Meet the chef: Marko Laasonen on a new wave of sustainable fine dining in Finnish Lapland
In northern Finland, the power and abundance of the natural world has birthed an innovative culinary scene that blends Lappish traditions with sustainable practices. Here, the head chef at Restaurant Kaunis shares his passion for the country’s cuisine.
It’s hard to talk about Finland, one of the most forested countries in Europe, without the conversation turning to nature. Finland’s deep-rooted relationship with the natural world is perhaps best understood through its food. Ingredients here — from wild cloudberries to fresh reindeer meat — change with the seasons, while, historically, locals spend their weekends cooking Arctic fish and snow-resistant potatoes over open fires.
We talk to Marko Laasonen, head chef at Star Arctic Hotel’s Restaurant Kaunis in remote eastern Lapland, to learn more about farm-to-table cooking in the region, where a passion for sustainability and a return to ancient cooking techniques are paving the way for the next generation of Finnish cuisine.
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.
‘Sustainable cooking’ is a term that’s used a lot these days. What does it mean to you?
Sustainability is about making the most of what’s around you and being proud of what you have. It’s about protecting nature, but it’s also about identity. Sustainable cooking — sourcing seasonal and local ingredients in a way that doesn’t harm nature — is what differentiates us from the rest of the world. We’re in a very remote location, but we’re lucky enough to have good ingredients. We should be proud of that.
When you're not working at Star Arctic, where do you like to eat in the local area?
I like to be out in nature as much as possible. It’s very popular in Finland to go to the forest with friends and family and cook over an open fire. When I go, I love cooking fresh fish or salted reindeer with some Lappish potatoes on the side. For special occasions, I like to eat in Aanaar, a restaurant in Inari that’s also doing very exciting things with local produce, such as roasted reindeer smoked with pine, and cloudberry sorbet with caramelised sea-buckthorn.
Which are your favourite regions for food in Finland?
Helsinki has many good restaurants, but I love eastern Lapland. There is so much nature out here and that means very good ingredients. The best thing about eastern Lapland is Lake Inari. It’s so beautiful and it also gives us a very tasty fish that we call Inari whitefish. You’ll see it on almost every menu in eastern Lapland.
What excites you about the future of cooking in Finland?
Cooking with fresh ingredients has always been part of Finnish culture, but the fine-dining scene is relatively new in Finland, especially in more remote parts such as eastern Lapland. The younger generation is looking for more creative dining experiences, which is encouraging more chefs like me to innovate. I’m excited to see where Finnish food, and Lappish food in particular, goes next.
Three traditional dishes to try in Finnish Lapland
Leipäjuusto, or ‘bread cheese’, is a Finnish dessert whose history spans more than two centuries. Before fridges, this sweet and salty cheese — made with cow’s, goat’s or reindeer’s milk — was dried solid for storage. To make it edible, it had to be heated over a fire before being served with hot coffee. Today, the best Leipäjuusto comes freshly toasted, with a dollop of sweet lingonberry jam to finish.
Reindeer is one of Finland’s most popular — and healthiest — meats. It’s often cured, slow-cooked or served as a steak, but the most popular version comes sautéed in butter. After it’s lightly fried with onions and black pepper, the meat is left to simmer in beer or meat stock before being served with mashed potato and lingonberry jam.
The tar-coloured sweets, sold everywhere in Finland, are liquorice, but with the added twist of ‘salmiak salt’, or ammonium chloride. Thought to have started out as a cough remedy, this unusual sweet, which is salty and extremely tart, is so popular that it’s used to flavour ice creams, chocolate desserts and even vodka. Sample with caution.
To try Marko Laasonen's Lappish dishes, book a stay at The Star Arctic Hotel with Inghams.
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