An Interview with Chef Snorri Sigfússon – Iceland meets Australia

Australia and Iceland are two island nations at opposite ends of the globe with vastly different terrains, yet there’s a remarkable synergy between the premium quality of our paddock to plate produce. Iceland’s Chef Snorri Sigfússon shares his thoughts on Icelandic and Australian lamb, his love of cooking, and an early career transition from the investment banking world into following his true passion as a chef.

It was a pleasure to interview one of Iceland’s best culinary talents, Chef Snorri Sigfússon, at this year’s Clare Valley Festival of the Lamb. Although Snorri is busy running his own successful restaurant in the capital of Iceland, he jumped at the chance to step out of his comfort zone and cook for the festival through global chef exchange program Chef Outta Water.

Thankfully, Snorri’s initial concerns about whether he would like our lamb were short lived. Icelandic purebred, short tail lamb is a delicacy which has been around for 1100 years. ‘It’s tender and full of flavour — like nothing else,’ Snorri explains, yet he’s pleasantly surprised by the outstanding quality of South Australia’s Clare Valley lamb. So much so, that instead of preparing seared lamb tartare for the festival launch, he chose to serve it without searing, considering it too good to cook.

Snorri Sigfússn at Reillys Wines cellar door.
Chef Snorri Sigfússon at Reillys Wines cellar door

Snorri admits he was slightly worried about walking through customs at the airport with half a suitcase full of culinary ingredients from Iceland, including his dried reindeer moss. ‘Watch the reindeer moss!’ his grandfather would urge Snorri as a youngster when he was running and jumping around the beautiful pillows of moss. ‘It’s been 100 years growing, don’t ruin it.’ Black truffles, dried bilberries and crowberries as well as one of Snorri’s favourite herbs, angelica root (which grows wild all over Iceland) made it to Australia. Lamb fat and cured and dried lamb hearts also made it through customs.

I ask classically French trained Chef Snorri what his favourite meal is and he shares that although he loves fresh seafood, ‘nothing compares to a reindeer steak’, one of Iceland’s traditional dishes at Christmas. Snorri loves the tradition of hunting and always pays respect to the animal by cooking it in a beautiful way, with nothing wasted. ‘We use absolutely everything’, he adds. Snorri points out that even though the traditions of Iceland’s Viking past were often based around survival, modern-day fine dining restaurants such as his own Monkeys Reykjavik are looking at their heritage and celebrating these traditions more often.

Clare Valley Festival of the Lamb Launch, visiting Iceland Chef Snorri Sigfussen with Reillys Wines Chef Luke Smith
Chef Snorri working with Luke Smith from Reillys Wines at the Clare Valley Festival of the Lamb launch, Mintaro

Icelandic traditions such as smoking, salting and fermenting, emanate from surviving through deep, dark winters with only a few hours of daylight. Preserving methods included double smoking or drying fish (such as rotten shark) and storing slaughtered animals in whey. Studying the heritage of what people were doing thousands of years ago is one of Snorri’s favourite parts of being a chef. Another facet of chef life he loves is teaching. In Iceland you have to become a master chef to train students. Snorri has four students of his own which he likens to a second family.

Snorri confesses he had no idea what to expect when landing in Australia. ‘The lamb’s great and I cannot compliment Luke Smith from Reillys Wines enough, and that’s why I’m doing this — to travel — a chef from Iceland, a chef from America and another from Australia. We have a universal bond and that’s amazing’, Snorri enthuses. ‘I’m looking forward to working with scallops tomorrow — I can’t believe how many varieties of seafood are here, so this won’t be my last trip to Australia. It’s a beautiful country and I’m blown away by the community.’ Snorri says his style of cooking, especially when abroad, is looking at the place’s food and wine heritage and cooking with its local produce, utilising native herbs and spices.

Chef Luke Smith from Reillys Wines with Chef Snorri Sigfússon
Chef Snorri with Reillys Wines Chef Luke at the launch of the 2022 Clare Valley Festival of the Lamb

At the age of 27, Snorri experienced a lightbulb moment which saw him exit the corporate world. He’d been working in an international investment bank in Iceland for several years after completing a bachelor’s degree in business and economics, but his passion for cooking couldn’t be stifled. ‘I wanted to work with food and cook for people, meet different people, and have my own restaurant before I turned 30 years old’, Snorri shared.

Inspired by his mother who studied nutrition and taught in a culinary school, Snorri hails from a small, countryside village on the east coast of Iceland. Memories of going into his mother’s work during the holidays and being in the kitchen, led to watching various chefs come and cook in the nearby hotel during summer. Now, with a supportive wife by his side and three children aged between three and fifteen, Snorri says it’s important for them to have a home cooked meal every day. His children have been introduced to old Icelandic dishes such as meatballs, blood sausage and Plokkfiskur ‘fish stew’.

Chef Outta Water's Michael Brine (Australia), Snorri Sigfússon (Iceland) and Chris Holen (US) right
Chef Outta Water comrades at Reillys Wines (L-R) Michael Brine from A Touch of Salt in Townsville, North Queensland, Snorri Sigfússon from Monkeys Reykjavik in Iceland, Chris Holen from Nekst in Astoria, Oregon, US

Snorri met Chef Chris Holen from America when Chris was visiting Iceland over a decade ago. After Chris and his brother dined at the New Nordic style restaurant Snorri owned at the time, Chris stayed on afterwards chopping onions while they talked, and a lifelong connection was born. Snorri was one of the original people involved when Chris started his global chef exchange program, Chef Outta Water, after which Simon Millcock (Mintaro local and coordinator of the Clare Valley Festival of the Lamb) later came on board. Snorri is enjoying catching up with his good friend Chef Chris Holen from Nekst in Astoria, Oregon, and meeting Australian Chef Michael Brine from A Touch of Salt in Townsville, North Queensland, who are both in the Clare Valley for the festival.

Martindale Farm owners Graeme and Dianne Johnson with Chef Snorri Sigfússon in the shearing shed
Chef Snorri Sigfússon from Iceland at Martindale Farm with owners Graeme and Dianne Johnson, their son-in-law Travis with their shearing team, festival coordinator Simon Millcock (centre) and Steve Chapple

Such is the beauty of this universal bond between chefs through the Chef Outta Water program. ‘Step out of your comfort zone, otherwise you’ll never grow. If you want to gain great success, you have to stand up from great failure. It’s the best lesson’, reflects Snorri. His third restaurant Monkeys Reyjkavik is the biggest restaurant in Iceland’s capital. After owning two previous restaurants, Snorri knew he wanted a larger restaurant and kitchen team without the constraints of a smaller business. He now manages a kitchen team of eleven trained chefs, four students and one pastry chef. Monkeys Reykjavik is highly awarded for its Nikkei cuisine, a delectable fusion of Peruvian ingredients with Japanese culinary techniques. Snorri admits that being a chef is not for everybody. ‘It’s really, really hard work and you have your hard times and question yourself — do I really want to do this? And yes, this is definitely what I want to do.’

Who:     Snorri Sigfússon — Monkeys Reykjavik Head Chef, Owner and Creative Director

Where: Guest chef at 2022 Clare Valley Festival of the Lamb in South Australia

With:    Global chef exchange program Chef Outta Water “bringing everyone closer through food”

 

 

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