Hospitality and aesthetics
Tobias Nygren is Professor and Head of Department at the School of Hospitality, Culinary Arts, and Meal Science in Grythyttan, Sweden. He has been working for several years on meals, restaurants and hospitality. We meet at Grythyttan, and we need a few more lines to describe the place, which is quite unique in the Nordic food landscape.
- 1 European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System
1The School of Culinary Arts is a branch of the Örebro University and since 1993 it has offered multidisciplinary studies, combining science with practical skills, creativity, and aesthetics in three programs: Chef and Culinary Arts and Meal Science (180 ECTS1), Sommelier and Culinary Arts and Meal Science (180 ECTS), Hotel and Hospitality Programme (180 ECTS). The Culinary Arts and Meal Science program was established as a subject of post-graduate studies at the department of Restaurant and Culinary Arts at Örebro University in 2002.
2Grythyttan, a tiny town of approximately 900 inhabitants, is located 70 kilometers north of Örebro, in the middle of the Swedish pine forests. Traditionally, it was a town involved in mining, metal, and silver. Today it is an important center of Swedish gastronomy centered around The Grythyttan Inn, which dates back to 1640 and houses a renowned kitchen and wine cellar as well as The Nordic House of Culinary Arts. The latter comprises the School of Hospitality, Culinary Arts, and Meal Science, a library and a cookbook museum with an extensive collection of literature on food and wine donated by the legendary chef Tore Wretman.
3The “Five Aspect Meal Model” constitutes the theoretical framework for research and education at The School of Culinary Arts. Within this frame the numerous important aspects constituting the meal are investigated. Taken together these aspects provide a “holistic” perspective on the meal as such, and give the opportunity to fully focus on all of the details that surround our meals. Special attention is given to meals served in professional settings, e.g. hotels and restaurants.
4The meal takes place in a room (1= room), where the consumer meets waiters and other consumers (2= meeting), and where food and drinks (3= products) are served. Backstage there are several rules, laws, and economic and management resources (4= management control system) that are needed to make the meal possible and make the experience a meal in its entirety (5= entirety, expressing an atmosphere).
5Sigurd Bergflødt: In a short prologue, before this interview, I introduced for the readers the five factors for developing meal service in restaurants that you call here in Grythyttan : “the Five Aspects Meal Model (FAMM)”. But do you have a particular perspective, or discipline for studying food?
6Tobias Nygren: We have a broad array of topics, perspectives, and disciplines present here in Grythyttan and I find that really exciting! From the laboratory work of epidemiology, to the sensory sciences where the physiological reactions on tastes of different food and drinks are linked, and further on to personal experience and sensation of taste, the psychological, social, and societal perspectives, and finally the most subtle dimensions related to the congeniality - the common, shared experiences around a table and a meal.
7S.B: What are you current thoughts on the restaurant business in Scandinavia today?
8T.N.: There is no reason why Scandinavia should not have the best restaurants in the world. Look at Scandinavian chefs at the Bocuse d`Or for instance, they have won every year for the last five to ten years, in a competition traditionally dominated by the French. And although there is every reason to celebrate the merits of Scandinavian chefs, there is still room for improvement in the restaurant business. We need to be better when it comes to service and the attention to the guests. The service dimension is still kind of absent and weakly developed. The French, for instance, are much more focused on the aspects of service that surround the restaurant meal, and we need to make this a more important part of our culinary mentality and thinking, although without adopting the cutthroat, unrelenting work environment that I know exists in many top restaurants.
9S.B.: Why do you think that this fundamental service dimension in a restaurant business is so neglected? …. you said, so full of ambition and new-won merits?
10T.N.: There are many reasons for this lack of attention and competence among waiters and service staff, I think. First of all, “waiting tables” does not come with the same esteem and status as being a chef. It is a profession dominated by young people, mostly women and immigrants with a lot of part-time work, which means a loosely organized workforce. We really need to coordinate our efforts in the media, the restaurant business, and the educational sector, and work together to create awareness of what this type of job is all about. There is much more to it than just bringing food to the table, and we should be much better at communicating what it consists of to those who wish to pursue a career in hospitality industry.
11S.B: What about “waiting tables” in a society dominated by an idea - or ideology - of equality, like the Scandinavian welfare states? Are there any advantages or disadvantages?
12T.N.: We might ask to what extent we as Scandinavians are comfortable with very elaborate and formal service in the restaurant setting. We are not used to formal service in Scandinavia and I think this is, to a certain extent, reflected in the service you find in many restaurants. Whether it is the ideological climate of the welfare state with equality and all that…I’m not sure, but I came to think of this when I worked in a two Michelin star-restaurant in Oslo: our guests were happy and satisfied indeed, but I often met the regular guests in other, more relaxed restaurants where they seemed so much more at ease.
13By the way, another funny thing I noticed while working in Oslo were the differences between the Norwegian and Swedish guests at the table, especially when ordering. The Swedes are coordinated and agree upon one or two different main courses, while the Norwegians are completely opposite – every man for himself, deliberately ordering different courses. The result of this “selfishness” is that you create every chef’s nightmare with all these different dishes. I mention this funny detail because the guests are also an important part of the restaurant and of the service experience. Therefore, in the restaurants I have worked at in Oslo, we always worked with the customers, especially the larger tables, and tried to coordinate them, so to speak, and also inform them that ‘if you do this and that, the service runs smoother, the kitchen runs smoother, and you will definitely end up with a much more pleasant night out’. I believe the development of restaurants is accompanied by the development of a conscious consumer, or in this context, conscious and aware guests.
14S.B.: Where else do you see the development of the conscious consumer? What makes the guest more or less conscious, so to speak?
15T.N.: I believe that the Vinmonopolet and Systembolaget [government owned alcoholic beverage retailers, respectively in Norway and in Sweden] have an important function in wine consumption and understanding. They have helped develop a vocabulary that can be used to put feelings and sensations into words. I would also say that schools and day cares are a part of this education of the consumer as well, at least here in Sweden. School meals have traditionally been very good, but are nowadays, for economic and other reasons, not so good. Schools and day cares are working within a framework where they see the meal as an arena for learning. For example, there are the environmental aspects, composting or recycling etc., which are taught even with the smallest kids. Many Swedish schools work with a French method called SAPERE, where the kids are trained to become conscious consumers, to develop a sensory vocabulary and to be more focused on their own tastes, preferences, etc. Again, it is all about creating a vocabulary and an awareness, along with positive sensations related to food - eating, tasting, sensing and all that. They have introduced SAPERE in Finland as well, and they are very committed to it. I tell you, once they have decided to do something in Finland, they really go for it. Nowadays I’m told it’s all about reducing salt in school meals.
16S.B: Would you deepen your thoughts about the aesthetics?
17T.N: The language of taste, as well as strengthened means for expressing emotions and sensations related to food and food culture are two important parts of a broader picture related to design and aesthetics. In the early nineties the Swedish government began to focus more closely on aesthetics in the hospitality business. They suggested that aesthetics be made a part of the education and research at the Academy of Culinary Arts.
18S.B: How do you implement the aesthetic training into practice?
19T.N.: The basic aesthetic training is focused around traditional theory of colors and art and the historical development of the concept of “beauty”. This is to give the students the ability to sense and see the connections and differences between the different eras and the developmental aspects of many areas concerning style, fashion, manners, etc..
20The students are given the opportunity to approach the table and the meal as a whole, from many different aesthetic and historical perspectives. A concrete example of this is an exercise we do where students are asked to make a fully authentic baroque dinner table. Then they can start to add or remove different elements until new permutations of table settings arise from the original starting point. The table itself turns into an arena where history, aesthetics, and style unfold. I`ve seen some really good presentations over the years and the best part is that the students are so open, fearless and much less attached to conventions compared to us, the teachers and professors, who have been in the restaurant business for quite a few years already.
21The exercises are mostly about openness and playfulness in relation to aesthetics. But the aesthetic aspects are not restricted to style and appearance of the table or the food itself. Lately we have focused more on the aesthetics in a broader sense, also including the aesthetics of the meeting between the people participating in, and surrounding the meal. The concept of hospitality also comprises this certain “aesthetic of the meeting”.
22The “do(s)” and “don’t” (s) of serving a bottle of wine are easy to learn, and are what is called “service”, but in the meeting between a guest and a host lies the possibility of a pleasant, beautiful, or lovely interaction. We are exploring the human qualities and paying attention to the interpersonal dimensions at work in these pleasant meetings. They can be observed, discussed, or played out in workshops, and so on.
23The aesthetic aspects of hospitality lie in the meeting of guests and staff. In a hotel or restaurant environment, hospitality and service go hand in hand. It is difficult to excuse a bad host with excellent service, but you can often help poor service by being an excellent host, I think.
Sigurd Bergflødt, « Hospitality and aesthetics », Anthropology of food [Online], S7 | 2012, Online since 10 January 2013, connection on 23 April 2017. URL : http://aof.revues.org/6974Top of page
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