Ben Foster is bringing Nordic techniques to his provisions company, K-bröd, which specializes in all sorts of house-made Scandinavian delicacies; from knäckebröd (Swedish crispbread) to lingonberry jam to gravlax to Icelandic butter, there’s plenty for you to build a killer artisanal smörgåsbord. Speaking of which, he’s started offering smörgås boxes, which offer a mix of products delivered right to your door. (Shipping is free for DMV residents right now!)
We asked Ben to tell us a little more about the business, and why New Nordic cuisine speaks to him so loudly; read up on all of that below, and take a gander at all of K-bröd’s offerings here.
So Ben! Tell me a little bit about yourself; how’d you end up in DC (assuming you’re not from DC originally), and how’d you end up in the culinary field?
I grew up in North Arlington, so opening K-bröd in D.C. is a homecoming for me. I remember in high school BYT started and it’s always been a dream of mine to get involved. D.C. had a unique vibe when I was a teenager. U Street and Clarendon were totally different in terms of nightlife. I haven’t lived in D.C. since I was 18 years old. In the meantime, I worked in some really good restaurants in Philadelphia, and I studied 20th century literary theory and Greek classics at a small college in Vermont that doesn’t exist anymore. I got to study in Toronto for a year because of that. I didn’t go to culinary school; working in a kitchen is the only job I have had.
Piggybacking off that, how did you get specifically into the Swedish/Nordic provisions game? Like, where’d you learn these cooking techniques, and why did you decide to pursue these regional specialties over some other kind of cuisine?
My mother learned how to cook from her grandmother, who was a Swedish immigrant. They had an orchard outside Boston. One of my first memories is rolling out Swedish meatballs in flour with my mother. The early Christian period contacts between the Swedish and French courts resulted in Swedes borrowing some culinary techniques from aristocratic French culture. Swedish “cuisine”, so to speak, has always been a product of exchange between French techniques and local ingredients. Of course, Swedish cooking is much larger than the aristocratic sphere. Sort of a “Karl Marx on antique art” phenomenon, which is the idea that classical art is a cultural expression of a very limited group of people, the “tip of the iceberg”, so to speak. So if the role of Swedish chefs since the Christian period is the iceberg’s tip, then the main current of the Nordic techniques would be the artisan culture and all the preparations that go into the Christmas feast, which has its roots in the emerging bourgeoisie culture of Sweden, beginning in the sixteenth century and becoming immensely popular in the seventeenth. But there’s a history of cultural exchange between France and Sweden. There was a time not long ago that there weren’t any serious restaurants in Copenhagen that served Danish food; all serious restaurants served either French or Italian food. René Redzepi changed that with NoMa.
My experience working in restaurants that imitate French restaurant systems is pretty similar in a lot of ways to the experiences chefs like René Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson (who ran Fäviken in northern Sweden before it closed last year) had before they started their own restaurants. The line brigade, playing soldier, the sauce as the highest expression of cuisine — these are all deeply hegemonic French ways of thinking about food. I think every chef should read On War by Carl von Clausewitz from a critical perspective.
The existing paradigm right now is New American– a postmodernist approach to food that mixes the various values of French restaurants, artisans, immigrant cultures, and accepted industrial production norms into a melting pot that really serves profit per plate. And the tradition of the new Nordic chefs is rejecting some of it, keeping some of it with you. I’m a part of that tradition.
How did you develop your current menu offerings, and do you plan to rotate them on a seasonal basis?
I could take a couple different tacks in answering this question– but I think there’s something to be said first to think about how culture and time are inseparable things. What constitutes a “season”, so to speak, really depends on someone’s culture. So Swedish-Americans such as myself reveal this relationship to an extravagant degree. For my family, the most important meal of the year is the Christmas feast. There is an enormous amount of preparation that goes into it. For a Swedish family, the Christmas feast is about ½ cold food– boiled eggs, pickled herring, gravlax, pickled beets, cheese, breads soft and hard, etc. And it’s a fantastically tedious preparation. In Sweden, there is no food in the wintertime. Instead of using heat to cook everything, the preservation methods use salt or vinegar over a long period of time, and traditionally pickles and fermentations started months in advance. So the techniques reflect the “season”, so to speak. But what food really does as a cultural marker is it reflects a taste chord, and the cooking techniques serve this taste chord. So fermented foods are really important.
The concept of “provisions” is deeply significant to Nordic culture, because all the food that was available in the old country in the wintertime was preserved food. So we preserve a lot of food all times of the year, we eat preserved food all year round. There are of course crayfish and herring parties in the summertime, big nets of fish, a fire, maybe a big pot of boiling water and few paper plates of cayenne. And the street hot dogs are the best in the world. But surrounding this is a culture of constant preservation, salting the pork, pickling the fish, pickling the vegetables, etc. And it has a huge impact on our taste for fermented foods, sour, tangy, salty, savory.
My role as a producer of provisions is to manage this process of stretching the time when food is available. So in fact my work is deeply influenced by the seasons. When smelts hit the market, I’ll definitely be looking to put them in a pickle. I want to pickle seventeen-year cicadas next year. And it would be cool to make a vat of pickled fiddleheads when they’re available.
Is there anything you haven’t been able to offer that you wish you could, just because of logistics re: ingredient availability etc.?
Yeah. Herring. A lot of places will use imported jars and adjust from there, but as a chef I’m interested in the techniques, and I don’t want to work with prepared foods. I think it’s more interesting to take something like a sole fish and see what I can do with that in a pickle. I have this amazing beet-pickled sole fish recipe. Lots of herring is caught in North America, but it’s basically impossible to sell here. There are many stories of fishmongers and chefs trying to turn a tote of herring and failing. So markets won’t buy it, and it all gets shipped to Japan. They love it there. But I don’t care. To me, the most important part of being Nordic and being a chef is living by my knife and my techniques. I would be a Nordic chef on Mars.
How do you get your lingonberries?! I don’t think I’ve ever seen them in the supermarket, but maybe I’m not looking hard enough.
You are right, you have looked plenty hard enough. They aren’t there. I order mine from Washington State, they dry my (foraged) lingonberries and sea buckthorns and ship them to me. My lingonberry jam is much stronger, tangier, and lingonberrier than any lingonberry jam you can buy at the store, because I cook them with vodka and sugar from dry, as opposed to the rustic method of cooking fresh lingonberries with sugar. Both are delicious, but mine is a superior provision, because the flavor is less watered down.
What’s on the horizon for K-bröd that we might not know about? Any news you’d like to plug?
Come see me at the Carlyle Farmers Market in Alexandria, VA! 300 John Carlyle Street, Alexandria, VA. I’ll be there every Friday 4pm-7pm beginning September 25.
We have a new food box! It’s called the god morgon box, 12oz of Icelandic yogurt, 4oz of lingonberry jam, and knäckebröd crackers. Mixing together some lingonberry yogurt tastes delicious on a cracker, but it goes great on waffles and plättar too!
Svöl Aquavit in Brooklyn just sent me a couple bottles. Look out on Instagram for some cool recipe collaborations with that.
I’m also offering free delivery on all orders on my web shop in the DMV.
PS, if you can figure out how to make Icelandic pylsusinnep, I will order the heck out of it. (Not a question, just stating facts!)
Thanks for the tip on the pylsusinnep! I am always trying to steal as much as I can from the Icelandic table, they have the best food in the world.
All images via K-bröd’s Instagram