Hans ValimakiInterview by James Casey. Photograph by Tuukka Koski
On the eastern fringe of Scandinavia, Finland hardly qualifies as a popular gourmet destination—Worst food in Europe says Jacques Chirac! Helsinki’s dark horse bucks the stereotype.
The life of a top chef in Finland is a lonely one. Hans Välimäki, owner and chef de cuisine of Helsinki’s most lauded restaurant, Chez Dominique, understands this. Yes, Jacques Chirac has glibly dismissed Finland as having the worst food in Europe, but Välimäki is tirelessly challenging preconceptions from the inside out. Serving what could only be described as Modern European (French, mainly) with Scandinavian ingredients, Chez Dominique’s food is far from the bone idle former French president’s idea of Finnish cuisine.
Awarded his second Michelin star in 2003—an entirely unique accolade for a Finnish chef—Välimäki does concede that his drive hasn’t necessarily come from local pastures. “Sometimes it is pretty hard to motivate myself here in Helsinki,” he explains. “I try to travel a lot, or as much as I can, as it’s the only way.” The burgeoning Nordic food scene and the region’s other young chefs also fuel creativity. “We all know each other and we see each other quite often. We have these meetings twice a year—it only takes 45 minutes and you’re in Stockholm, an hour and you’re in Copenhagen.”
So, does chef Välimäki covet his neighbour’s life? “Sometimes I feel, to be honest, I should have gone some other place, but I’ve gotten used to it,” he confides. “Here I’ve been really lucky.” Attributing his current success to the strength of his own staff and to their collective dedication to rising as high above the local competition as possible, he openly admits that his inspiration comes from without. Nowhere is this clearer than when Välimäki speaks about the current Danish movement (fronted by luminaries like his close friend René Redzepi, from Copenhagen’s noma). “Some people—even me—are jealous because they keep in touch and exchange opinions,” he explains. “They’re really hyperactive there. Compare them to us here in Finland and they’re so proud and happy of what they are doing. That’s why they have more energy.”
Though he posits that Helsinki’s scene needs another ten years to catch up to its Scandinavian neighbours, what does Välimäki see as Finland’s strength? For one, certain native ingredients such as berries, mushrooms and game. Even so, Chez Dominique is hugely reliant on produce, especially seafood, from other parts of Scandinavia (especially in the winter months, when much of Finland is rendered solid). He visibly winces when describing the vast amount of money required to ship in such glorious specimens. “[Getting] Seafood in Finland is a big problem…we don’t have so many useful fishes here in Finland.” Much of Chez Dominique’s fish is flown from Sweden using contacts Välimäki made during a stage abroad. Letting out a small sigh, he quietly concedes, “It’s always fresh, but wow, it costs a lot of money.”
Välimäki’s disdain for the current situation may be clear as day, but what would his future vision of Helsinki consist of? For one, more “individual” restaurants, places run by chefs, waiters and waitresses. Putting it bluntly, he says Finland is currently drowning in a tide of “mainstream bullshit” and “average restaurants” subsisting on culinary gimmickry. “If there is garlic on the menu, it is a hit! If there is goat cheese, a hit! Sun-dried tomatoes, a hit.” While such methods aren’t unique to Finland (most modern cities are guilty of similar transgressions), Välimäki does crave change and a challenge. “I like competition, it’s good.” He then adds, “If you’re alone without competition, you get soft and lazy.”
Having recently launched a new establishment, La Société du Cochon, Välimäki shows very little sign of softening at the edges. La Société encompasses three separate spaces—a brasserie, a café and the Cochon Bakery (a deli space with take-away items, breads and coffee). As the main space, the brasserie offers up an comprehensive selection of European classics—on the menu, abstract section headers such as “Do you eat to live or live to eat?” categorise European mainstays such as modish grilled calf’s liver, osso buco and an unapologetically English beef Wellington with the proper trimming of foie gras and Madeira sauce. Honestly, with food like this in Finland, other foreign leaders would be wise to watch their words—lest they come to eat them later.