I have only been to Stockholm twice, both times to meet experimental artist Carsten Höller, most famous for installing helter-skelters in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and for Upside-Down Worlds inspired by magic mushrooms of all kinds. When I first met him seven years ago, Höller introduced me to the pair of bullfinches he was hand-feeding while trying to teach them to sing a forgotten 18th-century love song; he sent me away with a tube of hallucinogenic toothpaste, designed to enhance my dreams. This time, the Wonderland “eat me” invitation was limited to lunch at Höller’s brand new restaurant, brutally.
The restaurant was inspired by pandemic boredom. Höller, an intense and never quite serious 60-year-old, often dressed coolly by his friend and sometimes collaborator Miuccia Prada, tends to have his best ideas early in the morning. He’s lying in bed, he says, drinking a hot pot of coffee and letting his mind wander. During such a half-awake dawn, he thought about food as an art. Höller is a lover of brutalist architecture; he divides his time between his apartment in Stockholm and a concrete house which he had built near a beach 70 miles south of Accra in Ghana. What, he wondered, would Brutalist food look and taste like that morning? He noted a semi-joking manifesto for “a dogmatic kitchen.”
The first rule was that “ingredients are used alone…only water or salt may be added”. These unique ingredients, his manifesto allowed, could be “often divided and cooked in different ways, then added again to the same plate.” Another fundamental element of this 14-part statement included the insistence that “decoration on the plate is avoided”. “We are born brutalist eaters because breast milk is essentially brutalist,” he argued. And finally, “brutalist portions tend to be substantial in size”.
Before Covid-19, Höller half thought of doing a pop-up restaurant, based on his manifesto, with a famous Swedish chef, Stefan Eriksson. At the start of the pandemic, with plans to exhibit Höller around the world on hold, they decided to use the time to create not a pop-up but an actual brutalist restaurant. A few weeks ago, Höller greeted me at the door of this morning idea, which had opened its doors two nights earlier. He looked like a first-time father, exhausted from sleepless nights, but full of anxious love for his new creation.
We sat at a corner table in the 24-seat room that overlooks through high windows a street in the old center of Stockholm, near a cinema where Ingmar Bergman’s films premiered. For a few hours, while we talk, dishes – “cleared”, as Höller says, “of background noise” – are placed in front of us. We start with a plate of wild oysters – without lemon – from the west coast of Sweden and a small raw and surprisingly sweet turnip root; charcuterie arrives with airy crisps of roasted pork fat, and I’m pretty much a brutalist follower already.
Höller had fun choosing restaurant suppliers with Eriksson; they are almost all multigenerational family farmers, with an obsession for the singularity of certain products. The pork comes from a couple who own a smallholding “in a nature reserve in the middle of nowhere with no phone”. The farm has a lake and the pigs swim every day. Höller believes you can taste these watery tricks in cured ham.
What started as a whim has clearly turned into a kind of overflowing passion. “I got really sick of the mayonnaise culture,” he says. “Traditional Swedish food is very good but everything comes with some kind of creamy sauce. The goal here is to get rid of it. To dig into the taste of a given ingredient. Thoughts tend to pass through Höller once they have started. “It’s the opposite of chemistry, you know,” he continues. “Most chefs think they can create gold by combining a lot of things to create something better. The principle here is that the gold is already there, you just have to trust it.
Its point is made by a wonderful clear asparagus broth, containing chunks of asparagus, some cooked, some fermented, some raw. “You have asparagus, you don’t need Hollandaise sauce,” says Höller. “It’s a real alchemist’s dish. They only use a little bit of fermented asparagus to reverse the taste of asparagus cooked on its axis.
Holler is German. He spent much of his childhood in Belgium where his father worked for the EU. He is, as much of his work suggests, a lapsed scientist – he did a PhD in biology, specializing in how aphids navigate the world. In his artistic career, he became more interested in human perception, experimenting with surprising ways to disrupt our ways of seeing.
“I think it’s fine to introduce an error,” he says. Everything in his restaurant, for example, is built slightly out of square, either at 85 or 95 degrees. There is a woozy spiral staircase based on these principles leading to an upstairs dining area. There will also be a toilet, unfinished when I visited, at one end of the restaurant, with one-way glass, allowing the occupant to look at diners, but not (despite their fears) the other way around.
The art mixes abstract minimalist pieces with a ceiling mural by a young American painter, Ana Benaroya, depicting “lots of naked women eating, dancing, smoking, kissing and all that good stuff”, as Höller describes it. . The principle of this clash of aesthetics is borrowed from Höller’s Double Club in London, installed in a former Victorian warehouse for six months from November 2008. The bar and the dance floor were precisely divided in two between Western and Congolese spaces. This kind of juxtaposition fascinates him. He built his home in Ghana partly because he thought his beloved songbirds were on to something living in two entirely different locations all year round, the best of both worlds. “It’s very nice to make your life a double club,” he said.
I wonder if his brutalist feelings about food are rooted in his childhood. What did he eat when he was little?
“When she got into it, my mom would do weird things,” he says. “We often had calf’s brains, which I loved. Or she would play hare at Christmas. I have a clear memory of my first brutalist experience. I grabbed those tiny little prawns you have on the beach in Belgium and carried them in a blue plastic bucket to the apartment we rented. I cooked them in their own sea water and ate them. I still remember the taste. Super-Orthodox brutalist.
This kind of memory of simplicity feeds his instincts against decoration. “I never want flowers on my food,” he says. ” That bothers me. It’s the same as background music in restaurants, I don’t want it. I want food that tastes the same and I want the noise to be just the sound of friends talking.
How will he treat Brutalisten customers who ask for mayonnaise or ketchup? His plan, he says, “is to keep quietly saying their food is on the way, until they look around and realize it’s never the case.”
A bowl arrives containing what appears to be a single large mushroom, thinly sliced into halves and quarters. Some is grilled, some smoked, some raw and it rests in densely flavored juices from a mushroom broth, reduced and distilled. Given Höller’s reputation as a mushroom shaman, was this an inevitable menu item?
“Yeah,” he said, a little tiredly, “I’ve done a lot of art that doesn’t involve mushrooms or jumbles, but people tend to forget that.”
Alongside the restaurant, he explains how he is currently working on a long-term sleep plan with MIT researchers. Part of it is prototype dream-stimulating pajamas. He plans to open a roadside motel in the United States, where every identical room will give you a different kind of nighttime vacation.
He sees no real distinction between the two companies, sensing a shared sensibility between artists and chefs. “At the turn of the last century,” he suggests, “you had all these art movements, surrealism, cubism and futurism, now I think some of that incredible avant-garde is in the kitchen: you have molecular cuisine. All these theatrical experiences, Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria…” After eating a goat’s milk ice cream with a whey crumble on it and drinking a typically acidulous beer without hops, Höller then signs me a brutalist menu. The auction will open in about 50 years.
brutallyRegeringsgatan 71, 111 56 Stockholm, Sweden