Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Fridgeir Helgason

Fridgeir Helgason, Photographer and Executive Chef at Sequoa High Sierra Camp, Summer 2010.  
Fridgeir Helgason is a photographer, chef, and Viking, though not necessarily in that order.  When I spoke to him, he had just ended his second season as Executive Chef at Sequoia High Sierra Camp and was days away from a cross-country move back to New Orleans, after living in Los Angeles for a  number of years.  He'll be cooking at  Eiffel Society, the latest New Orleans nightspot to bring together food, music, art, and even urban farming.  (We're looking forward to Fridgeir's full report on the restaurant and we're hoping for a few photos to post on the site.)

Fridgeir's lunch at 10,334 ft. along the Western divide.
Fridgeir and I met the day after he came down from the mountain, which was in the midst of a giant hail and snowstorm.  He told me it was like the mountain was saying, "Go Home!"  And he did.  But from June through the beginning of October, Friedgeir cooked three meals a day for guests at the camp and hiked in between meals.  When I asked him what he cooked for breakfast, he said, "Everything.  I make a breakfast buffet with my own homemade granola, fresh fruit, apple-smoked bacon from Wisconsin, hash browns, and eggs any style, except poached.  I once worked at a place where I made too many poached eggs.  After that I took an oath that I would never poach an egg again, and since I'm a Viking I can't go back on my oath."  Fridgeir smiles when he says this, and although he can be very funny, Fridgeir is also true to his Viking heritage and says EXACTLY what he means.  

I met Fridgeir first as a photographer, then as a chef, and I eventually realized that what I'd been seeing all along was his Viking personality shining through both of these personas.  Fridgeir recently had an incredible solo exhibition at the Reykjavik Arts Festival which merged his love of photography and his Icelandic heritage.  He received a grant from the city of Reykjavik to photograph the neighborhood in which he grew up and his love of his home country is clearly apparent in this work.  It is also clear that Fridgeir sees  beauty in forgotten and abandoned places, a theme which can be found throughout his photographic work.  


Several years ago I went to an exhibition of Fridgeir's photographs at his mother's couture dress shop in Los Angeles.  During the opening Fridgeir and his mother entertained guests with stories about Iceland and served cups of Icelandic lamb stew that Fridgeir had made to celebrate the occasion.  Eating this rich, warm stew while viewing the work made the  remote Icelandic landscapes and abandoned buildings come alive.  The combination of great photography and delicious comfort food created a sense of place that allowed me to enter the work in a tangible way and it was irresistible.  
Fridger's photo in my kitchen, October 2010.


I am now the proud owner of Fridgeir's photograph of an abandoned herring factory in Djupavik, Iceland, where his mother once worked.  At the opening, Fridgeir's mother told me her story of working in the herring factory.  Like the photograph, her story was rich, complex, and unusual.  When I look at the photograph I think about what it must have been like to clean fish day after day in a remote Icelandic village and I am reminded that my life could be worse.  Or better.  The answer depends on the day.

The Official Sunday Dinner Questionnaire:  Fridgeir Helgason
1.  What is your favorite food to eat?  Why?
Soul food.  Because it's yummy and unpretentious.  It's also my favorite food to cook.

2.  What is your favorite food to cook?  How often and under what circumstances do you make it?
Every time I cook I make soul food.  It's all about the love, man.

3.  Who or what is your greatest culinary influence?  Why is he/she/ it an inspiration to you?
Annie Kernney, Gerard Maras, Greg Sonnier, and Wendy Jordan.  All chefs I've worked for.  Because they busted my balls.

4.  What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?
Zester.  It's all about the zester.  I love to zest.  The zest [of citrus fruit] makes it sing when it comes into your mouth.  I have a cheap zester and then I chop stuff up.  (Editor's Note:  Fridgeir is not a fan of the microplaner.)  And a spoon.  You have to taste everything you make.

5.  What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?
I don't remember.  But I can tell you what I cooked.  The Sunday menu was carrot fennel soup, then for the appetizer I did my Icelandic fish cake, which is based on my grandmother's recipe.  It's THE quintisensial Icelandic peasant comfort food that every mother or grandmother or wife made for whoever was killing the fish.   You make it by poaching haddock in white wine, adding beshamel sauce, garlic and onion, and boiled potatoes. Then you cool it down, make it into cakes and dip it in an egg wash and coat the cakes in panko bread crumbs.  Panko is IT, everything else is shit.  Then saute them in canola oil and then pop them in the oven for 5 minute.  I served them with a creole sauce.  


For the main course I made andouille and pecan-stuffed pork chops with carmelized brussel sprouts, apple-smoked bacon, and sweet potatoes.  The sauce I invented for that is a root beer glaze.  (Ed. Note:  Fridgeir is obsessed with root beer and orders it by the case.  He says his root beer sauce was created accidentally.  One day he was standing at the stove drinking a root beer and decided to pour it in the pan when he was making a beurre blanc.  Fridgeir says, "It's the bomb.  Tastes like christmas.")  For dessert, we had something called Lemony Goodness.  It's a lemon custard thingy.  I don't do desserts.  Most chefs don't, actually.

6.  When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal that brought your friends and family together on a regular basis?  If so, what you you eat? 
My grandmother, bless her heart... I love her but she's the worst cook on planet earth, would cook a leg of lamb every Sunday.  There were no fresh vegetables in Iceland when I was growing up except for rutabega and potatoes.  It being a sunday dinner, she would open up a can of green beans and carrots and another can of red cabbage.  She would cook the leg of lamb until it was the consisency of a shoe.  A couple of years ago, I roasted a leg of lamb for my grandmother and her sisters.  I cooked it a perfect medium and they thought I was trying to kill them with raw meat.

 7.  Do you have a garden?  If so, what do you grow in it?
No.  I live in downtown LA.  But I'm moving back to New Orleans and hoping to get a place with a garden.  (Ed. Note: Fridgeir is going to be working at Eiffel Society, a new restaurant where they grow most of their own vegetables and herbs.)

 8.  What is your ultimate food fantasy?
To work at French Laundry in Napa Valley, El Bulli (in Catalonia, Spain), Noma in Copenhagen.  Why eat there when you can work there?

9.  If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a  meal for you, who would it be?  What would you want to eat?
Paul Bocuse.  A twenty course classic french dinner with lots of butter and fois gras and truffle.

10.  Fill in the blank:  "The most important element of a good meal is ________."
Love.
Fridgeir's photo of the herring factory in Djupavik, Iceland where his mother once worked.