Imagine arriving to Helsinki, the capital of Finland. You have arrived to the end of the world, far from anything and everything. Then you’ll take another hour-long flight north to Kuusamo. This small city at the eastern border of Finland is at the gate to Lapland, the northernmost part of Europe. Here winter is long and dark but the sun never sets during the short summer months.
From the Kuusamo airport you’ll take a car and head out even further north. After half an hour of snow and trees you’ll finally arrive…to the middle of nowhere, or so it seems. The address on the roadside mail box appears to be the same as the restaurant address in your navigator. But it can’t be right. You are in the middle of nowhere and all you see is a farmhouse. Can there really be a restaurant here?
Yes, there can. And not just any restaurant. It is here at the countryside of Kuusamo, where you’ll find the world’s most remote fine dining restaurant – Studio Restaurant Tundra.
I had the opportunity to visit this unique restaurant and to have a chat with the equally unique owner, local born Chef, Jarmo Pitkänen. It is really mind-blowing how such high quality cuisine can be found in the most unlikely of locations.
Let me tell you the story of Tundra.
The first question that I had to ask was why here? Wouldn’t it be more logical to have a restaurant like this in Helsinki for example? Chef Pitkänen agrees that it would definitely be more profitable to run the restaurant in a vicinity of a larger city, however, it is here where the ingredients are and he wants to serve food that is as close to the nature as possible.
The fish that we serve is always “catch of the day,” literally. In the best case the fish was still swimming just a moment before it was served. There’s a huge difference in taste, if the same fish is shipped to Helsinki and then served few days later. And I have Morels growing right at the backyard of the restaurant.
Pitkänen goes long ways explaining the abundant natural resources and amazing ingredients found in the region. He makes it very clear that unimaginable value is hidden in the clean nature and fresh waters of Finland and the other Nordic countries. The products that grow here in the wilderness, in an unpolluted environment, will only become more valuable and prestige in the future.
One of Pitkänen’s favourite ingredients are wild herbs, which he uses plenty in his cuisine. He is always searching for new ways how to use some of the oldest herbs found in the Finnish nature. Generations ago these herbs were widely used in cooking and in folk medicine but have been long forgotten. However, thanks to a few enthusiastic people, they are now making it back to the spotlight. Many of the herbs have very unique nutritional profiles but for Pitkänen it’s all about the taste. He only uses what he can turn into unforgettable taste experiences.
Wild herbs are great in bringing that extra something to the food. Here in the north the selection might not be all that plentiful but in turn, the aromas are stunning. Some of my favourites are Angelica [Angelica archangelica] and Meadowsweet [Filipendula ulmaria].
The philosophy of Pitkänen has always been that the core of his cuisine at Tundra must be local – northern cuisine and northern ingredients – because that’s usually something his customers cannot get anywhere else. One of the fascinating things about Pitkänen’s cuisine is the way he uses the less popular and less valued ingredients. He sees culinary potential in fish species that are usually regarded as trash and thrown away, and in plants that are considered as weed. However, he doesn’t see himself riding on the latest culinary trends. For that he’s more of an artist, who’s looking for the perfect culinary sensation. And for Pitkänen this goes beyond tastes and flavours. For him the experience is also visual.
Unlike many other chefs de cuisine, Pitkänen goes the extra mile by creating his own ceramics that he uses to serve and display his food. This is the other side of Pitkänen – he’s not just a chef, he’s a ceramics artist, as well. In his mind a fine dining dinner is a combination of the culinary and the artistic.
Pitkänen approaches the ceramics work much the same way as he approaches his food. When asked how he came to be a chef and a ceramics artist, he laughs and says that it’s actually funny how similar the two are. He then explains how the tools are much the same, the materials feel the same, you handle them much the same and you form them into shape much the same way.
During the winter tourist season Pitkänen is a chef de cuisine and during the slow summer months he makes studio pottery. The tableware and sculptures show sings from the arctic nature and climate – snow, water, endless summer sun and the darkness of winter are all present in his work.
Here in Kuusamo we have customers for a restaurant like Tundra only for five months out of the year. The other seven months give me the perfect opportunity to do ceramics. It’s a perfect balance to do both things I love.
The inspiration for his studio pottery comes from the food. “During the busy winter and spring time at the restaurant I come up with new ideas for my ceramics, as I think of new ways how to present the dishes,” he says. “When the summer comes, I’m ready to start working with the clay.”
Let’s get back to the cuisine and the menu. “The items displayed on the restaurant webpage are merely to show what Tundra can offer. My regular customers never order anything from the list. They simply call me and say that there’s a party of X-number of people and they want meat or fish as a main course, and I pretty much just figure out the rest. People who come here want to be surprised, so you always need to do things better than last time,” says Pitkänen.
Sometimes I receive groups that order full catering for four days. When you put the best of you on the plate during every serving, that really pushes the available resources and ingredients to the limits.
He then explains that each dinner is different and that he never serves the same dish twice to the same customers. Which puts quite a challenge on the chef, since most of his customers are returning customers. And that’s not the only challenge he faces. He also needs to deal with the northern climate and the long winter.
The leaves fall in the autumn and that’s the last time we see anything green until next May. You have to find creative ways how to preserve and use herbs, berries and other fresh things, so that you maintain the freshness and get the best flavour out of them.
Despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, Chef Pitkänen creates visually stunning culinary experiences in one of the world’s most remote of locations. This is a place, where you can taste and see the nordic wilderness one dish at a time, right at the source of the ingredients. For a foodie like me, it’s a destination worth visiting.
So, next time you are heading to Scandinavia, skip Noma and the other Michelin star restaurants in the major Nordic cities and head to Lapland, it will be a trip to remember. The only reason Tundra isn’t on the Michelin guide is because the guys at Michelin never venture this far north. But that doesn’t mean that you need to make the same mistake.
This article is not a paid advertisement. Chef Without A Licence has not received any compensation from Studio Restaurant Tundra to write this article.