The quickest-starred Michelin restaurant
For most people ,opening a restaurant in London in today’s economic climate would be off-putting enough. Add to the equation a 44-year-old, self-taught chef who has a plethora of allergies and has never done this before, and you might think that person is verging on the insane. This may be slightly true but luckily for us Mikael Jonsson is braver than most.
Hedone (which takes its name from the the Greek word for 'pleasure') opened its doors to the world and Chiswick in July 2011. A year later and it’s won various awards and plaudits from the best in the food world - the leading food critic AA Gill said of the restaurant: “If I had to… recommend just one gobstopping, heart-racing dinner in all of London, it would be Hedone.” Which isn’t bad considering Mikael is self-taught and until only recently was practising law in Sweden.
Food for thought
Born in Sweden, Mikael has always had a passion for food, and it was his grandmother - “a really good chef” - was the one to give him his first cooking lesson. Over the years he developed into a passionate foodie, but Mikael also suffered from various allergies. “I had eczema, asthma… it’s actually easier to say the stuff I wasn’t allergic to!” His hopes of becoming a chef were thought to be just a pipe dream, so he studied law instead.
Then about four years ago he decided to change his diet to lose weight. “I came across some books about the Palaeolithic diet and the idea that our systems haven’t really evolved after hundreds of millions of years. Our diets today consist of 70-80% of things we haven’t adapted to because they’re fairly new introductions to our diet.
To me this made a lot of sense because when we feed animals stuff that they’re not supposed to eat, they get the same diseases we do – obesity, diabetes, cancer etc. For example, they shot a lot of wild wolves in Sweden and did autopsies on them, they didn’t find any diseases in the wolves. There wasn’t a single one with cancer for instance. I did so much research and as I ploughed through it became pretty obvious and so I started to eat my version of what I thought our ancestors were eating.”
He explains; “what I liked and what my body liked were all the things you’re not supposed to eat – red meat, natural fats and not a lot of vegetables. People who eat these traditional diets are usually very healthy and don’t suffer from western diseases. I’ve adapted it a little bit now. It’s not so much about what we eat but what we exclude - things that are new such as wheat, omega 6 fat, manmade fats and sugar. I try not to eat excessive amounts of those killers and I’ve kept my weight down for four years.”
After stabilising his allergies with his diet he decided to go after his life long dream of opening his own restaurant.
Mikael decided that there were only two cities worth considering for his restaurant location – Paris or London. London was the “easier” option, Mikael says. “I moved here to open this restaurant, without really knowing anyone, so it could have gone really badly. It didn’t!”
One of the reasons why Mikael chose London was its exciting restaurant scene. “London has an incredibly vibrant restaurant scene, more so than perhaps anywhere else because of its extreme variety. I think there’s a big appetite for dining out in London which isn’t going to go away anytime soon.”
Mikael says he doesn’t have a food style – “I don’t think I’m there yet.” But what he is adamant about is food sourcing. “It’s the most important thing for me because if you don’t have fantastic produce you can’t make great food. Some people think that if you have a really great chef and you give him some supermarket produce he can turn it into great food but that’s not possible.
I often make the comparison with wine making – if you go to Sainsbury’s and buy grapes and give it to the best wine maker in the world, he’s not going to be able to turn it into a Chateau la Fete, it’s impossible. You need great ingredients to make that product – it’s very simple.”
And so, dining at Hedone is always a new experience because the menu changes daily, depending on what his carefully selected producers have provided him with. Dishes are simple, stripped down to emphasise the purity of their natural flavours. Mikael explains: “What I try to do is take modest but fantastic produce and turn it into something luxurious.”
He doesn’t like the term 'signature dish', but one that he is renowned for is basically onion and pear shavings. It may not be the most obvious of pairings but AA Gill described it as “extraordinary”, so we assume it’s pretty special.
When speaking to Mikael it’s obvious he’s obsessed with food, his knowledge is astounding and he’s blatantly in love with his job. Although, after his having spent 25 years in law, you can perhaps understand why he’s so excited about his second career.
Another aspect of food that gets him excited is experimentation and new techniques. Ask him about killing fish in his bath and you’ll get an insight into his obsession. “In Japan they’ve experimented with a technique called Ike-Jime, which means you destroy the spinal cord after you kill the fish, which means you basically cut off the tale and insert a spike.
"After any living thing dies there are chemical processes that start and the theory is that this technique stops the signals from transmitting, so in a way the muscles don’t know that the body is dead yet. It means that it slows down and extends the process of rigor mortis, and it’s been shown that for a lot of fish the longer it is in rigor mortis the better the end product. I’ve done personal experiments and it’s clear that it’s true, not of all fish but for a lot of fish.” Mikael is certainly someone you’d want on your pub quiz team.
After such a notable year, you wonder what Mikael has planned next. His answer is surprisingly humble and shows that he’s in it for the food rather than the glory. “Ohh just to carry on. The Michelin star has been a plus note - we can get better people involved and it boosts the morale of the staff as its testament to everyone that we are actually professional. So defining what we do, improving the service we provide, we’re just going to continue doing that.”
What about a second restaurant? “No, one restaurant is more than enough! If you want to serve really great food you really have to be there and get feedback all the time. Having loads of restaurants is not for me. Opening this restaurant was a tough experience and it’s only been open just over a year so there’s no reason to get carried away. I want to improve this and make it work, make it something that I’m really proud of.”
When Mikael set off on his Hedone adventure, everything was against him, but his pure passion and drive has shown that fulfilling your restaurant dreams can be done, even in adversity.