Call it a New Culinary Era

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Residents and visitors rediscover Tórshavn as the flourishing restaurant scene in the Faroese capital continues to elevate its hospitality sector — genuine local cuisine with an international touch spells the beginning of a golden era.

[Eir Nolsøe] 

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Healthy vegan dishes, grass fed lamb from family-owned farms, locally sourced lobsters, Spanish-style tapas, or fermented fish that will make your clothes smell for days. For a town of roughly 20,000 people, locals and tourists alike are spoiled for choice in Tórshavn. The number of restaurants and cafés, which also counts Michelin-starred Koks in neighboring village Kirkjubø, has surged in the past five years. In part, this is due to growing tourism; but perhaps more so, local entrepreneurs who have opened new, and sometimes daring, businesses despite the odds being stacked against them. It’s time to wake up and smell the fermented sheep.

If you take a walk through the narrow streets of the Faroese capital, on an empty stomach, there are plenty of options. Smakka, a café in the Nordic House, serves ecological and pescetarian dishes largely influenced by neo-Nordic cuisine. Owned by political scientist turned yoga teacher turned café owner, Hildur Eyðunsdóttir and her husband Oyvindur av Skarði, the three-year-old eatery has become a popular attraction for locals and tourists who like to eat their greens.

“No one else was doing it, so we just decided to do it ourselves,” Ms. Eyðunsdóttir says. At the moment she is experimenting with homegrown vegetables and herbs as well as adopting Faroese seaweed into the menu. Ms. Eyðunsdóttir doesn’t disguise the fact that making ends meet as an independent business in Tórshavn can be tough, but she is happy to see more places opening.

“In my opinion, everyone benefits because then people eat out more,” she says. “In summer, the tourists also help a great deal.”

Local businesses owe a lot to the fledgling tourism industry according to Johannes Jensen, the committee chairman of Visit Faroe Islands and the CEO of Gist & Vist, the largest operator in the Faroese hotel and restaurant business. Mr. Jensen is behind several of the most successful Faroese restaurants such as Barbara Fish House, Áarstova, which serves Faroese lamb roasts, and of course Michelin-starred Koks.

“The choice wouldn’t be as great and diverse if it weren’t for the tourists.” he says. “In my estimates, more than 30 percent of Faroese restaurant profits today come from visiting customers. Those 30 percent provide a lifeline for many businesses.”

The restaurant scene in Tórshavn has changed rapidly and so has the islanders’ appetite for dining out. Ten years ago, Rúsan, the Faroese alcohol retailer, only had seven different bottles of white wine, whereas today there are about 100 bottles, if not more, to choose from, Mr. Jensen points out.

FBR17_LO_1415 “The range of restaurants was very limited—there were two hotel restaurants, the odd hotdog stand and some places, which served very simple food. Locals and tourists have a much greater choice today,” he says.

In 2005, Leif Sørensen opened the Faroe Islands’ first haute cuisine restaurant, Gourmet. After the business closed, he became the head chef of Koks, which was largely his brainchild, until he left in 2014. Mr. Sørensen’s ambition was to revolutionize Faroese food culture and move the islands forward; and in many ways he succeeded.

“Dining out just wasn’t part of Faroese culture two decades ago,” Mr. Sørensen says. “The general mantra was that you ate to survive, not for pleasure. No one wanted to ‘waste money’ on food. Restaurant food often wasn’t much different to what one could cook at home anyway.”

pp14-15‘Beginning of a golden era’

Mr. Sørensen is known for taking an experimental approach to food and putting local produce first. “Restaurants mostly served what they knew would be a safe bet with their existing customer base,” he says. “At Gourmet we focused on genuine local cuisine, the aim being a fully Faroese menu. This stirred a trend, which is reflected at Barbara, Áarstova and Koks today; a pride in what you’ve got.” 

Faroese food can hardly be described as the most aesthetically pleasing. With traditional dishes consisting of fermented fish or even sheep rectum, stuffed with tallow and meat, one can hardly blame restaurants for their hesitation to serve local cuisine. But these little quirks are exactly what make the Faroe Islands interesting as a culinary destination according to Mr. Jensen. His restaurant, Ræst, has been very popular with tourists despite serving mainly fermented meat and fish. The smell, which can linger in clothes for days, has not put off newcomers, eager to experience the local culture through food.

“We’re incredibly proud to serve Faroese food,” Mr. Jensen says. “Why else would one go traveling? It’s to experience something new.”

The hospitality boss also puts great emphasis on the quality of the homegrown produce.

“We live in the world’s best pantry,” he says. “The temperatures on both sea and land are relatively stable at approximately 5C degrees on average in winter and 10-12 degrees on average in summer. Because of this we have developed some incredibly local produce such as bird, fish, shellfish and lamb; herbs and vegetables grow slowly and have very strong flavors.”      

Food entrepreneur Johan Mortensen is equally fascinated by the possibilities that the Faroese climate provides. He sells Faroese fish and air-cured ham and cheese to local restaurants.

“Practically anything can be air-cured in the Faroese climate,” he says. “Just hang it out to dry and let the Lord take care of the rest.” Having been involved in the industry for many years as a supplier, Mr. Mortensen is clearly optimistic about the growing restaurant scene in Tórshavn.

“The initial phase to reach a more professional level has taken about 10-12 years,” he says. “We’re witnessing the beginning of a golden era.”

Faroese businesses still struggle to hire qualified waiting staff, Mr. Jensen admits. But young people are increasingly interested in the opportunities that the growing restaurant industry provides. Gist & Vist currently employs 18 chef apprentices, and 90 percent of their chefs are Faroese.

In the coming months, Mr. Jensen is to open a new steak-house as well as a craft beer bar in cooperation with Danish microbrewery Mikkeller.