Meet the chef: Marko Laasonen on traditional Finnish cuisine, sustainable sourcing and a new wave of fine dining in Lapland

by DailyBriefers
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What inspired you to become a chef?

I first knew I wanted to become a chef when I was 10 years old. The restaurant scene wasn’t big in Finland back then, but I grew up cooking at home with my mother. We would prepare very simple dishes, such as smoked fish soup or sautéed reindeer and I enjoyed it very much. Cooking always came naturally to me. While I was still at school, I started working in restaurants in Helsinki, where different chefs taught me how to cook. I haven’t left the kitchen since.

You’ve been a chef in Finland for 35 years. What’s so special about the country when it comes to food?

We have eight seasons in Finland: ‘first snow’, Christmas, ‘frosty winter’, ‘crusty snow’, ‘departure of ice’, ‘midnight sun’, ‘harvest season’ and autumn. Every season comes with its own cultural traditions, legends and recipes. The temperature and landscape here are always changing, which means the ingredients are always changing, too. During the harvest season, I like going into the forest to forage for berries and wild herbs, while autumn is best for mushrooms and fresh reindeer meat. In winter, techniques like fermentation and curing give a whole new flavour profile to fresh ingredients.

How would you describe your cooking style?

My cooking style is simple but experimental. I want my food to taste natural, which is why I don’t add many spices. I also like to find new ways to use the whole ingredient so that nothing goes to waste. For example, I recently used the bark from a pine tree to flavour our ice cream. There was a time when Finns would find a way to make food out of anything. Almost everything in our forests and lakes is edible, but over time we’ve forgotten how to use it all. When I cook, I always try to find new ways to use more of what’s around us.

What are the staple ingredients every Finn has in their kitchen?

Finnish cooking is simple but fresh. We have a lot of forests and lakes, so we eat a lot of fish, game meat, milk-based products and root vegetables — Finns can’t get enough of potatoes. In eastern Lapland, our key ingredients are wild berries, reindeer and fish from Lake Inari, which I love pairing with parsnip puree or wild-celery butter. We also have delicious Lappish potatoes, which survive during our harsh winters, and, of course, the Lappish turnip, which tastes a bit like a swede crossed with a parsnip.

Tell us about the menu at Restaurant Kaunis. Are there any dishes you’re particularly proud of? 

The menu is inspired by nature, but it’s also inspired by the past. I’ve started fermenting more ingredients like beetroot and wild celery. Fermentation is one of the oldest ways to make food and was once very popular here in Finland, but the method became less popular in modern society. I love fermenting vegetables and herbs because it enhances their natural flavour, without the need for adding anything to them. I also love working with Lappish turnips, which I roast and serve with pine-needle oil as a starter or alongside a reindeer sirloin.

You use lots of local, seasonal ingredients in your menu. How important are local producers for you?

Almost all the ingredients we use at Kaunis, including all our fish and reindeer meat, are sourced from local farmers and fishermen. Some of our Lake Inari fish are even brought in by the hotel’s CEO, who fishes regularly on the lake.

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