Good food, good drink. Ólafur Örn Ólafsson: An Icelandic foodie hipster
Text by Dísa Bjarnadóttir
Among the many people in Reykjavík who like to enjoy good food and drink, Ólafur Örn Ólafsson (Óli Óla) is a rather well-known name. He is one of those people who seem to know just about everybody who’s anybody. These days he’s even more well-known around Reykjavík because for the past few weeks he’s been on television once a week as one of the judges on the Icelandic version of MasterChef.
Óli can also be credited for introducing some novelties into the eclectic mix of Icelandic liqueurs. He’s one of the thinkers behind Björk and Birkir, unique Icelandic liqueurs made from Icelandic herbs. Óli’s interests are good food and good drink, so we thought he’d be a perfect candidate to share some of his wisdom about eating well in Iceland and abroad.
So Óli, what’s your story, how did you get to be the “culinary megastar” that you are today?
“Megastar? That sounds a bit extreme. If someone knows my face it’s probably because I’ve been fortunate enough to work in some of the best restaurants in Reykjavík for the past few years. I also have to admit that I have a tendency to forget people’s names or faces. So to play it safe, I often greet people that I don’t know at all as if we’re old friends. This has often led to me getting to know new people.”
What is the story behind Björk and Birkir?
“I used to work with my friend Gunnar Karl at DILL restaurant. We were constantly looking for tasty ingredients from Iceland’s nature. We climbed mountains and tasted most of what we found, most of it was good and some of it made it into the DILL menu.
“We really liked birch with its unique flavour. We used it quite a bit for desserts and to season meat and fish. And we kept experimenting with what would be a good venue for this excellent taste. Since we’re both natural drinkers we thought it would be interesting to make a liqueur to match with a fish dish we were offering at the time. Our guests really liked it so the next step was to bottle and sell it.”
What is the latest and greatest in the Icelandic cuisine scene?
“It’s a rapidly growing field. Farmers have started making all kinds of good stuff right at their farms, such as ice cream and cheese, not to mention all the great crafts and clothing made from the sheep’s wool.
“Micro-breweries have been popping up all over the country, some of them offer excellent beer, some of them not as excellent, but I welcome it all, even the not-so-good first attempts. All Icelanders who try and add to our rich food culture with new ideas deserve applause, in my book.”
What do you recommend most in food and drink to foreign visitors?
“Try the local stuff. Find a restaurant that prepares and uses local produce. In Iceland you can have some of the freshest fish in the world. When you order fish in a good restaurant it’s often something that was swimming in the ocean the day before. I also recommend skyr to all foreign visitors.
“In the summertime I suggest visits to the farmers who produce their own dairy products, and Frú Lauga, the farmers’ market in Reykjavík, is a place that all real “foodies” should visit.
Since you’ve been in the restaurant business for so long, do you credit yourself for any of the recent restaurant-trends?
“I’m very proud of having been a part of starting the New Nordic restaurant at DILL. New Nordic cuisine is closely related to the “slow food” concept, which in short is the idea that ingredients should travel as little as possible, meaning the distance from the farm to the plate (“from farm to fork”). When the New Nordic wave started here, Icelandic chefs and restaurant owners started thinking more about this. If I can be credited for playing even a small role in this, it makes me very happy.”
You’ve travelled quite a bit and tried a few different things in other countries’ restaurants, what are some of your more memorable experiences?
“I’ll always remember the first time I ate at NOMA, Copenhagen. You could say it was an influential event in my life as a “foodie”. I had a twelve course meal where every course was a pleasant surprise.
“I’ll also never forget eating in a small family restaurant in Thailand. We were greeted by a limping grandmother with one single tooth in her mouth. We were rather sceptical but it ended up being one of the very best meals I’ve ever been served. Fresh fish, lots of hot spices and everything cooked with love. Fabulous!
If you were young and broke, but wanted to travel, where would you go?
“Berlin! Berlin is so full of life and there are plenty of “ethnic restaurants” with affordable prices. They also have a super-fun bar scene and the people in Berlin are exceptionally cool and hip.”