to 10 hours so it gets really black, then we cut it up and serve the inside. From the burnt shell we make a bread, from the leftovers we make a sauce and from the green part we make an oil

Tell us about this area.

We have a lot of farmers here. Skåne the best growing area in Sweden. But you have a lot of shit produce. So you really have to focus on finding really good things. Now for example we have some really big problems with meat.

What are the problems with meat?

It’s not good enough. People don’t know how to do it over here so that’s why we say, okay let’s only serve meat over the hunting season, let’s serve wild game, and that’s it.

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A big reason I wanted to have a restaurant in this area is so that all the produce can come from here. Even in a Michelin star restaurant in Sweden it’s like, “Oh we have the best produce”. Okay maybe you do but how far has it travelled exactly? And you don’t know the farmers, you can’t talk to them. And you get it in a packet. I hate that. Here we spend a lot of time and money going around and picking things, and that’s stupid, but it gives you better produce. We get what we want and that’s the big difference.

Have you developed harmonious relationships with farmers where you can influence them and they can influence you?

Yes, when we see a producer who wants to do something ambitious we can give them money to try to make it happen. I think that’s nice. But if you want to have a really honest restaurant you have to be 100% honest, there can’t be a few things which are bad, everything has to be really, really good. This is a restaurant where an onion is as important as a piece of beef.

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Do you think vegetables are harder to cook than meat and fish?

Yeah absolutely. At the restaurant, if we serve beetroots as the main course, it has to be really good, because you have people who expect beef. We have a celeriac dish that has been on the menu for four-and-a-half years now. It’s not something I can make at home. We cook it for 8 to 10 hours so it gets really black, then we cut it up in the dining room and serve the inside. From the burnt shell we make a bread, from the leftovers we make a sauce and from the green part of the celeriac we make an oil. So it’s basically only a celeriac but it’s such a good dish to describe this restaurant.

On The Menu

Lunch with Daniel Berlin
Skane, July 2015

To eat:

Caramelised cauliflower with berries and herbs »

To drink:

Filter coffee
Raspberry juice

How many people work here?

At this time of the year we are six, and in September when the hunting season begins we try to be 10 because we have a lot to do. Of course people say “Oh you have to get a bigger place”, but no, this is enough. Every year I feel like we’re getting better. I always said that if we can’t get better I have to sell because it’s going to eat me.

What was this building before?

Actually before us it was a restaurant run by two old people cooking really good French bistro food. You could come here at 9am and have entrecôte! [laughs] Really crazy.

So they sold up, they wanted out?

Yeah they were quite old. He was a journalist who liked to cook. After I bought it, she had a stroke and he had cancer. And they’d been struggling here for 20 years, it’s so unfair…
We talk a lot about what we have that other restaurants don’t, and of course we have the surroundings so we try to work with that. This is not a fancy restaurant with gold everywhere. I try to cook really straightforward food with really good and unique produce straight from this area. The best service, the best wines… I try to make an experience of it. We can’t do it in a different way because it wouldn’t be us.

Daniel Berlin is at Diligensvägen 21, 273 92 Skåne Tranås, Sweden; +46 (0)417- 20300, www.danielberlin.se

Follow Restaurant Daniel Berlin: Twitter | Instagram

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Posted 10th December 2015

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Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

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