Carsten Höller: ‘I don’t want flowers on my food, ever. It disturbs me’

I have only been to Stockholm twice, both times to meet the experimental artist Carsten Höller, most famous for installing helter-skelters in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, and for magic mushroom-inspired upside-down worlds of all kinds. The first time I met him, seven years ago, Höller introduced me to the pair of bullfinches he was hand-feeding while attempting to teach them to sing a forgotten 18th-century love song; he sent me away with a tube of hallucinogenic toothpaste, designed to enhance my dreams. This time, the Wonderland “eat me” invitation was restricted to lunch at Höller’s brand new restaurant, Brutalisten.

The restaurant was inspired by pandemic boredom. Höller, an intense, never entirely earnest man of 60, often coolly dressed by his friend and sometime collaborator Miuccia Prada, tends to have his best ideas in the early morning. He lies in bed, he says, drinks a pot of warm coffee and lets his mind migrate. On one such half-awake dawn, he was musing on food as art. Höller is a lover of brutalist architecture; he divides his time between his Stockholm apartment and a concrete house he had built near a beach 70 miles south of Accra in Ghana. What, he wondered, that morning, would brutalist food look and taste like? He jotted down a semi-jokey manifesto for “a dogma kitchen”.

The first rule was that “ingredients are used alone … only water or salt may be added.” Those single ingredients, his manifesto allowed, could be “often divided and cooked in different ways and then added again to the same plate”. Another fundamental of that 14-part declaration included the insistence that “decoration on the plate is avoided”. “We are born brutalist eaters as mother’s milk is essentially brutalist,” he argued. And finally, “Brutalist portions tend to be of substantial size.”

Before Covid-19, Höller was half-thinking about doing a pop-up restaurant, based on his manifesto, with a celebrated Swedish chef, Stefan Eriksson. During the early part of the pandemic, with Höller’s exhibition plans across the world on hold, they decided to use the time to create not a pop-up but a proper brutalist restaurant. A couple of weeks ago, Höller greeted me at the door of that early morning idea, which had opened for business two nights earlier. He had the look of a first-time father, knackered from sleepless nights, but full of anxious love for his new creation.

We sat at a corner table in the 24-seat room that looks out through high windows on a street in Stockholm’s old centre, near a cinema where Ingmar Bergman’s films premiered. For a couple of hours while we talk, dishes – “cleared,” as Höller says, “of background noise” – are placed before us. We begin with a plate of wild oysters – no lemon – from the west coast of Sweden and a raw, surprisingly sweet, baby turnip root; some charcuterie arrives along with airy crisps of roasted pork fat, and I’m pretty much already a brutalist disciple.

Höller has enjoyed choosing restaurant suppliers with Eriksson; they are nearly all multigenerational family farmers, with an obsession for the singularity of certain products. The pork comes from a couple who have a smallholding “on a nature reserve in the middle of nowhere without a phone”. The farm has a lake, and the pigs swim every day. Höller believes you can taste those aquatic laps in the cured ham.

What began as a whim has clearly become something of an overwhelming passion. “I really got fed up with mayonnaise culture,” he says. “Traditional Swedish cooking is very nice but everything comes with some kind of creamy sauce. The aim here is to get rid of that. To dig down into the taste of a given ingredient.” Thoughts tend to race through Höller once they start. “It is the opposite of alchemy, you know,” he goes on. “Most chefs think they can create gold by combining lots of things to create something better. The principle here is that the gold is already there, you just have to trust in it.”

His point is made by a wonderful, clear asparagus broth, containing chunks of asparagus, some baked, some fermented, some raw. “You have asparagus, you don’t need hollandaise,” says Höller. “This is a proper alchemist dish. They use just a little of the fermented asparagus, to turn the taste of the baked asparagus around on its axis.”

Höller is German. He did much of his growing up in Belgium where his father worked for the EU. He is, as much of his work suggests, a lapsed scientist – he did a doctorate in biology, specialising in the ways aphids navigate the world. In his art career he has been more interested in human perception, experimenting with surprising ways to disrupt our ways of seeing.

Dishes on a table at Carsten Höller’s restaurant Brutalisten in Stockholm, Sweden.
Carsten and Tim both ate goat cheese, 155kr; champignon Carsten, 175kr; Norwegian diver scallops, 195kr; Skåne apples, 135kr; west coast Pacific and flat oysters, 65kr/pc and 85kr/pc; Skåne Linderoth and mangalitsa charcuterie, 120kr; Skåne rinds and lard, 65kr; Norwegian turbot, 245kr; Gotland white asparagus, 155kr. They both drank Bissap non-alcoholic wine, 75kr/37.5cl, beer 80kr, both created by Brutalisten. Photograph: Rob Schoenbaum

“I think it is nice to introduce a wrongness,” he says. Everything in his restaurant, for example, is built slightly off square, either 85 or 95 degrees angles. There is a woozy spiral staircase based on these principles leading to an upstairs dining space. There will also be a lavatory, unfinished when I visited, at one end of the restaurant, with one-way glass, allowing the occupant to look out at the diners, but not (despite their fears) the other way around.

The art mixes abstract minimalist pieces with a ceiling mural by a young American painter, Ana Benaroya, of “lots of naked women eating and dancing and smoking and kissing and everything good”, as Höller describes it. The principle of that clash of aesthetics is borrowed from Höller’s Double Club in London, which was located in an old Victorian warehouse for six months from November 2008. The bar and dance floor was divided precisely in half between western and Congolese spaces. That kind of juxtaposition fascinates him. He built his place in Ghana partly because he thought his beloved songbirds were on to something by living in two entirely different places through the year, the best of both worlds. “It is very nice to make your life into a double club,” he says.

I wonder if his brutalist feelings about food are rooted in his childhood. What did he eat as a kid?

“When she put her mind to it, my mother made strange things,” he says. “We would often have veal brains, which I loved. Or she would do hare at Christmas. I have a clear memory of my first brutalist experience. I caught these tiny little shrimps that you have on the beach in Belgium and I carried them in a blue plastic bucket to the apartment we had rented. I cooked them in their own seawater and I ate them. I still remember the taste. Super-orthodox brutalist.”

That kind of memory of simplicity fuels his instincts against decoration. “I don’t want flowers on my food, ever,” he says. “It disturbs me. It’s the same as background music in restaurants, I don’t want it. I want food that tastes like itself and I want the noise to be only the sound of friends talking.”

How will he deal with customers at Brutalisten who ask for mayo or ketchup? His plan, he says, “is to just keep quietly saying that their food is on its way, until they look around and realise it never is”.

A bowl arrives containing what seems to be a large, single champignon mushroom, finely sliced in half and quarters. One part is grilled, one smoked, one raw and it sits in densely flavoured juices from a mushroom broth, reduced and distilled. Given Höller’s reputation as something of a mushroom shaman, was it an inevitable menu item?

“Yes,” he says, a little wearily, “I have made a lot of art that does not involve mushrooms or helter-skelters, but people tend to forget that.”

Alongside the restaurant he explains how he is currently working on a long-term sleep project with some researchers at MIT. Part of it involves some prototype dream-stimulating pyjamas. He has plans to open a roadside motel in the US, where each identical room offers you a different kind of nocturnal vacation.

He sees no real distinction between the two ventures, sensing a shared sensibility between artists and chefs. “At the beginning of the last century,” he suggests, “you had all these art movements, surrealism and cubism and futurism, now I think some of that incredible avant garde is in cooking: you have molecular cuisine. All these theatrical experiences, Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria …” After we have eaten an ice-cream of goat milk with a crumble of whey on top and drunk a distinctively sour hop-free beer, Höller then signs a brutalist menu for me. The auction for it opens in about 50 years’ time.

Brutalisten, Regeringsgatan 71, 111 56 Stockholm, Sweden

The Guardian