In the kitchen with Gunnar Gíslason – the chef behind Iceland’s first Michelin star

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I was born and raised in northern Iceland in the fjordside town of Akureyri. I didn’t enjoy school, so when an opportunity came up to work as a pot washer at a local restaurant, I jumped at it. 

Very quickly, I found that I loved the environment. If I was really quick doing the dishes, the chefs would allow me to help them in the kitchen, too. I found I relished the ability to work with my hands and approach food as a kind of craftsmanship.

From there, I became an apprentice at Fiðlarinn, one of the only high-end restaurants in my region of Iceland at the time (now a restaurant called Strikið). I went for a coffee with the chefs one day. They were super-friendly and I just kept coming back until they gave me a job.

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I wanted to showcase the full range of regional flavors

To train as a chef in Iceland, you have to enrol on a four-year course. All of a sudden, I loved school. Unlike before when I failed everything, this time I got top grades. It was amazing how things turned around for me. I had found my purpose and now, 27 years on, I haven’t looked back. 

After school, I worked in Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden before returning to Reykjavík. When I first set up Dill in 2009, we were the only restaurant in the country serving a tasting menu rather than à la carte. I wanted to showcase the full range of regional flavors in an intimate setting; to take guests on a journey, rather than have them try one dish alone. 

In the beginning, we featured ingredients from all Nordic countries to suit our setting, which at that point was in Nordic House, designed by Finnish modernist architect Alvar Aalto. 

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I went on a field trip around Iceland to seek out new ideas

Then, with the ongoing fallout from the 2008 recession, it just became too expensive to import food. So, we dug deep, focusing solely on Icelandic ingredients. After a year or so, I started to become restless cooking mainly with cod and lamb, two Iceland staples. So, I embarked on a circular field trip of my home country to seek out new ideas.

Instead of finding new ingredients, however, I actually discovered age-old traditions and techniques that were dying out. I started devouring history books about how the Icelandic people used to cook, drawing on recipes from my grandparents’ generation right back to the Viking age. 

For example, I learned how, in the old days, Icelanders had to grapple with a lack of salt, instead making something called “black salt” from seaweed ground into a fine powder. This inspired me and my team at Dill to go out and forage our own ingredients. Even in the harshest winter months, we still collect seawater and seaweed to make our own salt.

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Dill works with an excellent meat smoker in Lake Mývatn

My foray into the heritage of Icelandic cuisine also led me to embrace the tradition of smoking using lamb dung. In times gone by, people would bring their livestock into their homes during winter. The lambs would do their business on hay laid out on the floor, which farmers would then spread out on fields during the summer to get rid of any ammonia. Eventually, the lamb dung would be cut and dried. The texture would have to be exactly right – with just the correct level of moisture – to give a fantastic smoking flavour. 

Dill now works with an excellent smoker called Gylfi who is based at Lake Mývatn. He mostly smokes lamb for us, but we can send him whatever we want – for example, Arctic char – and he’ll smoke it using this traditional technique.

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I want to continually support Icelandic traditions

We now run the restaurant from a beautifully renovated fishing shed in the center of Reykjavík. To me, going to a restaurant should be about so much more than filling your stomach. It provides an experience and, in the case of Dill, it’s also about taking a trip down memory lane, reinventing what Icelandic cuisine means. 

Even when locals come to dine with us, they mention how exotic the flavors we use are – perhaps because they’re not familiar with ingredients, such as wild Icelandic herbs. It feels good to introduce them to something new from their own doorstep, history and landscapes. 

The real concept of Dill always returns to people. I want to continually support traditions that may otherwise disappear altogether, and introduce our diners to a sense of legacy.

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Michelin is the kind of recognition that keeps you on your toes

The same goes for the chefs who come here to work. They arrive from all over the world, but I always hope they learn something about our culinary heritage that they can recreate in their own home countries. 

As a chef, to be awarded a Michelin star is the highest honor and it’s been a dream for a long time. So when the moment finally arrived, in 2017 – when we became the first restaurant in Iceland to be awarded one – it made me so happy. I was delighted both for my team and for the business. It’s the kind of recognition that keeps you on your toes. After that, you always have someone looking over your shoulder, checking you’re maintaining the very highest of standards.

We’ve since been awarded one of Michelin’s prestigious green stars, too, for our sustainable restaurant practices. This includes everything from foraging for ingredients to our network of local fisheries and traditional slow-cooking and preservation techniques. 

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It’s been a long adventure but a good one

As a chef, it’s very important that I step back now and again to find something new to focus on. I’ve recently opened a new restaurant in my hometown called North, inside the Hotel Ayurreri. It focuses on foraged ingredients and sustainability. Dill also continues to thrive. It’s been a long adventure but a good one. I’m really proud of how far we’ve come. 

Gunnar Gíslason is the head chef at the Michelin-starred Dill in Reykjavík and new restaurant North at the Hotel Akureyri.

You can visit Iceland on Flash Pack’s all-action group adventure with glacier hiking, snowmobiling and swims in geothermal pools.

Images: Dill restaurant, Unsplash

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