Creative Conversations: Antto Melasniemi

Antto Melasniemi is a Helsinki-based chef working in the intersection of food, design and the arts. His interview with FCINY’s Director Kaarina Gould was originally published in Bastard Cookbook by Antto Melasniemi and Rirkrit Tiravanija, co-published by FCINY and Garret Publications in June 2019.

Photo: Janne Tuunanen.

On a late March Monday morning Eastern Standard Time, me in my kitchen in Brooklyn, Antto at some sumptuous hotel in Hong Kong, we set up a FaceTime conversation to talk about what made Antto Melasniemi a Bastard Brother. He had just returned from a dinner with friends. Antto and Rirkrit were at ArtBasel Hong Kong, creating a dinner concept for Standard Hotels for their launch in Asia. Later that week he would also be DJing at the Volar Club at a party the director of ArtBasel was throwing. I suggest he should just play Elvis.

Kaarina Gould: How much are you working with music these days? We first got to know each other when you were really young, like seventeen, and all you did was play music with a bunch of different bands.

Antto Melasniemi: Music was a big part of my childhood and I attended a music program in school. I started playing just about any instrument but then got a bit more serious with the saxophone. I wasn’t really good or disciplined enough and started fooling around with different musical styles and various band projects. I was big on Latin music and even traveled to Brazil to learn percussions.

But you were also going to cooking school? Food was part of your practice right from the start.

I originally enrolled mainly because my mom would not have me stay at home unless I did something useful with my life. But I got pretty serious about food, and working in restaurants was also a way of making some money while pursuing other interests, like music. Music and food are just two different ways for me to tell a story. I often think of sound while cooking – acidic flavors are higher notes and umami the bass. There are dishes that work like a trio and soups that bring an entire symphony orchestra onto your plate.

And then HIM got really big.

One of the bands I played with, HIM, had a big breakthrough with their first album and continuing with the band would have required my fulltime commitment. I made a choice of stepping to the side because I wanted to continue pursuing my other interests as well. I actually joined them later for their US tour as a chef – mainly ordering in pizza to various backstage green rooms that had no kitchen facilities.

Was this when you took the big leap into food?

Around that time I would have finished the culinary school. I had a summer job in a restaurant in Fiskars, a beautiful old village an hour away from Helsinki, where the famous orange scissors factory was founded. The chef I worked for told me the only way to learn about food would be to work in kitchens outside of Finland.

So where did you go?

My first stop was Amsterdam. Somehow I landed a job at a South African restaurant that was about to close down. They had a freezer full of Kudu and crocodile meat and I was taught to cook a few South African dishes. I really had no idea what I was doing, so I mainly just improvised. My co-chef was another Finnish guy, artist Otto Karvonen, who was a student at The Gerrit Rietveld Academie at the time. The guests were quite amused when they found out the South African chefs were both Finns.

Photo: Janne Tuunanen.

Photo: Janne Tuunanen.

Photo: Janne Tuunanen.

Was that the first attempt at bastard cooking?

Yes, exactly! Now that you think of it, we were definitely bastardizing back then. However it was more random and accidental. Also I didn’t have the understanding behind the cuisines I now think of as the fundamentals of bastard cooking. So no, not really.

Where do you feel that you learned the most? About food and cooking?

I think my times in France and Japan have been most influential. Working on a wine estate in Bordeaux and some restaurants in Paris taught me everything I know about respect for the ingredients, how wine is made and how to pair food and wine. I learned a lot of other stuff too. The restaurant I worked at in Paris had a big prep kitchen and my colleagues there where all from Sri Lanka. They would blast Tamil music all day, and I in turn introduced them to Elvis tapes someone had left behind in my flat. We became good friends and I would spend Sundays hanging out with them around La Chapelle, dressed to the nines.

Photo: Janne Tuunanen.

Antto was born in the late ’70s Finland, which at least in photos looks like all brown corduroy and uninventive food with lots of sausage and no real identity. Helsinki definitely was not the hip culinary capital it has now become. The restaurant culture was almost non-existent, the idea of using the city as your living room and eating out is something that Helsinki people are just getting used to.

When you cook, do you feel you are bringing something very Finnish to the table?

I think my identity as a chef and understanding of food has mainly developed outside of Finland. Building on that I’ve gone back to the methods, ingredients and traditions, making them my own. When I was growing up Finns didn’t really have the same kind of respect or pride for their food heritage, so we were very open to influences from everywhere else. Now there is a wonderful new revival of going back to our great grandmothers’ recipes and a huge appreciation of the produce that grows in our forests and waters. For me, merging, or bastardizing food cultures comes from trying to have a profound understanding of these cultures. It’s not just about pouring soy sauce over reindeer meat – although that might be the end result – but really trying to dig deep into why and how a certain ingredient or a method has been used.

You’ve worked with so many mediums and across disciplines, from commercial to cultural, from music to running your own restaurants and immersing yourself in collaborations with artists and designers. Have you felt a pressure to define your practice, to fit your creativity into a box?

Not so much, but there have been times I have struggled to explain what I do. Recently I’ve managed to free myself from that need. You know the saying – A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one. That’s me.

What I truly admire in you and I think is the defining fuel for your creativity is an insatiable curiosity of the world. Was there something in your upbringing that formed the foundation for that or is it something you’ve built and cultivated on your own?

My parents separated when I was quite young. Rather than being traumatized by my parents’ divorce, I have felt that my childhood was enriched by having two homes, two parallel realities. I was just thinking the other night, that both me and Rirkrit, having been planted in different environments at a very early stage – his family was moving from continent to continent – may have resulted us in being more adaptive and open to new cultures and experiences. Where I grew up – a small town near Helsinki, there was definitely an element of not belonging in the air for me, which made me seek out a space of my own. That has stuck with me. I’m always searching. I guess you could call that cultivation.

Photo: Janne Tuunanen.

Tastes and especially smells are said to carry most of our emotional memory. Are there moments in your childhood that have become building blocks for your food philosophy?

My family comes both from the East and the West. On the eastern side from Karelia (now part of Russia) with strong Slavic influences: lots of cabbage, mushrooms and game. In the west from Kustavi, a place in the archipelago, with a food heritage much shared with Sweden: simple dishes with fresh and pickled fish, potatoes, and a specific dark bread that I love. Both traditions come across in my cooking very strongly.

One of my most powerful sensory memories from childhood is when I first tasted maple syrup. Part of my dad’s family lived in the US and they had brought some home. I must have been five years old. The intensity of the taste blew my mind, I can still remember it like it was yesterday. We didn’t have too much money when I was growing up, but food was always something that was not skimped on. My dad had travelled around the world a lot and we would explore Asian cuisines – I was probably the first kid in my neighborhood who learned to eat with chopsticks. Also my grandmother was an amazing cook. She would indulge in food, as other luxuries were not really accessible to our family. She taught me right from my first weekly allowance that money is not to be saved – it is to be lived – I’ve very successfully followed that advice.

Is that where your appreciation for good ingredients comes from?

The most important thing I got from my grandmother was the meaning of hospitality. Before I was born she had ran a café in the center of Helsinki, but the business didn’t really thrive as my grandmother would extend her hospitality a bit too generously. Any starving artist who showed up would get extra butter on their porridge for no charge. (Porridges of various kinds were a typical breakfast and even lunch food in the pre and post war Finland.) Seems like artists are doing better these days, as I’ve been lucky to have all our restaurants grow into fairly solid businesses. The food concept is naturally at the core of each place, but I think what keeps people coming back, is the concept of true hospitality. Taking care of, and caring for people makes me happy… sometimes.

When was it that you founded your first restaurant?

The first one was Kuurna, in 2005. While working in London at the Savoy Hotel, I met Heikki Purhonen, who later became my business partner and co-founder of all of our restaurants in Helsinki. I had been away from Finland for quite some time and felt it was time to go back home to spend time with family – also my grandmother was getting old. Helsinki at the time was lacking the kind of place that we would have wanted to eat at, so we figured we should open one.

Kuurna, which still exists, although we just sold it last year to a dedicated team of chefs who have been working there for years, is a small place with just twenty or so seats in an old residential neighborhood in the center of Helsinki. We had a set menu that changed every week and two seatings per evening – I don’t think anyone had done seatings in Helsinki before. We really focused on the best ingredients we could find and presented them quite boldly with no frills. Yet the wine list, curated by Heikki, was far from simple. I remember us being criticized for serving too fine wines with such simple dishes.

Helsinki as the Nordic food capital it has now become didn’t really exist at that time. Your restaurants have had a major impact on the city’s food scene. Since Kuurna you’ve opened four more restaurants, one of them a pizzeria and one a neighborhood bistro. All of your places are completely different with an original concept. You seem to get it right every time, how does that happen?

I think having traveled so much and having worked at so many different places in different cities really refined my idea of what I wanted to bring to Helsinki. I was just looking at my old notebooks from when I was working in Paris and most of the things I had written down on various restaurants was about everything but the food. Lighting, furniture, tableware, sounds, colors, ambiance. It all has to come together, to make your guests feel at home.

Photo: Janne Tuunanen.

Since 2010 or so you’ve done an incredible amount of collaborations with artists and designers, from concept dinners to immersive installations merging food, design and performance. The HelYes! pop-ups in London and Stockholm, Solar Kitchen with Marti Guixe, multiple collaborations with Rirkrit. What led you on this path?

I had done some experimental events at Helsinki Design Week, and realized that projects like that could be a platform from which I could play more and create the kind of spectacles our daily restaurant business wouldn’t allow. I had been following Marti Guixe’s work with food design for some time, and while in Barcelona working with Nokia for a big dinner concept, I reached out to him. He happened to be in town, we got together, started talking, and that soon led to our first collaboration – a series of special lollipops for his project at the Milan Design Week.

I remember those lollipops. You had your studio full of them and you had a horrible hangover while trying to finish them in time.

I somehow got it all done. Each lollipop had a seed inside that was meant to be spat out on the ground after eating so it would grow into a plant. That was the first project of a series we called GMbH – Guixe Melasniemi beyond Hospitality. The following year we presented the Solar Kitchen, first in Milan at the garden of La Triennale and then in a number of locations in Finland.

Where did that idea come from?

Looking back it seems to have been way ahead of its time. Marti had a friend who had a job promoting the solar kitchen units and I was asked to come up with a concept for a big Finnish brewery. Marti put the pieces together and we created the Lapin Kulta Solar Kitchen. The whole idea was to do a restaurant that is controlled by nature and not the other way around. Mostly chefs are trying to tame nature and the ingredients it provides, but in Solar Kitchen we were completely at the mercy of the elements.

Has that experience affected your thinking and philosophy?

Yes – I now hate standing in the sun! Marti has had a major impact on my thinking. He has such an uncompromising way of looking at the world, seeing things I do not have the ability to pay attention to. He has a way of being very professional while not taking things too seriously, that I admire.

What do these collaborations mean to you?

I think of the projects as my lifelong research lab. Since I’m lacking a proper education, I need to learn by doing, and from the people I work with. I’ve been lucky to connect with so many people who come from very different backgrounds and are generous with their wisdom. Also, doing projects like these gives me a chance to travel and explore new cultures, tastes and sounds around the world.

I doubt your restaurants would be the same if you didn’t have this side to your practice. And vice versa – your experience of serving customers in your restaurants every day must bring an understanding of human nature that is quite unique.

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from running my own places is not to judge people. Fundamentally, that is what Bastard Cookbook is all about too. Tolerance and understanding. Making peace. Seeking the odious smell of truth.

Interview by Kaarina Gould

Bastard Cookbook is available through Idea Books.