Nordic fare in Minneapolis blurs lines between food and art

At FIKA, Chef Blake Meier serves artfully composed food that changes with the seasons and connects Minnesotans with their Scandinavian past.

Photograph by Stephanie Rau
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Outside the the American Swedish Institute, Minneapolis-based chefs, Blake Meier (left) and Gavin Kaysen (right), discuss the new-school Scandinavian-inspired food that is sweeping across the state.

Photograph by Stephanie Rau

Controversial runestones notwithstanding, it’s generally accepted that Nordic settlers began populating Minnesota in the 19th Century, and their cultural presence still lends this snowy state much of its flavor. Finns immigrated to take advantage of logging and mining opportunities in the rugged north, and Minneapolis-St. Paul is chockablock with the descendants of Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians. From Minnesota’s Vikings NFL franchise to cardamom-infused baked goods to Scandinavian bric-a-brac at every gift shop and truck stop, you can feel the influence of northern Europe in most of the state’s cities and towns.

One place it’s rarely felt: Minnesota restaurants. Traditionally, Scandinavian food is home-cooked food in Minnesota, and there is therefore a razor-thin collection of older restaurants and shops offering a taste of Sweden or Norway. Swedish meatballs and lefse were things you ate at home; dining out was for steak and potatoes, Italian-American food, or “tavern-cut” pizza that Minnesotans enjoy to this day.

For a true taste of Minnesota’s old Scandinavian food, venture out to the now overwhelmingly Latinx stronghold of East Lake Street in Minneapolis and visit Ingebretsen’s, a century-old deli that offers everything from cured salmon (gravlax) to savory flatbread (lefse) to Scandinavian sweets. Minnesota’s scratch bakeries also have plenty of traditional Nordic fare, from the waffle cone-like krumkake to cardamom bread, all over the state, and particularly at spots like Swedish Crown Bakery in Anoka.

While old-school Scandinavian restaurants may be thin on the ground, Nordic countries have greatly influenced the state’s modern fine dining scene. The Bachelor Farmer in the reliably trendy North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis has been doing minimalist, often foraging-driven, farm-to-table food for nearly a decade. Willard’s in Cambridge, Minnesota is a restaurant that has proliferated in recent years—it’s about an hour from the population center of Minneapolis-St. Paul, it’s helmed by a well-credentialed executive chef, and it takes cues from Scandinavia (ham, dill, Swedish flatbread) when it comes to its menu. See also: Vann, an upscale new lakeside spot in Wayzata, run by a high-profile chef who is inspired by the seafood of Japan and Scandinavia.

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The American Swedish Institute is a sprawling center for Scandinavian culture in south Minneapolis, and home to the restaurant FIKA.

At the American Swedish Institute, a sprawling, castle-like property that towers benignly over South Minneapolis, food plays a major role, too. The site marries the beautifully preserved Turnblad Mansion with a modern museum, gift-shop, café, and event space. The café at ASI, known as FIKA, marries convenience with craft—it’s fully modern and engaged by the contemporary scene but also deeply inspired by Scandinavian tradition. It’s part of a new wave of Scandinavian-inspired food that is sweeping across the state, and All-Clad joined National Geographic in Minnesota to document it with the help of local chef Gavin Kaysen.

FIKA’s blend of classic flavors and chic presentation is guided by Chef Blake Meier. Meier cooked his way through college, where he studied graphic design, but the call of the kitchen was irresistible. “I was just curious to get back into the kitchen and just abruptly ended my graphic design career,” says Meier. But, he adds, there are many parallels between creating visual art with a computer or sketchpad and edible art with a saucepan and garnishes. “When I’m cooking, I’m putting my emotions on a plate—developing a palate for what tastes good together, how to season, and how to build all these layers of flavor. It’s very similar to when you’re designing.”

FIKA’s name comes from the Swedish tradition of fika, a daily chance to drink some coffee, have a snack, and connect with other people. “Fika is the concept of taking a break from your day,” says Meier. “We have a full service menu, but a lot of people just come in and get a cup of coffee or a roll […] It’s taking a break, putting your phone in your pocket for a minute, and catching up with someone’s life.”

The restaurant is informed by the conversation between the refined and the rustic; it’s about a casual cup of coffee and a cardamom roll, yes, but it’s also about Meier’s effort to turn seasonal food onto art that’s “painted” onto the blank canvas of a diner’s plate. The restaurant is a connection between Scandinavia and Minnesota, and between the cities and food sourced from the state’s woods and lakes.

“A lot of the fish we get—the trout and the herring—comes from the Grand Marais, Lake Superior areas,” says Meier. “Although we can’t get herring year round, we try to use it as much as possible in season because it really hits home with Swedish and Scandinavian people.”

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Chefs Gavin Kaysen (right) and Blake Meier (left) trim artichokes to prepare a recipe from FIKA.

Along with fish, vegetables play a starring role at Fika—the menu evolves with the season and what Meier is growing in his own garden. “This is the first year I’m growing asparagus,” he says. “It’s going really well. I’ve gotten three or four sprouted, and I’m letting them grow for the next few years.”

Those asparagus are part of the inspiration for the recipe he’s sharing, which relies on an All-Clad Copper Core 3-quart sauté pan and All-Clad Copper Core 8" fry pan to provide even heating in order to cook delicate ingredients. “[The recipe] plays with different flavors and textures,” says Meier. “I chose it because I really like to work with vegetables—they’re one of my strong points in the industry. Sometimes they get left behind in the dust a little bit.” Meier’s sense of understatement here is typical—while his raw materials may be seasonal vegetables and freshwater fish, the results are nothing less than edible art on the plate.

Sautéed White Asparagus Salad with Olive Oil Poached Artichoke

James Norton is the food editor for The Growler Magazine in St. Paul, MN.

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