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Born in Reyjkavik, Aggi found his culinary mojo in the kitchens of Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and his own Michelin-starred Texture. Now back home, he’s inspired by the volcanoes, thermal pools and Blue Lagoon
There is something otherworldly about the Blue Lagoon – a lunar-like geothermal spa situated in the Reykjanes Peninsula in south-west Iceland. Located just a 20-minute drive from Keflavík Airport, the lagoon is one of three Unesco World Heritage sites in Iceland, and the contrast between the rugged lava fields and the iridescent blue pools is what draws people, along with the healing properties of the lagoon. Locals and visitors come to soak in the mineral-rich waters, soothe aching bones in the volcanic steam or purify skin with the natural white mud.
But the nourishment doesn’t just come from the 200 or so volcanoes and tectonic activity (a third of the Earth’s lava flow has taken place here since 1500); it also comes from the stoves of a local chef who’s well known in London. For those who associate Aggi Sverisson with his beloved Texture – Michelin-starred from 2010 until it closed two years ago – seeing him in the kitchen of Blue Lagoon Iceland’s Moss Restaurant is a welcome sight, adding serious gastronomic substance to this most ethereal of destinations.
He’s been back in Iceland ever since time ran out on his lease for Texture during the pandemic. ‘It was an amazing time,’ says Aggi. ‘I miss Texture a lot, but do I miss London? I’m not so sure. At the end of the day, I didn’t really have a choice because of Covid. My lease had six months left to run and, although we’d found a new site, my backers wanted to see how things panned out.’
With things up in the air, Aggi returned home to Iceland. ‘It was supposed to be for a few months, but here I am still,’ he shrugs. And it’s easy to see why. ‘The Blue Lagoon is a very special place – I mean, just look at it,’ he says, gesturing towards the view from his restaurant, named after the 800-year-old, moss-covered volcanic land outside his window.
Although he’d been working as a consultant for the resort a few years pre-pandemic, the offer to run the show on a more permanent basis was too tempting to turn down.
‘At Moss I’m spoiled, I have no restrictions’
‘I can buy the best ingredients in the world, I can use the best cuts, but nothing is wasted as the boys downstairs use up the rest,' he says.
‘Downstairs’ being the other restaurants – Lava and Spa – that form a triumvirate of eateries under his wing as executive chef of luxury hotel The Retreat. ‘At Texture I had to use everything or lose money, but here I’m like a little kid in a toy store.’
Aggi’s menu reimagines Iceland’s culinary traditions through five- and seven-course tasting menus. Guests are taken on a journey through sea, mountain, farm, river and ocean, breaking culinary frontiers to showcase the purest seasonal and regional ingredients on offer. ‘We have access to some of the best seafood and the freshest ingredients in the world,’ he says. ‘I let the ingredients do the talking and try not to overcomplicate.’
Aggi’s journey has taken him full circle. Born in Reykjavik, today he’s inspired by Icelandic produce in a way he never was as a child. ‘It was fish, fish, fish – I grew up having it four or five times a week, with a leg of lamb at the weekend,’ he explains. ‘It was mostly haddock then, but now we’ve got so much: cod, halibut, langoustine, sea urchin. It’s important to champion the ingredients your location is famed for, and I believe we have the world’s best fish.
‘But when I was kid it was all haddock, mashed potatoes, ketchup,’ he continues. ‘I wasn’t interested in food – I was just a young troubled guy. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do and my family said, “Why don’t you try to be a chef?” I said, forget it – I mean, I didn’t even like tomatoes.
‘My grandfather was working in a posh hotel in Reykjavik called Hotel Saga, which is still there, and when I was 17 he got me an interview. My father drove me there, and I walked two or three circles of the lobby, then went outside and told my father the guy didn’t show. I was taken back the next day when they found out. Even after I got the job and asked, “When do I finish tonight?” and the chef said “10pm”, I thought, wow, that’s not going to happen.
‘But after six months, something changed. We had a little library and there was this book by Marco Pierre White called White Heat – and I was just like “woah, I want to be like this.”I wanted to open a restaurant in London but to do that I had to change and put real effort in.
‘I needed to start eating things. I’d always been kind of creative and this just spoke to me, so I just worked and worked.’
He moved to London, and frequented the Oak Room and Marco’s restaurant as much as his wages would allow. He found work at Mosimann’s, then Pied à Terre and Pétrus by Gordon Ramsay, before getting his pivotal role as sous chef at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, finding mentors in executive chef Gary Jones and Raymond Blanc, who guested at Moss earlier this year. He rose to head chef, before embarking on Texture with the support of both Gary and Raymond.
‘Raymond taught me about flavours and light, clean food,’ explains Aggi. ‘Sometimes you need a little bit of something – like a sauce – but at Texture, I didn’t use cream or butter, and I’ve carried that on, apart from desserts, of course. Now, every time I get a dish that’s old school, too heavy, I’m like “oooh”. After two or three courses like that, people don’t feel comfortable.’
Back in the wilds of Iceland, Aggi is passionate about his homeland. ‘As well as access to some of the best seafood and freshest ingredients in the world, we have the stunning landscape,’ he says. ‘You don´t need to travel far from Reykjavik to be in a lunar-like environment.’ Among a long list of places to visit, he highlights the black-sand beach Reynisfjara and the Vatnajökull ice caves.
Needless to say, his favourite activity involves food: ‘Salmon fishing is my favourite.'
‘We have some of the best salmon fishing rivers, including Þverá, Kjarrá, Langá and Selá.’ It helps that Iceland is a year-round destination. ‘When I was living in London, I preferred visiting Iceland in winter because there was always a chance to see the Northern Lights,’ he says.
‘And you can go skiing and snowboarding close to Akureyri in the north and in Bláfjöll, just a short trip from Reykjavik. But the summer is also mesmerizing, with 24 hours of daylight. Being out in the wilderness in the middle of the night but still in broad daylight is very special.’
As for where to eat and drink? ‘Slippurinn, in Vestmannaeyjar, a tiny island off the south coast, has all kinds of fish courses and hand-crafted cocktails,’ he says. ‘Þrír Frakkar in Reykjavik is a very traditional Icelandic restaurant; I love the fish soup at Restaurant Tjöruhúsið in Ísafjördur in the Westfjords; and in the east, I’d recommend the informal Nielsen Restaurant.’
Back to Moss and, as you’d expect, his surrounds have had an impact. ‘Every day the Blue Lagoon that surrounds The Retreat inspires me,’ he says. ‘It highlights the power of nature and has such an effect on people. Nature is behind everything I do at Moss.’
The inspiration is, at times, literal. ‘I recently took a helicopter over the erupting volcano on Reykjanes Peninsula and wanted to capture the effect in food form. I created a chocolate volcano dessert – the colours are explosive and it tastes good too!’
When it comes to the Icelanders themselves, Aggi warns against being fooled by first impressions.
‘We can be rugged on the outside but we’re really nice when you get to know us,’ he says. ’We’re friendly, generous in terms of time, and we want to help others enjoy our country and culture, and for that we are very proud of our country.’
The Retreat Spa
‘We’re trying to create something very special at Moss, and it certainly helps when you have a private lagoon and the volcanic landscape to inspire you,’ says Aggi. The spa and hotels make the very best of the surroundings too.
Þrír Frakkar, ReykjavIk
Owner and chef Úlfar Eysteinsson has built up a long-standing reputation for his traditional Icelandic menu, featuring whale and wild seabird such as guillemot and puffin.
Slippurinn, Western Islands
Chef Gísli Matt built Slippurinn with his family in the historic shipyard building of a small town whose landscape was changed by the lava flow from an erupted volcano. Here, where plants grow on mountains created out of lava, Gísli created a menu that both respects the local and the traditional and pushes boundaries of contemporary cuisine, with dishes along the lines of cod wing with lovage hot sauce and smoked buttermilk.
The seafood on offer here is dictated by the catch of the day, but the fish soup is a fixture that is not to be missed. 00 354 456 4419
Nielsen Restaurant, Egilsstaðir
A cosy, casual dining experience serving fresh fish, organic greens, a variety of game and even locally grown wasabi.
Words by Lauren Hoffman
This interview was taken from the June 2022 issue of Food and Travel Magazine. To subscribe today, click here.
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