Having made over 200 appearances on TV shows such as Masterchef and American Food Battle, it’s amazing that Finnish chef Henri Alen can find the time to own one restaurant, let alone four. His Muru restaurant, an award-winning bistro in Helsinki, is the pick of the bunch with its mission to put the fun back into fine dining, but these days he spends an increasing amount of time at Finnjävel, redefining traditional Finnish food.
Alen will bring his experience of the spotlight to the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 competition as mentor to the Scandinavia & Baltics region finalist, Anton Husa. Fine Dining Lovers caught up with him in advance of the big event.
Can you remember the moment you decided to become a chef – what inspired you and what obstacles did you overcome to achieve your dream?
Yes, I do remember. At school we where making scones at the start of our kitchen classes. I was so happy to achieve something edible by myself that my family had to eat loads of scones at home after that.
What was your biggest triumph as a young chef, and is there anything you would consider your biggest failure?
My biggest triumph was to keep working in different kind of restaurants, and to keep working in line. Many young chefs fail when they take too high a position in mediocre kitchens. Better to train in high-standard places than run a poor one.
As a mentor, what do you expect from your young chef, Anton Husa, and what do you think you can offer him?
The only thing I expect is for him to throw himself fully in the competition, and train hard. Pressure always makes cooking different. Train for worst-case scenarios, and you’ll be on the podium. I think I can offer mental support, mostly – to make the chef relax and trust in himself.
What would victory in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition mean for a young chef?
It can be the key to your brand, and gives you the opportunity to know people around the world. Chefs are working more and more together across the boarders, which is great.
Tell us about some of your signature dishes and the stories behind them.
I have many different dishes from all different cuisines that I love to cook. My last favourite idea came from snow in the forest. It was granita made out of pine shoots, served with “dirt” made out of chocolate. It reflected the mushy, rainy winters we have had in Helsinki.
In Nordic cuisine, Denmark gets most of the limelight. What are the challenges in getting Finnish food known around the world, and how can they be overcome?
The history of Finnish cuisine is still quite young. It will take time for it to be recognised. We have super-unique ingredients and ways of cooking them. Finns are not the best at marketing abroad, that that is the key to success. We need to inform the world of the gems we have.
Tell us about some of your favourite Finnish ingredients and why you like cooking with them.
Just now, I’m keen on culturing milk products and trying to find different structures and tastes. Also, fermenting different grains and transforming them into dishes is interesting. Finland has a long history of culturing milk and growing oats, rye and wheat, so it is also natural for me.
Your restaurant Muru defines itself as a ‘fun dining’ restaurant, why is that so important to you, and how do you aim to keep food fun?
Muru is my first “baby”. It is a restaurant where the menu changes every week, and it is a continuous exploration of making a menu that makes people happy. The most important thing in any restaurant is that people are having good times. Fun dining!
You’re a well-known face on TV – how do you balance your TV work with your commitments as a chef?
Making TV doesn’t take my time that much. Only 3-4 weeks per year, and the whole season of a basic program is done. So I have plenty time in my kitchen. It’s much harder to rest enough. Cooking is just so cool that it’s hard to stay home at all.
What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans for the future?
Oh man. Now it’s a busy time. Restaurant Finnjävel will reach its 2nd birthday in 2018, after which we are going to renovate the whole place and make something even more unique, wilder and more hardcore! So I’m working on that now very intensively. There’s also another project concerning food that is underway. If I make it simple, I can say my only goal is to work hard to make everybody happy: customers, workers and our planet.